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2. A cultural change

by John Schooneveldt


A note on anthropocentrism
Principle 1: sustainability
Principle 2: sovereignty
Principle 3: capacity to undo
Principle 4: self-sufficiency
Principle 5: cultural diversity
The dynamics of cultural change
Cultural evolution
Cultural diversity
What is culture?
Language: the core of culture
The role of myths
The spiritual dimension
Further Reading


The first Occasional Paper in this series presented an overview of our current understanding of the biosphere - that amazing array of interdependent microorganisms, plants and animals on which we all depend and which is now under serious threat as a result of over-population and human activity, particularly economic activity. The quality of the soils and water and the very air we breathe is deteriorating in many parts of the world and more people are experiencing hunger and starvation than ever before.

That paper concluded with three disturbing scenarios for the future of humanity:

1. the biosphere may lose its capacity to support humans, bringing about the early extinction of our species;

2. a major ecological catastrophe or series of catastrophes may occur, leaving a few pockets of humans here and there to eke out an existence in those remnants of the biosphere that can support human life; or

3. our dominant high energy culture undergoes rapid change to become a truly biosensitive society - one that satisfies both the biological needs of human populations and of the biosphere itself.

This paper is concerned with the last of these possibilities. It examines the cultural change necessary for the dominant and other unsustainable cultures to become biosensitive.

Change: physical, social and cultural

Everyone knows what change is, particularly physical change. Something is not the same as it was before. Time has gone by. Something looks different. It is bigger or smaller, it is a different colour or shape. It feels or smells different.

Sometimes change is very slow, so slow that we do not notice it, and sometimes it is very rapid. Often we do not realise the extent of change until we see a before and after photograph: ie we see both states at the same time. Generally, physical change can be readily demonstrated in one way or another, and its causes are often identifiable.

We have no difficulty in extending the concept of physical change to the social level. This generally involves counting, for example, the number of people in whatever social group we care to define. We can count the number of people doing, saying or even believing whatever it is we are interested in. The number of people with a certain illness, the number who own Volvos, or have IQs of 95 and so on. Changes in these numbers reflect real and meaningful changes in the world and are important for planning by governments, marketers, and social activists. But the causes of these changes are much more difficult to identify, and even with highly sophisticated statistical methods, causal relationships cannot be established by numbers alone.

Cultural change is much more interesting, subtle and complex. Culture exists only in peoples’ minds. It cannot be seen or measured or counted in any direct way. It is the ‘deep down’ ‘at heart’ stuff inherent in language and the spiritual and other values and beliefs. We acquire our culture during early childhood and it changes very slowly, if at all, during one’s life time. Cultural change happens between generations. The young adopt new values and the old bemoan the loss. But why some new values and ideas become accepted, while others do not, is not understood.

Are there mechanisms driving cultural change, or is it like biological evolution, in the hands of that same blind watchmaker? What is the role of technology in cultural change? Before looking at cultural change in detail we need to understand why it is so difficult to comprehend culture.


First, it is a very abstract concept, sometimes described as ‘the environment of the mind’. An environment that is peopled by ideas, beliefs, past experiences and associations. It includes our knowledge and understanding of the physical world and indeed the universe.

Second, it is rooted in the past. But the past exists only in the present. It only has meaning in today’s terms and ways of thinking. Before and after comparisons are difficult. Hard evidence, such as ancient texts or artefacts are indicators of the past, but what they meant in the cultural terms of the time might never be understood. It was once perfectly sensible to speculate on the number of angels that could fit on the head of a pin, but why this was considered an important issue is now beyond our comprehension. Even when we know that medieval thought accepted the spiritual world as unquestionably real and the material world as perceptually doubtful and uncertain (the exact opposite of current scientific thinking) we have difficulty in understanding the ramifications of such a concept. The factors that caused the total reversal in the perception of reality in European culture over a few hundred years (8 to 10 generations) intrigue and mystify many historians. The fact that many in European culture still accept a spiritual reality as controlling the physical world intrigues and mystifies many scientists.

Third, because all of us have grown up in a specific cultural tradition, it is extremely difficult, as an ‘outsider’ to see culture objectively. There is no ‘universal culture’ or meta-language to describe cultural phenomena, and until there is such an objective meta-language, one culture can only be judged in the language of another.

Although we do not understand very much about human cultures, history is full of people who try to manipulate and change them; missionaries, social reformers and marketers for example. In this paper it is taken as axiomatic that in a free and democratic society, and ultimately a free world, no one group has a right to impose its views on another. In the democratic tradition that we have inherited, governments elected by a majority must nevertheless govern in the interests of all, including minorities.

In the commercial world, where commercial opportunism is rampant, many are working to promote ethical standards to stop exploitation, and, it can be argued, people don’t have to buy.

The missionary zeal of some religious and later social reformers is no longer acceptable today. Nor is social engineering, cultural manipulation or military domination.

Yet the message that each and every cultural group on the planet must adapt its values and belief systems - radically in many cases - is urgent. The message is clear, the evidence is compelling and the logic irrefutable, but the majority cannot yet see it.

Sometimes new ideas catch on and change comes about extraordinarily quickly. The oil shock in the mid-1970s is a good example. Overnight, world energy consumption reduced significantly. People bought smaller cars, car pooling became popular, and alternative energy received a high profile. We can change very quickly when we have to, but a year or two later, people slipped back into their old habits.

Sometimes, despite overwhelming evidence that something is bad for us, we cling to it tenaciously. There is plenty of evidence that, in the past, human cultures brought about their own extinction through clinging to maladaptive practices. Some believe that our dominant western culture is heading the same way. Many act as though it cannot happen to us.

This paper begins by proposing five general principles which we human beings might follow in the way we make decisions. It argues that these principles are universal, ie they are equally valid for all cultures and relevant at the individual, community, national and international levels.

A note on anthropocentricism

Although many groups advocate the supreme right of the biosphere to exist with minimal human interference, this is not the approach taken here. A great deal of human progress and development, particularly in our dominant culture, is based on the tradition that the world exists for humans to use and exploit. Such anthropocentric views may change in the longer term to be replaced by views that put the natural world first, but in the short term (which is all that we have if we do not change) this paper appeals to enlightened self-interest. It is perfectly sensible to argue that all human beings have an equal right to a clean environment and access to the world’s resources. These so-called ‘green’ rights, many argue, should join the growing family of human rights in the future, ie be afforded formal international recognition along with ‘civil and political’ rights (aimed at protecting peoples from abuse by governments) and ‘economic, social and cultural’ rights (which require governments to resource the well-being of their people).

Some people have difficulty with the concept of a ‘right’ and prefer to see a greater emphasis on ‘resposibility’ or the older idea of ‘duty’. The two - rights and duties - are fundamentally linked. One cannot exist without the other ie a duty implies a right and vice versa. The differnce lies in the point of view - whether it is seen from the ‘givers’ perspective or the ‘receivers’ perspective. The modern emphasis on rights, these people rightly argue, has led to unrealistic expectations and they would like to see the concept of duty taken just as seriously. However, it should be pointed out that it is a sense of duty to ‘save’ their fellow human beings that gives rise to much of the missionary zeal. An overdeveloped sense of duty is just as dangerous as an overdeveloped sense of having a right. Somehow the two have to be kept in balance.

With this in mind, the central challenge now is for the 4500 or so linguistically distinct cultures on the planet to change from the situation where a few wealthy, dominant and unsustainable cultures are busy exploiting the planet as a whole (including a large number of weaker human cultures) to a more balanced mix of cultures each seeking to enhance the quality of life in sustainable ways. The ultimate aim is to ensure human survival where the options available to future generations are no less rich than our own.

Principle 1: sustainability
All economic activity must be sustainable.

There are two implications in this concept. First, there must be no waste, neither rubbish nor unusable by-products. Everything must be used, re-used and at the appropriate time, recycled. At the end of the day, the rate of releasing non-biodegradable materials into the biosphere should not exceed that which occurred naturally, without human intervention.

Second, any process that results in dangerous, unusable, or uncertain by-products or side effects needs to be re-thought.

There are different ways in which waste can be discouraged, for example by taxing waste at its source and/or by subsidising waste-free products. Such strategies require action by governments but this can only happen when people demand change. In democratic traditions, governments have no choice but to follow the popular view. Leadership by government is only as good as the persuasiveness of the arguments they mount, and our confrontationist system of government (where oppositions see their role as always opposing everything, even the good things) does not lend itself to sound argument.

Most traditional cultures understand the sustainability principle very well, but unfortunately are turning away from it under the influence of western technology. The challenge for these cultures is to take the best of the western technologies into their cultures in a sustainable way. Television, computers and other communication devices of the information age can be used by any culture to enhance its cultural uniqueness and quality of life for its people. Damming rivers, draining wetlands, using chemically based agriculture and wholesale consumption cannot.

Principle 2: sovereignty
Governments, regardless of their historical traditions and ways of operating must give primacy to the well-being of their people. Social justice must be central.

There were about 60 nation states supporting the United Nations when it was formed in 1948. This number has grown steadily and there are now 184 member nations of the UN. This increase is expected to continue as de-colonisation continues, the Eastern Bloc continues to fragment and additional separatist movements around the world succeed.

Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states:

"All peoples have the right of self-determination.

By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic social and cultural development."

Throughout the world, peoples usually pursue their right of self determination through the nation state. But as we have seen, there are only 180 or so nation states and 4500 linguistically distinct cultural groups or peoples. Some of these peoples are satisfied with a multi-cultural state, but many are not.

It is possible that more culturally distinct groups will want to form nation states. Where there are strong unifying factors such as geographic proximity and a suitable resource base, this would enhance sustainability.

The increase in nation states we are seeing today is occurring at the same time as the number of international linkages are growing. For example, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the plethora of bilateral and multi- lateral standard setting and co-operative treaties, multi-national corporations and multi-national non-government bodies such as Red Cross, Greenpeace and Amnesty International. There is a healthy and growing distrust of cartels and the concept of a world government is truly terrifying, but the growth in nation states, when accompanied by a growth in co-ordinating mechanisms, is encouraging.

However, changes of this sort are often painful: so-called ‘ethnic particularity’ and its associated ‘ethnic cleansing’, for example, or the similar processes going on in Africa, the Middle East, the Indian sub-continent and in Canada. The lines drawn on maps during the colonial era on the basis of Euro-political priorities are being redrawn to reflect the cultural aspirations of the people themselves.

Commitment to international treaties reduces national sovereignty, and this too can be painful. French farmers opposing the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the GATT) for example, or the inability of some governments to enforce higher environmental standards locally. But in the longer term, standards setting is likely to reduce excesses of environmentally destructive cultures, provided of course that the dominant ones change their ways.

It is unlikely that we will ever see a one to one correspondence between nation states and linguistically distinct cultures. Some aspects of culture, like religious belief, or economic interests, span many cultures and it is possible that these will be unifying forces (as they have in the past) binding different linguistic units together. There are also new ways where ethnic minorities can be given recognition and representation within larger, multi-cultural nation states. Federation is one way of doing this; regional representation and quotas are others.

Modern communication technologies can be used to impose a uniform culture, but as Kerry Stokes stressed in the 1995 Boyer lectures, this can and needs to be resisted. These technologies can also be used to support both cultural diversity and the opportunity for developing closer relationships with the very different climatic and ecological zones around the planet. More nation states watching over their own local bioregions, within its own traditions, will give better outcomes than a few large nation states trying to control huge empires from a few central points.

Principle 3: capacity to undo
Wherever and as far as possible, the natural world should be undisturbed. If disturbance is necessary, the impact should be minimal and restoration possible.

What this means in practice is that any major development, for example, building a dam, or a freeway, or even a city, should be designed so that it can be deconstructed in the future if this proves necessary.

Technologies that include features that cannot be undone, for example high tensile girders that cannot be safely unstressed, or nuclear power plants that cannot be safely decommissioned should not be used until a safe method of deconstruction has been found.

Our knowledge of the natural world is growing, and as it grows we are becoming increasingly aware of its complexity and fragility. We have long given recognition to the importance of nature. We like to have flowers on the table, potted plants in the foyer, gardens around our houses, parks in our cities, and even national parks and wilderness areas in our countries. Many families have pets and cities have zoos. These all share a common theme: they are mere tokens when compared to the breathtaking beauty and amazing complexity of the natural world. Tokens that are managed and controlled by people. Even using best practice technologies, unlimited goodwill, and gigantuan budgets, they remain tokens - isolated and cut off from each other and from the natural processes that shape and control the biosphere.

We have to get beyond such tokenism. Trying to manage the natural world is dangerous because our knowledge is incomplete. We need to protect the natural environment from excessive human interference and ignorance.

Leaving significant sections of the planet undisturbed and protected will increase the prospects for survival of a wide range of species. Managing the few we partly understand will not. Where development is necessary it should as far as possible be in harmony with the natural systems operating and reversible if mistakes are discovered after the event. As in the Mississippi basin, the dykes may have to be removed and the flood plains once again allowed to function. The Nile Valley flood plain and Lake Pedder may have to be restored.

Principle 4: self-sufficiency
Economic Development must primarily be local and aimed at maximising self sufficiency.

Only if an item cannot be produced locally should it be imported. This applies at all levels; community, regional and national.

The justification for this principle rests on the premise. that self-sufficiency is better than dependence. This is a very important principle, not only in times of conflict when supply routes may be cut, but also as a major defining characteristic of nation states and regional communities. It is also important in reducing the enormous cost involved in transporting goods.

The international community is becoming increasingly aware of protectionism and the free trade lobby is winning (albeit only just) as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is beginning to make an impact. However, the transport cost of trade is heavily subsidised by governments everywhere. Transport infra-structure (roads, ports, airstrips, railways) are almost universally paid for by tax-payers. Although most privately owned means of transport pay licensing fees, docking and landing fees and so on, these do not come close to meeting the costs of infrastructure on which they depend. If the full cost of transport is added to the cost of the goods, local production will become more economic. If the cost of cleaning up the pollution is born by the polluters, the change will be dramatic.

Principle 5: cultural diversity
Always strive to work within the cultural tradition in which you are operating as long as it is respectful of the natural world and other humans.

Cultures have evolved over millennia. They reflect a deep understanding of the universe and our place within it. Cultural diversity will give us the best chance of survival, and the basis for a rich quality of life. The prospect of a mono-culture of Macdonalds’ consumers is not only unappealing, it is dangerous.

Indigenous peoples have learnt this and are fighting hard to retain their cultures, sometimes under extreme pressure from an insensitive, exploitative and destructive majority. Many other cultures have learnt this too. The French are resisting valiantly the anglicisation of their language. Regional dialects in the Netherlands, England and Italy for example have not totally disappeared and in some places are making a come-back. Tibet is struggling to retain its culture in the face of an unprecedented onslaught by China. The Kurds are struggling against the Turks, the Syrians and the Iraqis to carve out a homeland for themselves. Everywhere, ethnic minorities are striving to survive.

Multilingualism facilitates this. It is enriching to speak dialect in your home town/village, the standard language when you’re out of it and an international language (such as English) when you need to operate at that level. Regional radio and television are growing at the same time as global networks are evolving. The teaching of community, national and international languages is occurring more and more in schools, and if it continues, this trend alone will lead to a greater understanding and tolerance of cultural differences and a greatly enhanced quality of life for many.

There is, however, a danger. Cultures evolve and change. But sometimes they get stuck to a particularly narrow or literal interpretation of a myth or belief, like our belief that consumption leads to happiness. Or the Roman Catholic belief about the place and role of women. Or the fascist belief in the superiority of one culture over another. Or dogmatic beliefs in the efficacy of markets or scientific methods or democratic processes. People within each culture need to be open to change, letting their myths and stories evolve, and above all, not seeking to impose their culture on others.

The survival of humanity will depend on cultural change, but only if the change maintains cultural diversity. Like bio-diversity, cultural diversity increases the likelihood of survival.

The dynamics of cultural change

With some notable exceptions, cultural evolution is seen by the dominant and over-developed North as a natural progression from hunting and gathering, through agriculture, industrialisation and finally to a high technology, leisure centred, post industrial society. Heaven on earth, where there are no material needs and people are free and affluent enough to pursue intellectual stimulation, spiritual fulfilment and plain pleasure in whatever way they fancy.

This dominant vision sees all cultures naturally evolving in one direction. Cultures that do not keep up will become extinct.

Not everyone shares the dominant vision. Those who experienced atrocities and disasters first hand, such as the great depression, the wars, the holocaust, and totalitarian regimes of one sort or another have a more pessimistic view of human nature. They see cultural conflicts and social injustice leading to enormous human suffering and the possible extinction of all cultures and even of life itself.

For many, and probably most, cultures, these dominant scenarios are abhorrent. People want their culture first and foremost to survive. A few are prepared to abandon some of their traditional values and climb aboard the economic growth wagon. And a few try to combine the new and the old (and use the military to enforce the change).

Now there is growing evidence that ‘military solutions’ do not work. Economic development requires certain basic freedoms. Military domination at home is counter productive, while abroad, no one wants to die in someone else’s conflict. We are seeing a marked reluctance by governments to commit troops to foreign wars. World wide communications expose the dangers and destruction for all to see.

As we have seen in recent times, the superpowers are powerless to use their massive might against a small determined people- for example, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Rwanda and the Balkans. (Although in a few places, for example Chechnya, the right to self-determination is still being ruthlessly suppressed).

In addition, more and more people are beginning to realise that nuclear deterrents are no longer an option (though there is always the possibility of a minority group opting for a ‘nuclear solution’).

There is also growing evidence that international and even domestic economic growth strategies are no longer working. The growing gap between the rich and poor, the inadequacy of the employment as a method of distributing wealth, cutbacks in the welfare state, the power of financial markets to control governments and the massive environmental damage caused by growth all point to an inevitable breakdown of the economic/political system. But the dominant vision is not being questioned. It is the economic tools and strategies that are being re-evaluated in an effort to continue to pursue the dream of everlasting growth.

Pollution, environmental degradation, ethnic wars, social inequality and even the population explosion are seen as short term problems that need to be (and can be) overcome if the vision is to be achieved for all. Other problems, such as sustainable energy and resource requirements, are expected to be solved by technological innovation. Developments in international law and international ‘peace keeping’ are expected to keep ethnic and other conflicts in check.

Well, one can argue about the effectiveness of military solutions, technological fixes or the merits of economic development strategies, but there is one simple and inescapable fact which is beyond argument. The five and a half billion people alive today and the children they are likely to have over the next twenty years will be unable to achieve the current levels of consumption in developed countries. Some estimate that it will take three planets the size of the earth to support the current world population at the standard now accepted as ‘normal’ in the developed world.

Some of the evidence for these assertions was contained in Occasional Paper Number One, and elsewhere, and will not be repeated here.

Cultural evolution

We need to see changes in cultures as evolutionary. They are not centrally imposed or manipulated or engineered changes, but are a part of the processes that have led to the development of the diversity of cultures that now exist on the planet.

Occasional Paper No One gave a very broad, ecological perspective on the way human history impacted on the biosphere. It identified four distinct ecological phases of human history each of which had an increasingly significant impact. These are:

approximate start
phase 1 hunter-gatherer ?
phase 2 early farming 12,000 years ago (480 generations)
phase 3 early urban 5,500 years ago (220 generations)
phase 4 high energy 200 years ago (8 generations)


Phases 2 and 4 equate reasonably closely with what historians have traditionally referred to as the ‘agricultural’ and ‘industrial’ revolutions respectively.

Sometimes a fifth phase is recognised: the ‘information age’ which we are now entering. It is too early to characterise this as the next ‘phase’, but it does give hope that a truly bio-sensitive phase may be emerging. The information base needed to manage human affairs in socially just and ecologically sustainable ways, could only be accessed by large numbers of people if something like electronic or laser technology was available.

Two things should be noted about the past ‘phases’. First they were far from uniform. Different cultures took up farming in very different ways in different parts of the world, and at very different times. Climatic factors, the availability of plants and animals suitable for domestication and the right cultural conditions were presumably factors. Second, we do not know what all of the cultural factors were. Nobody knows how the first planting cultures started. There were roughly 5 million people on the planet at the time in about 5000 cultural groups. Imagine the population of New South Wales scattered in small groups over the whole planet. Although there was considerable variation in the size of groups there was an average of about 1000 people in each. Farming started independently in a few of these groups different parts of the world. The range of food eaten by early planting cultures was less than that of their hunter gatherer ancestors and they were smaller in stature. Because they lived in the one place disease was better able to take hold and their average lives were shorter. Nevertheless, the shift to agriculture allowed vast increases in population, and the shift is continuing as the last hunter gatherer groups are being forced to abandon their traditional way of life.

Agriculture did not happen in Australia. When the first Europeans arrived after over 40 000 years of continued habitation, there were about 300 000 aboriginal people here (some recent estimates put the figure at about double this number). Imagine the current population of the ACT scattered throughout the continent and Tasmania in 250 or so groups, averaging one to two thousand people.

Why agriculture did not happen in Australia, at least in the areas where rainfall and soil conditions were right, remains a mystery. Perhaps it was because the Australian soils are so old and fragile that agriculture did not evolve here as it did in parts of the Middle East, Africa and America.

A few thousand years after the drift into agriculture, some larger communities developed specialist occupations and a type of central administration began to emerge. These became villages and towns and eventually some of them became cities. These placed a demand on the resources of a wider hinterland than simple farming communities. Some only survived a few hundred years, but some, those that were able to extract resources from an increasingly wide area, grew rapidly to become cities which attracted more and more people to them. Today almost half the world’s population lives in cities.

The drift to the cites became very marked with industrialisation. People leave the land, where there is food, for urban fringes and shanty towns where there is not. Life expectancy for those people also goes down, but the overall pattern is to allow even larger increases in population, largely, perhaps as a result of improvements in hygiene and medical technology.

It is important to note that there are about 80 000 human settlements on the planet that are large enough to be called towns and cities. The vast majority of these were in existence a thousand years ago, and their populations have not changed in that time. In many, the population has actually declined, and in a few places, prodigious population growth has taken place.

It is also important to note that human populations can only increase at the expense of other parts of the biosphere. The greater the share taken by humans, the less there is for other species on which we ultimately depend. In the past cultures became extinct because they over-exploited their environment.

Now we know population increases do not continue indefinitely as is shown by the fact that people belonging to the dominant, developed cultures no longer have such high birthrates. In fact the birthrate in countries such as Germany and even Australia are below replacement levels. Generally, the trends in developed countries has been in a steadily downward direction since the 1950s.

But we do not understand why. What is it that drives these big changes? Is it technology, or changes in social values or some combination of the two?

Cultural diversity

We saw earlier that there were about 5000 human cultural groups on the planet at the middle of last century when Europeans had virtually penetrated every part of the planet. There is probably about 4500 today and the number is decreasing. Some see a massive extinction of traditional cultures as an inevitable consequence of technological innovation. Others are not so sure, especially if these cultures can use technology to achieve their own cultural aspirations.

The origins of cultural diversity is also disputed. It is not known if they all evolved from one single culture or whether there was parallel evolution. Recorded history is full of cultures that no longer exist, and archaeologists have uncovered many more extinct ones that disappeared previously. Are cultures like animal species, where only the fittest survive?

About a dozen times in the past, the technical and military superiority of some of these cultures enabled them to grow rapidly by dominating their neighbours and forming very substantial empires, but by and large, these empires did not survive for very long.

Volumes have been written, most often by European historians, on the rise and fall of these empires. There is an even more voluminous literature on culture, and in particular, cultural change. For example, anthropologists have collected data on most of the world's cultures, including some extinct ones, and there are at least rudimentary dictionaries and grammars on most of the world's languages. Archaeologists and palaeontologists are piecing together the non-recorded past, and all of them, along with psychologists and sociologists, are developing theories of cultural change. So much has been written that no one, not even a large team, could attempt a synthesis of it all.

But for many in our dominant culture all this is largely irrelevant. Market forces rule; history is bunk; the fittest survive, and I'm all right Jack!

What is culture?

The concept of culture in Occasional Paper No One is defined broadly as:

"a society's accumulated knowledge, understanding, assumptions, beliefs, values and technical know-how."

This is essentially a biological concept of culture which sees absolutely everything that is not genetically transmitted between people as culture. Social scientists define culture in terms of their individual historical traditions, having different definitions whether a psychological, sociological, anthropological or some other perspective is being presented.

Here the wide biological definition is adopted for two reasons. First, to avoid being caught up in the problems the social sciences have with their own and each other's definitions, and second, because of recent genetic findings. The human genome (the complete set of genes in an individual, consisting of perhaps as many as ten million genes) is remarkably similar to that of its nearest living relatives, the great apes. In fact the genetic differences between humans and our closest great ape relative (the chimpanzee) is less than the difference between the great apes themselves (eg the chimpanzee and the gorilla).

This suggests that the very significant differences humans have intuitively felt existed between themselves and their close animal relatives could only be the result of a very small number of genes, so small in fact that it is difficult to see a genetic explanation being able to account for these differences. In other words, the human propensity for symbolism, including language and art, categorisation, and social organisation, while having a small genetic base, has to be explained in terms of cultural evolution in this very wide non-genetic sense.

It is the evolution of language, cultural knowledge and artefacts that account for the size of the differences, not genes.

Cultural transmission can be in two directions; vertical - from parents or foster parents to offspring (foster parents have no role in biological evolution) and horizontal - from one person to another either within a culture or across a cultural boundary. What is transferred can be intellectual (language, beliefs, stories, values and ideas) or physical (nutrients, infectious diseases, artefacts, goods and services) but usually they are combinations of both. An item might be traded and the instructions on how to use it are transmitted as well.

The mechanisms for transmission of the intellectual material include imprinting, conditioning, imitation, explaining, demonstrating and teaching while the mechanisms for passing on physical material include feeding, trading, the giving of gifts, and a wide range of disease carrying vectors: body contact, insect bites, cannibalism and, in the case of HIV, the exchange of body fluids.

Intellectual transmission also occurs through radio, television, telephone and more recently, electronic mail. But more generally cultural transmission requires the physical movement of people across cultural boundaries through trading contacts, tourism, missionary activities or migration.

It must be pointed out that social scientists would be unlikely to consider the transmission of disease itself as a part of culture, though medication, treatment information and behaviours associated with contamination would generally be considered ‘cultural’. Similarly, the physical artefacts which are traded are often not considered cultural. However, models which show the spread of infectious diseases have much in common with models that show how trade goods are dispersed and models that show how undisputed cultural traits are transmitted.

For this reason we consider the intentional transmission of shells, ochre, food and other trade items, as well as unintentional transmissions such as disease, to be part of the cultural environment.

Many cultures also believe that some sort of extra-sensory transmission such as telepathy, clairvoyance and communication with spirits and other supernatural forces are possible. As these are beyond the realm of normal experience they will not be considered further here, although we will come back to the importance of a belief in supernatural forces later.

But culture does not only change as a result of cross-cultural influences; there is internal change as well. There is ample evidence that linguistic and mythological changes occur in cultures that have been isolated for long periods of time.


Language: the core of culture

Social scientists have a great deal of trouble in sorting out what is transmitted horizontally from culture to culture, and what might have resulted from parallel development. For example, linguists (who are not often thought of as social or any other kind of scientist) looking at two languages often have difficulty in deciding whether a similar word in each language is evidence that the two languages are related (ie have a common ‘mother’ language) or whether the similarity was due to a subsequent borrowing.

But how a culture (and in particular, its central core, its language) changes, is simply not understood. Elaborate theories have been developed on the way speech sounds change - how words are created and ‘borrowed’, how grammatical inflections drop off and other grammatical features evolve -and so on. But these do not begin to explain how language has evolved.

Why is it for example, that all human languages, although very different to each other, have all developed to the same level of complexity. Why are there no ‘primitive’ languages? There are obvious ‘primitive’ technologies and the pattern of technological development has been extraordinarily diverse. The evolution of language remains one of the great mysteries. Consider for example the remarkable findings by Berlin (an anthropologist) and Kay (a psychologist) in a series of studies on the way different languages have evolved colour words: such as the English words red, blue, yellow etc. They used a technique where people were asked to match painted colour chips with the colour words in their language.

It turns out that all languages (including some that do not have the abstract concept denoted by the English word ‘colour’) have two or more colour words, but some have many colour words and some have only a few. Those languages which have only two colour terms all have a similar meaning, something like the English concept of DARK and LIGHT. People in these cultures can see colour, of course. It just hasn't been necessary to develop more than two words for them.

These cultures are often very far apart in both a geographic and historical sense. There is no possibility that borrowing has taken place.

Now there are also languages that have three colour terms, and for these languages the third term always denotes RED. Languages with four colour terms have words for each of the three above and add a word for either GREEN or YELLOW. Languages with five colour words have both GREEN and YELLOW. Languages with 6 colour words add BLUE, and languages with 7 colour words add BROWN. Languages with 8 colour words add one of GREY, ORANGE, PURPLE or PINK. The patterns become more complex for languages with larger numbers of colour terms.

Now it is necessary to be clear. Some of these languages, while they have colour words may not have a concept of colour. And, the colour words that do exist are often derived from other words. The word for red for example may be related to the word for blood and blue to the word for sky and so on.

How do we explain such regularities? Parallel evolution perhaps. Just as the necessity to move quickly through water lead to the evolving of body shapes of creatures that hunt in water, some factors in the culture determined the pattern of colour terms that have evolved.

But if this is to be accepted as the explanation it will be necessary to define the cultural environment that provided the selective pressures. Some aspect of the human propensity for culture determines the range of possibilities. As yet, none of this is understood, and all the while, some of the unique languages and cultures that may give us clues to a better understanding of human culture are dying out.

It is important to understand the extent to which cultures have things in common and the extent to which they differ. They differ most at the core, the language, and differ least in their mythology, at least the meanings that underlie the stories and legends that make up mythology.

Turning first to language, many of us have had the experience of listening to a foreign language being spoken and understanding not a word. Although sometimes extra-linguistic signals (facial expressions, body language and gestures) give a clue.

We do not understand a foreign language because the elements that make up a language are essentially arbitrary and have to be learnt. If we haven't learnt the language, we can make no sense of it. We understand the extra-linguistic clues however, although less precise than a language, we understand because they are essentially universal and more or less common to all cultures.

What is generally not realised is that not only are the sounds of the words in different languages very different, their meanings are too. The difference in sound (and their corresponding written forms) between the English word dog and the French word chien is obvious, but the difference in their meanings, although less obvious are nevertheless real. If a native born English speaker and a native born French speaker were each asked to sketch what they thought was a typical dog, the sketches would be different: one would look more like an alsatian and one would look more like a poodle. Now French and English are neighbouring Indo-European languages and the differences in the folk-meanings of their respective words for dog are slight compared to say, the non-Indo-European (Tibetan) word kyi' which refers to a small hairy flatnosed creature which Europeans have classified as meaning dog. There are also many cultures that have no word for dog at all. It is important to stress that we are not talking about a scientific concept of canine here, but rather the meaning of these words as they occur in their respective languages.

It is surprising for people to learn that in all the world's languages there may be only 40-50 concepts that are universal to them all. Concepts like those represented by the English words dog, water, mother, animal, fire are different in each of the world's languages and of course, some cultures have not found it necessary to have words for them. Even the words for human body parts do not correspond across the world's languages. The nearest equivalent to the English word hand in some languages would exclude fingers, and in others include wrist. In others it includes the forearm and so on. It is well known that the Innuit people (Eskimos) have no general concept equivalent to the English word snow, but have over thirty different concepts which an English speaker would label snow.

Thus each language provides a unique conceptual framework or map of the world in which it is used. Words only exist for those things that are important in the culture, and as every interpreter and translator knows, it is extremely difficult and often impossible to go from one language to another because the concepts differ so much.

In addition to being diverse, language is also the hardest to change or stop from changing. Look at the controversy spelling reform or teaching grammar in schools generates. And the frequency with which human beings prohibit the use of minority languages in a useless effort to produce cultural uniformity. An inability to force cultural change is one of the factors that lead to genocide. Again and again external pressures to change culture have been unsuccessful. Perhaps this is just as well. If a few people really learnt how to bring about cultural change, the could be very dangerous.


The role of myths

At the periphery of culture, the myths, legends and knowledge have the most in common, and, paradoxically are comparatively easy to change. Technological developments do it all the time.

All human cultures have the idea that their world and indeed the universe, is made up of matter and exists in real space and time. All of them have developed elaborate stories and myths to explain the way they see their world. And all of them recognise an invisible world beyond the visible one. When looking at these stories one is struck by the fact that they have remarkably similar themes: the creation of the world, an interaction between the visible and invisible worlds, the role of heroes and heroines as models for human behaviour.

Scientific theories play an identical role to the myths and legends in other cultures. Science builds on itself progressively. It takes new and unexpected directions at times and leads to new and exciting ‘stories’ about the origins of the universe or the behaviour of some newly discovered creature or entity.

But the stories science has to tell are more limited. They bring us to the edge of knowledge, but cannot go beyond. The myths and legends of our ancestors knew no such bounds. They drew on the subjective experience of human beings and their imaginations and filled the unknown with excitement and mystery. Science has yet to find a way of dealing with the richness of the subjective experience.


The spiritual dimension

What are we to make of the fact that all cultures, as far as we know, recognised the existence of a spiritual world beyond the visible one, but in our own culture, though many profess belief privately, they do not let this impact on their actions. In public policy, science and commerce we are thoroughly secular.

Not only do traditional societies believe in an invisible world beyond the visible, the invisible world interacts with the visible from time to time and is seen to be a cause of both good and evil in the world. In all traditional belief systems and the great religions, the invisible world acts as a guide on how to live one's life.

The problem of distinguishing between good and evil is very real for human beings. Every act we perform is both good and bad for someone or something. Eating a hamburger may satisfy the appetite, but it does nothing for the cow. Even eating the salad on the hamburger deprived some other creature from eating the lettuce, and so on.

These things trouble human beings, the eating and being eaten, the killing of others and dying oneself. Elaborate philosophical belief systems and rituals have evolved to define what is good and what is bad and to give meaning and purpose to it all.

In our culture, we overcome some of these troublesome problems by hiding them. The animals we eat are killed in abattoirs and slaughter houses. The denial of aging and death grows ever stronger, and now there are people convinced that human technology will ultimately conquer death. But most are not so optimistic. A few seem comfortable with the idea that life is essentially meaningless and that the most one can hope for is avoidance of pain and suffering and a little fun while one is here.

The vast majority, however, still operate within one of the traditional belief systems, some of which are showing considerable vigour and growth, especially the more fundamentalist varieties. Their appeal is to the subjective experience of a reality beyond the material world. A transcendental experience that is more powerful for many than logic or argument or both.

Those who find themselves outside one of the traditional belief systems have a problem. The different legal systems developed by nation states and even international law provide some guidance, but the law is notoriously slow. For example, when opinion is divided as on the abortion issue, or euthanasia, the law is useless.

Rules of behaviour and codes of ethics are helpful in many instances, but here too, disputes arise about what is and what is not acceptable. There needs to be something beyond human control that we can identify with and relate to.

The idea of mother earth, an abstract concept for some, but a spiritual reality for others, may provide a basis for those searching for a new source of inspiration and meaning. Only time will tell.

For those who have a spiritual tradition and find meaning and purpose in their belief system it is important not to get stuck to some narrow, literal interpretation of it. Belief systems have evolved in the past and will continue to do so in the future. They are metaphors for what it means to be human and they can provide a way of transcending outside of ourselves.

It is important for cultures and individuals (believers or unbelievers) to be in touch with the natural world, to respect nature again. This involves an acceptance of the limits of technology. We can and (obviously) do influence natural processes, and as populations increase and technological skills develop, we have an increasing impact. More and more the future of the planet will be the result of human decisions. But ultimately, a world that is completely controlled by human beings seems an unattractive place. Do we really want to kill of wonder and mystery?. To date it has been nature that controls our world and maybe it should always be thus.

This is difficult for some people to accept. Our dominant culture does not like or accept limitations easily.

Conventional wisdom is that once our physical needs are met, once our place in the social system is clear and we are free from fears of one sort or another, then we should be content. But human beings are not like this.

Some people have all their physical needs met but still want more; a bigger house, a faster car, a rarer stamp, and once they have attained that they want still more. The desires are endless. In the days when the concept of sin was popular it was called greed.

People may have a clearly defined social role, a job, a network of caring relationships, but when their friend gets a promotion they feel deprived and want one too. Religions everywhere encourage the individual to resist such temptations and avoid the sins of jealousy and envy.

Finally there is freedom from fear. We only have to watch bungy jumpers, mountain climbers and racing motor cyclists to realise that people want more than freedom from fear. They want to increase the risks to a point where they are barely in control. The so-called adrenalin rush - life in the fast lane. This is a newer phenomenon. When life was more unpredictable, and real dangers more common, one didn't have to go looking for risks to take.

Our culture hasn't yet invented a word for the sin of excessive risk taking. We need such a word, for collectively we are taking such risks that we are bringing the planet to the brink of disaster.



We have seen that the range of human cultures is diverse and the internal dynamics of any one of them is complex and generally not understood. We know even less about how cultures evolve and change. But even if we did understand the dynamics of cultural change, it would not be morally acceptable for a few to use that knowledge to impose change on others. Those trying to impose a world wide mono-culture of consumers should be resisted

We have seen that the need for change is urgent, and that the future of the biosphere depends on it.

The development of a set of principles which different cultures can take on board and integrate into their cultures in their own way is suggested as a guide for making decisions.

Five specific principles have been proposed. They are:

1. sustainable development

2. the rights of peoples over governments

3. the capacity to undo the built environment

4. self-sufficiency

5. cultural diversity

Whatever our private belief system, or cultural tradition, we need to take principles like these into account in whatever ways are appropriate for our group. Undoubtedly the principles themselves can be debated and refined, but if these or principles like them are ignored, the long term future of the human species on the planet is in doubt.


Further reading

On the relationship between humans and the great apes:

Diamond, Jared. (1991). The Rise and Fall of the Third
, Radius, London.

On sustainability:

The World Commission Environment and Development. (1987). Our Common Future. Oxford University Press, London.

On the meaning of colour words:

Kay, Paul & C. K. McDaniel. (1978) The Linguistic Significance of the Meaning of Basic Color Terms. Language 54,3:610-646.

On the Biosphere:

Boyden, Stephen, Stephen Dovers & Megan Shirlow (1990) Our Biosphere Under Threat. Oxford University Press, London.

On Science

Hawking, Stephen W. (1988). A Brief History of Time. Bantam Books, Toronto.

On Evolution

Dawkins, Richard. (1991). The Blind Watchmaker. Penguin, Middlesex, England.

Smith, John Maynard. (1993). Did Darwin get it Right? Penguin, Middlesex, England.

On cities

Girardet, Herbert. (1992) The Gaia Atlas of Cities: New Directions for Sustainable Urban Living. Gaia Books Ltd, London

On Human rights

Wallace, Jude and Tony Pagone, Eds.(1990) Rights and Freedoms in Australia, The Federation Press, Annandale NSW

Azzopardi, Emmanuel (1988) Human Rights and Peoples. Macarthur Press, Parramatta.

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