Steven Pinker makes a number of lucid, persuasive arguments about culture and its role in human development in his masterpiece The Blank Slate. He posits:
- The phenomena we call “culture” arises as people pool and accumulate their discoveries, and as they institute conventions to coordinate their labors and adjudicate their conflicts. When groups of people separated by time and geography accumulate different discoveries and conventions, we use the plural and call them cultures. Different cultures, then, don’t come from different kinds of genes.
- Culture is a pool of technological and social innovations that people accumulate to help them live their lives, not a collection of arbitrary roles and symbols that happen to befall them.
- Culture is a product of human desires rather than a shaper of them.
- No one can fail to notice that some culture can accomplish things that all people want (like health and comfort) better than others.
Seen through this light, culture is a sort of software program or database; a self-modifying collective body of knowledge, behaviors, and customs, that arise from a group of people trying to make their lives better and get things done, whether that is heating their homes or living longer in more comfort, feeding their children or protecting against threats, both natural and manmade. As such, certain cultures do a better job of delivering on their promise relative to the social cost.
As people go through out their lives, free exchange of information between culture tends to lead to better overall knowledge as the best ideas win, replacing outdated and impractical behaviors and solutions. Pinker quotes Thomas Sowell, who says:
Cultures do not exist as simply static “differences” to be celebrated but compete with one another as better and worse ways of getting things done – better and worse, not from the standpoint of some observer, but from the standpoint of the peoples themselves, as they cope and aspire amid the gritty realities of life.
The Implications of Culture As Defined
This leads to an interesting implication; something some friends of mine struggled with very early on in life when we studied the world, different countries, various economic systems, and divergent political philosophies. That is, the idea that all cultures should be equally respected and treated as equally valid is not only foolish, it is dangerous. The United States thrived and survived, in part, because we were able to become a cultural melting pot, taking the best of different cultures throughout the world, while forging a shared identity, language, and culture. From all corners of the world, all races, all religions, people came to these shores and left an indelible mark on the culture; from food to music, literature to behavior.
We should be looking for better ways of doing things from different cultures so that life continues to get better and better for more people. Equally, we should condemn and be intolerant of cultural influences that have the opposite effect; e.g., thinking it is okay within a marriage to solve a domestic problem by assaulting or raping a female, which is a very real problem in certain parts of the world, or condemning an innocent rape victim to death by stoning for adultery.
It isn’t difficult to see the reason repressed societies fail miserably on the job of culture – to deliver what humans value in the most efficient and widespread way. If you aren’t allowed to question ideas, processes, or concepts because of things like heresy or blasphemy, you permanently handicap the society’s ability to think.
The Idea of Heresy Is Heresy
A perfect example is the case of Galileo and the Church proper culture in place in Europe at the time of his life. Because of Bible verses such as Ecclesiastes 1:5, Psalms 93:1, Psalms 96:10, and 1st Chronicles 16:30, the idea that the Earth was not the center of the universe was shocking and offensive to Christians. In 1633, Galileo was ordered to stand trial on suspicion of heresy. A culture that prevents its most brilliant thinkers from questioning established facts and trying to improve our understanding of the world and how it works is doomed to long-term failure when confronted by a competing culture that seeks out knowledge and applies it.
Likewise, consider the 1999 film, East Is East, in which a Pakistani fish and chips shop owner living in London with an English wife expects his children to honor and live by the strict cultural and religious beliefs with which he was raised. Instead, having no connection to the homeland or culture of their father, they grow up to be typical English teenagers and adults, marrying for love rather than family ties, pursuing their own careers, etc. The entire movie is about the conflict of cultural evolution. It is impossible to be agnostic about the situation. Either the children have the right to marry who they want or they don’t. Either the gay child has a right to run off and find love or he doesn’t. Either the women have the right to pursue their own careers or they don’t. Either the women are equal or their not. Either an in-law of a different race is equal or not.
To restate, not all cultures are equal, nor should we be tolerant of all cultural beliefs.
- A culture in which women aren’t allowed to leave the home or join the workforce immediately handicaps itself because you aren’t tapping into 50% of the human capital, brain power, and labor pool of the nation. It will eventually lose. In all cases, the standard of living for the broad population will be much lower than it would otherwise be.
- A culture in which property rights aren’t respected is going to have infrastructure problems. If people aren’t sure of the safety of their property, they don’t invest in capital goods. You wouldn’t buy a Mercedes and park it on the street if you lived in a bad neighborhood.
- A culture that rewards individual effort with the right incentive system will outperform competing cultures.
I believe that the long arc of history has demonstrated conclusively that human progress flourishes best when a culture values individual freedom, access to education, property rights, protection from tyranny, free and open communication and trade, and supremacy of free will. As a citizen, our responsibility to improve civilization and help guide the culture should not be taken lightly. The mechanics or specifics of that haven’t yet been worked out in my thoughts, yet.
On a final note, what I think will be really interesting is the degree to which mass communication through the Internet and other forms of media, connecting the world, will result in the homogenization of language and behaviors. There has been a lot of coverage over the phenomenon of regional accents disappearing in the United States and even in specific cities, such as New York. So-called Standard American Dialect is the new norm.
In any case, culture has been on my mind today. I think Pinker did the world a great service by defining and clarifying culture in a way not a lot of other thinkers have.