Culture: What’s in store for us?

Part 2 of 2


Anthropologists have conducted thousands of studies of the great apes, concluding that they are inventive and have traits akin to memory behavior (how to peel fruit for example). But they cannot imitate each other; they do not understand the benefit of sharing, unless trained to do so in human environments (zoos and research labs). In the wild, the great apes cannot innovate or imitate. 

For example, you can see one ape use a stick to dig out a grub from a log but, even if others are watching, they do not try and use the same stick or the same technique. Each ape uses a different stick, a different technique. One twists the stick, another jabs it. They don’t imitate each other. There is no sharing of knowledge or method.

What are the little things that are different in humans compared to the great apes that allowed us to share and imitate, to teach and learn? The first is population. Solitary animals like the orangutan are much less able to learn and copy, even when trained in a human environment. Pack the animals together, and there is more observation, and by osmosis, sharing. Sharing, even basic sharing, proved survival-worthy.

For the longest time, anthropologists thought language was the driver of development. Now they have begun to see that it was agriculture, learned food production that allowed greater populations, and — think back to that ping-pong room I described last time — greater explosions of sharing, teaching and knowledge. 

Agriculture allowed the human population to go from 6 million 100,000 years ago to nearly 7 billion and counting today. That room of ping-pong balls is really hopping now. Throw in language allowing quick passage of information and, now, imagery and visual input of shared information, and the acceleration of culture is almost runaway.

We are now in the stage of development of cumulative culture; we’re building on knowledge that already exists, teaching (sharing) that past knowledge with increasing rapidity to allow human development to expand rapidly. We no longer have to work everything out from scratch as individuals, we rely on learning from others — all without a safety net of learning the basics oneself. Do you know how to code your telephone programming? Probably not. You operate it without that safety net. 

Learned knowledge is the power of the individual, central to his or her very sense of self-value. On the other hand, the 21st-century collective brain of humanity, the use of accumulated knowledge and know-how, seems to have no purpose other than self-aggrandizement and expansion. Would we really have chosen, if we had learned the knowledge, to destroy the environment? Is that not, in hindsight, a little masochistic?

The future problem we have is that, while we are unique, we therefore have no other, more-advanced culture or society to learn from. We are the greatest innovators on Earth, yet we seek the new and improved without regard for the consequences. 

The road we’re on is, as we see it, infinite. If Earth doesn’t pose a sufficient laboratory for our innovations, we’ll search elsewhere; Mars is next. 

Yet that does not solve the primary issue we have. If we have no other cultures to learn from, how can we gauge our cultural expansion? Do we want to? Can we control it even if we want to? 

Sadly, no. The vast communication, the sharing with the internet globally means, by definition, open access to all without context, without millennia-old methods of learning. But there is no mother’s warning voice as our finger approaches the hot pot. Are we at a point in our civilization where the teachers, the sharers, are drowned out by the volume and multitude of the culturally lowest-common denominator?

For the past two centuries, the single greatest aspiration of our culture was education; that was the ultimate reward in our society. Being well-educated, receiving the shared teachings from the best minds (meaning the best repositories of shared knowledge) was considered the reward for hard work and made the student more acceptable in our civilization, more likely to succeed, to survive, to provide. 

But that previously pinnacle title of “all-around well-educated” is being replaced by show-off celebrity, bragging by people who have experience only in a narrow field of endeavor, or those eho accumulate the symbols of wealth because of specialist knowledge or luck. Is the man who wins the lottery or the actress in a popular sitcom really a more valuable member of humanity than the nurse who learns how to save a life?

In the “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy,” Douglas Adams posited that if mankind were to declare an emergency evacuation of its home planet, the smart thing to do would be to allow all the office phone cleaners, all the really wealthy, all the hairdressers and fashionistas to take the first rockets to a different world. Then stop the emergency and make sure the really smart were left to share valuable knowledge. It’s a thought.


Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.