Archives for posts with tag: Culture

There are some things each of us must do.

Breathe, drink, eat, take cover.

There are some things each of us should do in moderation.

Drink, eat, ‘rest’…

There are some things each of us should never do.

Lie, steal, kill.

The things we must do ‘depend’ upon our DNA.
Unless we do what our DNA tells us to do, we die.

The things we shouldn’t do have been determined culturally.
Our fore-fathers have noticed that not doing ‘those things’ helped a lot.
That communities who taught their members to not do those things survived a lot easier and fared a lot better than those communities who had been ‘lax’ about ‘things’.
Teaching what to do and what to not do across generations transformed learned information into culture.

In time, culture has fulfilled the same function as DNA.

DNA had made it possible for life to exist. For species to survive. And to evolve when needed. When the environment had changed.

Culture had made it possible for communities to survive.
Individuals belonging to each generation didn’t had to reinvent fire each time they were cold. Or afraid. Or hungry.
They just remembered what their ancestors had taught them and put it into practice.

But there’s also a huge difference between DNA and culture.
Both consist of information passed over generations and both are instrumental in the survival of those who depend on that information being put to use.
The difference consists in the fact that DNA actually demands a certain behavior while culture only recommends certain ‘answers’.

There’s more.

DNA is a ‘language’. It has ‘letters’, ‘syntactic’ rules and even means to correct errors.
Culture uses languages as a vehicle.

Both code information using ‘letters’ and ‘words’ but they differ in how that information is passed to the next generation.
DNA passes that information in a way more ‘rigid’ manner than culture does.

While it is true that slight differences occur whenever genetic information is passed from one generation to another – that’s how evolution works, those ‘directly interested’ in the process have nothing to say about this whole thing. The differences occur accidentally and survive only if they don’t harm the organisms where they appear.

With cultural information things happen in the exact opposite manner.
Differences occur only when enough individuals notice that it would be beneficial for them to change that particular habit in that particular manner.

And now we have reached the moment to contemplate another similarity.

As the DNA has become more elaborate, the ‘superior’ organisms had enjoyed more individual ‘freedom’. Or ‘lee-way’.
Insects have more lee-way than worms, fish have more lee-way than star-fish, dogs have more lee-way than frogs and humans have more freedom than the rest of the apes have lee-way.
Similarly, people belonging to the hunter-gatherer culture had accrued a lot more freedom when they had learned – and taught it to their children, how to make fire. And so on.
Those who had learned how to grow their own food – and passed the information to the next generations, had far less chances of dying of hunger. And a lot more lee-way to conduct war…
Those who had learned how to make metal tools were a lot freer than those who shaped their tools out of stone. And very soon the stone-shapers had been ‘subdued’ by those yielding bronze weapons.

And so on to the present day.
Those who have become adept users of mass-media are seeding ‘change’ into the minds of the naive.

I only hope that they will eventually find out what Ernst Mayr had to say about this process.

Evolution is in no way about ‘the survival of the fittest’.
It is only about the demise of the unfit.

The problem with the ‘lee-way’ generated by culture being that whenever it becomes too wide the whole system becomes fragile.

Whenever people get high enough on freedom they forget that in order to survive we need to remain inside the ‘straight and narrow’ mandated by DNA and endorsed by culture.

Otherwise put, being torn between musts and don’ts is far better than being stuck. In a grave.

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Basically, Adam Smith and Ayn Rand had the same thing in their minds.

How society works and how individuals meet their needs in a social context.

And both of them had reached the same solution.
That capitalism was good.

Unfortunately – for Ayn Rand’s fans, any similitude between them stops here.

Adam Smith had described a reality.
Something which had evolved, naturally, in the cultural milieu to which he had happened to belong.

Ayn Rand was trying to push a social model.

The fact that what Rand was trying to push was very close to what Smith had described is, indeed, important.
But the difference between something which had evolved naturally and the very same something which had been imposed, by force, is also important.

Let me give you an example.

Christianity.
Much of what we have today – from ‘human rights’ to the very concept of ‘science’, has it’s roots down in the principles exposed in the Bible.
South America is, now, a Christian territory. Populated by people who had immigrated as Christians and by people – just as Christian as the first category, who had been born to parents having other beliefs. Parents who had been forcefully ‘conversed’ to Christianity.

It’s easy to notice that people in South America don’t fare as well as those in Europe, North America or Australia.
Why? They are Christians, South America uses the same capitalism and the same democracy as the rest of the ‘civilized’ world… why are the results so different?

Don’t bring ethnicity into discussion!
The explanation is simple and has nothing to do with ethnicity.

While in Europe, North America and Australia Christianity and capitalism had evolved naturally – in the sense that they had occurred in Europe and had been translated by the European immigrants to North America and Australia, in South America – and in other places, Christianity and capitalism had been forcefully imposed by the immigrants upon the much larger local populations.

Just as Communism had been forcefully imposed by the Lenin led Bolsheviks upon the Russian People.

Forget about the fact that communism had failed, no matter how hard some people have tried to make it work, while capitalism works for real – when used properly.
My point is that whenever somebody tries to force something upon somebody else, the results will never rise to the expected level. No matter how good that ‘something’ might be.

Are you familiar with ‘you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink’?
Leading it to water is enough.
Whenever somebody becomes ‘enthusiastic’ enough to try to force a horse to drink, the results …. no matter how skillful the ‘enthusiast’ might be…

And there’s another ‘small’ thing which makes a hell of a difference.
Adam Smith’s main point was that the whole society benefits from the functioning of the free market. Where each ‘agent’ competes with the others towards meeting his own goal. Which competition – as long as it remains free, results in everybody – well, almost, having a better life.
Ayn Rand’s point being that the free market is there only for the benefit of the ‘strongest’. Which is in line with Lenin’s view on the matter… ‘The Bolsheviks merit to lead the revolution because they are the strongest…’

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As much as I love writing, I do have to eat.
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Culture is to human communities what DNA is to biological species.

It transports vital information from one generation to the other. Hence providing a venue for survival.
Furthermore, both culture and DNA can change in time. Hence providing a venue for evolution.

The difference between culture and DNA being, of course, the fact that culture is way more fluid than DNA.
DNA changes only once for each generation – what you get at birth is what you’re taking to the grave, while culture is in constant flux.
No individual organism has anything to say about their genetic information but almost every human is capable of learning almost anything.

Now for the historical part.

Stage one.

Veneration of the elders. The elders were the depositories of the common knowledge. Hence everybody took good care of the ‘data bases’.

Stage two.

Somebody learned to write.
Elders were no longer indispensable. More and more information could be ‘warehoused’ in alternative ways.
A structure was needed to manage the new ways of dealing with the vital information.

Stage three.

The state is born.
At first the structures which insured that culture was passed from one generation to another had been rather empiric: kingdoms, monasteries, etc.
Soon after the Enlightenment things had become more rational. Cultured people became nations and the academic scholars gave us the state. As the structure charged to make sure that culture and people stay together. Hence providing for the nation’s survival.

States who had been in constant contact – read rivalry, kept each-other fit. Or else.
States ‘removed’ from reality – geographically, by becoming too powerful to care or both, had experienced a natural decay. The people at the top of the food chain had forgotten about those at the bottom and those at the bottom had lost faith in their leadership.

States too weak to survive – for various reasons, have succumbed while those too powerful for their own sake have eventually imploded.

Psychology to the rescue.

Culture is more fluid than DNA for a reason.
DNA follows exclusively the laws of nature while culture is heavily influenced by us.
We, men, are the measure of all things.
All life heavily transforms the place it inhabits.
So do we, humans. Only we do it willingly. On purpose, that is.

Now, that we have amassed so much information – about life in general and about how we relate, as agents, to the entire process, we have reached a reckoning moment. What next?

Are we going to choose the path of the cuckoo or that shown to us by Hokule-a?

And the more important the subject – or closer to their hearts, the harder for them to reconsider their position.

I’m very close to 60 myself and I haven’t yet made peace with my dad.
We’re very good business partners, he lives in the same house with me – my mom passed away almost 25 years ago, and yet not a single day passes without us locking horns.

This morning, it finally downed on me.
He cannot accept my version of things because that would mean he had been wrong – on certain issues, during his entire life.

And what makes me so sure that my version of things is the right one?!?

Simply because his position is:
‘You should be the wiser one. You told me such and such for so long and I haven’t budged. Maybe you should have grown accustomed to the situation long ago and accepted it’.

I actually can accept that, after a certain age, human brain looses some of its flexibility. That is one of the saddest facts of life.
Only we had this very same discussion, on and of, for the last 40 or so years. Both of us were in our prime. He still is…

To make things clearer, before we get to the important part, the differences between us are of a cultural nature.
He is a born and bred Armenian while I’m a mixed breed. He grew up in a consistent cultural environment while I had to adapt to carrying a funny name and to uncountable social changes. He has a clear understanding of the world – which had served him well, while I’m full of questions. And still looking for answers.

And finally, I found one of them.

The funny thing being that I was already aware of the concept for at least 10 years now.

Cognitive dissonance, the mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information. The unease or tension that the conflict arouses in people is relieved by one of several defensive maneuvers: they reject, explain away, or avoid the new information; persuade themselves that no conflict really exists; reconcile the differences; or resort to any other defensive means of preserving stability or order in their conceptions of the world and of themselves. The concept was developed in the 1950s by American psychologist Leon Festinger and became a major point of discussion and research.”

Can you imagine an Eastern Mediterranean patriarch – something all men seeped in that culture attempt to become when growing older, caving in to contrarian opinions expressed by his totally unconventional son?

Can you imagine a successful ‘old timer’ accepting that the methods he had used to get to the top might actually be the causes for what we experience now?

“The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”

Imagine now what would have happened if the world would have been ruled by people who had made up their minds some 200 years ago.
Then imagine what would have happened if we would have forgotten what had happened 200 years ago…

Cherish your old ones – cause they made you possible, but don’t take them too seriously. It hurts.

“Asking a bureaucrat for help is like asking an acquaintance to help you move. They don’t feel obliged to help you—but they might, regardless, if you’re sufficiently charming, and they’ve got nothing else they’d rather do.”

John Faithful Hamer

Now, bureaucrats are individual human beings. Seeped/raised in the very same culture/weltanschauung as the rest of us.
If we’re not sure our own acquaintances would help us move, why do we expect a complete stranger to help us? Only because he happens to be a bureaucrat?
On the other hand, if what we need him to do is to fulfill his job – not ‘help us’, simply ‘perform his duty’, then it’s our fault. Our collective fault. Because we’ve allowed the wrong kind of people to climb the bureaucratic ladder.

And because we’ve allowed the wrong kind of weltanschauung to creep upon all of us. Laymen and bureaucrats alike.

Theory has it that visiting foreign people might make us wiser.
By seeing how each of them cope in their own environment we might learn the beauty of each culture.
By taking in all the differences between us we might learn how ultimately alike we all are.

Or not.
The key word here being ‘might’.
Whenever subjected to a learning experience we only might become wiser.
Being confronted by new information is only an opportunity. Not a all a fatality.
Integrating that new information into our personal library of ideas has to be preceded by a ‘digestion process’. We need to understand and accept each of them first.
Depending on various factors, some of us might remain indifferent to at least a part of what is going on around us.
Depending on various factors, some of us might reach a different conclusion starting from the same set of raw data.

The fact that each of us has a determinant contribution to the learning process explains the differences between our perceptions.

Whenever visiting a foreign country, each of us comes home with a different opinion about those places.
The fact that none of us remains indifferent represents our shared humanity while the differences illustrate the individual nature of the human species.

If you think of it, life – yet another word for ‘survival’, is about growing up from being a ‘parazite’ to pulling your own weight.

And this is valid at both individual and ‘collective’ levels.

All individual organisms – from viruses to bacteria to human, are born as helpless ‘parasites’ and survive for only as long as they don’t go ‘against the grain’.
Similarity, new species appear completely by chance and survive for only as long as they do not create enough disturbance for the rest of those who live in the neihborhood to take ‘punitive actions’.

Higher up the ‘evolution tree, ‘cultures’ – ‘wisdom’ accrued while surviving specific sets of circumstances, continue to help those who observe them for only as long as the observants don’t try to impose ‘theirs’ where they do not fit.

Furthermore, rulers continue to rule for only as long as their presence is an asset for the system.
Otherwise, the whole system goes south but the responsibility belongs to the ruler, not to the entire system. Which, nevertheless, bears the brunt of the consequences.

In some circles, the process is also known as ‘becoming a responsible adult’.

We pride ourselves for our ability to choose. Rationally!
We call that ‘liberty’ and we consider it an ‘undeniable human right’.

Yet everything, including our understanding of things, exists because of ‘chance’.
While neither chance nor choice can manifest itself/be exerted outside what we’ve learned to call ‘hard reality’.

“First you guess. Don’t laugh, this is the most important step. Then you compute the consequences. Compare the consequences to experience. If it disagrees with experience, the guess is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your guess is or how smart you are or what your name is. If it disagrees with experience, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

Attributed to Richard Feynman by
Florentin Smarandache, V. Christianto,
in Multi-Valued Logic, Neutrosophy, and Schrodinger Equation? (2006), 73

According to various theories, history is cyclical.
Meaning that we keep doing more or less the same things – or ‘errors’, until we figure them out for what they are.
And then we do them again, under a different guise…

“In China, people must use identity documents for train travel. This rule works to prevent people with excessive debt from using high-speed trains, and limit the movement of religious minorities who have had identity documents confiscated and can wait years to get a valid passport.

While this is the first time Chinese officials have used glasses to implement facial-recognition, the technology is widely used by police. China is also currently building a system that will recognize any of its 1.3 billion citizens in three seconds.”

We’ve spent most of our previously mentioned history living in closely knit and relatively small communities.
We made huge ‘progress’ during that time.
The period had started when we had climbed down from our ancestral tree – or had been made by God, take your pick, and had ended – for most of us, anyway, when we had moved to what we presently call ‘cities’.

Win some, loose some.

Apparently, ‘city-slickers’ are more ‘advanced’ than their rural cousins.
More people living together allows for a deeper division of labour, hence a higher specialization. Productivity increases faster and accumulated knowledge becomes simultaneously deeper and wider.
Unfortunately, all these come at a cost. At first for the individuals and, ultimately, for the society at large.

Living in smallish, and necessarily closer knit, groups provides a lot of ‘natural’ social solidarity. Individuals feel that they belong somewhere and, by sheer necessity, give relatively much to the community. Effort as well as attention.
Lost in the city‘, individuals are simultaneously freer to experiment/innovate and also more prone to growing alienated. So alienated as to become a danger to themselves and/or to those living around them.

On the other hand, small communities, where everybody knows everybody else, necessarily generate a lot of social conformity.
Individuals enjoy a lot of (relative) security and psychological comfort but don’t have very much lee-way.
Innovation, technological as well as social, is slower in this circumstances.
It took us some 130,000 years to ‘invent’ speech, another 65,000 to ‘invent’ writing and then, after no more than 6 short millennia we invented the printing press.
Less than another 6 centuries later we have the Internet.

Writing was invented by the Assyrians – an ‘imperial’ people who lived in cities and who needed a ‘technology’ to keep track of taxes due on the commercial trades which sustained the whole civilization.
Basically the same thing was repeated in many other places. Ancient Egypt, Ancient China, etc.
Written records and favorable geography had allowed the imperial administrations to control relatively vast tracts of land, relatively huge amounts of people and marshal considerable resources to whatever goals considered worthy by those who controlled the flow of information.
Writing down ones thoughts/discoveries also made it possible for humankind to better store its knowledge about everything. ‘Hard copies’ travel better through time than oral traditions.

Until something went wrong.
We all know that all those ancient ‘imperiums’ had crumbled, despite having been the most advanced civilizations of their times.
Other, more nimble, competitors were able to outmaneuver the older behemoths.
Maybe because the old behemoths had exercised too much social control?
‘Written’ central administration was able to marshal enough resources for the ruler to be able to impose stiffer rules towards his own personal safety. The most immediate consequence being that increased social conformity stifled innovation and, hence, created the conditions for the others to catch up, outmaneuver and eventually leave the behemoths behind…

The printing press had a relatively smaller impact than the mere pen.
OK, information was more readily available to those who wished to learn – hence the boost in science and technology, but was ‘useless’ as a ‘coercive tool’. It doesn’t make much difference to someone who wants to control a system whether the information used to do such thing is hand written or ‘pressed’. The small number of ‘insiders’ need to keep that information under tight control so…

The latest ‘gizmo’, the internet, is a totally different development than the printing press.
While the latter is unidirectional – from the author to the wide public, the former goes both ways with equal ease.

Each of us can, almost instantly, become a ‘shooting star’ and, simultaneously, all of us can be monitored by whom ever has the necessary means.

As if we’ve backtracked to a ‘Global Village‘.
In more ways than one.

In a traditional village, everybody knows more or less everything there is to be known about everybody else.
In the Global Village everybody can learn considerable amounts of information about almost anybody worth following while those with enough means can learn almost everything about everybody. Then analyze that information to whatever depth they are able to.  And store it for as long as they find any use for it.

I’ve reached the conclusion that thinking and digesting have very much in common.

Citarum 2

We can’t do it by our own. Those of us who don’t cooperate/speak with those around them, don’t have what to eat or what to think about.

Both processes imply three stages. Identification, absorption, use.
We use cultural models to identify both our food and the important issues.
Absorption – through our gut/conscience, is both highly specific to each individual and governed by our common DNA/shared cultural traditions.
The ‘products’ of the digesting/thinking process are, again, used both in public as well as in private. Part of the energy we get from our food is consumed ‘cooperatively’ with our ‘coworkers’ while most of our thoughts end up either verbally expressed or put in practice.

Both processes, digesting as well as thinking, increasingly change the environment where we, and others, live.

Citarum 1