What is Culture and Who Cares if I Defy It?

What is Culture and Who Cares if I Defy It?

1461 words – approximately a 7-minute read.

Skeleton dancers
Skeleton dancers of Omo Masalai, eyeing you for your Almond Joy.

Here in America, there is habitual talk of a culture war. Scholars write about it and our ideologues are on the front line declaring it, determined to prevail. Whether it’s the supposed war on Christmas, the war on family values, or the icons of religion in public institutions, the outcome of this war seems to matter deeply, maybe existentially, for many.

When most of us talk about culture, we are usually referring to two differing political visions among Americans about what to venerate and what to fear, loosely encapsulated in Traditionalism versus Progressivism. Although, some think even it’s just a thin veneer for a more fundamental class war.

I don’t think most of us have much of a clue about the nature of culture, and why good people are so divided by religion, politics, and authority.

Most folks just seem to follow their gut-thawts, presume its rightness and begrudge those who stand in their way. But grasping the nature of culture is crucial. We are subject to the conventions and social moral codes it implies, and whether we decide to embrace those codes or rebel against them.

I want to start at the root and build up. So, what is culture? Why does it exist? Why are some people so attached to some version of it, and others aren’t? How does it change and evolve? How should you and I face it?

This is part one of a four-part post on Culture. Here, I will try to get to the root of culture by defining what I think culture is, where it came from, and why it persists. In part two, I will talk about why some people are so explicitly attached to culture, why some aren’t, and why it looks the way it does here in the US. In part three, I will explain what I think are the levers that makes culture change and evolve. In part four, I will propose why I think it really matters for you specifically and why you can and should be more than a subject of it – you should also be an author of it.

What is Culture?

Lots of definitions of culture out there. Here’s an overview, but don’t waste your time. Most seem to describe the values, rituals, heroes, and symbols, of a group of people – in other words invocations of culture. But that isn’t really what it is.

Clifford Geertz was one of the most famous anthropologists on culture. He defined it as,

a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about, and attitudes toward, life.

Meh. True. Descriptions like these are fine, but they make it possible to include nearly everything communicable as culture. It gets hard to ask, “what isn’t culture?”

These description also don’t shed light on the engine of culture. I guess what I want to know is what explains the stuff we call culture?

The Biological Basis of Culture

The question gets easier when we stop thinking about culture as a set of things and norms, and instead as an adaptive system – a process that yields a set of things and norms.

I think that culture is a biologically-rooted adaptation to optimize social life. I think culture was absolutely necessary for the pace and sophistication of human evolution. It’s prevalence is the story of human flourishing. Pay heed, and ignore the centrality of culture at your own peril.

Kathakali dance ceremony
A good ‘ol fashioned Kathakali dance ceremony. Or the Red Hot Chili Peppers on tour.

Humans, like most life, evolved in fierce environments of scarcity and uncertainty. Thanks to a bunch of preadaptations, humans were disposed to a lifestyle where communal living conferred staggering advantages that solitary life could not. The extent of cooperation and cohesion of the group implied how well it could manipulate the environment. If you can increase control of the environment with cooperative strategies like, say, hunting and predictable distribution, you can decrease the precariousness of life. And, the better that your group could cooperate over other groups, the more likely your group’s descendents would define what it means to be human, both genetically and culturally. Thus, we as descendents of the most cohesive ancestral groups are hardwired to cooperate very well with kin and friends, and compete very well with rivals and enemies.

Cognitively, humans have evolved a programmed aversion to increasing uncertainty, and are generally risk averse to costly consequences. The more that communal living can endow predictability and success to life to its members, the more value its members would perceive it. Managing this social order is the basis of culture.

Specifically, communal groups faced three persistent problems of scarcity:

  1. Material economy: The distribution of limited resources, like food, or now, wealth.
  2. Reproductive economy: The distribution of access to sex.
  3. Mortality economy: The management of the death of members in the group.

Culture then, is a set of solutions that a locality of humans have developed to dealing with the persistent challenges of communal life. While practices, attitudes, and rituals may vary dramatically across space and time, all human groups have some set of them and they all serve to resolve these basic quandaries.

Threats to the Tribe

A community of people faces two types of threats:

  1. Internal threats. Within the group lurk free-riders – those pesky people that reap collective benefits without contributing their share. Their existence risks subverting the efficiency and predictability of the social order. There are three types of free riders: bullies, cheaters, and thieves. In different ways, these different free-riders impose both direct costs, and indirect costs of calling into question the possibility of future cohesion itself. Of course, if group cooperation is collapsing, no one wants to be the sucker left with nothing. The fear itself risks cascading defections from other members, known as the collective action problem. Bummer. I’m scared already!
  2. External threats. Outside of the group lurk rival groups that also want to thrive, and you’re probably in their way. They often see (rightly) that your group covets precious resources and is a latent threat in the future in case you want to someday take their land, food, and women.
Raise your hand if you want cool ranch doritos.

The function of social order is to manage these threats. Thus, from flags to founding fathers, pioneer ethics to the 4th of July, the actual rituals, heroes, and symbols of a particular culture emanate from the community’s heritage facing these threats. And, if the social order cannot withstand these threats, insurrection will come from within to change it.

Why Culture is Still Super Important

Except perhaps in small groups, there is no single, immutable culture. As local cultures intersect in cosmopolitan spaces, the conventions and mores can bombard the others. The result is tension about the very thing that culture evolved to solve: uncertainty about how to manage scarcity and threats when they come.

The question of cultural preponderance is really important and it should not surprise us that ideologically-minded fight tenaciously for it. Whichever culture is preponderant defines the conditions under which a member should be punished by others. It defines the free-riders. It defines the enemies. And, if our own cultural mores are not preponderant, we can feel disenfranchised from the social order. Depending on other factors discussed next time, this can lead to either disengagement (consider civic life in forgotten urban ghettos), or conflict.

There’s a fascinating inference from all this. The future evolution of humankind is and hasn’t been merely biological selection. Natural selection works by privileging subsets of populations that better fit an environment than others. It happens anywhere there is competition among variations of people. My point is that humans operate in two environments – biological and cultural, meaning that correspondence to relatively favorable cultures is a form of biological fitness. Culture is an amazing mechanism for group adaptation to environments that biology alone couldn’t do in any reasonable amount of time. The design and cohesion of the culture that best resolves problems of communal life in that particular environment influences which genes are transmitted to the future. In some ways, culture necessarily shapes the very nature of what it means to be human, now and forever.

What’s Next?

Okay, that’s my explanation of what culture is and what factors drive its persistence. In part two, I will talk about what makes some people attached to culture and why some fight to empower their culture over others. I will look at how different individuals and communities perceives threats and in what ways those threats invoke cultural devotion. And, I’ll introduce how social hierarchy influences the whole business of culture, and how

And, eventually I’ll give you a function definition of the slippery term “group” so you don’t rebuke me.