Dr. C. George Boeree

"Culture is a way of thinking, feeling, believing. It is the group's knowledge stored up (in memories..., books, and objects) for future use." (Clyde Kluckhohn, Mirror for Man)
It is easy to get carried away by genetic or sociobiological explanations for human behavior.  They seem so reasonable!  But you have to be careful:  Many of the things that have sociobiological explanations may also have learned, cultural explanations that are just as reasonable.

For example, it is certainly true that those who carry a gene that pushes the individual towards sexual activity are more likely to leave behind children who, in turn, will have that gene and pass it on, etc.  And, conversely, those who carry a gene that makes them sexually unresponsive may leave behind fewer children, and so on.

But a society of people with certain well-learned cultural habits that push them to reproduce has the same effect!  Someone who thoroughly believes that it is one’s duty to have many children is more likely to actually have them, and then teach them what they so thoroughly believe:  That it is one’s duty to have many children.  And so on down the line!

Those who believe they should reproduce pass on those beliefs as well as their genes.  Those who believe that it is better to remain celibate don’t pass on their genes, nor their beliefs in celibacy.  But wait:  Haven’t their been cultures that promote celibacy -- the Catholic and Buddhist traditions of monastic life, for example?

In these cases, although a portion of the society is not reproducing, that portion may actually serve a useful purpose for the rest of society, helping to pass on that society’s beliefs via education.  The beliefs concerning celibacy are passed on to other people’s children, and so they continue as well!

It has become popular to refer to these beliefs as memes (in analogy to genes).  “It is your duty to have many children,” “Celibacy is to be valued,” “Obey those older than you,” “Kill those who do not conform to our beliefs,” are all examples of memes.

Also included as memes are all the techniques a society develops, such as how to make a flint tool, how to grind wheat, how to butcher a pig, how to make a cake, how to wage a battle, how to read and write, and so on, all the way up to how to build a nuclear power plant or perform neurosurgery.

Other memes include the rules to sports and games, the way we keep time and dates, the events we celebrate, the rituals we engage in, the rules for choosing leaders, the way we keep track of who owes whom how much....  The list is endless.  And yet all these things are passed on to the next generation in a manner not too dissimilar from the manner in which we transmit out genetic inheritance!  If they promote the welfare of the society, they continue.  If they work against the welfare of the society, they will disappear with that society.

Many memes have very short life-times:  Top-ten music hits seldom last longer than a few months;  Fashions are notorious for changing one year to the next;  And the popularity of one celebrity or another goes as fast as it comes.  But some memes last for generations, and some last for a thousand years or more!  There are characteristics of various ethnic groups (often contributing to exaggerated stereotypes) that can be traced back centuries and seem to be nearly impossible to erase.  These memes may even become things that a people use to identify themselves as a culture.

Examples can easily be found in the cultures of traditional people around the world.  The ancestors of people living in small villages in parts of the Middle East, or Sub-Sahara Africa, or high in the Andes of South America would likely have little difficulty fitting in with their descendents -- except, I suppose, for the occasional radio.  In Europe, too, the day-to-day life of peasants changed little from the dark ages to the renaissance.

Another example is language.  Language usually changes very slowly, if there are no major movements of tribes.  In Iceland, a very modern country in most ways, the language is nearly identical to that spoken by its original viking settlers from a thousand years ago!

On the other hand, when populations start to move and cultures begin to mingle, we can see rapid changes in culture.  One hundred years ago, white Americans were rarely well educated, looked to the Bible for guidance, were very independent, hard-working, and frugal, and would have nothing to do with African Americans or their culture.  Today, almost all have a high school degree, and a large number have college degrees.  Religion still has a strong influence, but most people turn to doctors, lawyers, and psychiatrists for guidance.  Most people work for large corporations and government institutions, belong to unions, expect all sorts of government services.  They tend to spend money very freely -- even money they don't actually have -- and consider leisure time a God-given right. And parts of African American culture have been thoroughly absorbed into the mainstream culture:  Blues, jazz, rock, and hiphop are referred to as true American music, though created by the descendents of slaves.  They might even consider voting for an African American for president!

Even more dramatic are the changes wrought by technological advances.  Many of the major cultural changes of history follow major changes of technology:  The agricultural revolution and the industrial revolutions are the obvious examples.  Consider the technological revolution of the last century:  Imagine the world of your great-grandfather or great-grandmother 100 years ago.  No cars, no highways, no airplanes, no radios, no televisions, no telephones, no computers, no recorded music, no internet....  Imagine what your great-grandfather or great-grandmother would think of the world today. Things have changed!

If we look at the world today, we can clearly see the results of centuries, even millennia of this cultural kind of evolution:  Democracy seems to be winning out over totalitarianism;  Science seems to be winning out over superstition;  Less happily, militarism seems to be winning out over peacefulness, and the economics of greed over an economics of compassion.  We may have to be extra vigilant in the near future:  Militarism and capitalism have little use for the voice of the people, and prefer ignorance over knowledge!

Another thing to consider here:  Just like genes are selected in the context of an ecosystem, so are memes selected in a larger context.  What worked really well in the stone age may not work so well in the agricultural age.  What meant superiority in the middle ages may lead to disaster in the industrial age.  Even what meant success in the last century may not mean success in this one.

And one more thing:  Unlike physical evolution, cultural evolution can change very quickly!  We don’t have to wait for the slow processes of natural selection:  Change can occur in a single generation.  And a single individual can introduce a new meme -- a new belief or technique -- that alters the world.  Think of Edison, Gandhi, Lister, Einstein, Sanger, Darwin, Pinel, Pasteur, Gorbachev...  the list goes on and on!

© Copyright 2002, 2005, C. George Boeree