The Rarity of Cultural Change

This evening, I ran across a post by George, over at Decrepit Old Fool, called “Is Change Even Possible?”  It’s a good post that raises a vital question and I recommend it.

In his post, George first discusses how it has been impossible to get the metric system adopted in this country despite the costs of keeping our own unique system of measurements.  He then goes on to ask:

It’s that reluctance that makes me wonder if we really can limit population growth, cut back on carbon dioxide, stop giving antibiotics to livestock, and move away from a consumption-based culture.  Hell, we can’t even pick up a metric ruler and really learn it, when millions of dollars or even human lives are at stake.  Is change impossible? [emphasis in the original]

I offered an answer to George over on his blog, but I would like to expand on my answer here.

It seems to me that we humans are naturally a very conservative species.  Nowadays, we often overlook that fact because our own age is one of unprecedented change.  But apart from our own age, there is nothing in human history to suggest that we adapt to change often or well.

Consider that the rapid changes we see all around us today actually seem for the most part to be products of one culture — Western culture.  Most of the world’s cultures are still relatively conservative when compared to the West.  Moreover, Western culture wasn’t always such a cauldron of change.   On the contrary, most of Western history shows that the West once changed just as slowly as the rest of the world.   It has only been in the past 500 years — or less — that Western culture has become prone to change.

If you think of humans like an anthropologist, you might get an even stronger impression of how changeless human societies normally are.  For instance, there have been human tool kits that did not change in thousands of years.  Again, paleolithic art remained essentially the same in theme, style and technique for over 25,000 years.  Most cultures in history have gone hundreds of years without significant changes — think, for example, of the ancient Egyptians.  And even today, even during a period of unprecedented change, you can go to many places in the world and see things being done the same way they have been done for thousands of years.

Looked at broadly,  humans are a deeply conservative species.  Moreover, it is this conservatism that has made our cultures possible.   Culture can be defined as the transmission of behaviors from one generation to the next by non-genetic means.  So, by it’s very definition, culture is about the conservation of behaviors.

Now, the preservation and transmission of culture has been extraordinarily important to the survival of humans since before we became a species.  Culture—and not our teeth, not our claws, nor our strength—is among the primary means whereby we adapt to the world.

When you consider how hard it is for most people to think outside of the cultural box they were raised in, you get a sense of how resistant cultures are to change.  What George said in his article about the difficulty in getting Americans to adopt the metric system helps to illustrate that point.  People not only prefer the system of measurements they were raised with, they in many cases come to irrationally feel that the system of measurements they were raised with are somehow more true, more natural, and more appropriate than any other system of measurements.  The importance of those sentiments should not be discounted.

One of the most common responses people have to change — even minor changes that do not really affect them — is to declare the changes offend their gods.  You see that, for instance, in the response of millions of Americans to the proposal to allow gays to marry.  You see it also in the countless religious-based reactionary movements that have sprung up in various countries to oppose the changes brought by Western culture.  People are ever willing to declare their cultural traditions are established by their deities. There is something in our species that wants and desires things to be fixed, unchanging, and predictable. And we will even go to the extent of declaring our customs are part of the natural order of things to help insure that our customs are not changed.

The changes in human cultures that have come about in the past 500 or so years are exceedingly remarkable, but they are not the human norm.  Change is for the most part resisted by humans. Any attempt to change us is an uphill battle.

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4 thoughts on “The Rarity of Cultural Change

  1. Change is possible if you have a desperate situation or a very strong leader able to mobilise his people and keep its trust. Cultural change wether in a country or an organisation is a very slow process and needs to be based on real needs, not the fancy of one person or group of persons. Technical change is something else as with the metric system.
    Canada has switched to metric but it was not done overnight. Tools, machinery, speed limits and distances are only in meters. Food is measured in both systems and the prices are posted in grams and pounds. Our younger citizens have no problem with metric, my grown kids sometime ask what an inch looks like, my grandson does not even know the word. I still have to make an effort of conversion and at times look at a ruler to be sure.
    But that is a technical not a cultural change. Now gay marriage is a deep cultural change, so is the growing number of common law couples. Making room in our midst for people of muslim tradition calls for a major change in our cultural way of thinking. Like it or not, everywhere on our less and less blue planet cultures are penetrating one another at an, for some, alarming speed. The internet is the main factor here. If we don’t chage, we will go the way of the dinausor.

  2. Again just linking the two posts, both homosexuals and heterosexuals grow up under the same cultural influences. Group bonding could be a cultural thing and as stated above would be a challenge for the first and second generations but become natural on the third generation.

    On the rarity of cultural change; I feel that our species has a huge capacity to change. It takes a solid generational effort to rewrite the slates of our culture though (to switch from one generational mentality to another). The next generation have to be exposed to the changes we want to create and listen to the rationality of change.
    Across the world (Australia, America, Iran) you see the push for change fought for by the youth, by people who in their naivety think that a change in the head of state will redefine their world (and it is in this capacity to change that naivety becomes a positive), and it can (but because of their own willingness to change, not the head of state).

    Lastly, I’d like to bring up that as I grow older I tend to see the merits of conservatism (because that is the system that I know/Keep in mind I am only approaching 20). Combine this anecdotal evidence with population bubble of the aging ‘baby boomers’ and you have a huge conservative force.
    That would be interesting… to investigate (if any) the correlation between age demographics and cultural change.

  3. Being young I’m somewhat naturally impatient and forced with the learned behavior of that song that goes, “Waitin… waitin on the world to change…” It gets annoying and difficult for me. I constantly have to hold my tongue and keep back ideas because I feel I’m too fast.

    Maybe we just need to speed up. Like Bill Maher said we need a real progressive party. I think we need someone to force some change and push us forward. I have a hard time of thinking of any way around it. At some point we just need to embrace change and stop slowing ourselves down.

  4. [Quote: One of the most common responses people have to change — even minor changes that do not really affect them — is to declare the changes offend their gods.]

    Society in general is based on cultural norms with religious deities? Hmmm… Isn’t it more about the ego and who’s the boss about what that makes our cultural norms resistant to change then as well? And since when do even minor changes not affect everyone, eventually…

    While the Western Civilization may have excelled in the last 500 years or so, can it not be true to say, it’s because or our own sense of personal pride and self righteousness that we fought for our own personal rights over the rights of a communal group? I don’t see much a deity here except self. And if this may be true, then isn’t this the thought process and not cultural resistance to change that has shaped our current civilizations? Where Freedom has been oppressed by tyrannical leadership, and religious culture is used as the excuse for this type of leadership, isn’t it more like having a shepherd that only allows white sheep, and therefore kills the black sheep at birth so as not to entice the white sheep to follow the one that is an individual?

    And if being an individual, or different from the cultural norm, causing a few to think outside of the box or rocking the boat, do we as a culturally stagnant people need to kill those that do not conform and therefore make us uncomfortable?

    I ask these questions because I am full of questions, as in being a perpetual 3 year old who asks the question WHY? or WHY NOT? HOW COME? and WHAT IS THIS? about everything. But as the proverb goes, keep your mouth shut unless you are proven to be an idiot.

    And so what is wrong with being an idiot? Oh, that’s right, you are outside of the cultural box, entitled “normal”. But if you are a smart idiot, does that make a difference? What about a genius idiot who can’t tie your own shoes but creates the theory of relativity. And as for those Wright Brothers who were total idiots for wanting to fly like a bird without feathers, who could imagine the state of our nation if it weren’t for idiots like these?

    So, while I may agree that the world needs to speed up for those us that are part of the 30% of our population that are part of a unique, somewhat overstated and undervalued club with the acronym of ADD/ADHD, it seems strange to me that it takes a form of speed to slow us down in order to fit in with our cultural society. And yet, it’s the 70% of our cultural society that has determined, quite idiotically, that it is us, the outcasts who have gifted our great culture with things such as the light bulb, rocket fuel, and fake sugar for a few off the wall examples, that need to conform.

    And yet, as I get older, not having been put into this club officially by the medical profession until my late 30’s, I find it quite refreshing to find posts like this that make one think, and ask what is normal? What is right or wrong, black or white, man or woman, if not for the distinctions placed upon us by others? The idiots out there that need us to think inside of a box to be “normal”?

    And why then is it culturally acceptable, to keep things slower and to place those of us that think outside the box 98% of the time, the other 2% is reserved for when we do sleep on occasion, in a category with a label that we are neurologically deficient? And yet if you look at who, what, where and when extraordinary things have happened, created and discovered, those people were considered to be “geniuses”, “before their time”, or just plain “smart” and the world didn’t tell them to slow down, or worse yet give them drugs to make them more cognitively coherent? Had they been, would we be able to share our ideas, concepts and the ever pressing WHY? that drives us forward at lighting speed through tiny little fiber option tubes and wireless technology with you today?

    Interesting concept is, those that are prescribed or required by our medical professionals take stimulants to increase cognitive thinking and yet the same drug taken by a “none neurologically diseased” person, or “normal”, increases their cognitive thinking as well, but not to the same extent…

    So in regards to the thinking that we are a cultural species based on eons of doing the same thing over and over again, how come only 30% of us get it and actually want the rest of the 70% to catch up to us, while we allow them to put weights on us so that we will be more socially normal? or worse yet, be able to kill us at birth or with drugs because we different, unique and special? Maybe it’s our innate behavior of survival, ego and pride to only allow those that are the same as “us” be a part of what “we” determine to be “just right” or “normal”.

    So when the 30% comes closer and closer to becoming the 70%, will that then be seen as the “norm” and count as cultural change, tolerance or the meek inheriting the earth because we were the only ones that didn’t let the cultural “norm” of our generation(s) get in our way?

    Cheers, Taz

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