The Beauty and Innovation of Culture

Posted on 22nd August 2004 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment

Social Animals

With a complex understanding of Evolution, one that goes beyond observable genetic traits, we find some deeper reasons for the human race’s success. Sure, we had some terrific genes. Those opposable thumbs were really handy (Get it, “Handy”?) and the subsequent tool use helped us to bonk the duller monkeys on the head and reduce competition for the females, but there was something beyond standing upright and manual dexterity, a proficiency more advanced than anything in the animal kingdom. We had culture.

Culture is the act of passing our life’s wisdom on to our offspring. When one of our ancestors figured out how to use a rock as a tool, its family members imitated that behavior. One of the key features of mammals is that we are not fully prepared for life at the time of birth. We undergo a period of being taken care of by our progenitors, being nourished off our mother’s milk, protected until we are properly grown into our environment. This seems like a step backwards in evolutionary terms, not being able to survive on our own at birth, but mammals have this fantastic evolutionary innovation called the Cerebral Cortex, which is an adaptable layer of brain matter surrounding the primitive brain stem, which more than makes up for our weaknesses during infancy.

While our reptilian brain is filled with all the instinctual, purely survival-driven hard coded data needed to keep us breathing long enough to reproduce, the Cerebral Cortex is a sort of blank slate. It comes into the world set on “record” mode and wired with the capability to analyze and cross-reference the data it receives, drawing conclusions about its world. The mammal’s most superior trait then becomes is adaptability to a complex and ever-changing environment.

The Cerebral Cortex elevated evolution from chance genetic mutation into ideological mutation. The importance of our genes, or genetic code, was trumped by the importance of our ideas, our memes. The homo sapiens with the superior ideas, passed these ideas onto their offspring, or other members of the tribe, and that tribe became superior to the other tribes. Race was no longer as important as ethnicity.

We see fossilized evidence of ancient Chimpanzee cultures. Gorillas have been observed passing on their learning to their offspring, including tool use. Archeological evidence is slowly uncovering a history extending further than a hundred thousand years of our ancestors’ tool-use, gatherings, and cooperation. The details of cultural “survival of the fittest” are chronicled in the Old Testament and other documents of Ancient History, where we find tales of cultures battling other cultures and more often, in a warning to our own times, succumbing to their own insustainability.

Civilization Contracts

Tribes, villages, and other communities are like organisms. Single human units are comprised of numerous, specialized organs. The heart, lungs, circulatory system, brain, liver, muscles, etc must work together to keep the entire organism running. Looking even deeper, we find each organ comprised of thousands of cells, working collaboratively to keep the organ functioning. All of these organs would die if any were to fail; they are interdependent on one another for nourishment and maintenance.

Culture is like that. Our communities are like organisms. We are multi-celled, they are multi-bodied, a collaboration of single-human units, each with a specialized purpose. We are reliant on all the members of our tribe. The law enforcement officer, farmer, grocery clerk, managers, doctors, garbage collectors, civil planners, lawyers, engineers, musicians, teachers, on and on. Our Culture grows vaster, with greater specialization as it evolves. New human-units with new skills are developed every day.

Certain behaviors, codes of conduct, had to be observed by our species before Culture could occur. It simply makes sense that an interdependent group of human-units would fall apart if any of its members worked against the others or even failed to adequately contribute. Other tribes, with superior Cultures would propagate. Codes of Conduct were not “thought up” as many people believe, but civil behaviors naturally evolved out of necessity.

There are three ethical principles that all early civilizations agreed on, do not kill, lie, or steal, but it wasn’t until writing was invented that we have historical evidence of Cultures attempting to articulate these concepts. These documents defining the laws of a Culture are Civilization Contracts.

The “Ten Commandments” is one of the earliest known Civilization contracts, set in stone with merely ten principles. The Old Testament, with the intricate laws of Deuteronomy and other books, further complicated the law with legal precedents, judgments based on specific situations. The American legal code, with its near-maddening complexity, displays our highly evolved understanding of situational ethics.

A Universe as vast and complex as ours, with seemingly infinite combinations of factors to produce infinite situations, requires documentation equally complex. Ten Commandments didn’t cut it, so we have produced millions of pages of legal code. This still does not satisfy the need, as new issues arise every day, but still we follow in the steps of our ancestors, setting our reasoning, our interpretation of things to stone, paper, and electronics so that the knowledge of our Culture will be preserved for our offspring, who will use and improve on our memes.

The Collective Body of Work

From Oral Traditions to Libraries to the World Wide Web, these collective bodies of knowledge are how we pass on our learning, our culture, and preserve our memes:

Oral Tradition

Beowulf, the Gospels of the New Testament, stories your parents and grandparents tell you about their lives, these are all works of knowledge that were passed down through generations via verbal instruction. In spite of its obvious disadvantages in maintaining accuracy due the memory’s fallibility, this knowledge has a great propensity for adapting to more modern understandings of our world because it is not set down in a permanent medium.


Our Communal Memory or the Written Tradition. Preserving all of our knowledge in written form allows us to go back and revisit the exact wording of the prose, as it was set down in its time. The accuracy of the communication is preserved, but a difficulty arises. We must now revaluate the text each time we revisit it. This places an immense burden, not just on the current reader, but on every reader that follows them, for each one must revaluate the content. What are we to make of the Bible’s validity, for instance, when its stances on slavery, animal sacrifice, and sexuality are so removed from our modern paradigms?

World Wide Web

Our Communal Intelligence. The Information Age has further expanded the collective body of knowledge to reach even more people, but there is no filter. All ideas are treated equally, which is ideal, but also places dubious value on the Internet for research purposes. There is no peer-review, no record of changes, only the search engines with their web crawling bots operating on the spurious logic of their programmers. All ideas being equal to the search engine, the onus is placed on the Web-surfer to exercise healthy skepticism.

What’s next?


Encyclopedia Galactica

If there are other civilizations, beyond our insignificant solar system located in the boondocks of the Milky Way, then what has existence taught them? If they have advanced enough to venture beyond their own planetary systems, then they must also have methods for preserving knowledge.

On Earth, different Cultures continue to intercommunicate, exchanging our different perspectives on reality, comparing notes. East meets West, Communism meets Capitalism, and so many other exchanges of beliefs that transcend these dichotomous ones are resolved through wars, discussions, and economic competitions. How then are we going to come to understandings with species that have evolved entirely different types of intelligence on other planets?

What will the library of our common galaxy look like? What technology, philosophy, mathematics, and other, unknown fields of knowledge will it hold? When cultures on Earth meet and exchange, their collective knowledge increases dramatically. By what factors will the collective knowledge of the Milky Way increase when we join that Culture, which Carl Sagan refers to as the Encyclopedia Galactica?

By what factor will Cultural knowledge increase when merged into the Encyclopedia Universal…?

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