How culture tailors human variety to fit its own needs
Human behavior is notable for predictable patterns …and a predictable range of variations and exceptions to those patterns. Culture bends those patterns in its own favor, and even acts as a mechanism of selection.
Humans are meta-adapters capable of evolving and re-evolving strategies to changing circumstances. This is in stark contrast to the “one-trick” ponies, sticklebacks, emus, etc, all around us: Humans HAVE a strategy, other species ARE their strategy. Not that our behavior is infinitely plastic. There are baseline human default behaviors that are always on, they involve grouping up, organizing, and adapting to each other. Every ecosystem presents us with a unique set of survival challenges and historically, each human group facing these challenges has been small and closely related. Every wandering, exploring group shared a constellation of what we would think of as racial traits partly selected for by their adventures and partly by sexual selection. It may be that the sense of personality or style displayed by any culture is the echo of what has worked out long ago as a social compromise by their ancestors.
The core of social behavior is the mutual discovery of acceptable ways, the display of those ways, and the teaching/policing/updating of those ways. In other words, culture. Religion is a near-universal aspect of culture primarily to bind this group behavior to an authority greater than any and all. In a sense, religion and culture are a projection of these group values as a powerful unitary self. It’s as if every member of society somehow projected their essence at the same area of sky, and where they merge, the cultural and religious archetype of those people is born. It reflects the people and shapes their path forward. Culture defines a good life and good people. It decides who is marriageable, or good for nothing. It sets a social style and celebrates those who fit it. It will consign others to the shadows.
When the culture is in place, surrounding, underlying, and defining everything, a bell curve variety of human types is born into it. They are born of people fashioned by that culture and from the genetic wellspring that compiled the culture so there is already a seamless and unresolvable”Chicken or egg”, Nature/Nurture question affecting everything that is up for discussion. The culture and the people and the children they produce are inextricably one process. It preserves the past and projects it. It welcomes the diverse spectrum of arriving babies. It takes them in warmly, conferring its scent to them. As they grow, every action the children take has a cultural response. Sometimes a reward, sometimes a punishment. The institutions nudge them all day with little course corrections. Mostly it all works as planned, and cohort after cohort pass through life in accord with the million tiny implicit demands culture places upon them. But it also defines the many varieties of failure from a living set of laws that judge everything from social faux pas to capital crimes. The exiles and outcasts self-police, having grasped the gravity of not being accepted. They hide or pretend as they can to avoid the judgment waiting only for their exposure.
Culture is a selection filter to build the future to the specifications of the past. It is the self-fulfilling prophecy of a people and a place. Human communities need a range of contrasting personalities and brains. This diverse range is guaranteed but every culture trims its garden to match the sacred design. Every culture culls the herd in its own way.
The experiment we are embarked on is whether culturally diverse groups CAN mutually respect a larger containing civic culture that makes room for all of them as long as they make room for it. It’s depressingly possible that we are too limited to sustain such a reasonable system because we can’t sustain being reasonable ourselves. The ever-increasing complexity on planet earth suggests that we will manage this at some point but whether that arrangement when it comes is a happy one or not is completely open to question. Will humanistic values survive? How will the passions and grievances of varying cultures play out? Culture is a dragon. It stirs uneasily in a crowd of dragons.
It’s worth remembering though that no stage of complexity, no stage of development is the last one. This vehicle rolls forward, driven by our actions and beyond our control.