The culture bandwagon

The fact that cultural allegiance is most vividly expressed not in ethical behaviour but aggressive parochialism suggests it has been instrumental in protecting human beings throughout their evolution, argues Mark Pagel.

I had the good fortune in the early 1990s to spend time with a tribe of nomadic pastoralists called the Gabbra, who live in a hot, dry, remote and barren region of Northern Kenya known as the Chalbi Desert. One of the Gabbra, a man called Dido, had seldom been more than about 30 miles from his birthplace, and owned no more than he could fit on the back of a camel when it came time to shift from one area of pasture to another.

I was surprised to discover that Dido spoke five languages in addition to his native Gabbra. He had acquired English from wandering missionaries, but he also spoke Rendille, Samburu, Turkana and Swahili. While Swahili is a trade language spoken all over East Africa, Rendille, Samburu and Turkana are the languages of other nomadic pastoralists who also live in the Chalbi Desert.

I asked him why he could speak their languages and, bemused, he replied: “So I can talk to them.” I was asking a different question. I wanted to know why there were four different tribes of nomadic pastoralists all living in the same area and herding the same kinds of animals, whose genetic differences were negligible, and yet who had divided up the land and their lives so exclusively as to speak different languages, and have different customs, habits and traditions.

This is a worldwide phenomenon. There are around 7 000 different languages spoken on Earth, or around 7 000 different ways of saying “Good morning” or “Looks like rain today”, and that means that humans often cannot communicate with other members of their own species.

And it is where people are found most closely packed together – the least geographically isolated – that we find the greatest concentration of languages. There are regions of the northeast corner of coastal Papua New Guinea where a different language is spoken every few miles. Incredible as this sounds, I once met a Papuan man from that area and asked him if this could be true. He replied, “Oh no, they are far closer together than that.”

If we are a species with a predilection to form into societies with separate and distinct identities, then this is something we are going to have to come to grips with in our modern world. One of the most salient features of life in human societies is the sense of belonging to a particular cultural group to which we often feel a surprising and sometimes even alarming attachment and allegiance.

Indeed, a slight directed at our culture or even just a piece of cloth that represents it often elicits emotions of defensiveness, confrontation and even aggression. Asked which side they would support in a match against England, many Scottish football fans often reply, “Anyone but England”, and this despite the fact that Scotland has been a member of the United Kingdom for over three hundred years (although the Scots might say it is because of those three hundred years). The sense of allegiance that generates this emotion among the Scots is now burgeoning into something with greater ramifications than the outcome of a football match.

This allegiance gives rise to a strange hyper- or ultra-sociality in our behaviour. We are oddly group-focused: happy to wear silly matching shirts to sporting events, or paint our faces in the colours of our national flag, and we keenly feel the loss of our soldiers in battle. We share strange rituals and customs – like dragging dead trees into our homes at Christmas and decorating them, only to later discard the desiccated corpse.

We are altruistic, especially towards members of our own societies, routinely holding doors open for people, giving up seats on trains, contributing to charities, and we might even risk our health and well-being or our lives pulling someone from a burning building, or fighting in a war. Who can forget images of Japan’s fabled kamikaze warriors? It is difficult to avoid comparisons to the suicidal charge of a bee, and you will not see any of these behaviours in a chimpanzee, a species that enjoys the status of being our closest genetic relative.

Where do these behaviours come from and why are they such a prominent feature of our lives? I propose that the development of a uniquely human “capacity for culture”, coincident with the origin of our species around 160 000 to 200 000 years ago, was the defining event in modern human evolution. Our ability to learn from others, to transmit knowledge, technology and skills and to build on them created a fast-paced evolutionary process that, by 60 000 years ago, propelled modern humans out of Africa in small tribal societies to occupy and then reshape the world.

Culture became our species’ strategy for survival, easily the most potent trait the world has ever seen for converting new lands and resources into more humans, and their genes. In fact, the rapid pace of cultural change meant that our cultures quickly came to take over the running of our day-to-day affairs. Our cultures and not our genes supply the solutions we use to survive and prosper in the society of our birth; they provide the instructions for what we eat, how we live, the gods we believe in, the tools we make and use, the language we speak, the people we cooperate with and marry, and whom we might fight or even kill in a war.

I call our societies cultural survival vehicles to acknowledge their role as our shepherds, looking after us and promoting our survival and prosperity, and it was examples of these survival vehicles that I was seeing in the tribal societies of Northern Kenya, and that make up the staggering 800 – 1 000 distinct societies of Papua New Guinea, each of them vying in competition with others for lands and resources.

Today all of us are the descendants of those who were best at using these vehicles to advance their interests, in competition with others trying to do the same. This tells us that the defining features of our nature arose as adaptations to living in the prosperous social environment of human culture, not in our shared history with the other animals.

I suggest the most important of these adaptations is a set of “hard-wired” dispositions to contribute and conform to the culture of our birth: it is as natural for us to build, defend and project our cultures into new territories as it is for us to grow and develop. Why? Because our cultures have acted in many ways like an extended body, except where our physical body wraps us in a protective layer of muscles and skin, our cultural body surrounds us in a protective layer of knowledge, skills and a shared identity.

We have to travel all the way to the social insects – the ants, bees, wasps and termites – to see another set of dispositions like our own. They are legendary for selfless acts in support of their survival vehicles. Their colonies, hives, nests and mounds shepherd copies of their genes into future generations. But whereas we understand the aggressive charge of a swarm of bees as actions that have evolved to support relatives – the members of a hive are brothers and sisters, assisting their mother the queen – our societies are made up of unrelated people.

The difference is everything. Unrelated people are not restrained in their dealings with each other by the usual bonds of family ties, and so our species had to evolve the social rules and psychology that made it possible for people to exchange ideas, knowledge, skills and favours without fear of exploitation. This placed a great emphasis on demonstrating your own – and gauging others’ – trustworthiness because the social group now collectively held its valuable ideas, knowledge and technology and wouldn’t want to share it with cheats or competitors.

We have uniquely among the animals evolved the psychological means to treat other members of our societies as “honorary relatives”, thereby unlocking the cooperation and emotions we would normally reserve for family members. Our many acts of altruism, conformity to norms and “good” behaviour are a steady stream of signals we produce to advertise our good character and commitment to our group. To assure others we can be trusted, we are, in effect, forced to become altruism “show-offs”, competing with others for the spoils of cooperation.

This psychology has allowed us to create a formidable machine, capable of behaving with a degree of coordination and shared purpose like that of the social insects, while drawing on a far greater variety of skills. Now, someone could forage while another hunted, someone could mend sails while another plotted a course, two could stand guard with sharpened spears while a third steals a competing tribe’s animals, and my army could cross the valley and attack yours, or repulse it when you attack me. This was a bandwagon worth jumping on.

Our social behaviours are backed by an evolved psychology of emotions. We feel a “warm glow” from cooperating with other members of our group; having a conscience keeps us from straying into selfish territory; empathy reduces tendencies to harm or take advantage of others; shame motivates us to put things right; a sense of fairness keeps our own and others’ behaviours in line, and dispositions to be kind and generous attract allies.

But of these emotions, the most vivid are those you might feel at a sports event, or hearing of your country’s troops in battle, or when terrorists attack your country. We call these feelings “nationalism” or “patriotism”, “jingoism”, “bigotry”, “xenophobia”, “parochialism” or “prejudice”.

Most of us probably have no idea where these feelings come from; they can be unsettling in their ferocity; they appear spontaneously; they are alarmingly easy to teach to the young, and stubbornly resistant to reason. They can also direct some of our most repugnant actions, and this leads us to believe they have played significant roles in protecting our cultural survival vehicles throughout our history.

As tribal groups occupied the world after leaving Africa, they would have increasingly encountered other modern human populations like themselves, looking to occupy the same territories. These other human cultures would have been their most natural competitors, and so we can expect that our history has been characterised by a to-and-fro arms race of societies meeting each other’s improvements at warfare with countermeasures of their own.

If holding a parochial or hostile view toward outsiders makes it easier for you to kill them in battle, then a tendency towards parochial dispositions might have spread in our evolutionary past. It is a melancholy feature of our species that there are two situations in our everyday lives in which humans are capable of throwing a switch in their minds that allows them, even with little or no provocation, to treat members of other societies – and even in some circumstances their own – as something considerably less than human in moral terms.

One is when trust unravels between two tribal or ethnic groups and uncontrolled slaughter breaks out, such as the spasm of violence that erupted between the Hutu and Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. The sectarian strife that stubbornly plagues Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland, not to mention religious and ethnic disputes in countless other communities around the world, is a manifestation of this deep-seated disposition to protect and advance our group.

The second is our ability to turn on members of our own societies when we think they threaten its integrity. This is sometimes called moralistic aggression. When we rebuke people for deviating from norms, shout at or honk our horns at people who jump queues, or, worse, assault or even kill them, these are ways of punishing someone who has shown by their actions that they do not share the hyper-social dispositions on which our shaky but valuable form of cooperation rests. They lose the special sense in which they are honorary relatives by demonstrating that they are too willing to act out of self-interest.

Unlike Macbeth’s poor “player” who “struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more”, all of human life is played out on the social stage, and so we are entitled to expect that humans will have recruited all the help they can get to enhance their social actions.

The arts, music and religion are what many people have in mind when they refer to “culture”. This is so-called high culture, there to move, uplift, entertain or console us. But what distinguishes these cultural forms is that they can lodge in our brains and exert a grip on us that is sometimes beyond our control. They can wrench our emotions, make us believe things that are false, cause us to steal, fight or even die for them, bring us to rapture, get us to construct monuments and halls to them, beguile and intrigue us, and get us to lay down large sums of money.

Why did our ancestors acquire these aspects of culture? I suggest their origins lie in cultural forms we recruited and shaped to enhance either individual or group behaviour. Indeed, it would be surprising had our ancestors missed an opportunity to hitch our survival and well-being to cultural traits that can get our minds so hungrily to pursue aesthetic and psychological rewards, even if in our modern world they can seem irrational, profligate or hedonistic.

To prehistoric people, the arts, music and religion might have been like having a class of performance-enhancing drugs (another class of enhancers we have built, if only in more modern times) at their fingertips. Religions can grant us hope in an inscrutable and capricious world, and they are an effective aide de guerre: up against a group in battle whose religion considers you despicable, it might be useful for you to have your own high source of motivational bigotry. Music is nothing if it is not about inducing emotions; it can enhance memory and encourage group activities. Art may have its origin in teaching, providing directions or reminding us of our attachments to others. Combining all three, as religions do, can create a powerful concoction.

Perhaps the supreme irony of being a cultural species is that the cultural attachments that so strongly affect our psychology and behaviour arise as an accident of birth. Each of us might have been someone else with a different internal voice, customs, systems of beliefs and allegiances. This should give us pause in considering what will be the dominant demographic phenomenon of the coming decades – mass migration of people from poorer to richer areas.

How will our tribal psychology play out in modern multi-cultural societies? The news might be better than some commentators think. Our social history is the history of the triumph of cooperation over conflict, first in getting unrelated people to cooperate within societies, and then between societies, as formerly competing entities recognised that cooperation can return greater dividends than endless cycles of betrayal and revenge.

Early in our history tribes formed that were essentially bands of competing bands. These gave way to chiefdoms, and then nation states, eventually to collections of states, such as the EU and UN. These structures are unstable and prone to collapse – just look at our current plight in the UK. But the key to making collections of diverse people work is to provide or somehow create stronger clues of trust, common values and shared outcomes than might otherwise be suggested by the highly imprecise markers of ethnic or cultural differences. This is the social glue that has historically made our ultra-sociality possible and it can continue to do so.

Published 21 February 2012
Original in English
First published by New Humanist 2/2012

Contributed by New Humanist © Mark Pagel / New Humanist / Eurozine

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