Chapter 2: Why Some Societies Progress, Others Regress
Culture As Society’s Genes
Culture is to society what genes are to an individual. Culture forms the framework for development for a society, both under normal circumstances but also more importantly, under differing and stressful conditions. Likewise, our genes predict our eye and skin colors, as well as our reactions to specific environmental conditions, as for example, our propensity to develop specific diseases under certain conditions. Culture does that for a society, as exemplified by the response of the Marioris to the invasion by the Maoris. Just like genes, culture is transmitted from one generation to the next, and it remains remarkably stable with each generation transmitting its values to the next through the process of acculturation. In traditional societies, such acculturations take place informally in the family and other social settings; in modern societies, at schools and similar institutions.
Changes in genes, or more accurately the distribution of the changed gene in a population, do occur through natural selection, but very slowly. Likewise with culture, changes do occur but very slowly as evidenced by the subsequent divergent cultural transformations of the Marioris and the Maoris conditioned by their particular environment.
The environment can induce rapid changes on DNA through a process call mutation. Two well know mutagenic (mutation-inducing) agents are radiation and chemicals. A colony of bacteria subjected to a hostile chemical environment (antibiotics) will develop resistance quickly through such mutations which enable those bacteria to overcome the effects of those chemicals.
Many would take umbrage to my characterization of culture as society’s genes, for that implies that culture cannot be changed, or at least not quickly. There is the implication of predestination, just as individuals are biologically through their genetic endowment, so too is society through their culture. Culture is thus destiny. This is erroneous. For just as genes could be changed in nature through random mutations or artificially in the laboratory through planned biogenetic engineering, so too could culture, either naturally or be induced.
The cultural equivalent of biogenetic engineering would be mass education and the introduction of modern technology, or any major social change imposed on or brought on in a society. The fermentation in the Muslim world today is because its traditional societies have been changed through their exposure to the greater outside world through mass education and modern communications. Old certitudes are now gone, as are traditional power structures. These changes are rapid and disorientating; they could lead either to a stronger, more resilient society (equivalent of a resistant bacteria) or alternatively, to the disappearance and disintegration of that culture (equivalent to biological extinction, as with the dinosaurs).
The cultural equivalent of random mutation would be exemplified by the sudden change in leadership or a revolution. Iran under Ayotallah Khomeini was a radically different nation from when it was under the Shah. That transformation was sudden and unpredictable, comparable to a biological mutation. Had someone assassinated the Ayatollah soon after he took over, Iran would have been radically changed back again. In genetics, such a phenomenon is referred to as reverse mutation.
The pertinent question then is why certain societies have cultures that predispose them to change and progress while others have cultures with strong inertia and a tendency for stagnation. Here I define human progress broadly, that is improvements in the ability of that society to take care of the basic needs of its citizens in terms of food, clothing, and shelter, as well as ensuring that each citizen is allowed to develop fully in all aspects.
Such general descriptions aside, there are specific quantifiable criteria that can be used to assess progress or lack thereof. These include economic well being as reflected by such indices as per capita income but also general well being as measured by longevity and infant mortality rates. While these may not be truly reflective of the achievements of a particular society, nonetheless they give a rough indication. It is unlikely that a nation with a low per capita income, short life span, and high infant mortality to be considered developed or progressive. Nor can one expect such societies to be major sources of inspiring works of arts and other cultural refinements.
Implicit in my definition and description of progress is that there are certain values that are universal, that is, they are the aspirations of all people. This is a risky proposition to make in these days of cultural relativism where the accepted wisdom is that all cultures are equal and should be measured only within its own context. Even the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights has its own detractors who opposed the very concept of the universality of any social or cultural construct. Nonetheless we all can agree on certain simple ideas. These are, as enumerated by Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington in their book, Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress:
- • Life is better than death
- • Health is better than sickness
- • Liberty is better than slavery
- • Prosperity is better than poverty
- • Education is better than ignorance
- • Justice is better than injustice.
Even Mother Teresa would have agreed with those general statements. Fanatical Muslims of the “suicide bomber” variety might take exception to the first sentiment (Life is better than death”). To them, life in this world is temporary and thus not worthy of their attention; the greater rewards are in the hereafter. To me, belittling God’s precious gift of life is not exactly an expression of our respect and honor for the All Mighty. After all, life is God’s creation and we should not dismiss it lightly! Were Islam to belittle life in this world, there would not be the strong prohibition against suicide in our Qur’an. If only those so-called martyrs could see the pain and anguish they caused their loved ones, and the destruction they inflict on others!
I do not imply that material and socioeconomic progress go hand in hand with spiritual and ethical enlightenment. Far from it! Societies in command of great wealth and power may be intellectually, spiritually, and socially flawed. Conversely, great philosophers and thinkers have evolved from societies that had rudimentary technology and relatively little wealth. The tiny Caribbean island of St. Lucia, no economic powerhouse, produced two Nobel Prize winners: Sir Arthur Lewis in economics and Derek Welcott in Literature. Using that criterion – number of Nobel laureates per capita – St. Lucia is certainly far ahead of many advanced and progressive nations.
In the heyday of imperialism it was accepted that culture made all the difference. The concept of culture then was closely tied to race. As with the understanding of race at the time, it was accepted that there was a similar evolutionary scale for culture, with the Europeans, more specifically the northern and western Europeans, being on top (or most cultured). The differences in the physical features of people of the various cultures (dark skin for the Mediterranean races and high cheek bones of the Eastern Europeans) further reinforced this connection between race and culture. At the bottom were Asians and Africans. The Europeans being the most “cultured” were destined to rule the world; if members of the other races wanted to be considered civilized, they must ape the ways of the Europeans.
The German anthropologist Franz Boas shook this accepted wisdom with his revolutionary concept of cultural relativism. Boas spent his professional career studying the Eskimos of Artic Canada, and was impressed by their cultural values. Their culture ideally suited them to survive in that harsh environment where “cultured” Europeans would not stand a chance. He championed the idea that each culture should be judged in its own right and not compared to others. The essence of this idea is encapsulated by the remarks of the legendary wealthy American stock investor, Warren Buffet. When asked of his extraordinary talent (his ability to pick undervalued stocks), he replied that he is grateful to live in America as his particular skills serve him well, for had he lived in Bangladesh, he would be starving. The wisdom of the Sage of Omaha!
Cultural relativism may be a fine idea when societies were isolated. With globalization, today’s young Eskimos are exposed to and are rapidly becoming part of the larger world. Their grandparents may have been satisfied with living in igloos and trudging along in the frigid cold on their dog sleighs, but today’s young prefer living in homes with central heating and dashing around in their snowmobiles. Telling them that those are artifacts of a decadent Western culture would not dissuade them.
Likewise, it is equally futile for Malaysian leaders to discourage the young not to spend their time on the Internet, Twitter and Facebook because those were “western” inventions, as Minister of Information Rais Yatim did recently. It is to be noted that Rais is enamored with his camera and cell phone; he conveniently forgets that those too are “western” inventions.
While nobody today accepts the old concept of an evolutionary scale of culture, nonetheless it is becoming obvious that different societies adapt differently to changes and stresses. Like individuals, some societies are more successful than others, regardless of the criteria we use to define success. The intellectual inquiry of why this is so is now an active and legitimate scholarly pursuit. Unlike earlier notions of cultural evolution, today’s research has nothing to do with aggrandizing one’s sense of cultural or racial superiority, rather on how best to help societies and cultures cope with change and thereby reduce some of the social pathology associated with dysfunctional cultures.
Next: “Progressive” Versus “Static” Cultures