A SOCIETY is a group of people who live in close proximity, such as a hunter-gatherer tribe, village, neighborhood, town, or city, or who share a common interest. Society is people, including the way we behave toward others.
People are social animals. We like to form close relationships with those around us. At the same time, individuals tend to be fiercely independent.
Our hominid ancestors evolved from apes which first lived in trees, then walked upright, later discovered and developed stone tool making, grew large brains, developed communal strategies, and finally migrated out of Africa, populating various regions of the world.* Since then, until fairly recently, humans have populated most of the world, lived in small communities, hunted and gathered food, developed simple technologies, and harnessed the use of fire.
Sitting around the fire, night upon night, experiencing its ghostly effects on the psyche, would have provided easy access to emotions and thoughts. It may have started a process of self-exploration and expression, and excited early forms of myth and ritual. It would have strengthened social bonding and tribal identity.
Modern human society began about 40,000 years ago. Our immediate ancestors were Cro-magnon, us. Humans are categorized as Homo sapiens sapiens, those who think about thinking. Early humans could think and speak symbolically, abstractly. They could sing and dance. They created visual art and musical instruments, formed myths and rituals, invented sophisticated technology, domesticated plants and animals, and evolved principles and rules for social behavior.
Along with more specialized brain circuits, extended planning ability, having a greater sense of how others feel and think, and exploring a deeper understanding of self would have provided a clear advantage in utilizing resources, developing hunting and gathering tools, and defense strategies, and promoting alliances and social bonding.
Consider technology. It is a major force in determining the identity of human society and culture. Since the advent of stone tool making by Homo habilis some 3 and a half million years ago, the invention and development of technology by hominids and then modern humans has virulently evolved. But it has a downside. Technological advancement has always kept a step ahead of society’s understanding of its potential consequences. If someone next door finds a better way of doing something, it is our nature, our instinct, to imitate that thing, without first bothering to review the long-term pros and cons. It has always been this way. Even today, with guidelines, checks and balances, restrictions, and controlling agencies, the emergence of a new technology still manages to outstrip our ability to predict its long-term effect.
The invention of agriculture, when it first appeared over 11,000 years ago, created a global revolution. The domestication of plants and animals meant that a few people could feed many people, which changed the face of human society and culture. Agriculture turned hunter-gatherers into farmers, and created cities and towns throughout the world. In a short time, most people on earth were farmers, or supported farmers, lasting until the late 1800’s when the Industrial Revolution took hold in Europe and North America, once again changing the face of global society and culture.
As a rule, the better we can adapt to our environment, the more comfortable we are, the more we tend to maintain the status-quo and the less we are motivated to change our circumstances. However, when things are not working well, when we are struggling against the environment, or unable to adapt to unfamiliar or dangerous conditions, we are more likely to expend energy developing and exploring strategies and methods that promise to be more adaptive.
As people began to congregate in towns and cities, living in close proximity primed a new awareness that focused on social responsibility. So exactly how did issues surrounding morality and ethics evolve from the time of early humans?
Morality is a set of rules that voluntarily govern social behavior. But what are the rules and where did we get them? Are moral principles instinctive? How do we know right from wrong? How do our brains recognize when something is appropriate or not, or when something or someone is ‘good’ or ‘bad’?
Our brains must be able to quickly sort out qualitative experiences in order to make survival decisions. The ability to detect what is right or wrong in a situation, what is normal or abnormal, what is appropriate or not, is an important set of skills. It may also have been the evolutionary origin of morality.
From the view of Darwinian evolution, a community whose members are prepared to support one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, have a better chance for survival. In this way, the standard of morality would tend to increase over time.
Although knowing right from wrong may be instinctive, acting on moral instincts is probably learned, in the same way that we learn a spoken language through imitation and practice.
Darwin has suggested that humans first learned from experience that benevolent actions could be returned; and that the habit of benevolence could be imitated. In fact we now know that there are ‘mirror’ neurons in the brain that allow us to feel sympathetic sensations of joy and sorrow for another person.
As reasoning and foresight became improved, individuals perceived the more subtle consequences of their actions. Virtues such as kindness, fidelity, and courtesy, which were once completely disregarded, became elevated to a position of esteem.
Darwin cites other useful virtues including keeping promises, helping others, praise, blame, shame, obedience, guilt, remorse, encouragement, admiration, sympathy, courage, patriotism, mutual aid, the distribution of benevolent actions, and benign responses.
Recent research has shown that at home, in school, and on the job, a single display of praise is more powerful than ten doses of criticism.
While a high standard of morality provides only a slight survival advantage to an individual, an increase in the standard of morality for all individuals provides a significant advantage to society as a whole.
As Darwin points out, selfish and contentious people do not form coherent communities.
We know that species that are both competitive and cooperative are the ones that tend to survive. The species that are mostly competitive kill off each other, while those that tend to be cooperative aren’t aggressive enough to meet their needs, or they become overwhelmed by other species.
We know that humans, as a group and individually, are both competitive and cooperative. Morality, greed, circumstance, and necessity create a complex tug-of-war between competition and cooperation. How we handle this conflict helps to mold our character, and define who we are. Yet, surprisingly or not surprisingly, depending on how you see the world, studies suggest that humans tend to be slightly more cooperative than competitive, probably because of our deep and long-standing concern for social morality and ethics. We are, after all both social animals as well as individuals, forever trying to satisfy the needs of both. (see Robert Wright’s sensitive look at this subject in his book Non-Zero, The Logic of Human Destiny)
We enjoy sharing the things we value: our experiences, ideas, rituals, and material possessions. But it is more than that. It is necessary for us to share; it strengthens friendships, relieves loneliness, and promotes mental and physical health.
Every culture develops a unique character or identity, based on shared values of the group. The British are known for their literature, the French for their cuisine and painting, the Germans for music, the Russians for dance. There are many examples throughout the world. These are, of course, broad generalities, or stereotypes. But it raises questions: why do some cultures excel at some things and not others? Why are some nations highly industrialized while others are barely developed.
Jared Diamond, in his popular book Guns, Germs, and Steel, examines this question as part of his lifelong study of the people of Papua, New Guinea. The book describes the positive effect of the kind of cultural exchange of ideas, language, rituals, and resources that is possible across latitudinal geographies that are easily navigable, such as the wide expanse of Europe, much of Asia, and North America. In contrast, longitudinal continents such as Africa and South America contain physically isolated regions impassable by mountains, tropical forests, waterways, and desserts. It is very difficult to invent and share new technologies and ideas when you don’t interact with cultures much different from your own.
And yet British physicist David Deutsch has pointed out that ideas themselves, especially creative, rational ideas are what solve problems and move societies forward, despite geographical barriers or a lack of resources. Niall Ferguson, popular author of Civilization, the West and the Rest suggests that the ascendency of Western societies over the last 500 years depended on several crucial growth areas including: Competition, Science, Holding Property, Governing Laws, Medicine, and Consumerism.
Local beliefs, popular trends, ideas, civil laws, moral standards, rituals, technologies, goods and services, and artworks within various societies and cultures around the world follow a process of growth and change over many generations, similar to Darwin’s natural selection. These cultural objects and events are known as memes.
In 1976, the English biologist Richard Dawkins wrote a book entitled The Selfish Gene in which he introduced the idea of a meme. The word meme is a hybrid of memory and gene.
A meme is a kind of replicator that transmits ideas across human culture, similar to genes that transmit biological traits from person to person. If an idea, jingle, or latest fad catches on, a meme is said to propagate from one brain to another. David Deutsch suggests that a meme exists as both a mental representation and a behavior. While some believe, such as Susan Blackmore, that memes propagate ‘in a sequence of imitation’, Deutsch insists that imitation is not a key player in the replication of memes in humans. (for a detailed description of memes and their function, see Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine)
Memes, such as a technological idea, scientific theory, recipe, or song, for example, as well as genes, may be copied and distributed many times, and may survive for hundreds or thousands of years, while humans (who live for a comparatively short time) are simply the vehicle for the transmission of genes and memes.
But just like genes, not all memes are necessarily advantageous. Some memes are rational. Others are not. Memes don’t have to be useful. There are many examples of tired or worn out ideas or things that perpetuate themselves from one generation to the next. The arrangement of the keys on a computer keyboard is a classic example: the position of the letters was originally designed to keep the keys from sticking on the long-vanished typewriter. Library books are filled with old ideas and out-dated information. There are many examples.
There are also symbiotic relationships that are strictly cultural. These partnerships range from large consumer malls that contain a variety of different stores, to cell phones that integrate a telephone, camera, email and Internet access.
It is our nature to want to share who we are and what we do. Sharing is a basic instinct, a part of our human legacy. The force of this drive is so vital that it pervades our lives and shapes our society and culture. Yet, ironically, our desire to share often becomes the very thing that leads to discrimination and alienation.
Sharing probably evolved as a form of bonding in which social ties were strengthened as a means of protecting the young. It also served as a mutual benefit to the community. The instinct to share our thoughts and desires with those close to us likely led to socialized attitudes of empathy, sympathy, and even altruism.
A deep desire to share thoughts, feelings, and actions may produce lifelong bonds, offspring, and a sense of community, but it may also be the cause of deep division.
Today, we are no longer hunter-gatherers scattered in small communities. Seven billion people reside on the planet; many are cramped into densely populated areas. As the population has increased, individuals have converged geographically who are different enough from one another that sharing has not occurred naturally. People from different origins and different cultures have massed together to form large and disparate communities. The desire to share similar values and rituals is frustrated by these differences, and often results in provoked tensions based on fear, anger, or ignorance. And when the divisions are wide and deep enough, they may lead to exclusion, provocation, and even war.
The same is true around the world for individuals, small groups, neighborhoods, towns, cities, and nations.
For the past several decades, the world has embraced the ideal of cultural diversity, but today we are learning at ground level exactly how to live and work with others supportively, even though we may not share similar views. We are already witnessing new hybrids that reflect this uncommonality. On the global scale, new world organizations, coalitions, and partnerships are emerging. In cities, there are recurring examples of cross-cultural activity such as fusion restaurants, fashion composites, musical mash-ups, and more. These are clear attempts to synthesize and transcend cultural difference.
In today’s global community, we can communicate with people around the world in seconds, we travel almost anywhere in a matter of hours. We are exchanging ideas and resources across cultures at a rapid pace. Racial and cultural integration is becoming commonplace. With an exploding population growing even bigger, strangers with completely different belief systems and social values are being forced to live side by side in order to take advantage of economic opportunities. Cultural diversity is the result.
But not everyone is happy about abrupt cultural change. Nations, communities, and individuals are struggling to catch up with these new and difficult challenges. Many practice tolerance. Others want to preserve their pure cultural legacy at any price. Learning to live and work together with people who share profoundly different belief systems is a worldwide challenge, and one that characterizes the times in which we live.
Finally, it should be mentioned that the scientific revolution that began with Leonardo, Copernicus, Gallileo, Newton and others in Europe only a few hundred years ago has produced a profound effect on today’s society and culture. Instead of relying on supernatural beliefs and systems alone, humans now have the capacity to creatively EXPLAIN and discuss, error-correct, and build upon new ways of solving difficult problems. In fact, it is not wishful thinking to consider that we are capable of solving nearly any problem that doesn’t violate the natural laws of physics. This includes the eradication of war and poverty, traveling to other stars and galaxies, and the elimination of death due to disease or ageing, to name a few. (see Oxford University physicist David Deutsch’s revolutionary book The Beginning of Infinity)
* (Although controversial, there is recent archeological evidence from China to suggest that hominids could have evolved in different parts of the world at the same time (the ‘global origins’ theory). This is contrary to the ‘out-of-Africa’ theory. Both the ‘global origins’ and ‘out-of-Africa’ theories have been heatedly debated by anthropologists for decades.)
Click below for a more detailed description of cultural evolution by the Nature and Inquiry Artists Group: