Tag Archives: anthropology

Holding Onto Our Cultures Is Holding The World Back

Culture is defined as, “the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.”

The reason so many different civilizations have developed different cultures is largely due to environmental factors. Surviving in the desert requires different behaviors than surviving in the tundra. Likewise, living in a place where fish and fruit are abundant will lead to a different culinary culture than living in a place where tubers and livestock are abundant. A place where war has reduced the male population will create a different culture than a place where abundant food and resources mean there are plenty of mates to go around.

But what happens if the environment changes? What happens if a warm land turns cold, when once abundant resources become scarce, or when technology eliminates the sacrifices and hardships your ancestors once faced? In order to survive and thrive, your culture has to adapt to the changing environment.

That’s easy to say, but humans are cognitive misers. By default, we go through life on autopilot relying on biases, stereotypes, assumptions, and faith to allow us to survive without having to delay our actions with thoughts. In fact, that’s a large part of why culture exists: because we do the things we’ve always done without thinking about it. This is a natural survival mechanism that has served our ancestors well, but the benefit of this natural instinct becomes a liability when the environment changes because we’re naturally disinclined to change our behavior even though it would benefit us.

Well, guess what? The world is changing. Technology allows us to ship abundant resources from a country on one side of the world to another country on the other side of the world where that resource is scarce or non-existent, and we can move those resources in less than a week. You can even move people out of their environment into a totally new one in less than a day. The world is becoming more uniform. Other than learning the language and the laws you don’t have to do hardly anything different to survive in the mountains of Bavaria as you do in the plains of America. This has only been true in recent history.

In addition, information travels almost at the speed of thought. You can access the same information over the internet in Bolivia as you can in Siberia. In a world where you can take all your customs and information with you wherever you go and still survive and thrive, culture is becoming more and more obsolete.

A lot of people are afraid of this and see it as a bad thing. They feel like they’re losing their anchor to reality, that their rich heritage is being lost, that the world is becoming whitewashed. So they’re pushing back against the rising tide; little do they know this is as futile as fighting the ocean.

The fact is, the world is changing. In fact, the world is changing faster than any time in history. The old ways are becoming obsolete within a year instead of a lifetime. And no matter how you rationalize holding onto your heritage, the basic premise of culture is still the same today as it was in the Bronze Age. Culture is the sum total behavior of a group of people developed in response to the environment in order to create the best chances of survival.

Holding onto the past is the best way to survive and thrive when the environment is the same as it was in the past. When the environment changes, culture has to change with it in order to provide society with the best practices to ensure survival and prosperity.

At this point in history, the past is obsolete. The old ways won’t help you. In fact, they’re more likely to hurt you. If you want to survive and thrive you need to upgrade your culture.

But you might ask, “Isn’t that disrespectful of the past? Shouldn’t we honor the past?” To that, I ask, “Why?” What do you owe the past? Your heritage, your ancestor’s culture, what you call “the past” is just a way of doing things that worked for a different group of people in a different time and a different place. You don’t owe the past anything. In fact, your ancestors worked hard to survive in a harsh world so that you could live today. They made difficult adjustments, and they broke away from the old ways themselves in order ensure a better future for their descendants. You owe it to your ancestors to do everything you can to survive and improve your descendants’ chances of survival because life is more important than rules or habits or ideologies.  And the best thing you can do to survive is to adapt to the changing environment: to abandon your ancestors (even your parents’) obsolete culture.

The best way to honor the past is to embrace the future. Upgrade your culture.

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3 Reasons We’re Not Trying To Make The World A Better Place

Our species has spent the majority of its existence and its evolution as ignorant beasts ruled by our instincts. Even today it’s still possible to get all the way through life using about as much logic as a bird uses to successfully navigate a complicated flight path. You can easily let your instincts guide you through all of your life decisions.

It would be a mistake to assume only the most misguided, weak, cowardly members of society give up and surrender themselves to their instincts. We’re all born set on autopilot, and our instincts don’t turn off after they’ve led us to our mother’s milk. By default, we stay on autopilot our entire lives. Logic is a relatively unnatural ability that has to be consciously and deliberately chosen and refined over time in order to override our instincts.

Everyone assumes they’re the exception to the rule, and they’ve taken control of their lives, but if everyone was as independent-minded as they believe they are, we would live in a peaceful, equitable, and logical world. The world is the way it is because we’re still a society of animals who consciously use the logical part of our brains as little as possible.


Painting of a group of primitive cave men sitting around their camp working at various tasks like skinning a deer and grinding plants


Consider our nature.

All of our emotions are animal instincts: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, anticipation… even love… especially love. Parents tend to automatically love their children for obvious evolutionary reasons. Men are attracted to beautiful women because they appear to be healthy mates. Females are attracted wealthy and strong males because they appear to be good providers and strong mates. Guys want to sleep with as many girls as possible to spread their genes. They’ll even rape women despite all logic. Girls want to hold onto one guy to help them raise their offspring, and both men and women will remain in abusive relationships despite all logic. We tell ourselves falling in love is one of the “highest” intellectual activities we do. In reality, it’s as primitive as taking a dump.

Masculinity reflects the hunter/protector role male animals traditionally filled for the past 2 million years. Femininity reflects the camp-tending/child-rearing role female animals traditionally filled for the past 2 million years. Today we look to leaders to run society for us because we’re pack animals, and that’s how we‘ve done it for millions of years. Tall people get promoted at work more because we see them as more “alpha” pack members. Feeble kids get picked on at school because even as children we feel compelled to establish our dominance in the pack hierarchy. The same instinct motivates bosses at work to bully their subordinates. Our brains go on to undermine our ability to use logic by providing us with mental shortcuts like schemas, confirmation bias, the fundamental attribution error, fear of the unknown, etc.

This sounds sinister, but the fact that our species has survived this long is evidence that these instincts are helping us. They tell us what to do when life is too complicated to think all the way through. They guide us towards the path of least resistance and help us navigate our way through life with minimal need to think for ourselves. In other words, we’re not supposed to use our brains because we can’t be trusted to.


Consider our nurturing.

Infants can’t think objectively much less distrust the people they view as gods: their parents. So as infants, it’s only logical for us to trust our parents and assume that the way they teach us to live was the way to live. And since we assume that that’s the way it never occurs to us to question it. And when someone tells us we’re wrong it’s only logical for us not to believe them. Even if we do ever decide to look at our beliefs objectively we can only change the beliefs we have, not the ones we don’t have, and we don’t how much we don’t know. So we’re inclined to believe that we know as much as there is to know (or at least as much as we need to know). From that point of view, it’s logical (or at least inevitable) to have a closed mind (initially). To make matters worse, the more we know the more we tend to believe we’ve reached the apex of human knowledge. So ironically, the more we know the more close-minded we tend to become. Even when we admit that we don’t know everything we tend to think that admitting our ignorance makes us wise, which again closes our mind.

It’s human nature to have a closed mind, and that’s why it was inevitable that the religions we created would say that blind faith in the answers you’ve been given will earn you a place in paradise while questioning the answers is a crime so terrible that those who do it deserve to be punished for eternity. It was inevitable that the governments we’ve created would say that to be a good citizen you have to be a patriot and support your government no matter what and anyone who doubts their country is a traitor or a terrorist or at least a cry baby. It was inevitable that our parents and school officials would say to respect them and that to question them is insolent, disrespectful, stepping out of our place, rude, etc. It was inevitable that society would tell us to be optimistic and grateful for what we have and that to question your position in life or your society’s social model is pessimistic and ungrateful. It was inevitable that our business model would reward those who don’t rock the boat (even if it’s sinking) and labels people who criticize the system as insolent, troublemakers, lazy, or not tough enough to handle “it.”

Businesses love to talk about thinking inside and outside of the box, but these terms are misleading. There’s no inside or outside the box thinking. There’s being guided by your instinct while repeating the patterns you’ve learned from society and then there’s thinking, period. And for those who define their reality by repeating the processes they already know, anything and everything outside of their experiences appear radical. To them, the world is black and white, and they tend to view anybody who thinks at all as an extremist and a heretic. We say we value thinking, but nobody takes it upon themselves to practice thinking as an art form. We don’t think on our own time, and even when someone barges into our lives and pushes ideas into our hands that don’t fit into our preconceived schemas, we tend to automatically naysay it and label it stupid…and the more we label everything outside our box stupid the smarter it makes us feel and the more it cements us into our box.


Look at our group behavior.

Just like our individual brains, society seeks the path of least resistance. Society is set to autopilot. It embraces beliefs that are familiar, vague, and shallow. It embraces behavior that is routine, immediately gratifying, and physical. It shies away from beliefs that are too unusual, self-critical, complicated, or far-sighted. While society will accept superficial forms of deviance such as wearing slightly unusual clothing and using slightly unusual slang, it opposes behavior or beliefs that contradict or undermine society’s fundamental values, which again, are vague and shallow. After generations of this modus operandi, cultures naturally sift out a functional level of equilibrium that it calls maturity, responsibility, being grown up, sane, normal, moral, acceptable, natural, etc.

Children usually don’t have all of these standards explicitly spelled out for them,  but society will give them hints when they step off the path and will guide them to normality and mediocrity. When they get there, they’ll be rewarded with acceptance, praise, and the internal peace that comes with having your mind completely whitewashed. All of this sounds sinister, but again, these tendencies have evolved because they help us survive. However, our instincts are blind, and when left unchecked they can actually drive us to our deaths through over-consumption, overpopulation, and over-competition.

Unfortunately, despite possessing the ability to reason, our individual instincts and our societal tendencies oppose the development of logic, the fail-safe that could save us from our instincts. The more you question yourself and take yourself off of autopilot the more you have to come face to face with your own inadequacies, and the truth hurts. The more you confront these difficult truths the less simple your world will become, the more responsibility you’ll have to take for your welfare and the harder life becomes for you. The more you question society and see the world more clearly the more society will reject, ridicule, fear, hate and persecute you. So we’re classically conditioned to become safe, unthinking, self-congratulatory automatons who are going to over consume, overpopulate, and over compete ourselves into extinction.

History provides plenty of examples of individuals who pursued the art of thinking despite the immediate, negative consequences, and while they did find answers that lay outside the accepted model of human understanding and improved life for future generations…many of these individuals were killed for their trouble. Make no mistake, society is not a docile herd of sheep following a sly pied piper. They’re a ravenous pack of wolves kowtowing to the fiercest wolves, and the only thing worse than being at the bottom of the hierarchy is to be outside the group because that makes you a common enemy, and pretty much the only thing they’ll all put their differences aside for is to kill an outsider who threatens to upset the status quo of the pack.

Yeah, we all want society to improve, but all we really need to do to improve society is become better individuals. We don’t become better individuals though because anytime anyone tries, they’re descended upon by the wolves (who are usually their friends and family). We all want the system to improve, but anytime someone tries, the same thing happens. Theoretically, we all want change, but in practice, it’s the one thing we fear and hate most.

The point of all this isn’t to say change isn’t possible. Obviously, society has changed a great deal throughout the history of civilization. It’s just worth knowing why you’re unlikely to see all the changes you want in your lifetime. Don’t get me wrong. You’ll see some change in your lifetime, but most of the change will be unimportant (like fashion). You’ll see some baby steps on the important issues even though people will fight that progress kicking and screaming and then spend the rest of their lives bitching about how these advances in society are proof of the crumbling of society and the end of the world. Then you’ll see the children of this generation grow up accepting those baby steps as true, but most of our children won’t think any farther past that. Only a few of our children will grow up to be sinful, heretical, preposterous, ungrateful nerds who will push the envelope of human understanding. They’ll be persecuted by those of our children who grow up to be good, normal, decent people. Then our children’s generation will die off, and their children will grow up accepting some of the advances that the deviants of the previous generation made, and the cycle will continue improving at a snail’s pace…

Unless we start rigorously, systematically teaching children to think. If we can raise just one generation of children with legitimately curious, logical, objective minds we can break the cycle of ignorance. But in order to do that we’re going to have to teach them to be sinful, heretical, preposterous, ungrateful nerds, and most parents will fight that tooth and nail. That’s why society won’t change…much… unless you can think of a way to undermine the system.


If you enjoyed this post, you’ll also like these:


Talk About Saving the World
Be Better People
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Buy a Better World


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