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The Rarity of Cultural Change

Saturday, July 04, 2009 at 09:50 AM EDT

This evening, I ran across a post by George, over at Decrepit Old Fool, called “Is Change Even Possible?“ It’s a good post that raises a vital question and I recommend it.

In his post, George first discusses how it has been impossible to get the metric system adopted in this country despite the costs of keeping our own unique system of measurements. He then goes on to ask:

It’s that reluctance that makes me wonder if we really can limit population growth, cut back on carbon dioxide, stop giving antibiotics to livestock, and move away from a consumption-based culture. Hell, we can’t even pick up a metric ruler and really learn it, when millions of dollars or even human lives are at stake. Is change impossible? [emphasis in the original]

I offered an answer to George over on his blog, but I would like to expand on my answer here.

It seems to me that we humans are naturally a very conservative species. Nowadays, we often overlook that fact because our own age is one of unprecedented change. But apart from our own age, there is nothing in human history to suggest that we adapt to change often or well.

Consider that the rapid changes we see all around us today actually seem for the most part to be products of one culture — Western culture. Most of the world’s cultures are still relatively conservative when compared to the West. Moreover, Western culture wasn’t always such a cauldron of change. On the contrary, most of Western history shows that the West once changed just as slowly as the rest of the world. It has only been in the past 500 years — or less — that Western culture has become prone to change.

If you think of humans like an anthropologist, you might get an even stronger impression of how changeless human societies normally are. For instance, there have been human tool kits that did not change in thousands of years. Again, paleolithic art remained essentially the same in theme, style and technique for over 25,000 years. Most cultures in history have gone hundreds of years without significant changes — think, for example, of the ancient Egyptians. And even today, even during a period of unprecedented change, you can go to many places in the world and see things being done the same way they have been done for thousands of years.

Looked at broadly, humans are a deeply conservative species. Moreover, it is this conservatism that has made our cultures possible. Culture can be defined as the transmission of behaviors from one generation to the next by non-genetic means. So, by it’s very definition, culture is about the conservation of behaviors.

Now, the preservation and transmission of culture has been extraordinarily important to the survival of humans since before we became a species. Culture—and not our teeth, not our claws, nor our strength—is among the primary means whereby we adapt to the world.

When you consider how hard it is for most people to think outside of the cultural box they were raised in, you get a sense of how resistant cultures are to change. What George said in his article about the difficulty in getting Americans to adopt the metric system helps to illustrate that point. People not only prefer the system of measurements they were raised with, they in many cases come to irrationally feel that the system of measurements they were raised with are somehow more true, more natural, and more appropriate than any other system of measurements. The importance of those sentiments should not be discounted.

One of the most common responses people have to change — even minor changes that do not really affect them — is to declare the changes offend their gods. You see that, for instance, in the response of millions of Americans to the proposal to allow gays to marry. You see it also in the countless religious-based reactionary movements that have sprung up in various countries to oppose the changes brought by Western culture. People are ever willing to declare their cultural traditions are established by their deities. There is something in our species that wants and desires things to be fixed, unchanging, and predictable. And we will even go to the extent of declaring our customs are part of the natural order of things to help insure that our customs are not changed.

The changes in human cultures that have come about in the past 500 or so years are exceedingly remarkable, but they are not the human norm. Change is for the most part resisted by humans. Any attempt to change us is an uphill battle.