The purpose of human cultures

Photo by Yogendra Singh on Unsplash

To appreciate what makes human cultures unique, and to understand the primary purpose of symbolic (spoken) human language, an obvious starting point is a comparison of basic parameters with the cultures of other primates, our closest living relatives:

Chimpanzees live in large groups of 30 to up to 150 individuals called “communities”. Within these groups are fluid, often changing sub-groups of friends and family.

The social structure is sometimes referred to as a “fission-fusion” society.

These groups may socialize at a watering hole and then break up into any number of smaller units to forage, reconvene in the afternoon, break up when its time to bed down, etc

The group usually has one or two dominant males, who gain their leadership through sometimes very violent displays and fights between rivals. Males will “display” by screaming and running through the forest grabbing sticks to strike the ground or the trees with, throwing rocks, and rattling bushes.

Extract from: https://www.animalfactsencyclopedia.com/Chimp-facts.html

Bonobos are highly intelligent, extremely social great apes. They live in very cooperative and peaceful groups, known as troops, with as many as 70 members, but 15 to 30 is most common. Their fluid social structure is known as fission-fusion, which means they may come together in various sized groups, or separate for different activities, different times of year, and depending on who is available to “hang out” with. Just as we do.

Extract from: https://www.animalfactsencyclopedia.com/Bonobo-facts.html

The troops are typically composed of 2 to 30 members; from which 1 to 4 are male adults, and the rest are blackbacks, adult females, and their offspring. Groups of western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) appear to be smaller: up to 5 individuals. Their composition varies over time due to events like the death of the young and the migration of individuals when they reach sexual maturity. In average, groups have between 2 and 12 members and move around an area of 4 to 25 square kilometers.

Extract from: https://www.gorillas-world.com/

Human culture

In contrast to the myths about human nature that power civilisations, human babies are naturally inclined to help strangers, without any need for coercion or external incentives.

Michael Tomasello has spent many years working with children and with chimpanzees to understand the evolution of collaborative behaviour, and to explore how human behaviour differs from the behaviour of other primates. A range of simple experiments show that in contrast to chimpanzees, human babies and young human children are highly collaborative, which may come as a surprise to many economists.

The innate collaborative human tendency is also supported by anthropological research. Samuel Bowles is an economist who has spent his career researching the origins of economic inequality over the last 100,000 years, and he comes to very interesting conclusions. For several hundred thousand years humans lived in small groups without written language, money, and cities. The archaeological evidence available and also the evidence from “uncivilised” indigenous cultures that have survived until recently in a few remote places point towards an interesting commonality in the social norms of such societies:

The strongest social norms in pre-civilised societies were norms that prevented individuals from gaining power over others.

The evolution of human language went hand in hand with the evolution of cultures that deviated from the cultures found in other primate societies in terms of a much greater emphasis on fairness and collaboration. We have to conclude that the primary purpose and function of human language was associated with:

  1. Coordinating activities within a group
  2. Transmitting valuable knowledge and new discoveries with others and future generations
  3. Developing and agreeing fairness norms that are adapted to the specific local context at hand
  4. Minimising the time and energy spent in conflicts, and freeing up time refining the above activities

The evolution of symbolic spoken language and cultural transmission based on language can be understood as an energy and resource saving tool. Humans out-collaborated rather than out-competed other primates. The primary purpose of human culture is related to collaboration within groups and between groups.

Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.

– David Sloan Wilson and Edward O Wilson (2007)

Human neurodiversity

To understand human creativity and collective intelligence beyond the most basic forms of collaboration, we must look beyond the experiments conducted by Michael Tomasello and his colleagues. To appreciate the full range of human collaborative ability we need to consider the influence of individual neurological variability on sensory processing and social motivations.

To date the vast majority of anthropological research ignores the role of neurological diversity in shaping human societies. Social scientists routinely assume neurotypical social motivations when observing and interpreting human behaviours. Taking into account that neurodivergent and especially autistic people may not at all be interested in prestige in the sense of social status, but are rather motivated by a strong sense of curiosity and individual agency, allows for a more nuanced understanding of the evolution of human cultures.

Even in pre-historic times, the curiosity and unusual sensory abilities of autistic and otherwise neurodivergent individuals will have resulted in deep domain specific knowledge and related specialised skills. Some of the acquired knowledge and skills would have been valuable to society and would have attracted the attention of others.

Neurodivergent individuals will likely have been recognised as trustworthy carriers of valuable knowledge and competencies, the easily transferable parts of which will then have been preserved and propagated to others and future generations via cultural transmission. In the absence of written language the knowledge transmission process involved all senses and intensive interaction between recognised masters of a craft and motivated novices.

Given the neurotypical human tendency for over-imitation, any fairness norms invented by trustworthy autistic carriers of valuable knowledge will easily have been absorbed into the cultural repertoire of the group.

The combination of neurodiversity and the human capacities for collaboration and cultural transmission enabled humans to thrive for many hundred thousand years in a diverse range of circumstances. Pre-civilised societies clearly appreciated the talents of autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people, and they would undoubtedly have been aware of the value of having a diversity of talents and unique cognitive abilities (and limitations) within a group.

Cultural diversity at human scale

The limits of human scale groups, the capacity for cultural evolution, and the resultant cultural diversity are best appreciated as the most valuable and unique species level survival advantage of humans over all other primate species. Human societies that operate at human scales are highly resilient and adaptive. Bands of hunter gatherers could rely on the human capacity for flexible cooperation and collective intelligence that is unlocked by egalitarian social norms within small groups.

Beyond group size, human scale is characterised by limits of the collective environmental footprint, and by limits of the amounts of material possessions imposed by the demands of a nomadic way of life. It took several hundred thousand years for humans to encounter circumstances that catalysed the formation of larger groups. The limits of human scale could only be surpassed by a combination of inventions:

  1. Agriculture to increase the food calorie yield per unit of land
  2. Social arrangements for maintaining and defending permanent settlements
  3. Reliable record keeping systems of debt (who owes what to whom)

On the one hand these inventions in combination with a super-human-scale group size provided a group with a local advantage over other groups. On the other hand permanent settlements and reliance on agriculture also made the group more vulnerable to the impact of infectious diseases, droughts, floods, and other natural disasters. This may explain why mobile and egalitarian hunter gatherer societies dominated for such a long time, and why some hunter gatherer societies have survived until very recently.

As humanity is approaching existential risks in the 21st century, we are well advised to carefully study the advantages that are available at human scale and to critically examine all the inevitable drawbacks that kick in when societies exceed the limits of human scale.

Some of the drawbacks such as the brittleness and vulnerabilities of technological monocultures are becoming more apparent in a world that is globally connected via digital networks.

Homo ecologus

The exciting aspect about the human capacity for culture is that via a series of accidental discoveries and inventions, we have created a global network for sharing valuable knowledge, as well as opinions and misinformation. It apparently takes a virus like SARS-CoV-2 to put this network to good use, and to shift cultural norms away from profit maximisation and back towards sharing knowledge for collective benefit. It is fascinating to notice that SARS-CoV-2 has very rapidly induced cultural changes that affect the foundations of civilisation:

  1. Cities – explicitly designed to facilitate rapid sequences of human interactions in anonymous contexts, have been forced to adopt and enforce rules for physical distancing and limiting social interaction.
  2. Money – when used as a tool to protect social power gradients and profits, now has become a negative indicator that signals a lack of trustworthiness.
  3. Written language – when used as a tool for propaganda and distortion, now contributes to the spread of the virus, and yet can play a critical role when used for sharing valuable knowledge.

It is clear that the future of human societies now critically depends on cultural evolution of these foundations.

It is about much more than overcoming neoliberalism or changing out a few technologies (even if both steps are necessary). It is about a transformation that reaches right down to the foundations of our civilization. The question is not whether such a transformation will take place – it will whether we want it to or not – but how it will occur and in which direction it will develop.

– Extract from: Fabian Scheidler. 2020. The end of the megamachine. Zero Books.

Concepts such as cities and written language as well as quantitative metrics may survive, but their scope of applicability and the operational rules and rituals associated with them may be transformed to such an extent that we will invent new words to clearly distinguish between the old semantics of the information economy [hoarding] and the new semantics of the emerging knowledge age [sharing].

In a world increasingly not only connected by trade in goods, but also by exchange of violence, information, viruses, emissions, the importance of social preferences in underwriting human cooperation, even survival, may now be greater even than it was amongst that small group of foragers that began the exodus from Africa 55,000 years ago to spread this particular cooperative species to the far corners of the world.

– Extract from: Bowles and Gintis. 2013. A Cooperative Species : Human Reciprocity and its Evolution. Princeton University Press.

Planetary intelligence is achieved by creating a feedback loop of mutual learning between the rapid learning cycles (mutations) of viruses and learning cycles at human scale, which are now amplified via a global digital network at super-human scale. Humans are learning the hard way that messing with that network for misinformation and attempts of hierarchical control works against humans and the entire planetary ecosystem.

Where to from here? We live in a highly dynamic world, and our capability to understand the world we have stumbled into is quite limited. However, once we acknowledge our limitations, it is possible to learn from our mistakes, and also from the ways of life and the survival skills we cultivated in our pre-civilised past, which served us well for several hundred thousand years.

Our destination is beyond human comprehension, but ways of life that are in tune with our biological needs and cognitive limits are always within reach, even when we find ourselves in a self-created life destroying environment. All it takes is a shift in perspective, and corresponding shifts in the aspects of our lives that we value.

The picture is not entirely bleak. The work of Michel Bauwens on the role of the commons in the emerging knowledge age is encouraging, and architect Julia Watson points to concrete examples that illustrate how we can respond to climate change by utilising millennia-old knowledge about how to live in symbiosis with nature through “lo-tek radical design”.

The way I see it, autistic people have their place in the emerging world, and in many cases that place will not be in large government organisations or in corporations, but in non-hierarchical organisations and networks of mutual aid formed by autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people, which can offer a level of psychological safety that can’t otherwise be achieved within W.E.I.R.D. societies.

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

― Buckminster Fuller (1975)

From a position of safety within a network of mutual aid, autistic people are ideally equipped to act as catalysts for the evolution of social norms for collaboration between groups, to allow human scale communities to manage scarce resources sustainably at bioregional levels, and to share trustworthy knowledge globally, via the global communications networks we have established.

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4 Responses

  1. I really like how you start off by establishing a baseline of normalcy for the human species in the first part of this piece. Many of us today are rightfully scared by the word “normal” because of how the mean, narrow, modern-western conception of normality has been used as a weapon against all of us who diverge from it. But when defined rightly—by referring back to indigenous cultures, like you do here—the concept of normality hurts no one and instead supports and uplifts everyone. I love knowing what’s truly normal for humans; and it’s really hard to head in the right direction without knowing this. It’s like the difference between being lost in the woods and either having a compass or GPS or not having them. The best antidote for a bad definition of normal is a good definition (and not the rejection of the entire idea of normality, which some people advocate for).

    1. Thanks for the link to this interesting analysis! “Think about it: anti-ribald policy is simply a natural progression of the protection of minority groups from hate, a logical unifier of measures against hate speech and social oppression of minorities. e.g. The idea of Stand Out, now being promoted by the Safe Schools Coalition in Australia in defence of gay and transgender students, is logically a type of anti-ribald policy. It holds that all derisive language has socially excluding effects and must be challenged, ‘called out’, it goes against anyone who argues for accepting it as mild.”

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