6 November 2006

The Creation of Culture

Filed under: Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 7:15 pm

Culture is the name we give to all the created realities we inscribe into the raw universe. Human culture is collective, incremental, cumulative. Each of us as an individual is a carrier, a transmitter, and a potential creator of culture. Culture permeates our kind. Culture ratchets its way forward in historical time, each new generation gaining access to the accumulated knowledge of the generations that came before. Culture is possible because we are capable of discovery, imagination, communication, interpretation, imitation, elaboration – capabilities on full display during the Genesis 1 exchange between the creator and the witness. We thrive in a world of multiple overlapping cultural realities, a second created universe built on top of the raw natural one. Science is one kind of cultural reality; so is language. Literature, economics, philosophy, technology – realities layer our world, penetrate our society, permeate our selves.

Humans as Carriers of Culture

Genetically, humans differ hardly at all from chimpanzees; culturally, the difference is incalculable. Chimpanzees can learn to use primitive tools; they can even learn tool-using skills from one another. But they cannot make modifications to their tools, nor can they accumulate these modifications over time. The computer on which I’m writing this sentence was built from an interrelated set of inventions, each of which constituted an incremental improvement on a prior invention, and so on back in history, beginning with the first human who ever scratched intelligible glyphs into a piece of stone. Psychologist Michael Tomasello describes the crucial advantage that humans hold over all other creatures:

The process of cumulative cultural evolution requires not only creative invention but also, and just as importantly, faithful social transmission that can work as a ratchet to prevent slippage backward – so that the newly invented artifact or practice preserves its new and improved form at least somewhat faithfully until a further modification or improvement comes along. Perhaps surprisingly, for many animal species it is not the creative component, but rather the stabilizing ratchet component, that is the difficult feat.

Humans operate the cultural ratchet by learning from one another. It seems that humans alone are capable of cultural learning because we individually have the ability to see one another as beings like ourselves. This ability, says Tomasello, enables individuals to imagine themselves “in the mental shoes” of some other person, so that they can learn not just from the other but through the other. Most importantly, we are able to recognize the other’s intentions with respect to the world: a toy is for playing; an axe is for chopping; an idea is for understanding. Only a human can recognize that the other shares similar intentions toward the world; only humans can transmit culture to one another.

Between the ages of nine and fifteen months, human infants begin demonstrating an ability that lets them learn in remarkably short order the cumulative successful results of generations of innovation. The crucial precondition for human learning is deceptively simple: when an adult points to something in the world, the child spontaneously looks toward whatever it is that the adult is pointing to. This might seem like child’s play, but even adult chimpanzees can’t do it. The child has to “stand in the mental shoes” of the adult, both to infer the adult’s intent and to follow the trajectory of the adult’s gaze. Soon children extend their new ability by emulating adults’ interactions with the world, not just imitatively but intentionally. When, for example, the adult wants to eat he opens the refrigerator door; I’m hungry, realizes the child; therefore… Next, crucially, children learn to interact linguistically. Language isn’t just a matter of verbal pointing; it’s a way of communicating complex interrelationships between people, objects, and intentions. Speech is a social act, linking speaker and listener in meaningful engagement of the world.

The Transmission of Culture in Genesis 1

And God said, “Let there be light;” and there was light. Elohim points to a source of light and says the word; the witness follows elohim’s gaze and repeats the word. And there was evening and there was morning, one day, says the witness, turning the ratchet one more notch. Elohim continues the exchange: “Let there be lightbearers in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years.” Later the witness would teach others, and the learners in turn would teach another generation. Every now and then someone would give the ratchet another turn until, one day, someone said, “Let there be waveicles.”

Writing was invented independently perhaps only three times in human history; complex language, perhaps only once. How many times did abstract thinking arise in world history? Who’s to say when someone first conceived the idea of the heavens and the earth, a hierarchically-organized macrolevel schema for describing absolutely everything? Humans are incredibly adept mimics, and language is the best medium for transmitting something like abstract thought or natural science. Creating ways of understanding the world that transcend local cultures and the immediate demands of raw survival: this seems like a distinctly metropolitan sort of undertaking. Perhaps a Sumerian trader was the first to expose nearby tribes to those advanced ways of ascribing meaning and establishing context on which the creation of a scientific reality depends. Perhaps the earliest Mesopotamian settlements once were visited by a traveling emissary of an even higher culture, one not of this world, who gave them a cultural head start.

It’s certainly possible to construct an incremental evolutionary pathway from lower- to higher-order cognitive schemata, from simple to complex language, from an intuitive to a scientific understanding of natural phenomena. Still, someone had to be the first one to turn the ratchet far enough, extending pre-cosmology all the way to the ends of the universe. Uncounted generations later, we moderns can conceive of a whole universe not because we thought it up on our own, but because we learned it from others. Genesis 1 recounts not only the creation of the universe idea, but also the beginning of its cultural transmission.

God said – God was a language-user, and so was the witness. Language, like science, is a cultural acquisition, ratcheted up incrementally from simpler components. And language, like science, is intersubjective: it’s a way of making sense of things to one another. When God said light, he wasn’t creating a verbal image of light; he was grabbing the witness’ attention, orienting him toward a phenomenon of mutual interest and offering an interpretation of it. For the witness to get the message, he had to take God’s perspective, to see God as someone like himself, to imagine himself in God’s “mental shoes,” to “learn through” God. Likewise, for God to discern that the witness had received the message and understood it, he had to see himself as someone like the witness. In one another’s image.

Is it ethically right for a culturally advanced being to teach at least some of what he knows to a less advanced civilization, giving them knowledge that might otherwise have taken them millennia to acquire on their own? This isn’t a new question, of course; it has fueled debates about Western incursions into underdeveloped cultures. Perhaps elohim didn’t buy into the Prime Directive, to which the Starship Enterprise and the entire Federation of Planets subscribed, prohibiting Captain Kirk and his crew from interfering in the natural cultural development of less advanced planets.

Light and darkness, declare elohim; day and night, land and sea, sun and moon and stars, swimming and creeping and flying things. Heavens and earth. What a startling series of revelations it would have been to anyone who happened to be there to witness it. In retrospect we can say that, through the natural course of cultural evolution, it was inevitable that someone would eventually think up the idea of a universe on their own. Still, there would just as surely have been a time before, when no one had ever yet thought the idea – just as there was a time before music, or trousers, or the differential calculus.



  1. This is a really good post.

    Very insightful.

    It is always interesting to contemplate the interrelation of language and culture…interesting to tie in the human capacity for culture and learning that separates us from the beast: “the stabilizing rachet component”


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 7 November 2006 @ 5:33 pm

  2. A scientist skeptic friend who read this post pointed out this article, which summarizes evidence about the only other animal besides man that grasps the purpose of pointing.


    Comment by ktismatics — 8 November 2006 @ 11:06 am

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