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20160618 – A Foot in the Riverine



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The main idea here is to look at the change as cultural and historical process and what direction it leads to. The causes of change are closely linked to human nature and come naturally to humanity, therefore explanation should be found in cultural development. There is strong push here against attempts to explain cultural change and development via evolutionary processes, which however only weakly supported by alternative explanation: cultural and social learning. Author also believes that change will slow down, but does not provide strong support of this believe.


Introduction: The weird planet

This book is a look at culture as set of patterns of mental behavior acquired by learners from teachers and modeled on examples, which is part of nature not necessarily limited to humans, but rather typical for nearly all creatures. The book is specifically looking at change and how it happens. The book is informally divided into 3 parts Chapters 1-3 are about history of Western philosophical analysis of change chapter 4: review of game changing methodological research; chapters 5-6 are presentation of author’s theory of change; chapter 7 is an explanation why such theory is critical for understanding of current situation; finally chapter 8 is a speculation on how change itself could change producing wide variety of possible futures.

  1. Challenging Change

Author dates the first attempts to understand change to Stone Age paintings found in caves. He seems to believe that this art was designed to stop time and stay unchangeable forever. After that he looks at Greek and Roman ancient world with initial philosophical approach to this issues from Zeno’s paradoxes to Augustine at the times of falling Rome. The review goes all the way to our times when change become a subject of historical science, the process driven by two main factors: raise of nation-state and formation of history departments in universities and their population by lawyers, theologians, and classicist.

  1. The Frustration of Science

This is an interesting take on nature vs. culture in contexts of “doing what comes naturally”. Author tries to identify what in the world of emotions, gestures, traditions, and such comes naturally and therefore is consistent across different populations, and countries. It is not an easy task, especially if one takes into account ability of culture to have impact on bodies: a good example is variance in digestibility of lactose. Somehow author managed include here wide variety of phenomenon from slavery to skin color, to Darwinism, and to Marxism. The final point here is that ideas of evolution provide a very good tool for understanding just about everything, but should be used carefully always keeping in mind such deviations as eugenics and Nazism.

  1. The Great Reconvergence

This is description of late XX century ideological development when mountains of evidence forced significant numbers of intellectuals to overcome primitive eversion to biological explanations of sociological phenomenon and begin the process of reconvergence of history and biology, including development of understanding of interconnectedness of the world via environmental studies. The final and most important note here is that neither memetics nor sociobiology succeeded in explaining the culture.

  1. The Chimpanzees’ Tea Party

This chapter is about the most resent research that convincingly demonstrated existence of non-human cultures as among chimps, which for all purposes do not really differentiate from cultures of human societies. Moreover not only cultures, but non-human individuals also possess what is considered purely human characteristics: individuality, inventiveness, and capacity to discover new technics.

  1. The Limits of Evolution

This is an interesting and kind of non-conformist approach to history as the area where evolutionary thinking is not applicable. Author claims that we witness development knowledge that stresses non-selective forces in history and even genetics. Author specifically applies this to cultural development strongly rejecting ideas of memetics. Overall in the battle between evolutionary and non-evolutionary explanations of culture author seems to be in non-evolutionary camp, even if he claims to see opportunity for reconciliation between two views. A very interesting part of this is that author somehow believes that uniqueness of a group or culture and random character of path to the present somehow denies evolutionary approach. In support of his view author points to what he calls 4 fallacies:

  1. Humans are animals as others
  2. Cultures and populations are interchangeable units of study
  3. Omission of cultural and social learning from development
  4. Final fallacy: that evolution is only true if it explains everything.

I guess author does not deny evolution; he just against mixing evolution with change that in his opinion is a very different process. The most important point here is that cultural development in author’s opinion does not comply with evolutionary model. Author brings about a number of examples from war to farming that he believes lead to destruction of society either through mutual annihilation or environmental catastrophe, somehow believing that it denies survival of the fittest thesis.

  1. The Imaginative Animal

This chapter is about the dynamism of culture. It starts with discussion of constructive collective memory that usually has little to do with realities of the past, pretty much similarly to how it happens with individual memory. The chapter includes review of research of human and non-human memory coming to conclusion that non-human memory often factually more effective than human. After that author turns vector of imagination from past (memory) to the future when it generate ideas, hopes, and eventually planning with consequent actions directed to achieving desirable future state. As illustration author reviews history of trade, navigation, and exploration that over relatively short few centuries brought humanity together into one communication rich and interconnected entity.

  1. Facing Acceleration

Here author is looking at current acceleration of change and reasons for it. He looks at dramatic changes in language and cultural attitudes that he observed in one specific population – Englishmen over his own live: from queen English and stiff upper lip to mess of a language and highly sensitive weeping men. Among causes he lists environmental change, multiplication of population, climate change, deregulation, capitalist greed, and multiple other horrors. As attempt to explain this acceleration author brings ideas of Rene Girard who attributed massive change in culture to human tendency to mimic other humans so looking at somebody doing something individual tends do the same, consequently creating consumerism, economic bubbles, political movements, cultural fashions and such.

  1. Towards the Planet of the Apes

The final chapter presents the idea that not only change happens all the time, but also even nature of change itself could change removing such features as scientific certainty (substituted by sequence of paradigms), factual analysis being pushed out by postmodernist sensibility responses, dramatically changing meaning of history, orderly and susceptible to calculation and planning predictable world substituted by chaos theory when nobody can predict which butterfly’s wing flop could cause hurricane. Despite this entire narrative author believes that there is a chance to break barrier between science and other cultural phenomenon on the basis of equality, so evolutionism and culturalism could coexist. At the end author speculates about future concluding that “planet of apes” outcome is within realm of possibilities, but he believes more in slowing of the change and arriving to some relatively constant condition.


I think that change always happened, but at very glacial pace because human groups were isolated and too busy surviving in straggle against environment and each other. Only during last few thousand years when agriculture provided enough resources to allocate significant number of men-hours to ideological, technological, and cultural development we could observe process of conversion of multitude of small human societies into one entity via processes of wars, trade, and cultural interaction selecting the most viable patterns of behavior. Contrary to author I think that evolutionary methods are fully applicable to cultural development and should be effective tool for understanding why some features thrive, while others parish. I would agree however that eventually speed of cultural change will slow down, but only because expansion of individual freedom would make culture so diverse and tolerant that it would cover just about any conceivable variation of individual behavior providing that it is strongly supported by absolute intolerance of intolerance and completely suppress violent attempts to influence other people’s behavior.


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