(R)anthropology Class: Cultural (Mal)adaptation

There are about as many different definitions of culture as there are cultural anthropologists. Much ink has been spilled by people attempting to refine the concept to make it account for all the detail and nuance of the human experience. In my classes, though, I don’t have that kind of time, so we keep things simple: culture is the ideals, values, and standards of behavior shared by a group of people. I spend most of the semester explaining and illustrating how this simple definition can encompass everything from the most extraordinarily complex group behaviors at the macro level to the smallest, most (seemingly) insignificant behaviors at the individual level. There is a reason that cultural anthropologists choose a specialty; it is impossible to be an expert in the culture of everything.

I could write pages and pages on this, but the point of this post is not to exhaustively analyze the concept of culture. Instead, I want to discuss the broad strokes of what defines a successful culture, and then talk about what happens when cultures start to break down – that is, when they become maladaptive. First, a few main points about the general defining characteristics of culture:

  • Culture is shared. This means that everybody within a particular cultural group has internalized the same ideals, values, and standards of behavior  The shared nature of culture also means, vitally, that we are able to predict what other members of our cultural group are likely to do in a given situation. It’s like driving – imagine how terrifying it would be if we had no idea what the person in the next lane was about to do as we whizzed past each other at 70+ miles per hour in our 3,000 pound glass, metal, plastic, and hot fluid-filled machines! But we drive with no fear most of the time because we can (usually) safely predict that the other drivers are going to follow the same rules that we follow. The rules of culture operate in much the same way.
  • Culture is learned. Through the process of enculturation, we are taught what the shared rules of our culture are by our parents, family members, teachers, peers – basically, by every person we encounter, whether intimately as a parent or fleetingly as a stranger. Obviously, as children, we don’t know all of the rules yet – which is why we chuckle with amusement when a toddler runs naked across a public beach, but gasp in shock when an adult does it. By the time we are young teens we have learned all the basic rules.
  • Culture is symbolic. This is best illustrated through the example of language, although almost every aspect of culture is symbolic. Language is a system of arbitrary sounds that, through learning and sharing, we all agree serve as stand-ins for particular concepts. There is nothing necessary or natural about the fact that the set of shared sounds we call English have to symbolize the things that they do; but English speakers have learned, collectively, what those sounds symbolize and can thus use them to communicate ideas about our world. Many other symbolic cultural systems – economic, religious, political, artistic – operate in the same way.
  • Culture is integrated. This means that all the parts of culture work together, like gears in a machine. No part is independent of the other parts. And if something changes in one of the parts, it can affect the rest of the machine. Sometimes these changes are small and have limited effect; sometimes they are enormous and have a tremendous effect throughout the machinery of culture. The recent recognition that gay marriage is legal is an example of a cultural change with far-reaching reverberations.
  • Culture is all-encompassing. This one is simple. It means that no aspect of human behavior is insignificant enough to not be a part of culture. Everything from the food we eat to the complexities of our economic system are a part of culture.
  • Finally, culture changes. This can happen through new inventions (how to use fire; agriculture; television; the internet) and it can happen through disagreements between members of the culture (again, gay marriage makes a good example). A lot of cultural change can be easily illustrated if you think in terms of generations. What kinds of things did you do as a teen or young adult that you thought were okay but that horrified your parents? I vividly remember my grandpa, who was born in 1920, bashing me on the head with an empty plastic soda bottle when he spied my first tattoo as I sat lounging by the pool. He was furious because to him, a woman with tattoos was a woman of loose morals. Today, tattoos are everywhere and are generally accepted. Remember, back in the Victorian era, a woman who showed her ankles (GASP!) was a woman of ill repute – a concept my grandpa would have laughed off but that his grandparents may well have taken seriously!

These are the main characteristics of culture, but they don’t define whether or not a culture can be deemed successful. Fortunately, that definition is simple: a successful culture is one that meets the needs of most of its members in a satisfying way most of the time. Successful cultures meet every member’s need for water, food, shelter, and material resources. They develop strategies for the production, distribution, and consumption of resources. They provide guidelines for appropriate social interaction. They make sure that the members of the group are protected from threats and harm, from within and without. They have a system for making sure every person has a role to fill in the group’s maintenance, and for sanctioning members when they do not adequately fill their role. They are flexible in adapting to individual needs and find ways to accommodate difference. They find ways to comfort and soothe their members in the face of difficulty, tragedy, and doubt. They provide a story for how the culture came to be and where its members will go. They provide cohesion, organization, stability, and purpose. They ensure survival.

A culture that is unable to secure these things for its members in a satisfying way most of the time is in danger. The danger of a maladapted culture can be acute; maladaptation can result in the extinction of the culture and its members. And that leads us to the problems of today. The adaptive strategies of culture have worked extraordinarily well for over 100,000 years – but they are strategies designed for small groups of people who know and depend upon one another. Cultures have certainly adapted to changes – bigger groups of people find ways to manage the larger population in a satisfactory way; hunter-gatherers who began to grow food and domesticate animals adapted to the new lifestyles of horticulture and pastoralism; even the larger populations that developed as intensive agriculture began to take hold still, mostly, managed to find ways to accommodate to change. But as history shows us, the larger and more technologically advanced human cultures have a frightening tendency to collapse as they become increasingly maladapted to the needs of the majority of the members.

So the question is: is culture today – and now by culture I mean not just specific small groups or even countries, but global culture – adapting? Consider these symptoms of a maladapted culture:

  • crime and violence
  • mental illness
  • substance abuse
  • suicide
  • alienation
  • warfare
  • revolution

Any of this sound familiar?

I am convinced that our current culture is maladapted to the modern world. I am also convinced that this maladaptation is a driving force behind so much of the trouble we see today. Individuals are alienated. They don’t feel recognized or important. They see themselves as tiny gears in a vast, impersonal machine controlled by people who don’t care about them. Unlike in the small groups of prehistory or the close-knit small towns and villages of recent centuries, we have no possible way to know and recognize every single member of our group; it’s not uncommon for people to not even know their neighbors – I don’t know mine. We don’t have to depend upon each other as individuals any more, but we do have to depend on this enormous, teetering edifice that is struggling to fulfill the needs of nearly 7,500,000,000 – that’s 7.5 billion – people, and growing, with adaptations designed for populations that number in the hundreds. Is it any wonder that we have ISIS? Is it any wonder that we have global terrorism? Is it any wonder that we have refugees swarming all over the globe in the terrified hope that somewhere, they will find welcome and respite from hunger, hardship, and violence? It is any wonder that disaffected young men have formed online groups where they fantasize about exacting revenge on the women who ignore them? Is it any wonder that some people turn to guns and spray bullets at innocent people in public places? Is it any wonder that there are protests in our cities over systemic inequality, violence, oppression, and racism? Is it any wonder that there is a whole subculture of people who are preparing themselves for Armageddon? Is it any wonder that people turn to magical thinking and conspiracy theories? Is it any wonder that so many people are living in fear? I still believe most people are good. I still believe we can turn back from maladaptation and find a way. But it’s still not a wonder to me.

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