What It Means that Culture Builds Upon Itself

This piece ran as a newspaper op/ed in early October, 2023.


There’s an idea that is essential to understanding how we come to be what we are today, as well as the challenge that we have to meet if humankind is to have a future: the idea that culture operates cumulatively.

That is: the cultural system — all that we humans create — builds upon itself.

That cumulativeness of culture has applied even at the level of how our bodies got fashioned to be what humans are today.

  • When our very distant ancestors first started using tools, that made certain structures – e.g. in the hands –advantageous, and therefore selected to become characteristic of the generations that followed.
  • Likewise, with language. Although “language” doesn’t get fossilized, the fossil record shows that our distant ancestors gradually developed a variety of anatomical structures that make human speech possible. The more important language became for the functioning of our ancestral societies, the more the selective process would favor those ancestors whose genetic design facilitated the use of language.
  • And of course, above all, there’s the exceptional human brain. The more all the dimensions of culture became central to how our species survived, the more the selective process over countless generations would favor the emergence of the larger brains better at the creation, learning, and application of cultural innovations.

The investment in culture leads to more investment in culture.

Then there’s what’s happened since culture took off — in the past 10,000 years or so—into Civilization, which vastly increased the range of possible cultural innovations.

For the most part, the anthropologists say, the baby born to us today is pretty much the same as those who were born to born into societies of hunter-gatherers millennia ago. But the cumulative breakthroughs wrought by culture have made their worlds vastly different.

Perhaps the child growing up among those hunter-gatherers learned as much as children growing up in our society. (Knowing all about what plants are edible, how to read the tracks of animals, and how to function as a member of their cultures may have matched what today’s children need to know about reading road signs, operating a smart phone, and functioning in school.)

But at the larger level – the sum of knowledge in the culture as a whole — there is no comparison.

  • The culture of hunter-gatherers would have perhaps dozens of tools, but the total number of “tools” in a society like ours might be in the millions.
  • Same with language. Some linguists caution us not to imagine that “primitive” languages are any less complex than ours. But it is not credible that any language in pre-civilized cultures had anything nearly as vast a number of words – more than a quarter million – contained in the Oxford English dictionary.

(The historical record shows how hundreds of generations have accumulated ideas – e.g., for us in the West, from ancient Greece, Rome, Israel, the Renaissance, and more modern Europe – to come up with the myriad concepts that we use to name dimensions of our reality. Concepts like “legitimate,” “forgiveness,” “gravity,” “paradox.”)

Isaac Newton famously said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” He was referring to astronomers whose work he’d built upon.

But our whole culture has been raised higher not only by giants, but by whole multitudes whose contributions provide a foundation for still further cultural contributions. The wheel, once invented, famously doesn’t need to be reinvented. But it makes possible the invention of automobiles, trains, even clocks, etc.

It is inevitable that this cumulative nature of culture will mean that any creature’s civilization will tend, over time, to become increasingly powerful as it transmits into the future an ever-expanding accumulation of successful cultural innovations.

That power can be a source of progress— like the way the understanding of electricity achieved by some brilliant people in the 18th and 19th centuries led to the ability of us, in the 21st century, to harness the energy of flowing water to accomplish all manner of tasks for us in our lives.

But that ever-increasing power also poses profound dangers. One implication of steadily increasing power in civilization is that it is inevitable that eventually – any creature’s civilization will wield power enough that its self-destruction becomes a possibility.

It is only within living memory that humankind has confronted that possibility, i.e. that we humans might end our story with some self-inflicted catastrophe.

  • Only since World War II has the millennia-long stream of innovations in weaponry confronted humankind with the possibility of war so destructive that it could end human civilization in nuclear holocaust.
  • Only still more recently has it become understood – e.g. with the current climate crisis – that humankind’s power over nature has made us such a bull in the biospheric china shop that we might bring ourselves down through ecological destruction.

The cumulative nature of culture, with the consequent overall trend toward greater power, makes it inevitable that any creature that steps onto the path of civilization will eventually confront this Central Challenge: Will that creature be able to order its civilization well enough – and soon enough – to prevent its civilization from destroying itself?

Our present civilizational dangers tell us that we are challenged to create

  • an international order where there cannot be a civilization-ending war;
  • an ecological order where the human productive system is in harmony with the needs of the rest of the systems of Life-on-Earth.


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