Lecture 5 - Chapter 5: Conceptual Framework

In the first lecture of this course, we described culture as human behavior that is patterned, learned, and shared among members of a society. Chapter 5 explores the significance and utility of this concept. In particular, "How and why do cultures change?" What drives this process? Is there any order or pattern to it?

Remember back to the first lecture...the capacity for culture is the most unique defining characteristic of humans as a species...many other species do have the capacity to learn, but anatomically, they have not developed to the extent that they are completely maladapted without it. Humans without any kind or cultural knowledge would be a very non-competitive species compared to more specialized predators.

Ok...so culture is important to humans. Duh! Anthropology comes in because, since learning is an additive process, different people are at different levels. Certainly, as we mature, we learn more and more from those individuals around us. Thus, compare us with those we learn from and you will find more similarities than differences. However, if you compare groups of people rather than the individuals within a group, cultural differences become much more apparent. Anthropologists try to explain how these differences develop and why they exist. When many different and diverse cultures were compared, it was found that they could be grouped into a progression based on complexity. This progression formed the basis for the concept of cultural evolution.

Evolution is the simply the process of stepwise change. Something evolves by building off of what preceded it. This does not mean that evolution inherently leads to improvement or even complexity, but only that it is a process of additive change...in affect, it remembers what preceded it.

Since the 1950's cultural evolution refers to the non-directed change in complexity of cultures through time, where complexity can be measured by several categories, but we will only consider energy use. Cultures that are more complex use more energy than those that are less complex. A stable culture is one that is best adapted to the balance of energy needs vs. energy availability. If a culture becomes so complex that it needs more energy than it can obtain, it will simplify itself to a level that uses less energy.

The bottom line controlling social complexity seems to be population pressure vs. natural resources. This is explicitly stated by four laws applicable from biological evolutionary theory:

Law of Biotic Potential: Most organisms, including humans, have the potential to produce more offspring than their environment can support.

Leibig's Law: Population is limited by the essential resource in shortest supply. "A supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link"

Law of Least Effort: Organisms will accomplish necessary tasks with a minimal expenditure of time and effort. "Humans are lazy...we'll do as little as we can to get by"

Romer's Rule: Innovations are initially conservative...they function to maintain traditional ways of life. "You can't teach an old dog new tricks"

Adaptation: The primary reason that humans are found in almost every terrestrial environment on Earth is because they can adapt their behavior to ensure survival. This is arguably the primary functional importance of culture. Unlike biological adaptations which usually take multiple generations to develop, cultural changes can happen very rapidly within the lifetime of a single individual. In fact, you could argue that our society is now in a perpetual state of adaptation. However, cultures can be stable, and often were for centuries at a time. When this stability is of a long enough duration, it becomes distinctive in the archaeological record.

Evolution: is the approach of assuming that cultures progress from simple to complex (though regression does also occur) in an orderly and identifiable manner. However, this can be abused (as it was in the 19th century) by assuming that complex is inherently better than simple (such words as "primitive" are avoided for this reason). A study was done that shows that simple societies (especially in lush environments) spend less time in subsistence activities than we do today. But, while we have a lot less free time, we have more that we can do.

Ecology: The interaction of different species is ecology. Part of adapting to one's environment involves developing relationships with other organisms found within it. Prior to widespread urbanization, these organisms were usually other species. Using ecological methods, a culture can be thought of as yet another species exploiting an available niche in an environment. Through modifying their cultural behavior, its people can exploit their environment with increasing efficiency. Thus, humans through modifying their behavior are able to accomplish in a short period of time what takes other species many generations. (i.e. Eskimo - wearing fur vs. growing fur) The practice of Cultural Ecology follows that by understanding the environment, we can also predict many of the attributes a cultural will have. Similarly, many cultural attributes can be explained by environmental factors. However, because many traits develop regardless of environment, there are limits to what can be explained through ecological analysis.

System Theory: Analysis of ecology and adaptation can show us that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. This concept is relevant for understanding cultures, and especially for looking at a culture from its material remains, as an archaeologist does. By looking at a culture as a system, we can observe and examine the interrelations and interactions of its component parts as well as its interactions with other units within its environment. Ideally, each of these discrete parts should be identifiable in the archaeological record. Thus, such concepts as tool kits, context, and use of certain areas can be associated with segments in a cultural system and used to understand or reconstruct the functioning of that culture.

Systems can be either stable or unstable. Stable systems are said to be in homeostasis or equilibrium; as opposed to unstable or changing systems that called morphogenic. Behavior of cultures for archeological periods are assumed to be relatively constant. However, as far as behavior is concerned, perception of stability is largely a matter of the scale being examined. For example, the behavior of individuals is highly variable for very short time periods (hours). Similarly, cultures change on a scale of hundreds to thousands of years. Thus, the stability of a system is largely determined by the limits imposed on that system.

One other important concept with regards to systems is that of feedback. This is the effect of "systemic circularity" where the products from several components get recycled (ex. Aztec warfare/religion). There are two kinds of feedback cycles:

positive: usually produces systemic imbalance or lack of equilibrium...excess in the system builds up until system adjusts to accommodate it.

negative: usually produces equilibrium...any excess in the system is lost.

Also important to systems is the concept of "currency": what is being transferred between the systemic components? concrete, quantifiable things like energy (calories) or money, or vague subjective things like ideas?