Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: & / Teaching / Society / Survival / Culture /
@ K. 2008 06 02

Culture as Mulch for Hypocrisy was my original module on the subject of culture. Today I restart the subject with an emphasis hinging on survival.

Culture is a two-edged sword. It can help us survive; it can hinder our survival.

The “help” part needs no crutch, we’re already keenly aware of it. Biology allows some “learning” to be hardwired through the genes. There it’s the species which learns; not the individual organism. For an individual to learn, some intelligence is required, even if it’s merely the intelligence of a song bird improving the song its species inherits. The infant oyster knows everything it will ever know; the infant elephant will learn a great deal as it grows: much of it “deliberately” taught by the elephant culture of the growing elephant’s group. Thus, for humans, in the movie Quest for Fire, we see illustrated a proto-human species that knows the importance of fire — for warmth, for cooking, for warding off predators … — and learns to tend fire, to carry it along when changing camps. That group however does not know how to kindle fire, and suffers, near fatally, near fatally for the entire group, when they lose their fire after a raid (by a different group of different-proto-humans. Three of this small remnant’s best men go in quest of fresh fire. Finding a natural fire, started by lightning, will do: finding another group with a fire burning, and begging it, or stealing it, will also do. But not only do they find fire to steal, they also find a still-other-proto-human group that has learned how to kindle fire!

Most of what we know we do not figure out, we do not invent; we inherit. Such learning is a major ingredient of culture.

But, first in the race may also be first to fall off the cliff, first to run into wolves, first to run out of steam …

Culture Downside

Everything has a downside, including culture. Here’s a subtle downside to culture: if the school teaches you Pythagoras’ theorem, then you are even more unlikely to invent it yourself than you would be in a world in which no communication from Pythagoras every reached your school. The three men questing fire in the movie “could” have themselves invented the kindling of fire, but not likely. They didn’t have the brain pans of the people they meet who willingly teach the technique to them. They were busy trying to find fire, too busy to think of inventing its kindling. …

Here’s a less subtle downside: if your culture teaches you that cracking your egg on the small end of the egg is decent and godly while cracking your egg on the big end is an abomination, then it will be hard for you to make as many omelettes as the chef who doesn’t care where the egg gets cracked. (Thank you, Swift.)

Existing learning limits new learning.

  • If your culture teaches you that all life is precious, then it will be very hard for you to have a garden, let alone to weed it.
  • If your culture teaches you that there is a god, and that his name is Jehovah, then it will be very hard for anyone else to teach you that his name is Allah, or Fred, or Gertrude …
  • If your culture teaches you that the only good Indian is a dead Indian, then it will be very hard for you to find any good and any living Indian.
  • If your culture teaches you not to wave your dick in front of the girls, even if one of the girls looks like Scarlett Johansson, but that it’s alright to have the loudest airboat on the lake, and, that It Means The Same Thing!, then it will be very hard to get guys with loud air boats to muffle the damn things.
  • I say above, Existing learning limits new learning.: please note: the limit is more cultural than mental. Sherlock Holmes was quite wrong in saying that the memory was like an attic with finite storage space. No. The more you know, the more you can know. The more you exercise an organ the more it can be exercised: not to infinity, not without danger of strain, or injury; but still: though there may be limits, the ceiling is not low. Neither is it impossible to learn anything new in a culture; but there are difficulties: automatically, built in.

    The university certainly does live up to its claim and does foster some learning. Meantime, consciously or unconsciously (consciously and unconsciously) the university is blocking new learning, punishing new ideas … Just as did the Church before it.

    Church, university … These are parts of culture. These are core to civilized human culture. And they are Janus-faced.

    But don’t think I am suggesting that people in the Kalahari Desert are exempt from learning liabilities attending on learning accomplishments. No one is exempt.

    Culture Against Man

    I’ve had a book in my library since the 1960s, Jules Henry, Culture Against Man. I loved the title but never read the whole of the book. Recent dips though have been very rewarding. I’ll say more as I read more. One thing I’ll say right now: it gives an excellent perspective on the work of my father-in-law, Professor Emile Benoit, chairman of US disarmament. Boy is that ever an example of kleptocrats lying at the core of their diction: disarmament doesn’t mean fewer arms; it means taper the acceleration of arms: so there are always more and more arms, just slightly fewer more than you might have manufactured: the fat man tightens his belt from 60″ to 59 1/2″.

    Culture Scrapbook

    On Culture:
    Cultural Predetermination

    2002 06 07 Mission: To argue that culture in large part predetermines our Reality and that our Reality is never “clear-sighted.”

    The shoe that just fell from my foot to the carpet is a “thing.” It has material existence. To some extent my impression of it is “objective.” I could weight it, measure it. I could photograph it. If I attribute a “function” to it, my attribution is not entirely fanciful: it protects my feet from the cruel earth: from stones, from dirt, especially from dirty dirt: bacteria-infested, fungus-infested … I need no teacher or lawyer or philosopher or priest to tell me about my shoe. “Reality” is something I apparently need all of Madison Avenue and all of the Leviathan school system to instruct me on. But what they’ll never tell me is that this Reality is a mental construct spawn of a con job.

    The con job is always part of it: we’d have been conned if we’d lived as Cro-Magnon hunter / gatherers. The con is built-in to our semiotics. But kleptocratic man cons himself ever more thoroughly in ever more devious and demanding ways.

    And that’s not how I meant to start at all. Maybe I’ll be able to fix is next time. This was merely intended as a mnemonic for me.

    Sometimes the obvious is the hardest to see. The speaker of English experiences “love” differently than the speaker of French or the speaker of Eskimo. As Wittgenstein said, we know what “two plus two” means in English or German but have no idea what it means in Chinese (unless we also know Chinese). The Roman Catholic inquisitor views torture differently than the boy with the fly or Lieutenant Calley. The tailor experiences clothing differently than the stone mason.

    Let me try to say this the way I tried to say it in my fiction going on several decades now: the person who sees the “sun rise” lives in a different “world” than the person who sees the earth turn. Some sort of cosmology is built into the language. Grammar itself reveals certain epistemological assumptions. Assumptions are necessary. We can’t function without them. No scientist can wait till everything is known perfectly before deciding on her first axiom. The danger is in believing that our axioms are somehow “facts.” Or that those who established our axioms once upon a time did so all at once, rationally, or with a clear head.

    2004 09 02 As I argue among my Thinking Tools, synecdoche, the figure by which we say “sail” when we mean “ship” or “ass” when we mean “woman,” is a key shortcut in biology and evolution too: the caterpillar follows “light” when what it actually needs is “food.” Some synecdoches work, others are fallacious. But culture enforces many of the fallacies. How “God” and “good” overlap (or fail to) was not discussable by a medieval Christian; one had to see them as an identity or find oneself in big trouble. The Renaissance was a breath of fresh air when finally we were able to talk freely about other gods once again: Eros, Venus …, while still pretending to be Christians.

    Think about it:

    God IS Love
    Eros IS Love

    Eros IS God ???

    How many times does meaning shift in that series?

    How many times does meaning shift when culture teaches us that culture is good; that civilization is good … That government is good? the state?

    School is good?

    Things that are killing us can’t be rationally considered.

    2015 01 19 David Attenborough climaxes his Life of Mammals with some great illustrations of culture among primates other than humans. Chimps groom each other, the gender of the groomers and the groomees counts in the grooming. I suspect that one needn’t be too deep into one’s biology before one could argue convincingly, maybe rightly, that grooming is a behavior programmed into chimp genes. I bet gender grooming is too. But shown were some chimp couples holding complementary hands aloft, forming a chimp canopy-cathedral, Attenborough identified that, correctly I am sure, as culture.

    Cultural behaviors may become genetic.

    Culture Menu

    About pk

    Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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