Cultural Third Nature

Our culture and world has been shifting dramatically in the last few decades. The internet has opened huge amounts of communication and information to anyone who wants to spend time focusing on any particular topic. We can see ourselves, others, what we like, what others like, and how it all fits together in a way that has never before been possible. We can live as we like and find a similar community online to share our lives with, find acceptance from, and explore what is possible.
 
 
The internet, along with many other factors, has created the space for what has been called our third nature. Steven Pinker explains it this way in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, “our third nature consists of a conscious reflection on these habits [motives that govern life and ingrained habits of a civilized society], in which we evaluate which aspects of a culture’s norms are worth adhering to and which have outlived their usefulness.”
 
 
This can be seen in the United States today with how quickly prohibitions against gay marriage and marijuana have been demolished. It can be seen in the demise of men’s suits. It can be seen when high school students turn the idea of a prom king or queen into a joke (or even turn prom itself into a joke). Across our culture we are deciding which formal traditions can be upended, and which should stick around. A major part of this is a major informalization across many aspects of our culture. It is leading to new possibilities, new opportunities for many, but also a great number of difficulties. Many people have trouble accepting the changes and the cultural stances which are sometimes quickly abandoned. While many have welcomed these changes, others have found them disconcerting. Hopefully, these changes will in the long run lead to a continued decrease in violence.
Racism & Culturism: Beliefs in Western Superiority

Racism & Culturism: Beliefs in Western Superiority

I have spent a decent amount of time thinking about the racial disparities we see in American society. I think there is pretty clear evidence that we generally underrate the historical importance of blatant racism and discrimination in the outcomes of people’s lives today, and that has created substantial racial challenges that many people fail to acknowledge. Red-lining had a serious impact of people’s ability to build wealth through home ownership. Andre Perry at Brookings has argued that black business to this day are still undervalued due to segregation, difficulties in accessing the best locations, and continuing implicit racism. Issues which seem like they belong in or only took place in the past still have influences that linger today.
 
 
Many people discount these historical factors and turn their argument toward the nebulous construction of “culture” when explaining racial disparities in the United States. This feels uncomfortably close to blatant racism to me, but is hard to argue against, especially with people who are smart and wise enough to avoid explicitly racist and discriminatory language. It is not hard to hide arguments that may be racist in nature behind a veil of cultural critiques. Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens suggest that this has been an important aspect in the ideology of many Western societies. He writes,
 
 
“Racist theories enjoyed prominence and respectability for many generations, justifying the Western conquest of the world. Eventually, in the late twentieth century, just as the Western empires crumbled, racism became anathema among scientists and politicians alike. But the belief in Western superiority did not vanish. Instead, it took on new forms. Racism was replaced by culturism. Today’s elites usually justify superiority in terms of historical differences between cultures rather than biological differences between races. We no longer say it’s in their blood. We say it’s in their culture.”
 
 
I think that what is key to recognize is that both racism and culturism is used to explain and demonstrate the superiority of one group over another. That means both become a justification for discrimination and disparities. Racial discrimination and disparities are dismissed through a lens of culturism. After-all, we are accepting that black, brown, or other people could be just as good as white people (or whoever is in the majority) but they simply choose not to be as good for peculiar cultural reasons. Culturalism in this way seems to be a form of supercharged racism with a shield.
 
 
However, the result is the same. One group is celebrated over another with discrimination and disparities justified and even praised. Culture is a broad term, and it is hard to argue against. It is hard to see where modern cultures have roots in historical inequalities and discrimination. It is hard to understand why cultural practices that deviate from – or deliberately eschew – the dominant culture persist when you yourself are part of the dominant culture and have found success through such practices. It is easy to use culture as a shield for arguing that you and your group is better than another, even when your argument is essentially a lightly cloaked racist argument.
Challenges with the Scientific Process: Setting Priorities & Managing Conclusions

Challenges with the Scientific Process: Setting Priorities & Managing Conclusions

Science provides objective answers to questions about the world, but that doesn’t mean that science is an entirely objective enterprise. Science exists within a world dominated by human needs, biases, and prejudices which means that science can be impacted by the same political, discriminatory, and mistaken judgements and decisions that any other human activity can be overwhelmed by. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari shows how this happens when it comes to selecting scientific research topics, setting the priorities of science, and when objective conclusions flow into the world where they can be used by less than respectable actors.
 
 
Harari writes, “science is unable to set its own priorities. It is also incapable of determining what to do with its discoveries.” Part of the reason why science cannot set its own priorities because science is expensive. Especially as we continue to make new discoveries, the subsequent steps require more time, energy, and resources. To discover the next quantum particle will require an even more impressive supercollider. To discover the next secret of the Amazon river will require taking new technology further up river. The cost grows, and individuals conducting research need to be able to convince those with resources to commit those resources to their particular interests. This means that science doesn’t unfold uniformly or in equal ways. As Harari puts it, “to channel limited resources we must answer questions such as what is more important and what is good? And these are not scientific questions.”
 
 
But even when good science is done, and even when accurate and objective measurements are obtained with reasonable conclusions drawn from those measurements, the impact of science can be unpredictable. Many scientific studies and results are obscure, with very few people outside a select expert community ever hearing about the results. But other conclusions can be taken out of their original context and can become part of the cultural zeitgeist. How studies and their conclusions are understood can get away from the researchers, and can be used to further specific political or economic goals, even if those goals really don’t have a real relationship to the original conclusion that was drawn. Harari demonstrates how this happened with scientific conclusions being merged with racist ideas about the inferiority of non-white people. He writes, “racist theories enjoyed prominence and respectability for many generations, justifying the Western conquest of the world.” Whether researchers were explicitly racist or not, their research was adopted by people who were, and used to justify unsavory political ends. The science became wrapped up in a political culture that wanted to justify discriminatory and prejudiced behaviors and attitudes.
 
 
This doesn’t only happen with racist ideas, though those ideas can be the most prominent and dangerous. Small scientific findings can be taken up by militaries, by corporations, and by media organizations which may use the research and findings in ways the authors could not have predicted. Research on technology that helps improve light detection could find its way into a guided missile, into mass surveillance systems, or onto the grocery store shelves to be used by advertisers. The science itself cannot control the way that results end up being used in the real world, and that can be problematic.
Science, Money, & Human Activities

Science, Money, & Human Activities

The world of science prides itself on objectivity. Our scientific measurements should be objective, free from bias, and repeatable by any person in any place. The conclusions of science should likewise be objective, clear, and understandable from the outside. We want science to be open, discussed, and the implications of results rigorously debated so that we can make new discoveries and develop new knowledge to help propel humanity forward.
 
 
“But science is not an enterprise that takes place on some superior moral or spiritual plane above the rest of human activity,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens. Science may strive for objectivity and independence, but it still takes place in the human world and is conducted by humans. Additionally, “science is a very expensive affair … most scientific studies are funded because somebody believes they can help attain some political, economic, or religious goal,” continues Harari.
 
 
No matter how much objectivity and independence we try to imbue into science, human activities influence what, how, and when science is done. The first obstacle, as Harari notes, is money. Deciding to fund something always contains some sort of political decision. Whether we as individuals are looking to fund something, or whether a collective is looking to fund something, there is always a choice between how the final dollars could be used. Funding could be provided for science that helps develop a vaccine that predominantly impacts poor people in a country far away. Funding could be provided for a scientific instrument that could help address climate change. Or funding could be used to make a really cool laser that doesn’t have any immediate and obvious uses, but which would be really cool. Depending on political. goals, individual donor desires, and a host of other factors, different science could be funded and conducted. The cost of science means that it will always in some ways be tied to human desires, which means biases will always creep into the equation.
 
 
It is important to note that science is built with certain elements to buffer the research, results, findings, and conclusions from bias. Peer review for example limits the publication of studies that are not done in good faith or that make invalid conclusions. But still, science takes place in society and culture and is conducted by humans. What those individual humans chose to study and how they understand the world will influence the ways in which they choose and design studies. This means that bias will still creep into science, in terms of determining what to study and how it will be studied. Early material scientists working with plastics were enthusiastic about studies that developed new plastics with new uses, where today materials scientists may be more likely to study the harms of plastics and plastic waste. Both fields of research can produce new knowledge, but with very different consequences for the world stemming from different cultural biases from the human researchers.
 
 
This is not to say that science cannot be trusted and should not be supported by individuals and collectives. Science has improved living standards for humans across the globe and solved many human problems. We need to continue pushing forward with new science to continue to improve living standards, and possibly just to maintain existing living standards and expectations. Nevertheless, we do have to be honest and acknowledge that science does not exist in a magical space free from bias and other human fallacies.
Does the Arc of Humanity Bend Toward Justice? - Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens - The Better Angles of our Nature Steven Pinker - Joseph Henrich the WEIRDest People in the world - Joe Abittan

Does the Arc of Humanity Bend Toward Justice?

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “there is absolutely no proof that human well-being inevitably improves as history rolls along. There is no proof that cultures that are beneficial to humans must inexorably succeed and spread, while less beneficial cultures must disappear.” Harari effectively argues that there is not a grand arc of humanity bending toward justice, that our cultures and civilizations around the globe are not necessarily moving toward being more cooperative and peaceful, that cultural evolution is not driving us toward better lives. If that is happening, then it is chance, Harari may argue, or we may be moving in a better direction, but that our path is not necessarily the most optimal for humans. Harari continues, “There is no proof that history is working for the benefit of humans because we lack an objective scale on which to measure such benefit.”
 
 
Around the same time that Harari published Sapiens, Steven Pinker published The Better Angles of Our Nature, and in that book he argues that the grand arc of humanity does bend toward justice, and that humans are becoming better and building better cultures over time. Pinker presents many objective scales on which humans are less violent, less impulsive, and are living better lives compared to humans of the past. Across multiple measures and various perspectives, humanity is improving and the history of humans does seem to be working toward our benefit. It may not feel that way, but cultures are becoming less violent and impulsive, and we can measure it in many ways.
 
 
In 2021, about 6 years after Sapiens was published, Joseph Henrich published The WEIRDest People in the World, in which he examines what cultural values contributed to western, educated, industrialized, rich, democracies, and how Europe and the Untied States became so WEIRD. He suggests that history could have taken different paths and that chance events could have moved history in different directions, but shows how certain cultural arrangements seem to have had different outcomes for humans, and how some cultural arrangements were more favorable and spread in an evolution-like manner. There may not have been a specific WEIRD end goal of this cultural evolution and one could argue that human culture lost some valuable aspects along the way, but Henrich’s argument seems to suggest that Harari is incorrect in stating that beneficial cultures for humans do not outcompete less beneficial cultures.
 
 
Harari may be correct if the evolution of humanity moves in a similar direction to the evolution of chickens. Chickens are some of the most abundant living things on the planet. There are more chickens alive than humans. What  they did to become so evolutionarily prosperous was become incredibly valuable to humans as a food source. However, this evolutionary success in terms of overall numbers is not good for individual chickens. Their lives are short and brutal. Their species population has exploded at the cost of the individual chicken’s life quality deteriorating. If this is the ultimate fate of humans, then Harari may be correct, human evolution does not move in a direction that makes the most out of life and existence.
 
 
However, that doesn’t seem to be where our species is headed. Birth rates globally are declining. While humans face great challenges with climate change and technological development we certainly don’t seem to be heading toward a world of more and more humans with ever less enjoyable lives. And Harari is incorrect in saying that we cannot find a universal measurement with which we can evaluate human progress. We fight fewer wars, kill each other less, and are less violent toward others, as Pinker demonstrates. By all measures (possibly with the exception of happiness measures from physically dominant 25 year-old males who want to fight everyone) this is an objectively good thing. Additionally, Henrich demonstrates that cultural factors which favored increasing trust with strangers, as opposed to only being able to trust family clans, favored a more civilized and peaceful society, thus outcompeting less beneficial cultural arrangements.
 
 
In short, both Pinker and Henrich provide examples which refute this post’s opening quotes from Harari. The arc of humanity does seem to bend toward justice and human cultures do seem to evolve in a direction that is better for humans over time, even if that evolution is slow, more complex than we fully understand, and not necessarily the most optimal pathway of all possible pathways. 
Complexity and Cultural Decisions

Complexity and Cultural Decisions

In the United States, and in much of the world, people are reexamining the histories and cultures that built the lives that people live. There is a push to disavow ancestors who were brutal to other people, to disavow groups that committed genocides and atrocities against others, and to disavow the cultural practices of people’s who dominated other groups. Whether it is the Black Lives Matter movement and the 1619 Project in the United States, countries formerly dominated by the British Empire working to redefine themselves beyond their colonial past, or native peoples trying to reestablish a culture that was oppressed by explorers hundreds of years ago, people across the globe are attempting to make difficult decisions about how to understand their culture of oppression and celebrate that culture moving forward without becoming as bad as their former oppressors.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the dilemma such people face. He writes, “whatever path we take, the first step is to acknowledge the complexity of the dilemma and to accept that simplistically diving the past into good guys and bad guys leads nowhere.” History is challenging. For example, while we generally dislike the history of British colonization, arguments can be made that countries colonized by the British had better outcomes than countries that were not colonized. Additionally, it is hard to separate what is truly derivative from one culture relative to another, especially after decades or centuries of cultural dominance and back and forth cultural influence. Simply arguing that history would have been better one way or another, or arguing that a culture should get rid of everything associated with “bad guys” is an insufficient way to think about how a culture should relate to its past.
 
 
In the United States this seems to be part of the problem with the sharp divide over the Black Lives Matter movement or Critical Race Theory. White people see these movements and fear that their cultural history is immediately tainted as bad and evil. Rather than feeling as though their cultural heritage has anything worth celebrating, they feel as though people are turning on their cultural heritage and disavowing anything that came from it, ultimately threatening the lives of white people today. If we want to address the cultural problems of white slave holders, it is important to recognize how difficult and thorny our cultural histories in the United States are, and to recognize that we cannot simply say that white people are evil (or have been evil). We cannot paint with a broad brush and must instead consider the nuances and complexities as we think about how American culture can move forward. In the United States this means that black people must be considerate of how their culture was influenced by white dominance, but also how their culture persisted and influenced the United States in positive ways. White people must also look back and not see their ancestors as purely evil. We can eliminate statutes and monuments to people who do not deserve to be praised, but we can also still celebrate aspects of our historical culture that propelled us to where we are. It is a difficult path to navigate, and probably doesn’t lend itself to a solid sense of balance, because cultures are too complex for dichotomies and balance. 
Cultural Agglomeration

Cultural Agglomoration

During my undergraduate studies at the University of Nevada, Reno I had a Peninsular Medieval Literature class focused on early Spanish literature of the Iberian Peninsula. Today, the Iberian Peninsula contains two sovereign countries, and Spain contains four dominant sub-cultures. But in the past, the Peninsula had many different tribal cultures separated geographically and separated in terms of how they interacted with outsiders. Over time, through trade, conquest, and other means, the tribes coalesced to form the starting blocks that became Portugal, Spain, and the minor sub-cultures that exist within the countries.
 
 
This pattern of cultural agglomeration has been common throughout human history. At least since the Agrarian Revolution, living in larger tribes has been advantageous for humans. The evolution and growth of our brains and social institutions has created an environment that favors larger numbers. Consequentially, human societies and cultures have been on a pathway toward coalescence. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in his book Sapiens, “Over the millennia, small, simple cultures gradually coalesce into bigger and more complex civilizations, so that the world contains fewer and fewer mega-cultures, each of which is bigger and more complex.” Harari acknowledges that this is a generalization, and that even mega-cultures maintain sub-cultures and smaller segments that may break apart, but the trend seems to hold with dominant institutions taking root across the smaller sub-cultures.
 
 
Humans originally evolved within small tribes. The brains of our earliest ancestors did not have the capability to maintain large social groups, and cultural evolution had not provided humanity with institutions that could maintain large groups. The earliest humans, likely similar to ape groups of today, could only maintain social cohesion among so many members before the group broke apart. The evolution of Homo Sapiens set humanity on a new path where the human brain could support ever larger and more complex social organizations, ultimately favoring larger cultures and more complex cultural agglomeration for a host of reasons that are beyond the scope of this post.
Culture, Physics, Noise, & Thrawn

Culture, Physics, Noise, & Thrawn

I am a big fan of Timothy Zahn’s books about the Star Wars character Thrawn, but one critique I would offer is on the way that Thrawn derives insights about entire populations based on their artwork. It’s a fun part of the stories and I don’t mind suspending disbelief as I jump into the fiction worlds that Zahn has helped create, but culture is too turbulent for the ideas to really hold if you don’t work extra hard to suspend your disbelief. The reality is that culture is ever moving, shifting, and swirling, and drawling large conclusions about anyone and anything from artwork is probably not a good judgement practice.
 
 
In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari demonstrates this by contrasting culture with physics. He writes, “every culture has its typical beliefs, norms, and values, but these are in constant flux. … Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions.” Whether it is our political beliefs, the larger influencing factors that shape our media and artwork, or our individual opinions and mood, there is a lot of noise that influences our cultural products. We all see the world through unique perspectives influenced by where we happen to be at any given moment, what our past experiences have been, and factors that we are not even aware of. Drawing a single conclusion about anything is hardly ever possible, even for ideas and memes that are shared throughout a culture.
 
 
It is not just Thrawn who draws large overarching conclusions about entire groups of people based on their cultural outputs. Thrawn works because it is something we all do. It is easy to watch a sporting even where our favored team is losing and decide that the opposing team’s fans are savage animals. It is easy to see high school kids these days and decide that they are all degenerates based on seeing the way that a few of them dress and behave. It is easy to make broad assumptions and generalizations about people in another country after seeing a tourism advertisement. In each of these areas our own biases, the randomness of who we see and when, and even deliberate propaganda and framing influences the way we come to understand the world. But how people act and behave, how people dress, and what cultural outputs they create constantly change and are not the same between people or even within the same individual over time. Unlike physics, the culture of a people is constantly ebbing and flowing. It is constantly up for interpretation and debate, and constantly influenced by outside forces or appropriations. In a way we are all Thrawn, making grand pronouncements about others, without recognizing just how turbulent culture truly is and how much noise and variability is possible within a culture.
History and Culture

Culture and History

In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “The immense diversity of imagined realities that Sapiens invented, and the resulting diversity of behavior patterns, are the main components of what we call ‘cultures’. Once cultures appeared, they never ceased to change and develop, and these unstoppable alterations are what we call ‘history’.”
Across the globe humans have different ways of living, different ways of relating to each other, and different ways of understanding the universe. Harari would argue that many of  these differences stem from different realities invented at different times by different peoples across the globe. I would agree with him. We can argue over whether some differences are good or bad, whether some some differences are fair or unjust, and whether some differences reflect the nature of reality more or less accurately, but in the end, a great deal of what we call culture is more or less random, based on invented realities that fit the time.  History is the study of how these invented realities and associated customs and behaviors change.
I have written before about the fact that human rights do not exist. At least, and Harari would agree, they are not anything tangible that you could identify in the real world if you autopsied a human. Ultimately, human rights fall into the same category as spirits and the human soul. For many years humans investigated the human body, trying to find the soul, trying to weigh the soul as it left a dying human body, and trying to confirm that it was indeed a tangible thing. In the end, reasonable scientists had to conclude that the soul was an invented reality, not an objective reality, and human rights fall in the same category. They are an invention that we make real through institutions, customs, and behaviors. The idea of human rights helps us understand how we relate to each other and the systems and structures of governance that we have established in the United States. They have been helpful in organizing society and helping us develop, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they reflect a true reality about the universe, or that they always will serve humans well. They are a specific product of culture that has grown out of Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) societies.
Humans have not always had human rights, as we can see by studying and exploring history. Cultures, and the values that cultures cary, such as human rights, have altered through time. Harari argues that these changes are unstoppable, and that new invented realities are constantly arising to fit the new developments and needs of human beings. Much to the chagrin of those who lean toward conservatism, desiring a stasis rather than a progression, culture doesn’t stand still, the stories we invent about reality don’t stay the same. cultures move, invented realities morph, and history progresses. Ideas that serve us well in one cultural setting may not serve us well in the future, and may evolve into something entirely different.
We Are Products - Mary Roach - Stiff

We Are Products

In the United States we like to think of ourselves as unique individuals with something special about who we are. We like to see ourselves as separate entities that are differentiated from the rest of the world. There are ways in which this is true, but there are also ways in which we cannot separate ourselves so easily from the world around us. There are ways in which we are not so much our own thing, but a product of numerous other external things that drive our lives.
In the book Stiff, Mary Roach looks at how different cultures and societies around the planet approach dead bodies. She shows how similar many cultures are, but also highlights differences in practices and taboos related to the dead. She uses different examples to highlight the role of culture and expectations that shape what we see as normal and acceptable and what others see as normal and acceptable. Regarding these differences she writes, “we are all products of our upbringing, our culture, our need to conform.”
We are products. The culture and society determine what is possible for someone with our particular set of genes, skills, and aptitudes. Our upbringing infuses us with believes, perspectives, and self-interests from which we can never truly separate ourselves. Our culture reinforces beliefs, norms, expectations, and taboos. While we are individuals within these cultures, we never truly escape them, and we never truly become something separate from them. We are the sum of a great deal of factors that we cannot even count on their own.