November 25, 2017

The directivity of cultural behaviour

Appendix 3 of The Stable Society: its structure and control: Towards a Social Cybernetics, Wadebridge Ecological Centre, UK, 1978.

Originally published in The Ecologist Vol. 3 No. 6, 1973, as part of the Towards a Unified Science series.

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Cultures do not develop at random but in an orderly manner like all other behavioural processes. As Murdock writes:

“Culture is adaptive or functional, sub-serving the basic needs of its carrier and altering through time by a sort of mass trial and error in a process which is truly evolutionary, i.e., characterised by orderly adaptive change.”130

The function of culture at the social level of complexity is precisely the same as that of the personality at the level of the individual. A culture develops as a response to a specific, in this case, long-term, environmental situation. We know that a sub-system cannot be examined in vacuo, but as part of a system. Remove the particular environment to which the sub-system or its behaviour pattern is an adaptation, and the latter loses its raison d’etre and will simply atrophy. Modify the environment, and clearly the behaviour pattern must be correspondingly modified.

This is illustrated by Kardiner in his discussion of Comanche culture.69 The Comanches had a cultural behavioural pattern that was optimum for a hunting and food-gathering people living in a relatively arid environment. After the arrival of the white man, this environment was modified in many ways. In particular, there were migrations of other Indian tribes, and the horse made its appearance. To these new conditions, the Comanches reacted by slowly developing a ‘bandit’ culture, living by preying on their more civilised neighbours. This was reflected in a corresponding change in their culture. Thus the most prestigious figure was no longer the medicine man but the war chief. The attitude to the aged changed. Previously, infanticide had been practised, as among most food-gathering peoples. Children now became more valuable, and the adoption of children from neighbouring tribes to be brought up as warriors increased. The ghosts were far less feared, since they now had real enemies to fulfil the same function. The sun dance, originally connected with masochistic and self-destructive rituals, played a less important role as much better outlets for these psychological requirements were now available. The notion of mana, or power, which was fundamental to the Comanche model of the world, began to be attached less to property and became transmissible from man to man and pooled by the group. There was a decline in the fear of the dead. The old rituals involving the burning of a dead man’s property slowly fell into disuse. In general, a new culture developed which was highly adaptive to the new circumstances in which they lived. However, when the environmental conditions were once more radically transformed, this time as the result of the confinement of this warlike tribe to the shelter of a reservation, its cultural pattern totally disintegrated.

As Kardiner writes:

“The society could exist only as long as there were slaves to steal, cattle to rustle; in other words, the fine ego-structure of the Comanches was bought at the expense of criminality perpetuated on others at the cost of the complete collapse of the society once this criminality was incapable of being exercised. No internal growth or expansion of the society was possible. The results of acculturation of the Comanches bears this out. When they were returned under Government protection, the culture continued to exist largely in the memories of the old men. The children became less important, no feasts were given in their honour. The sexual development was given free range. The aged again became important, because the young could perform no exploits to compare with them. The status of the old was further advanced by the creation of vested interests.”69

The same thing happened to the pastoral Navahos once they were deprived of their cattle. At first sight, the symptoms of cultural breakdown could be attributed to a fall in their standard of living. That this was not primarily so is shown by Simpson:

“With the decline in livestock holdings came a necessary decline in certain types of behaviour viewed as desirable by the Navahos. Kin did not fulfil their obligation to kin, neighbours to neighbours, rich to poor, because the wherewithal for reciprocity and generosity was no longer there. There was a pervasive feeling that people did not behave as they should, or as they once did, and this I would call a deprivation in the area of behaviour.”131

Aberle considers that the loss of livestock holdings among the Navaho was one of the principal causes of that revolutionary messianic cult known as Peyotism, which developed shortly afterwards:

“The Peyote cult, with its protesting ideology and adjusting ethic, ‘made sense’ to people whose traditional culture could no longer operate effectively, and who were forced to accommodate to the new situation.”132

It is the realisation that cultural traits are directive and adaptive that leads to the notion of a culture as a control mechanism and of the society that it controls as a natural system whose behaviour is subjected to the same laws as that of all other natural systems. This sort of thinking is also giving rise to the vital new discipline of cultural ecology.

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69. Abraham Kardiner, The Psychological Frontiers of Society Columbia University Press, New York, 1945.

130. George Peter Murdock, ‘Anthropology as a comparative science’ in Culture and Society, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 1965.

131. George E. Simpson and David F. Aberle, ‘Cultural deprivation and millenial movements: a discussion’ in Cultural and Social Anthropology (P.B. Hammond, ed.) Macmillan, New York, 1964.

132. David F. Aberle, The Peyote Religion among the Navaho Aldine, Chicago, 1966.

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