3. Cultural Knowledge
The subject of this chapter is cultural knowledge: those ideas that are gained from experience. For humans, nearly all cultural ideas are stored in the brain. It is interesting to look at why brains evolved in the first place and what purpose they serve in regard to advancing the reproductive chances of the organisms which have them.
Organisms that rely only on genetic ideas for their actions cannot gain new ideas during their lifetime. New ideas about the environment can only come at birth through gene mutation or shuffling. In some variable environments this could be quite limiting for long-lived organisms. For organisms that live a short time, such as the example in the last chapter of the insect that learnt quickly of a farmer’s spray, genetic ideas are sufficient for life. As its life cycle is only a few days, the rate of genetic learning can be quite rapid. But for organisms that live a long time, one problem with relying substantially on genetic knowledge is that the rate of learning is too slow. It should therefore be advantageous if an organism can introduce some sort of flexibility to the way it acts on and with its environment within its lifetime.
Flexibility started with flexible genetic ideas. Where an organism is likely to encounter a number of different environments, it pays (in terms of survival) to have a number of genetic beliefs, sufficient to cater for these differences. A bird adopting a white plumage during winter in the snow and a brown plumage in summer is showing genetic flexibility with temperature change being the environmental cue. The bird believes genetically that white is the best camouflage in winter and brown for summer. A squid that adjusts its colour depending on its background will also gain camouflage. In these cases, actions taken depend on genetic beliefs. None of the forms generated is being stored permanently as part of the organism. Here, future forms the animals take do not depend on past forms. In contrast, an organism’s development could be insensitive to its environment, with it gaining some average form regardless of what environment was encountered. Such an organism would be disadvantaged where there is a large range of environments.
An acorn falling onto open ground will grow into a broad, thick-trunked oak tree with ample lower branches, while in a forest, where it is surrounded by many tall trees, it will grow into a tall tree with a long trunk and few lower branches. Two different environments have evoked two different structures from the same embryo. But, once grown, the form of the tree cannot be reversed; there is no going back. The genes that allow this flexibility cause a different form for the tree depending upon different environmental cues (the direction of sunlight). However, should the trees around a forest oak be cut down, light falling on the trunk will encourage side branches that would not have otherwise formed. The form of the tree is still flexible to some degree even after taking a particular growth path.
As the oak tree grows, its form is in part a record of the environment that the tree has encountered during its life, and future growth of the tree will depend in part on this record. The tree has ‘remembered’ its earlier experiences and grows (acts) in a way that takes these experiences into account. The form of the tree can be called ‘cultural knowledge’ and the direction of its future growth now depends on both its genetic any developed cultural knowledge. The form is ‘cultural’ in the sense that it has been ‘cultivated’ by the physical environment just as plants in a garden have been cultivated by the gardener (see note 4).
In humans, examples of early cultural knowledge could be an increase of muscle bulk through exercise, a sun-tanned skin, the formation of calluses, or the production of antibodies. Like the form of the oak tree, future changes in body structure depend in part on the state of the existing structures. Here muscle growth is slowed by further exercise, the rate of additional tanning decreases with exposure, and the callused worker becomes indifferent to the friction of tools. Through antibodies, diseases experienced in the past can be more easily resisted. The body has the genetic ability to record past experiences by altering its form. The process of storing cultural ideas is the process of learning through experience.
The main concept behind cultural knowledge is that an organism’s experiences must be recorded, with new actions depending on what has been recorded. An organ that evolved in animals to specialise in storing and recovering ideas was the brain. While an animal such as a wasp has a small brain, it can still remember the layout of its nest and features along the way to this nest, such as rocks and trees. Experiences of the wasp have been recorded in its brain and these cultural ideas assist in its survival. Also in the brain of the wasp are genetic ideas for navigation. The expression of these genetic ideas allows it to navigate by measuring the angle between its flight path and the direction of the sun. Both genetic and cultural ideas are in the brain at the same time and their interaction produces the flying movements necessary to take the wasp back to its nest. With the brain, a specialised organ for storing and recalling cultural ideas as well as mixing them with genetic knowledge, the wasp’s range of actions has increased. It need no longer rely solely on genetic ideas to direct its actions.
The cultural knowledge of the wasp cannot be passed to other wasps (not that a wasp needs to do this). It cannot pass ‘nest location’ ideas to its offspring or other wasps. All its cultural knowledge is non-transmittable. Each wasp must learn for itself all its own cultural knowledge. From here we can come to a very important conclusion: the first cultural knowledge that evolved was for an animal’s personal use, and not for sharing with others. Transmission of ideas was a later development. Cousins of the wasps, the bees, can transmit food location knowledge through specific dances, and as we go up in brain size, generally, greater and greater amounts of cultural knowledge can be transmitted. The ability for the different dances is genetic yet the specific dance decided upon (i.e. the location of certain nectar) is a cultural idea.
I had the opportunity of spending eight years observing the behaviour of fish in New Guinea. Two dominant genetic ideas in the fish’s brain are fear and hunger. Both can be modified by cultural ideas. A new fish that does not know what a diver looks like is very cautious when approached with food. In the fish’s brain, genetic ideas for fear and hunger struggle against each other for prominence, each trying to direct the fish’s actions. The result is a fish coming to the food in fits and starts, grabbing a piece and racing away, only to return again when its mouth is empty. The expression of the hunger idea is the fish swimming towards food and the expression of the fear idea is its hesitations and dashes away from the food.
It became clear that, in order for a fish to overcome its fear of divers, it needed to store cultural ideas of what divers with air tanks looked like. To this appearance a ‘no threat’ label was attached. The fish had learnt about the diver. Not anyone could turn up and a diver in unusual colours or carrying bulky camera equipment might still be regarded with caution. But when the diver matched the right image, the stored cultural ideas could override the fish’s fear and so allow its hunger ideas to express themselves without hindrance. By the fish’s actions, one could almost see the struggle of these genetic and cultural ideas occurring within the brain. The fish was thinking.
Eventually resident fish on underwater wrecks that we visited frequently got to know us, although the time for this process varied among species, and they relied confidently on their memories. When we fed these experienced fish, they threw all caution to the wind and I was lucky not to have the bag of food ripped from my hand. In the minds of the fish, there was a struggle of ideas for prominence. Cultural ideas for the diver’s appearance, non-aggression and food supply aligned with the genetic idea of hunger and caused the experienced fish to swim rapidly to the diver. On the other hand, the genetic fear of inexperienced fish won the struggles for prominence and so they kept away from the diver.
Sometimes an inexperienced fish would hesitate to take any food. It was reluctant to approach the diver and swam rapidly to and fro some distance away, observing both diver and food. It was in an agitated state caused by the intensity of the struggle of its ideas. The fish, in hesitating, was exploring its environment and so learning about the diver. It was taking in new cultural ideas and adding these to existing genetic ideas. Should another fish that had knowledge of the diver rush in and accept the food, this act would be observed by the hesitant fish. Here new cultural ideas of the diver’s safety entered the struggle of ideas in the hesitant fish’s brain, tipping the balance of this struggle against its genetic fear. The new ideas emboldened it and it too now took the food from the diver. Here the hesitant fish has learnt from the experienced fish and so a cultural idea was transmitted, although unintended, from one fish to another.
This transmission of cultural ideas was the next step in cultural evolution and it led to a revolution in communication among animals. It was probably first developed to any extent in nurturing, where ideas passed from parent to offspring. Nurturing is rare in fish. There is the odd species that raises and protects its young and, on even rarer occasions, teaches its offspring, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Most fish hatch from their eggs to find their parents long gone. They have to fend for themselves right from the beginning, relying initially on genetic knowledge and slowly adding to this any cultural knowledge they gain from their experiences.
In contrast to fish, a lion cub must be nurtured by its parents, in particular, the mother. The lion cub is born to a caring parent and relies on her for food and training. From this secure position it is able to explore its environment and so gain the cultural knowledge it will need for survival. The passing of cultural ideas in lions includes licks, caresses, rubbing, purring, roaring, growling, staring, scratching, and body posturing. All these ideas make up the lions’ language through which conversations take place about such things as mood, social position and hunting strategies.
One of the first genetic ideas that the cub obeys is to search for the mother’s breast. Play soon comes and with it the expression of fear and curiosity. A cub might stalk its mother’s flicking tail, with this first hunt being a safe one away from the piercing horns and kicking hoofs of a real animal. Curiosity will drive the cub to chase small animals and fear will hold it back from overdoing this play. During this nurturing period, the mother will pass intentionally to her cubs some of the knowledge gained during her lifetime. The cub observes the hunts of the pride and so learns about its environment. It also observes the caution of the older lions toward dangerous animals like porcupines, buffalo and elephants. When the lion begins its own hunts, it will add to its initial knowledge that which it learns from trial and error. Success is not so important at this stage as it will rely on food from the pride.
The lion, despite its cultural learning, still depends substantially on genetic ideas for survival. This can be seen from artificial situations such as zoo lions being rehabilitated to the wild. Old genetic ideas reassert themselves. Most of the lion’s hunting skills are still genetic: the crouched stalking position, the unsheathing of claws, and stalking into the wind. Even though these skills may never have been fully developed as a caged lion, its brain is able to exploit this dormant genetic knowledge and apply it to its new environment. These lions can learn remarkably quickly and usually survive this transmission if initially provided with some meat.
Rather than just sharing experiences and learning from trial and error, animals can think up new ideas for themselves. A lion, spying an animal, may first think of one way to catch it, and it may, if it thinks this first plan too dangerous or unlikely to work, swap to a new plan. By testing sets of ideas within the brain, the lion can eliminate some sets and keep others. The lion uses reasoning to formulate his line of attack. Here the risks are within the brain only. This process involves abstract thought in that the lion must think up new and original ideas on how to approach a particular hunt. New ideas can be created from old and these new ideas can be transmitted to others through socialisation. (Anyone who doubts the ability of animals to abstract and even out-smart humans on their home territory need only read the books The Man-eaters of Tsavo by Patterson, 1935, or the Man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag by Corbett, 1947.)
Adult lions pass ideas intentionally to other adults. This socialisation allows communal hunting, a type of hunting that can only occur with an exchange of cultural ideas. By cooperating, lions can catch prey that they could not normally out-run. With a number of lions, lines of retreat can be cut off. The prey caught is usually large and a zebra (say) will provide one or two meals for a pride. If a single lion killed a zebra, all the meat could not be eaten in a single sitting and much energy would be spent in protecting it from scavengers. A group of hyenas can drive off a single lion and these would be the greater beneficiaries of the meat. The pride system is an efficient way of catching large prey and protecting the remains.
Here the lions benefit from socialisation; their chance of survival is increased. If contact between members of the same species is beneficial, offspring with improved genetic ideas for contact will be advantaged over those with poor ideas for contact. Of course there is an optimum to this process; eventually too much contact might no longer be beneficial. So, over time, socialisation ideas will evolve in species and this will vary from very strong to non-existent depending on the nature of the environment the species occupies. Socialisation is a genetic mutualism. For lions, the brain assists in this genetic socialisation by allowing recognition of the physical appearance and temperament of pride members. Socialisation then, while genetically initiated, is culturally realised.
It is surprising how many species of animals will accept humans as parents or substitute parents. The lion is driven to socialise genetically but in the case of a pet lion, this desire can only be realised by substituting humans for other lions. No doubt a good part of this acceptance comes from the will to live and so the human-offered food is unlikely to be rejected. Lions accept humans even though they are born with a genetic fear of them (probably evolved through the hunting of lions by natives, as feats of daring, or for protection of livestock). In general, mammals that operate in groups have a genetic desire to socialise and so, if members of their own species are absent, will ‘redirect’ this socialisation at humans (the idea of redirection is developed in Lorenz, 1966). After all, humans are animals, particularly from the eye-views of the animals with whom they interact.
The lion also has a genetic perception of most animals as food. To socialise with humans the lion must overcome these genetic ideas. The befriended lion has learnt culturally that the human is not dangerous and so it is this new piece of cultural knowledge that must win the struggle of ideas for prominence. Lions that have taken to eating humans have gained cultural ideas of humans as food and so have overcome their genetic fear of them. Lions that have been hunted by humans have gained cultural ideas that add to their genetic fear of humans; such lions can become exceedingly hard to catch.
The lions’ habit requires socialisation, whereas for other animals, such as leopards, their habit is to hunt singly, so socialisation has not been advantageous for all species. Leopards are solitary animals relying on surprise more than speed to catch prey. For new genetic ideas for cooperative hunting to be successful in a leopard cub, two leopards hunting as a team would need to catch more game than two hunting singly. Otherwise it pays for them to hunt alone. As leopards are not social, it is likely that cooperation does not increase their chance of survival.
Generally, the extent to which animals socialise depends on their lifestyles. Where interactions among individuals are beneficial to survival, genetic ideas for socialisation will evolve. For the predators above, the nature of their competitors, their prey size, the method of catching prey, and so on, have all influenced their degree of socialisation.
As we move from tree to wasp, fish, lion and human, the volume of cultural knowledge increases. For a tree, nearly all its knowledge is genetic, with some early cultural knowledge stored in its form. In wasps, most of their knowledge is still genetic except for some local, non-transmittable cultural knowledge. In fish, the amount of non-transmittable cultural knowledge has increased, with possibly a little transmittable knowledge, depending on the species and circumstance. In lions, genetic and non-transmittable cultural knowledge still dominate; however, the amount of transmittable cultural knowledge passed through socialisation and the teaching of cubs has become more significant.
In humans, examples given earlier of non-transmittable cultural knowledge were an increase of muscle bulk through exercise, a sun-tanned skin, the formation of calluses, or the production of antibodies. As well, all the little incidents from childhood, the scents of the land, what objects feel like, the experience of wind, sounds, colours, and memories of landscapes, are all stored in the brain. There are countless thousands of these private memories. The body has the genetic ability to store past experiences by altering the chemical patterns of the brain. These private memories would be impossible to tell to others or, even if they could be described, very difficult to convey using words. All these ideas are lost upon death.
The evolution of the brain was a huge step for animals, with many species becoming progressively less reliant on genetic knowledge as their brains evolved and improved their information processing ability. Genetic ideas in the human brain include those for hunger, curiosity, fear, libido, and also various desires including those for safety, warmth, socialisation and the nurturing of children. There are more than a hundred hormones produced not only by the stomach but also by other glands such as the pituitary, adrenal, gonads and even the brain itself (Bergland, 1985) that can initiate these genetic ideas. Hormones change the environment of the brain and so the direction the struggle of genetic and cultural ideas takes.
We experience these genetic and cultural struggles for prominence as thought. Each new thought becomes part of the mental environment and so changes this environment. New struggles now occur in this new environment and so on. A line of reasoning is developed which can cause hormones to be released and so pleasure experienced. For example, say the stomach has been empty for some time. Hormones will be sent to the brain by the stomach and so a feeling of hunger will result. Genetic ideas of hunger that align with cultural ideas for the location of food and where and how a meal can be prepared will win prominence. A line of reasoning develops and so a person will calculate the best method to satisfy these hunger feelings and these could range from going to the kitchen or going to a restaurant. A genetically inspired idea is realised culturally.
People’s moods, their emotional states, the way they feel, the sensations they are experiencing, their feelings of joy, love, fear, depression, and so on, are all different names for different ratios of hormones within the brain. Sometimes these hormonal states will be initiated from outside the body, such as a chance meeting with an old friend, or sometimes they will be initiated from within, such as the pain of an ulcer or melancholy from thoughts of past adventures. Our consciousness, then, is both this hormonal condition of the brain and the ongoing struggle of ideas. At any instant this consciousness has a certain momentum, a momentum that can change rapidly. Other words to describe this momentum are a person’s inclination, intention, purpose, or will.
What direction does this will take? The genetic goal of an organism is reproduction. From the genes’ eye-view the original purpose of the brain was to store and use non-transmittable cultural knowledge to assist with survival and so ultimately reproduction. If a person were confronted by a lion, the genetic idea ‘how can I escape’ will dominate the mind. Hormones, such as adrenaline released from fear will allow only thoughts of escape to win prominence. These ideas could be climbing a tree or running away. After the escape a feeling of relief will be the reward and this relief will involve changes in the types of hormones present in the brain. Different ratios of hormones underlie different emotional states. (For evidence, see the examples given by Bergland, 1985. In the analysis of tears, tears of happiness contained different hormones than tears of sadness.) By escaping, the person gained in happiness. The genetic will in this case is to increase happiness, and cultural ideas that assist in this process will win struggles in the mind and so be retained.
Other hormones, such as testosterone and oestrogen, have a longer-term effect. They will direct teenagers’ thoughts to the opposite sex and prepare them for starting families of their own. Here the will slowly turns in a different direction. Genetic ideas are activated at different stages of a person’s life.
We have evolved a hormonal system of reward and punishment for acts taken. From a genetic eye-view, a right action is one that increases the chance of reproduction and a wrong action is one that decreases it. When food is eaten the pleasant feeling of satiation occurs. In contrast, not eating is not in the long-term interest of the genes and so a hormonal wash that causes increasing pain the longer eating is avoided is the result. Labels we give for rewards for correct actions include admiration, exhilaration, joy, laughter, love, and orgasm. Labels given for punishments include nervousness, nausea, giddiness, vomiting, loneliness, thirst, fatigue, sleepiness, exhaustion, cramp, fear, shock, embarrassment, envy and jealousy. For example, a person with a strong genetic fear of heights might feel giddiness when on the roof of a tall building and so will avoid this situation in the future. In all cases the circumstances that have led to a particular hormonal wash will be remembered with those that cause happiness more likely to be sought in the future and those that did not, avoided. Through hormonal washes of pleasure and pain the actions of the body are genetically guided to the ultimate goal of reproduction.
Pleasure and pain are not necessarily separate and in some circumstances can also be intricately linked. For example, it is only when you have camped in the rain and mud that you can later appreciate a bath and linen. Having a bath that was routine before the trip now causes intense pleasure. Similarly, a person who suffers great hunger needs only the simplest food for satisfaction. While in many cases pain is necessary to understand pleasure, ongoing persistent pain, such as that from cancer, can destroy a person’s will to live.
One interesting example of how genes can use pain was demonstrated by the injection of painkillers to waterbuck during just before giving birth. The result was that the bonding between parent and offspring was reduced from those waterbuck that were injected and so did not suffer pain from giving birth (Marasis, 1971). The author suggested that the pain a woman feels on birth has evolved especially to bond the mother and child, with the link being that one wants to keep something that was hard or painful to obtain. We want to retain that in which there was an emotional investment.
People attempt to maximise their happiness but this perceived increase need not be immediate. A person may endure a boring job only because of the necessity of feeding children, which is perceived as the greater good. Here the genetic idea of nurture plays an important role in the struggle of ideas for prominence. A person may work at passing exams only because happiness in the form of a better job is hoped for in the future. Here genetic ideas for status and success are important. In both cases the path taken by humans is still one that results from the struggle for prominence of genetic and cultural ideas with the winning combination of ideas being those that make the case for the greatest overall perceived happiness. This desire to take this particular path of action is the will of the mind.
But is this the only will of the body? Remember that genetic ideas are within all the cells of the body, not just in brain cells. These cells work for the benefit of the body as a whole (cancer cells with errant genetic knowledge being an exception). A white blood cell has genetic ideas for consuming foreign cells, kidney cells have ideas for filtering the blood, and a heart has ideas for pumping blood. All these cells have genetic wills to act in a particular way not dissimilar to the tree with its genetic will to open or close its leaf pores.
If a finger is accidentally truncated, it can still survive many hours, and can often be surgically reattached within this time. Its cells are still living even though separate from the body. Each little cell in the finger has a functioning mechanism of its own, and its death results only from those necessities of cell metabolism no longer coming into the cell. Where the brain’s will is its ongoing momentum of genetic and cultural ideas, the cell’s will is only its ongoing genetic momentum.
A growing child will be capable of digesting food, breathing, sweating, fighting disease and a thousand and one other things, all necessary for the body’s metabolism and movements. The exact way it does this will vary from depending upon each embryo’s inherited genetic ideas. Inherited genetic ideas also affect conscious thought. People will vary genetically in a whole range of ambitions, desires, skills and talents. For example, the idea of coldness varies with one person happily swimming in a cold stream while another will not. Their inherited ideas on coldness has varied. The coldness ideas are present in the brain itself and take part in the decision of whether or not to swim. Similarly, one person might be good and music while another is good at sport. Many genes might contribute to these talents and these genes will make up an offspring’s genetic will. How a particular genetic will is realised will depend on the groups of cultural ideas (belief systems) to which a person is exposed.