Human culture

In his book Primitive culture (1871), the British anthropologist Sir Edward Tyler defined culture in terms that scientists still use today. He expressed it as ‘that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society’. To his definition might be added that cultural traits throughout the world are learned, not merely determined by biological necessity. For example, we have to eat in order to survive, but how we eat, what we eat and what type of ritual accompanies mealtimes is influenced by cultural factors. Indeed, so important are those factors that many people describe their experience of moving from one culture to another in terms of ‘culture shock’. Some animals enjoy a primitive type of culture with recognized hierarchical groupings and divisions of labour, but only human beings are so acutely aware of what sets them apart from other species.

The development of culture can be said to have truly begun with the advent of farming. Once enough crops could be produced to free some members of a community from the burden of growing and gathering food, other activities, such as handicrafts, could be pursued. The resulting artefacts where then used as barter, which further enriched the community, enabling it to grow. As populations continued to increase in size, new methods of social organization evolved to deal with the problems of the distribution of wealth, the allocation of work and contact with other communities. From these primitive beginnings sprang our own highly-sophisticated societies. The leap from settled community to city was a relatively short one. By about 4,000 BC, cities had begun to emerge in those areas of the world which enjoyed an abundant water supply and fertile soil. These included the river valleys of Tigris-Euphrates in the Middle East, the Nile in Egypt, the Indus in what is now Pakistan and the Huang Ho in northern China. The occupations of city dwellers became ever more diversified with the need for specialized skills. Some people were tradesmen and builders, others trained to be priest and law-givers.

For hundreds of years, cities developed in this way independently of each other. Their individual character was dictated by the natural resources of the environment and the resourcefulness of the population. With the passage of time, however, cities began to exchange ideas and skills and add to their store of knowledge more rapidly. This process was speeded up even further with the development of writing – probably the single most important factor in the evolution of human culture. Ideas could now be documented and discoveries written down for future use. Moreover, societies were able to keep a permanent record of their way of life. The history of the world is usually said to begin at this point; events before the invention of writing are referred to as prehistory. In our modern times, world-wide systems of transportation and communication have brought different cultures into increasingly close contact with each other. Many people regard this as a welcome trend which will enrich the life of all; others believe that the world will become culturally impoverished because there will be little room for individualism.

Where next?

Further progress towards civilization was possible because of the increased brain capacity and developing intelligence of man, and his ability to read, plan and think ahead. Man continues to improve his scientific and technological skills, and the arts have become more diversified. The future may seem bright; but man’s aggression to man should also make us worry of what the future may hold. The evolutionary past shows us that thousands of species have died out in the history of the world, and we are not immune from this process. With modern weapons capable of eradicating the whole of Earth many times, and with modern agriculture and farming in the process of decimating parts of our environment, we can wonder what evolutionary changes could occur in the future. However, Homo sapiens may be wise enough to look ahead, to plan, consider, and avert possible disaster. We must hope that this superior brain power will enable us to survive, to evolve and to solve the problems of food distribution, armaments and welfare for the species worldwide.