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Evolution of people and culture

Sunday, 24 August 2014 - 3:41pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

All people are the same but all cultures are different. So why this dichotomy? 

All human beings are driven by the same genetic programme that is designed for 3 purposes – to eat, not be eaten and to reproduce. In fact humans are so alike each other that biologically we form a single breed. 

We are all selfish, we all try to optimize our gains and we all, to larger or smaller level, appreciate the need for rule of law and sacrifice for the common good. As an old Hindi film says “Na may bhagwan hun na mai shaitan hun…”. 

So if people are so alike, why are cultures so different? There are several reasons for this. Geography, and History are certainly crucial to these differences. These are both loaded words. 

Geography contains within it a whole host of issues. For example, people living in areas of plentiful water supply will use water not even noticing it and will put heavy emphasis on personal cleanliness and hygiene based on bathing. People living in water scares areas will be hyper sensitive to any wastage of water and will not even imagine taking a bath with 25 litres of water sent down the drain by every individual every day.

People in cold environment will be very sensitive to creating insulated environment – whether it is for clothing or for housing. People in mountains will be far more rugged and sensitive to preserving their habitable piece of slope or flat land than people on plains who have plenty of land to take up. So people from hills are hardier and tend to be more aggressive. This is true of all people living in resource poor areas. All humans are extra sensitive to the resource they have most difficulty getting and most need. 

Similarly, history is also a loaded word. The scars of history can last for centuries and millennia and vitally mould people’s behaviour and attitudes. But unlike geography, history is a human construct and hence liable to change, errors, exaggeration, manipulation and reinterpretation and be vulnerable to false memories and idealistic additions and interpretations. History is changed more often than any other human narrative. Any new leaders taking reigns of a kingdom will first target the history to make it appear that they are the final, most refined product of a glorious history of their people.

History has been used to colour people’s opinions, to create wars, to distract people from their problems and to dehumanise humans more frequently than it has been used to unite people. However distorted, history has its own strength. History has such a strong hold on the people that many rulers have even tried to negate history – deny its existence completely in what they call the ‘new world order’ in which only the present (and soon the immediate past) is all that should matter. History is full of records of failures of such efforts over a longer time period and a victim of frail human memory. History has ways of propping up from nowhere. 

But history is a strange entity for other reasons. At one level it is a narrative of people and their wars. At another level, it defines what values people hold dear. It also records how much sacrifice was made in the past to preserve these values. There are records of their own cultural changes that were induced by circumstances and the ones that outsiders introduced.

There is inevitably a glorious golden period where everything was perfect. Inevitably this golden period ended for the fault of others. Only the most generous of readers of history will see the inevitability of cycles of rise and fall of civilisations as an inevitable cycle of human character. However, to all rulers past was great and flawless and the present leaders are trying to return the culture to those great days of glory.  But there is more to history. 

In this record of values held dear and the sacrifices there are roots of the cultural or broadly agreed value systems dear to a culture. Implicit within this is the record of the psyche of the early leaders and the manner in which they solved their problems of survival. For example, even today Indians are known as argumentative and Chinese as capable of great physical labour.

Since the states in India were formed on the basis of cultural homogeneity that glosses over an underlying heterogeneity, a simple look at people from different states in India will throw up example of these historically induced differences which don’t need to exist. 

Then there is religion. All people, overwhelmed by the greatness of nature have come to assume that there exists a super being who controls all events and progressions. This can be seen right from early cave paintings to the modern places of worship. Yet, religion has done more to divide people than any other human constructs. The argument goes that all gods control and run the great cycle of the world but my god is better – more benevolent and capable of being benevolent – than your god, so you must stop worshipping your gods and worship my god. This often turns grotesque when the places of worship are primarily targeted for destruction to demonstrate that your god cannot even protect himself/herself so how is he/she going to protect you. 

Over period of time therefore people build local identities based on their geography, perceived history and religious ideas. This is further re-enforced by language whose idioms and language structures as well as choice of words all add up to a common shared cultural identity. 

However, within this cultural identity, there are other immediate issues that form the basis for short term behaviour of a culture.  The most important probably is the personal sense of security. After all humans, with a reasonable opportunity to eat, not be eaten and reproduce, will look for security for themselves and for others around them. People will not be averse to making small sacrifices for common good provided they see that all others are doing the same. This common shared value system makes up for the present behaviour of each culture.

Sense for fair play, universal acceptance of obedience to law and reasonable opportunity to succeed makes for a stable society. However, this stability needs to ensure that it keeps the number of underprivileged to a minimum and even to those, give a stake in stability of the society.

Taking care of their basic needs – the so called welfare schemes – given directly or through subsidies – are crucial. People who feel that they have no stake in the present equilibrium are more likely to risk violence and instability for petty personal gains. This can take the form of everything from petty crimes to large scale violence depending on the level of inequality experienced in the society.

However, even within these generalities, there are individual differences. For example, in a small isolated cultures like Iceland women have equality to men but in small isolated cultures in the hills of central Asia you are more likely to see women treated as second class citizens.  Greed and ambitions of local leaders and the resources available to meet these desires also work in interesting ways in the world.

Now of course we live in a highly connected society so it is not very difficult to get a basic understanding of any culture anywhere through travel and access to literature about them. But in olden days this is not true. The reason, for example for the success for the European conquest of the world was largely because a violent and aggressive European traveller found passive people unaccustomed to wars. They therefore could not image the level of violence and cunning that these Europeans could unleash and culture after culture, people after people and continent after continent fell to the unfamiliar ways of the Europeans.

They were effectively subjugated to this violence and the European wars of mid-20th Century became World Wars that devastated Asia and Europe. History is replete with such examples of settled people who had become unfamiliar to the ways of war falling to aggressive groups. Such aggressions eventually change all people everywhere. 

So even if all people are the same, all cultures are different and all humans with identical genetic programme have different responses and cultures in different parts of the world. Indeed cultures can dramatically change even on the scale of a few hundred kilometres or less depending on history and geography.

Life, is more complex than we would like it to be.

Dr Mayank Vahia is a scientist working at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research since 1979. His main fields of interest are high-energy astrophysics, mainly Cosmic Rays, X-rays and Gamma Rays. He is currently looking at the area of archeo-astronomy and learning about the way our ancestors saw the stars, and thereby developed intellectually. He has, in particular, been working on the Indus Valley Civilisation and taking a deeper look at their script.

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