The past is a mess. To pick a path through the mire, historians have appealed to providence, progress, environmental determinism, class struggle, biology and fate. No explanation has worked – so far. But try shifting perspective: look for the broadest possible context, the most suggestive comparisons. Climb the cosmic crow’s nest. Imagine what history might look like from an immense distance of time and space, with objectivity we cannot attain. The Galactic Observer – I suggest – would notice some of the other cultural creatures with whom we share our planet. “You,” she will say, “are a puny, short-lived species on a dreary little rock. But by comparison even with other very similar species, you have an amazing range of culture: vastly, astonishingly more ways of living, getting food, communicating, worshipping and dealing with each other.”
Before we get to her conclusion, we might pause to acknowledge that, thus far, she’d be right. Early in the 1950s Japanese, primatologists made one of the most subversive but least acknowledged scientific breakthroughs of modern times. Observing macaque monkeys’ feeding habits, they knew that the monkeys scraped the dirt off sweet potatoes with the fingers. But a two year-old female, whom they called Imo, discovered the superiority of washing the vegetables in a stream. Her siblings and mother learned the technique and passed it to the rest of the tribe, until only a few unteachably old males clung to former methods. The macaques had acquired a tradition undetermined by environment or genes. They had culture. Ever since, discoveries of similarly cultural behaviours outside the human realm have multiplied. Orang-utans’ games, for example, differ among different communities. Humpback whales learn and pass on new hunting techniques. Culturally speaking, we are not alone. But we are still unique – not in having culture, but in having more of it than other animals.
“Your story, therefore,” the Galactic Observer resumes, “is of how you humans came to be so anomalous: the story of your cultural divergences – of how differences have multiplied in the way your communities behave, over your two hundred-or-so millennia on your planet.”
To understand the peculiarities of our human past, study of our fellow-apes is especially instructive: what can they teach us about our own distinctiveness? Three great lessons emerge.
First, environment, though it determines nothing, influences everything – shaping lives the way wind shapes a tree. Humans occupy a vastly bigger environmental range than any comparable animal. Other great apes – and we should never forget that we are just well adapted apes – inhabit continuous or contiguous niches. Apart from some extinct hominids, we are the only apes to have spread over almost the entire land surface of the globe. Every shift to new physical surroundings demanded adaptations in our ancestors’ ways of life, opening chasms of culture across physical boundaries.
Second, psychic qualities matter. Humans moved out of their East African environment of origin because they were exceptionally imaginative animals, capable of envisioning life in an unexperienced world. Imagination or, more simply, the power of seeing something that isn’t there, is what biologists call a “spandrel”: an unevolved consequence of our ancestors’ evolved power of anticipation – the power of seeing what is not yet there – which our ancestors needed to make up for their physical deficiencies in competition with stronger, faster, more agile animals with better teeth, talons, jaws and digestions. Our bad memories helped. Humans who congratulate themselves on their supposedly superior memories are wrong: in quantifiable ways, chimps and gorillas outperform students in some kinds of memory-test. The unreliability of witnesses proves our shortcomings. If anticipation is seeing what’s not yet there, memory is the ability to see what’s there no longer. Both overlap with and contribute to imagination. Every false memory is an innovation added to experience.
Finally, divergence is not the whole story. At intervals in history, human groups have re-established contact, exchanged culture and, at least in some respects, grown more like each other. So convergence threads into the story of divergence. Cultural contagion accelerated about half a millennium ago, reaching across the globe, as explorers, colonizers, conquerors, merchants and missionaries crossed previously unnavigated oceans and united formerly sundered civilisations. We are now in a peculiarly intense phase of convergence, which we usually call globalization: all over the world, people want to adopt the same politics and economics, wear the same dress, eat the same food, buy the same art, listen to the same music, even talk the same language. Convergence crushes the life out of some societies, extinguishes some lifeways, makes some languages and religions vanish. Can it put an end to divergence?
So far, it just seems to overlay global culture on top of persistent differences. In part, like every agglutinative episode in history, it provokes reactions, with people reaching for the comfort of tradition and trying to conserve threatened lifeways, like eco-enthusiasts rallying to the defence of threatened species and landscapes. Cultural exchange, moreover, can stimulate divergence by blending old ideas into new ones and by encouraging imagination. Are we heading for cultural fusion, in a world of arrested change, or for more of the divergence that impressed the Galactic Observer?
Featured image credit: Shibuya Nights by Andre Benz. Worldwide Copyright License via Unsplash.