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The Evolution of Culture

Studying the process of evolution in the history of culture, we come to three significant points: first, culture can form the distinction between human characteristics and animal norms. Secondly, the observed behavioural pattern is due to the outcomes of man's cause-and-effect physical development. Thirdly, population growth and the cultivation of man's surroundings have led to cultural manners focusing on symbols and language, in turn resulting in a vast treasure of thoughts and ideas throughout history. Considering it through a vaster point of view, we may realize that culture is not the fulfilment of one of man's needs, but a manner-based phenomenon aiming to provide magnificent virtues of life to creatures potentially possessing it.

Man, having the capability to build tools and use them for various purposes, can obviously think of different subjects, interrelate and organize his thoughts and develop a new idea. It is also possible to pass on the findings of one generation to the next through transcription and records. No other living creature has such abilities. Culture found its true identity through the development of such commitments.


Culture: A Lifestyle

Cultural variables are based upon man's creativity and talent for imagination. Human beings are able to conceive any manner of behaviour or meaning of human life. However, there are limits to practical and economic life that restrict the process of developing and establishing variable forms of concepts and social life. The economic and materialistic aspects of man's life have, in various stages, become his ability to transform his natural surroundings into higher comfort and more property. Although the artistic, research and philosophical aspects of culture have also developed, we are not sure if they have done so in certain stages. All in all, absolute diversity in cultures on earth seems to be fading away. The increase in Western, industrialized lifestyles spreading around the world has influenced many unique distinctions at the cost of replacing them with industrial civil patterns.

Historians and anthropologists believe that cultural diversity must have reached its peak during the 14th and 15th centuries; i.e. before Europeans began to infiltrate into the lifestyles of other nations.


Cultural Elements

Analyzing cultures requires certain concepts. First, we can categorize cultural elements according to quantity and basic principles. However, using specific terms will lead to the same series and usages. Apart from classifying the constituents of culture, other concepts are also necessary for research and utilization of culture. Here, we are faced with two significant ideas: concepts and actions.

Each cultural element (showing ideas on behavioural patterns, or objectives) includes all interpretations or symbols of the mental reactions of those facing the element.

The usage of a cultural element is determined by its researcher, not an individual caused by the culture. Sociologists have also categorized culture into two schools of thought which are to fulfil man's mental needs.


Cultural Manner

Pattern-based manners can also be defined in culture using a specific method; in other words, culture can be used to define the way to do certain things in society.

Therefore, “cultural subgroups” convey certain methods for some of the actions in specific parts of the society. Thus, Afro-Americans in the United States have lifestyles very different from others, although the all live in one country. Culture used in behavioural manners is mostly applied to solve problems.


There are several points to consider here:

1. “Its (culture's) secondary concepts symbolizes educated, well-cultured people.” It is incorrect to call this a secondary concept, for any individual who possesses the virtual characteristics called culture can be considered a cultural person, as we would regard anyone that has the qualities and manners of civilization civilized. The concept and term “civilization” is not a sideline concept for civilized man, and so neither is culture.

2. The text, unfortunately, does not mention the time-honoured originality of cultural phenomena such as science, education, moral virtues, and art.

3. “All in all, anthropologists agree on the fact that culture, unlike instinctive or hereditary patterns, consists of behavioural learning methods and ways to adopt them.”

Since cultural elements and activities concern the appropriate values of man’s life, we must point out that the intrinsic culture-seeking potentials in humans are virtual, and activating them calls for need and conscious effort. For example, the potential need for acquiring science, art and moral virtues exists in humans regardless of time or geographical issues, but using it in reality requires education and practical admittance.

4. A considerable point in the Encyclopaedia Americana is, “The term 'culture' is of high importance to sociologists, for it provides the simplest concepts needed to express human behaviour and history. For instance, compared to the term “society” -which, by definition, refers to an organized group dependant upon each other coexisting inside a system in order to continue their production in life -culture has vaster applications. Culture shows the behavioural content of the society.”

It is true that culture is highly important, but we must note that its importance is not due to the fact that it provides the simplest concept expressing the history and behaviour of mankind, for the simplicity of a mass abstract noun, such as law, pleasure, sorrow, generosity or reality cannot possibly lead to its comprehensive explanation. Therefore, encyclopaedias and dictionaries have begun research to find the complete truth about culture -and have so far led to around 164 definitions of it-likewise; much effect has been put into research on the concept of law. [16]

This is the best reason for the complexity in the definitions of culture. The fact stated by the encyclopaedia, “Why has culture found some many various definitions? The reason is that culture is a homogeneous topic and does not pertain to one individual alone; it covers a great many elements of high diversity, such as ideas, emotions, values, intentions, actions, tendencies and experiences,” needs more accurate consideration, for it is true that the various definitions of culture are not homogeneous. This best proves that finding a comprehensive commonality among the existing 164 definition has not been what all the dictionaries and encyclopaedias have been struggling for. Considering the diversity among human souls, it would be extremely hard to do so, even in case of the examples we have mentioned (emotions, values, goals, actions, tendencies and experiences).

5. The theory that “Culture shows the behavioural content of the society,” depicts the resulting outcome, of culture, not the facts facing it.

In other words, the theory believes that the culture of a society lies in the behavioural aspects of its inhabitants; however. it does not mention the intrinsic factors of culture, i.e. moral virtues and aesthetic values Considering the principle that “no effect can totally reveal its cause,” our objection is quite justified. For instance, much effort is made nowadays to advertise a culture like goods all over the world. Is the reason behind the aesthetic efforts truly serving mankind, or to increase consumer demands? Those who regard culture a purely behavioural subject should have a convincing explanation ready for such problems.


6. The Encyclopaedia Americana states three points about the evolution of culture:

First: “Culture is exclusive to humans, not all living beings.”

This point, as far as our knowledge of biology is concerned, seems to be totally accurate.

Second: “Such behaviour is a result of cause and Effect outcomes in human; physical development.”

This point calls for a more scientific analysis; if “human physical development” means that a significant extent of cultural effects appear as intrinsic outcomes in the body and its development (such as mental, emotional, etc effects), it is quite reasonable; however, if this means limiting cultural effects in the physique, it would not be acceptable, since human spiritual evolution by means of internal factors such as religion, accountability, morals, love and humanitarianism proves highly more fruitful than depicting physically human cultural development.

Thirdly: the fact that “Population growth and the consumption of natural resources, have caused cultural norms to result in a treasure of ideas and approaches throughout history, based on symbols and language,” can also be accepted, except a short point of interpretation that is necessary about “cultural norms.” Since there is no comprehensive definition of culture in such texts, “cultural norms” remain unexplained.

7. The text reads, “Considering the vastness of culture, it is not what primitive men invented owing to their needs; culture is a manner-based phenomenon tending to supply beings with the great moral life they potentially had.”

This theory calls for more careful attention, for mutual coexistence between men and the serious cooperation and harmony it demanded, was undoubtedly essential; in other words, the gradual necessity of force balance and sacrificing endless personal desires -which caused destructive disturbance -led man to accepting limited desires in order to make mutual coexistence feasible This was the beginning of co- existential culture, which was established by men in completely free will, not by force. The text then states, “Man, who is able to build tools, and use them in different jobs, can definitely also think of various ideas, interrelate them, and come up with new ones.” Obviously, as the need for physical tools existed, human spiritual life also needed the most basic cultural factors.


Let us consider the following statements in order to further elaborate on our point:

“Delicate philosophical ideas and elevated religious beliefs are generally intertwined in legends, like an ore containing both coal and gold. Unless mythological analyses separate myth from ideological units, it would be impossible to explore the treasures of human thought buried in legends.

Regardless of the entertaining lullaby-like aspect of myths and legends, in fact, it is the existence of such highly original thought supplies unconsciously lying in various contexts that makes studying mythology inevitable for researchers of the history of the development of philosophical schools of thought, anthropologists, sociologists, theologists, idealists, scholars of humanities and literature, and those who aim for awaking the conscience of mankind.

One of the best ways to discover the basic origins of legends is definitely compiling an alphabetical glossary of the main terms and concepts, and foreign legends.” [17]  

Distinguished historians also agree on this:

“It is not logical that arts and supernatural facts such as man's desire for beauty, truth, the good- generally, the “ideal” -are totally separate from the physical needs he fulfils in order to stay alive. The reason is that we believe the best way to a successful life is to feel that human life is a meritorious truth.

Some experts have come to believe that primitive men struggling with their surroundings, either found no chance to discover their spiritual truth, or felt no desire for the internal tendencies towards eternal facts and supernatural discoveries. However, scholars who know human nature correctly believe that primitive men were not obsessed with the practical aspects of life like their predecessors are nowadays, and even had spiritual affairs, and used their emotions to colour the objects around him, to look beyond their natural appearance and realize their supernatural meanings. Thus, the emotional values lying in objects became more significant than their natural features. If we consider carefully the life of ancient Australians in the vast plains -usually thought of as the poorest of people due to high violence and social maladjustment -we would discover from the mysteries in their lifestyle, that even every cane or stone they used contained historical or traditional characteristics. Therefore, canes and stones used in ancient eras were related to secrets in the human surroundings of that time that are not conceivable now. However, man did consider himself the happiest creature on earth.

In brief, since the earliest times, men have been both physical and spiritual; both realistic and idealistically perfectionist.” [18]

8. The text says, “...culture is a part of human creativity and imagination as a manner of life -the basis for cultural variables. Man can conceive almost any behavioural state or interpretation of human life. There are, of course, some obstacles on the way to establish stable forms of social and life variables, due to biological and economic realities. The economic and materialistic aspects of human life have apparently in the course of time turned into the transform of his natural environment into greater wealth and luxury. Aspects of culture such as arts, research and philosophy have developed in some periods, but their continuity is doubted. All in alt, cultures of the world are losing their absolute diversity .As modern industrial lifestyles spread throughout the world; much rare cultural diversity have been sacrificed to make way for industrial civil life. Anthropologists and historians believe cultural variety to have been at its peak during the 14th and 15th centuries -shortly before European began to infiltrate the lifestyles of other countries.”


There some points in the above statements that require further study and criticism:

a) The statement, “Cultural variables are based on creativity and imagination” is generally correct and acceptable, but the point is that the cultural constants inside humans need to be discovered and distinguished from variable cultural examples; the above statement not only ignores this point, but even makes it more mysterious later on in the passage: “All in all, the cultures on earth are apparently losing their diversity.”

b) The text reads, “Man can conceive almost any behavioural state or interpretation of human life.”

The above sentence is somewhat ambiguous, for if the physical outcomes of human behaviour are meant, they are obviously noticeable through studying ideas and senses by means of behavioural research. And if the focus is upon the total identity and internal and external results and reasons for human behaviour -as most scholars around the world have admitted, the number of human faculties and capabilities that still remain unknown far exceed his known abilities; such a general statement would require revision. This is also applicable to the next phrase- “interpretation of human life,” for our knowledge of the true nature and factors of the existence of living beings is extremely meagre, so our interpretation of life would be highly limited and superficial. Let us consider the theory proposed by a distinguished Russian biologist:

"Every object in the world can be thought of as both living and lifeless. Accepting such an approach makes such questions like "What is life? What objects can be considered alive, and which cannot? How did life arise?meaningless. As we know, the definition of "life" is still struggling in dispute, and many scholars have failed to achieve it.” [19]


After comprehensive research on life and its development, he adds:

“It is only by means of such an evolutionary approach that we can not only discover what goes on in the bodies of living beings, but also provide answers to the seven million “whys” we confront on our path to discovering the true essence of  life[20]  

However, since discovering why the phenomenon “life” has progressed so evolutionarily is as bard as the other discoveries about life, we must say that discovering the true essence of life in every object, makes us face seven million “whys” plus one.


c) It then comes to the conclusion that:

“However, the diversity among cultures on earth is apparently fading away with industrial Western lifestyles spreading out throughout the world; some rare diversities have disappeared to make way for industrial civil life.”

The encyclopaedia unfortunately refuses to mention any of the causes or positive negative outcomes of its predictions.

We must first address the problem whether cultural diversity on earth is deteriorating by itself, or by fate, or powerful dictators striving to strip man of any freedom, dignity or the life he deserves?

We then face the question whether industrial societies spreading throughout the world will destroy only the rare differences or influence all cultural distinctions and therefore also abolish the identity of culture itself?

The first statement, “The diversity of cultures on earth will gradually fade away”, implies that an identity named culture will not be able to withstand Western industrial lifestyles, which is likelier than other possibilities. If so, there would be no creature called “man” on earth any longer, and no sign of his great potentials, abilities, ideals and beauty either. In other words, if Western industry dominates the world, we would face a clock work of machinery instead of man or humanity. If such a vision embraces reality, and man loses his life, culture, ideologies and ideals, the motive for living would either remain or be destroyed; if the latter proves true, the world would turn into a huge industrial factory, which may continue functioning until its resources run out, but will eventually destruct; that is, of course, if the greedy dictators allow life to last so long.

On the other hand, if the motive for life survives, it will overflow time and time again, bring industry under man's control and prevent life from being sacrificed by ignorant dictators and anti-moralist gluttons for power. In other words, when culture vanishes from the earth -the background for the evolution of man's life -it would definitely mean the end of life.

9. The encyclopaedia does not go into explaining definitions, classifications, significance, changes or transfer in “cultural elements”, so we cannot make any comments on this matter.

10. The encyclopaedia presents a definition of culture in order to elaborate cultural styles, but does not explain the nature or fundamentals of culture. If what the author(s) have tried to convey is merely that “culture can by applied to certain social procedures”, their concept of culture is not at all clear.

After our study and criticism of the treatise on culture presented in the encyclopaedia, we may undoubtedly claim that since the main issue here is mankind, it is impossible to achieve any acceptably true facts about the highest of human concepts -such as culture, just to name one -which all nations, even the most industrially sophisticated, may agree upon unless we all come to an agreement on the identity and characteristics of man. 

source : Pioneer Culture to the Rescue of Mankind - An Introduction to Islamic Culture by Allamah Muhammad Taqi Ja'fari
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