The Role of Culture in Human Development


By Leon Cooper

All human beings live in various physical and social environments that demand particular actions and activities in order to survive and prosper. As a consequence, humans have initially developed families and then kinship groups based on cooperation to meet the demands of the physical environment. Initially in these closely-knit kinship groups each person knew everyone in the group and the roles for individuals for performing the various activities were distributed and accepted either by mutual agreement with little or no friction or ultimately by the hierarchical family disciplinary structure.

When individual family groups came together to form larger groups such as tribes, (as an early expression of the advantages of the economy of scale) the structure of family group discipline was no longer sufficient to maintain reliable cooperation. Individuals from different family groups may not be emotionally bonded therefore their behavior may be unpredictable in many circumstances and therefore lead to conflict and or the failure of essential actions necessary for the survival of the family group or tribe.

The solution to this situation was to develop a system that would accomplish at least 2 goals. (1) develop rules for behavior that provide for harmony and predictability between all individuals, and (2) provide a paradigm of thinking that would supersede, subsume and include the authority of the family disciplinary structure

Culture emerged as the solution. Culture provides for harmony and the predictability of the behavior of its members, by its rules (laws), customs, ritual, beliefs, and by religion, which is the part of culture which provides the paradigm of thinking that allows the culture to supersede, subsume and include the authority of the family disciplinary structure.

Culture is also broader than religion in that includes customs rules and practices that are not necessarily related to religious thought or practices. Culture also provides a broader view into the world view that separates the world we live in into what can be called the domains of the known and the unknown.

Culture developed in humans as a result of the challenges of interacting with each other and the demands of environment. Early humans tentatively venturing down from the branches of the trees of the forest where their ape ancestors dwelt into the grasslands of the African plains confronted conditions such as finding new food sources and avoiding unfamiliar predators. This was a world that can easily be described as consisting of the domains of the known and the unknown (mostly unknown).

Gradually, new experiences resulting in successes and failures in dealing with these challenges resulted in humans developing an increasing repertoire of behaviors that increased the volume their knowledge of the domain of the known world. Meanwhile, humans developed language, more advanced than their ape predecessors, who had cries that signified danger of predators, cooing that indicated comfort and satisfaction, laughing to reduce tension between individuals, and chest pounding and shouts that indicated aggression. The new language skills developed by humans extended these behaviors by not only allowing humans to communicate their present situation more accurately, but providing them with the ability to plan and communicate plans for actions in the future, and to describe events that happened in the past.

One can easily speculate that a hunter returning to his clan with his kill tells his story of his adventure in words and gestures while scratching a map of his journey in the sand with a stick. On the one hand the map scratched on the ground is a map of the hunter’s physical travels. On the other hand the story in words and gestures is a map of the behavior and the events of the hunter’s travels.

The ability to construct and tell stories is one of the crucial events the development of the human species. This ability allowed one human who had a useful experience that increased his knowledge of the known world to communicate his experience to other humans so that they might benefit even though they were not present at the time of the event.

The ability to tell stories allowed humans to collectively engage in the effort to increase the volume of the domain of the known world. Even though the early modern humans (homo-sapiens) of 100 thousand years ago were as physically and intellectually capable as humans of today, the levels of development of society and technology were far different. The hunter gatherer society which was the rule until the beginnings of agriculture about 12,000 years ago demanded mental, physical, intellectual, and manual skills that most members of our society today would find difficult to perform without a long apprenticeship beginning in childhood.

From these early beginnings until today humans have been engaged in a sustained and systematic effort to increase the volume of knowledge of the known world and reduce the volume of the domain of the unknown world.

Until as recently as 500 years ago, after the beginnings of the scientific revolution began to be felt, and the Gutenburg Press began to bring literacy into general reach, the principal way that common knowledge was organized and disseminated was through stories and the arts: mythology, ritual, dance, music and drama were the principal vehicles of dissemination, and religion and government were the leading sponsors.

Before the scientific revolution evidence for what is, that is what exists, and how it came about, causes and effects, such as how the earth came into existence, how life began, how humans came into existence, what causes rain, floods, earthquakes, and so on, was largely the subject of stories based on events recently experienced and others passed down countless generations based on mythologies.

The ultimate basis of mythologies can be traced to human biology. Similar to other species responding quickly to predators and other dangers was likely important for survival of our species. Our brains are hard wired so that when something sudden or novel occurs our neurology prepares us to respond. When something unexpectedly surprises us we experience internally, a pervasive and intense emotional surge, and reflexively direct our attention toward the surprise using our senses to determine whether to flee, fight, stay, ignore or explore. Depending upon our prior experiences, the particular environment and further exploration, our emotional surge may dramatically and instantly accelerate into anxiety or further into fear, or may instead morph into intense or mild curiosity, or dissipate into disinterest.

Therefore, interaction and exploration of the environment for humans, necessary for acquiring food, shelter, mates, and other necessities, and the avoidance of predators and other dangers led to the accumulation of experiences that individuals eventually assembled into stories. These stories over generations became folklore which contained the ingredients to construct heroes, villains, spirits, monsters, gods, miracles, disasters, soldiers, priests, battles and conflict resolution.

These stories became the tools and materials for humans to construct the behaviors that allowed them to survive threats, explore opportunities, organize and build communities, and pass on this information for succeeding generations to build upon.

What is described here is how these stories became the source of the human capacity for thinking about the world, its existence, its history and its contents, and how a culture develops as an interaction between humans, and the environment, and between groups of humans, and the need to explore solutions to both ongoing and periodic challenges to their survival and/or their prosperity.

What we also need to describe is the actual thinking accompanying the emotions of this human that is interacting with the challenges presented by the environment and other humans, and to try to determine if there are differences in how humans in today’s world think.

When a human is startled and, experiences the emotional surge, and reflexively orients toward the surprising stimulus, which might be an animal, another human, a strange object or an event. the thought that arises, whether it is implicit or explicit, is the question, “What does this mean?”  This occurs because what it means determines what action will be taken.

If events in the environment are causes for emotional surges such as anxiety, fear, aggression, lust, curiosity, love, and so on, and physical sensations of pleasure, pain and hunger, and result in actions, it seems clear that for the human the meaning of the world is that it is a place of familiar and unfamiliar objects, events, emotion (feelings), sensations, and action.

Prior to the scientific age it was not common for humans to think of the objective description of events and objects separately from the emotional impact of thoughts, emotions, feelings, or physical sensations. We evolved from species that used their senses to find the meaning of what they were encountering in order to determine their actions for survival.  Therefore, in any such encounter the subjective emotions, thoughts and feelings, and physical sensations were the primary motivators for an action with the objective features of the event occupying a secondary role.  The evolving modern human inherited this mode of thinking from our pre-human ancestors. It was only after the scientific revolution beginning in the 15th century in the West that objective qualities and measurements of physical objects and events were beginning to be described objectively and separately from their emotional impacts and qualities. This is why the world of today appears so different to us than it did to our prescientific ancestors.

When we examine the myths of our prescientific predecessors in literature, history, folklore, religious writings, and oral traditions, and try to understand the world as they experienced it from an objective stance rather than a subjective emotional stance which was the most prominent portion of their experience, we totally misinterpret their stories.

Our early modern human ancestors were as curious about the world as we are today and looked for the causes of their experiences and events. Their increased brain size together with a more sophisticated language capability than their ape ancestors, allowed for their imagination to develop and increased their capacity to think of explanations for experiences and events, and invent things that don’t exist except in their imagination. This vastly increased their capability to adapt to their environment and allowed them to invent strategies for actions to be carried out in advance of anticipated events rather than just react to these events.

Another effect of imagination and language is to explain the causes of experiences in terms of agency. The early modern human was confronted with daily survival challenges. Beginning with predatory beasts, sudden floods, extended droughts, lightning storms, forest fires, earthquakes, and so on. Anxiety and fear was often the dominant emotional response to these occurrences. Therefore, the invention of invisible spirits inhabiting trees, mountains, rivers, floods, earthquakes, landslides, animals, the moon, the sun, tides, the sky, clouds, lightening, and so on, is not an unreasonable assumption to make since the anxiety or fear, and the subjective physical effects and feelings, and the particular object eliciting that emotion are bound together in the experience. In the minds of the early modern humans encountering these circumstances, the fear is the primary part of the experience and the spirits are the cause of the experience. The particular object, whether it is an animal or an earthquake, or a physical object like a tree or a rock, is a part but secondary to the experience. It is the spirit of the animal or the earthquake or tree or rock that captures and evokes the fear and the subjective upheaval and cascade of emotional and physical effects being experienced by humans, and therefore, an action such as a ritual must take place to appease the spirit.

These circumstances are likely the beginnings of what became the basis of the mythologies that explained the causes of these fearful challenges. Passed down for generations, these mythologies grew more elaborate and shaped cultures and some of them became religions.