Re: the mind of culture: tops-down or bottoms-up?

Len Piotrowski (
Fri, 12 Jul 1996 15:22:34 GMT

In article <> writes:


>"The technological factor is therefore the determinant of a cultural
>system as a whole". I might be off, but I think that this would be
>considered monistic determinism, in that she seeks to identify a single
>determining factor.

For one thing, culture for White in this instance meant the culture of
mankind, not individual cultures in the sense of individual adaptations. This
model does not represent individual "cultural system as a whole." And
too, his idea of cultural evolution was of a general evolution. In "The
Science of Culture" he stressed as a formula of cultural development the
relationship between the efficiency of the technological means with the energy
harassed per capita. In as much as this is a functional relationship mapping
energy and technological means to the degree of cultural progress, I guess
you are free to re-label it as "deterministic." However, describing it as also
"monistic" baffles me.

But to describe White's cultural pyramid as implying a deterministic
relationship between the levels somehow hinged upon this formula for the
development of general evolution I think goes beyond what he was trying
to say.

>> I think that's a vulgar view of White's model. The implication, literally at
>> the root of White's pyramid model, is, in my opinion, a systems integration. I
>> believe that is what the functional-adaptive-materialistic model intends.

>You may be right. I've not even finished the first book. It is possible
>that she develops the model more in latter books, but my initial
>impression is more of a description of currents, where the lower current
>is driving the middle and the middle is driving the top. Obviously there
>is some sense of integration, but it is linear (see below).

Again I don't think you do justice to White's cultural insights. Contrary to
your technologically deterministic and linear analysis of White's vision, are
his own words:

"Both human behavior and culture are expressions and products of symboling.
Human behavior consists of acts and things, dependent upon symboling,
considered in terms of their relationship to the human organism...But all
these things and events that are dependent upon symboling may be considered in
another context, also: an extra-somatic context. That is, instead of regarding
them in relationship to human organisms, we can consider them in their
relationships to one another and without reference to the human organism...we
may think of words as constituting a class of things and events _sui generis_,
and we may study them without reference to the human organism...
Now, just as we may think of words in a somatic context (i.e., in terms
of their relationship to the human organism) or as a self-inclosed continuum,
as a *process* _sui generis_, so we may consider all things and events
dependent upon symboling in terms of their relationship to the human organism,
in which case they are human behavior; or we may consider them as a
self-inclosed flow, a *process* _sui generis_, in which case they are
~culture~. "Culture" is the name of a flow of things and events dependent upon
symboling considered in an extra-somatic context."


Thus the Culture pyramid is a model of this "flow of things and events dependent upon
symboling considered in an extra-somatic context," a *process* _sui generis_.

>>>The result is a linear model [snip]
>> Hardly what the functional materialists and functional ecologists have
>> developed.

>I am not speaking for the developments of functional materialists or
>functional ecologists, only on my impressions of what I have read of
>White so far. I still have much reading to do. Each layer of White's
>model effects the layer above. There is no reverse influence (ie society
>effecting technology, or philosophy effecting society) and there is no
>interaction between non-associated layers (ie technology does not
>directly influence philosophy, and philosophy does not influence
>technology). This is a 'billiard ball model'.

And I respectfully disagree; what White conceives as "cultural" is an
extra-somatic process of things and events dependent upon symboling. His
materialistic aspects refer to the general evolution of Culture (with a big

>>>Also, note that this approach
>>>requires that interpretation proceed from the part to the whole (ie
>>>causes must be separated from effects, something which is difficult to
>>>do in social sciences).
>> I believe, in contrast, that the idea behind Leslie White's model
>> is evolutionary, meaning selectionist rather than cause and effect.

>I do not see where you are coming from. Evolution only deals with
>changes in a dynamic system. This does not directly oppose the concepts
>of cause and effect.

... that is, if you are also willing to suspend the basic tenets behind
the theory of evolution. "Selection upon variation as a mechanism for
speciation" is decidedly different from the assertion that "the environment
caused speciation," neh? At any rate, White's extra-somatic process (Culture)
functions as a means of human adaptation. White's contribution to this idea of
cultural process and change is an important contrast to the simple cause
and effect models you try to label his work with.

>White's arguments refer to technology as the
>driving factor in this change; technology causes change (cause and
>effect). Again, this may have changed later, as her ideas developed. I
>don't really know.

This is general evolution, not culture with a small 'c.' As I've noted above,
White's functional relationship is between harnessed energy and technology
with respect to the general level of Cultural development. This is, in my
opinion, largely based upon empirical evidence, although there are problems,
in my evaluation, with his conclusion that the efficiency of the means of
harnessing energy can only result in higher organization. Biological systems
can alternatively respond by increasing their numbers.

>>>Although, chaos directly opposes the concept of long term predictions, a chaotic >>model of culture would allow us to create accurate simulations for short-term
>> I would heartily disagree, unless of course you think human social-psychology
>> is more-or-less the equivalent of your billiard balls, molecules, or other
>> physical entities.

>Simulations of human behavior in a crisis are already in use.

These simulations do not reflect human social-psychology in non-crisis
situations. Mass movements and collective behavior are not what
anthropologists normally include in the flow of things and events in culture.

>example: architects are utilizing such simulations to design buildings
>which allow for a smoother flow of people during an evacuation. These
>simulations are based on models of human behavior.

It should be made clear again that these simulations are of mass movements and
collective behavior, not the core of cultural behavior - symbolic interaction!

>If human group
>behavior can be modeled with the degree of accuracy which has been seen
>so far, then why not culture?

Why not indeed! Perhaps because currents in human neural nets are analog
versus digital, or human interaction is more complex than current model's
anticipated, or human behavior is different in kind from computer simulations.
( I don' know!) : )

>> How does multiple variables make it any more "non-linear?" [snip]

>I do not know what other aspects of culture you refer to.

..the other "layers" in the pyramid; the symboling aspects, etc.

>White divides
>culture, into three layers (most aspects of culture would fit clearly
>into one of these three layers). Each layer is a function of the one
>below (ie a, b=f(a), c=f(b)).

Not exactly true ... how is tipping one's hat a function of a "lower layer?"

> I would have expected White's three layers
>to be placed on top of an environmental layer, but White makes no
>mention of environment.

..._sui generis_...

>If environment were at the bottom layer, it
>would have become the determining factor.

...a clue to why White's model shouldn't be considered deterministic!

> White clearly places
>technology as the determining factor. The application of environment to
>this model must come later.

Not so, see above.

>As for eliminating technology as a single independent variable, this was
>not meant to imply that multiple variables would make the system more
>non-linear. A chaotic model would not need to identify any variables
>from the start.

...too bad that general cultural and biological evolution do, which is a
major factor against applying Chaos Theory as an explanation to them.


>I really do want to read some of Steward's works, but I cannot find
>anything. Any recommendations?

Julian H. Steward and Frank M. Setzler, "Function and configuration in
Archaeology," in _Archaeology_, 1938, Vol 1, pp. 4 -10.

>Actually, what I really want is a
>textbook on cultural ecology, so I can get an overview of where the
>field has gone.,

Perhaps a better start would be:

Marshal D. Sahlins and Elman R. Service, et al, "Evolution and Culture," 1960,
with forward by Leslie A. White!