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

Len Piotrowski (
Thu, 18 Jul 1996 14:04:32 GMT

In article <4sgr08$> (Gerold Firl) writes:

>|> 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.

>The percentage of the population which must be devoted to food production
>is surely one of the key parameters of human culture.

This "key parameter" is not part of White's equation. However, in the cultural
ecological perspective of cultural evolution this can play a role. But
focusing upon only raw numbers of persons devoted to energy capture hides the
details and complexities inherent in White's conception of levels of cultural

>This is the most
>basic measure of the efficiency of energy conversion, and does lead
>directly to organisational complexity.

It should be obvious that population size is not White's "basic measure of the
efficiency of energy conversion," nor, more importantly, does he postulate
that population size "directly" causes "organisational complexity." It should
be pointed out that this statement is patently deterministic and "monistic,"
which was erroneously attributed to Leslie White in a previous posting.

>China jumps to mind as a possible
>test case: there has been a recurrent idealization of the farmer as the
>embodiment of the true gentleman, with the denigration of soldiers and
>merchants, forming a cultural emphasis tending to promote a low, broad
>pyramid of social specialization.

Note first of all the timeless "recurrent idealization of the farmer" asserted
for Chinese "culture," something which has no basis in fact, and which has as
much potential value to the understanding of Chinese culture as asserting the
recurrent idealization of John Wayne in American culture.

>And yet, how do ming-era rates of
>urbanization compare with contemporary european, indian, and middle
>eastern societies?

Who knows? How does "ming-era culture" embody the "recurrent idealization of
the farmer?" What is a "rate of urbanization?" Of what value is a comparison
of contemporary and past examples of this postulated process? Of what
relevance does all this have to understanding White's model of cultural

>It appears that as soon as people have the
>opportunity to leave the toil of agriculture behind for the bright
>lights of the city and the increased density of human-human interaction,
>they do so.

As I pointed out in a previous post, White distinguishes between human
behavior, and human culture _sui generis_. Culture is not embodied in persons,
it is a thing itself:

"Culture" is the name of a flow of things and events dependent upon
symboling considered in an extra-somatic context."


White's model for the developmental of Culture (with a big 'C')
distinguishes between levels of Cultural organizations based upon his idea
of energy harnessed per capita. Whether or not John Boy goes to the Big Apple
has no potential effect on the level of general Cultural development.

>|> 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!

>That does look like a good start; any suggestions for more recent work?

Depends on what you are interested in.