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

Gerold Firl (
18 Jul 1996 20:36:44 GMT

In article <>, (Len Piotrowski) writes:

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

Attribution snipped, but Len Piotrowski wrote:

>|> 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
|> development.

Energy capture actually includes a much wider range of activities than
what I call "food production", more properly called primary food
production. A miller who uses water power to grind grain into flour is
harnassing energy for the purpose of food production, but I was
referring specifically to agriculturalists, hunters, and gatherers:
those involved in primary food production.

If white doesn't examine this parameter, I would have to question his
understanding of the basic structural parameters of cultural evolution.

|> >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.

I don't think you understand what I'm talking about. I said nothing
about the *size* of the population, I mentioned the *proportion* of the
population involved in food production. If 90% of the population is
involved with farming, then that society has very few people availible
for specialization at other tasks, and hence will have limited potential
for increased organisational complexity.

And as for "patently deterministic and 'monistic'" - well, you didn't
understand what I was saying, so I'll let that go.

|> >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.

You think so? No basis in fact? I'll see if I can dig-up a few quotes
for you.

|> >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
|> development?

"Rate of urbanisation" refers to the percentage of the population who
lived in urban areas. A slightly clumsy expression, since it could be
interpreted as the derivative with respect to time of the fraction of
urban dwellers, but I would expect most people to understand the usage.
The fact that you could not (or would not) makes me pessimistic about
trying to explain how the ostensible denigration of mercantile activity
in chinese culture does not jibe with actual rates of commerce and

|> >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."

Yeah. I don't think I'll bother with white. His understanding of what
constitutes culture looks way too limited. Plus, I find that writers who
adopt the kind of stylistic obfuscation seen above generally do so to
cover-up the lack of substance in their ideas. "Four stages of minding",
indeed. "Minding" - that is just too cute.

The current discussion here about the role of diseases in the meeting of
american and old world cultures is a perfect example of how important the
biological/ecological aspects really are. To try and restrict
culture to "symboling" is absurd. Some of the most vitally important and
interesting components of culture lie outside the arid abstraction of

Disclaimer claims dat de claims claimed in dis are de claims of meself,
me, and me alone, so sue us god. I won't tell Bill & Dave if you won't.
=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=---- Gerold Firl @ ..hplabs!hp-sdd!geroldf