Repro/Evol Culture

Stephanie Nelson (NELSON@USCVM.BITNET)
Thu, 27 Jan 1994 16:32:12 PST

Stephanie Nelson here responding to Stephanie Wilson's post.

I have no problem with Stephanie's point that culture must be reproduced, but
I started to get uncomfortable when this point slipped into her next one--
that culture must also "evolve." She continues: "Some non-necessary or
harmful aspects would not be passed on. If [they were], the population would
begin to decline."

This statement begs a teleology that I am not sure I want to buy into, and
also all sorts of hermeneutic problems. Given this logic, the cultures that
are the largest and oldest would be the most culturally evolved (Han Chinese
would be the oldest and largest, perhaps). It reminds me of Alan Lomax's
(for me) terrifying evolutionary taxonomy of world music--where music has
basically "evolved" in concert with "cultural complexity" to the point where
(suprise!) high-culture white male-composed European music is the pinnacle.
I am not saying that culture ("that problematic term," wrote Jim Clifford,
"which I have not yet learned to work without") does not evolve, but it does
not necessarily evolve in a holistically beneficial and adaptive way. I am
reminded of Gregory Bateson's warnings that most human systems have no effec-
tive parking brakes, and can quickly become pathological. The other side of
the problem is the interpretive one, and it's a biggie: how would we begin
to measure and evaluate Stephanie's notion of "decline?" Would successful
cultural evolution be characterized by a rise in population or a judicious
use of birth control? Would increasing technological complexity be seen as
evolutionary? Would the cultures with the most technically advanced nukes
be the most evolved? What would we single out as markers of decline?
High infant mortality, illiteracy, crime rate, drug abuse? And if so, are
oral cultures with high infant mortality rates who ritualistically use drugs
(the Yanomama, perhaps) less evolved?

Anyway, not well argued, but you get my drift. I don't want to jump into
what Foss refers to as the "definition of culture ping-pong game" because
I find these groupthink definition exercises generally unproductive, and I
believe along with Mikhail Bakhtin that no word is ever the same twice, since
no context or communicative act is. What is culture? Grab yourself an
operational definition and run with it in praxis.
Cheers, Stephanie Nelson
PS Glad to see that the revenge of the lurkers has died down. Whew! Lots
of free-floating aggression out there. It reminded me of the time when
Jay Ruby was too busy to read his E-mail and tried to blame it us.