August 16, 2011

Global Cultural Tectonics


I have begun a list of recent links exploring the on-going evolution of our species' most powerful invention and adaptive strategy - culture. Our use of language, symbols, beliefs and values is not changing.  What is changing is the scale and speed at which certain values and beliefs - democracy, equality, justice - are finding adherents in nations and societies that otherwise have little in common.  I have also included related links in this list.  See below.

We are "grinding" the cultural "plates" of Humankind - the values and beliefs within politics, economics, philosophy, etc. - against each other along ancient fault lines, with greater and greater intensity.

This is not a revisitation of early 20th century superorganic (mostly American anthropological) approaches to "culture."  Rather, it is a consideration of how certain ideas and values have found common ground and traction globally, how they are transforming societies, and how they are underscoring the emergence of a new world order that transcends nationality, politics and economics.  I do not believe that cultures have a life of their own.  However, current world events do provide examples of how "culture," especially beliefs and values about democracy, equality, freedom, wealth distribution, and humanism, are motivating individuals and groups to lash out at and, I think, demand a transformation in the structures and functions of the respective societies they live in.  More broadly yet equally importantly, these actions are furthering the ongoing emergence of a new global worldview, morality and civilization.

This clash between beliefs and values is exposing patterns of extreme and widespread discontent, especially among the world's young and poor, all focusing on the same issues - inequality, hopelessness, inhumanity. An indicator of the seriousness and the depth of this frustration is that it is more and more often being expressed violently throughout the world.

In 1919, Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, a non-theist, speculated that "The Second Coming" was at hand. He wrote not of Jesus's return rather asked "what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?" Elsewhere he explained the new impending 2000 year cycle as follows: "All our scientific, democratic, fact-accumulating heterogeneous civilisation belongs to the outward gyre (of history) and prepares not the continuance of itself but the revelation as in a lightning flash ... of the civilisation that must slowly take its place."

I think a case can be made that that new "civilisation" Yeats foresees is an emergent secular global morality and civilization - what I call Phase II of our cultural evolution - "Cultural Evolution, Phase II - Establishing a Unified World View."

Many will see these events and social convulsions over cultural values and beliefs as sure indicators of the "end of times."  Others will fear them as threats to the stability and security of the status quo and all the "progress" Humankind has made so far.  I and many others see what as going on as neither.  On the contrary, these events, though their violence is disturbing, are an expression of the deep humanity in all of us.  They express a need for the recognition of our humanity amidst the current political, economic, technological turmoil of our species' striving.  The young and the poor feel dehumanized by the current world order, a world order apparently content to preserve and protect great wealth alongside great poverty, inequality and suffering.

Twentieth century communication, in the form of the telephone, movies, television, videos, dvds, music, and the Internet, has been the cultural medium that has thrown huge spotlights on this incongruity.  The reaction of the poor and the young should be no surprise for they are part of the most globally conscious generation ever.  Nor should their reactions to the current world order be feared.  It is one voice of our deep humanity speaking to us.  They are part of us.

This first decade of the 21st Century is the very earliest stage of a new sweep of Yeats's gyre - a new and necessary phase in our evolutionary history.  It holds the keys, I think, to Humankind's survival and, in fact, will be our greatest achievement so far as a species - the bringing together of the world's peoples under a transcendent multicultural secular morality of humanism, within the framework of a pluralistic global civilization.

Religion and nationalism have, overall repeat overall, served our species well in certain key ways.  However, a new, larger, more inclusive vision of our existence as earthlings and a new core of the best of our various cultural heritages, religious and secular, is now being created, as Yeats said, "its time come round at last."  What forms this new phase of our human and cultural evolution will take are unknown yet we can be certain they will be expressed in a future of uncertainty.

I am optimistic.  There is no other choice but to be so.  Our ancestors have proven that efforts at cultural innovation and application must be made on the chance that such acts will succeed.  The notion that we as individuals and groups might survive if we apply our best beliefs and values to addressing the challenges the material environment continually puts before us, is an ancient idea.  It by far predates our ideas about politics, religion, and economics, for example.  For hundreds of thousands of years human cultural adaptation and the use of collective ideas and effort have been proven to be successful responses to our material and human challenges.  So far in our long history this approach has worked.

I'm betting on us, the hairless talking primate with a unique brain and an ever-improving cultural toolkit that includes science and humanism, to be Yeats's "rough beast" that will create a new pluralistic global civilization - our first of the second phase of our cultural evolutionary history.

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