Monday, March 5, 2012

Why Humans Make Cultural Leaps

An article in the Houston Chronicle, February 4, 2012, caught my eye. Anyone who pays any attention to the world at all knows things are changing at an ever increasing rate of speed. We truly live in an age of information and the rate at which we are being bombarded with all this information has changed everything.

Even education has changed. When I started first grade in 1953, education was all about the imparting of knowledge and information to a new generation of children. True, we were taught to think and to write so that we could manipulate the knowledge that was imparted to us; but the main thrust of education was to receive and retain facts.

Education is no longer about the imparting of facts to a new generation, and the present generation has no real need to retain facts in their minds as we once did. The volume of information available and the rate at which it becomes obsolete have made such knowledge retention ineffective at best. In the age of the computer, multimedia databases and the internet, facts are always at our fingertips. Education now largely consists of teaching young people how to access those facts and manipulate them electronically. All the world's knowledge has been reduced to a simple sting of 1s and 0s. All that we are has been revolutionized by the digital age.

In reading the article below by Eric Berger, it occurred to me that the cultural leaps that humans make are not just limited to knowledge. The same forces that facilitate cultural leaps also facilitate and encourage social leaps. We are seeing such social leaps in the new openness concerning the acceptance of gay and bisexual men and women in society and the move toward equal protections for these gay persons  under the law.

Berger's article explains why.

Why Humans Make Cultural Leaps 
By Eric Berger, 
In just the barest moment of the Earth's long history, during the last few tens of thousands of years, humans have gone from subsistence as scattered, hunted bands of cave dwellers to dominating the planet. 
Scientists understand why this happened: more than anything it has been our ability to accumulate culture and knowledge from generation to generation. We build, we advance, and we use iPads today when our parents used Apple lIe computers. 
Until now, however, researchers have not understood precisely why humans developed this unique ability to accumulate culture. 
But several scientists, including a Texas group, say they have discovered the answer by experimenting with 3- and 4-year-old children, chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys. The chimpanzee experiments were conducted at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center's primate research facility in Bastrop, home to 169 chimpanzees. 
"We wanted to understand how all of these behaviors came about specifically for humans," said Steven Schapiro, an M.D. Anderson professor at the Bastrop facility. 
And we wanted to understand why our closest living relatives can't do all of the kinds of things we do." 
Series of puzzles 
To address their question the scientists devised a series of puzzles with escalating difficulty, the solving of which would produce rewards - stickers of increasing attractiveness for kids; carrots, apples and then grapes for the monkeys. 
The researchers, including anthropologists and biologists, anticipated that children would employ cultural learning to work together and use their accumulated knowledge to solve the increasingly difficult puzzles, for increasingly greater rewards. They expected the primates to not exhibit these skills. 
Yet the real goal was to move beyond this and understand the specific behaviors in humans that allowed them to learn and solve more difficult puzzles. Was it because human children would work together? Or maybe the tendency of animals to steal food obtained by another animal would hold the monkeys back? 
To find the correct explanations the children imd monkeys were broken into eight different groups,and these groups revealed critical behavioral differences. 
During the experiment the researchers observed that the children treated the puzzles as a social exercise, working them together and giving verbal instruction to one another. When successful, they shared the rewards. 
Lack of sharing 
In contrast the chimpanzees and capuchins. appeared to only see the . puzzles as a means to obtain rewards, and worked mostly independently and did not learn from their efforts. They never shared. 
Humans, then, have ratcheted up their culture by teaching one another, imitating the successful behaviors of others and altruism. 
The study results were published Thursday in the journal Science. 
Commenting on the study in the same issue of the journal, psychologist Robert Kurzban and anthropologist H. Clark Barrett noted, "This work provides many valuable new insights into the question of cumulative culture." 


Chimps live in groups of relatives, but this and other studies have shown that though they can work together for the common good of the group, much of what the do is done by each individual for his/her own benefit. Sharing is not the norm. Cultural concepts are not recorded and are only rarely passed from one generation to the other.

For many years, I lived a part of my life in the shadows. I knew I was different, but I did not quite understand in what way I was different. The only term I knew that would begin to describe my difference was homosexuality; but I knew t his term was not accurate because I enjoyed heterosexuality very much.

In those pre internet days, there simply was no one I could talk to about my differences. There was no one I knew who shared my differences. I felt alone in my own world. I felt I might be the only person in the world who enjoyed all the benefits of marriage to a woman yet longed for interaction with a man.

For gay guys the problem had many of the same similarities; but gay men were often capable of recognizing each other. They knew they were not alone. But in those days before the internet, the number of gay men and women was only estimated in studies by social scientists and their work often did not become well known in society at large. Homosexuality existed, but it existed in a very controlled, very closeted world. To get too far out of bounds could jeopardize one's family status, endanger his job or even result in serious bodily injury.

With the advent and then the ubiquitous acceptance of the computer as a necessary tool of modern life, cultural leaps began to be common place. Knowledge began to increase at a rate never before seen in human affairs. With this increase in knowledge, social change was inevitable and began to leap forward at an astonishing rate also.

One of the groups which benefited from this leap in social change was the GLBT community. While major segments of society continue to resist such change, it is clear where the forces of change are leading. Old discriminations are being swept away and a new social order is evolving.

Just last week a male marine coming home from Afghanistan leaped into the waiting arms of his male lover and the kissed passionately in public. The old guard made up mostly of fundamental right wing Christian conservatives was outraged. But most people just accepted it as a sign of the new order of things.

Human beings have learned in the last 20 years, that gay and bi men and women are not those people. Instead, they are our sons and daughters, our fathers and mothers, our beloved grandsons, our nieces and our nephews. This realization that almost every family is touched by homosexuality has been facilitated by more and more gay and bi people coming out of the closet and into the opening. With the truth of the numbers of such people finally there for all to see, a chance in social order is a given.

It is easy to discriminate against those people. It is not so easy to discriminate and to deny rights and use sexual slurs against one's own son or grandson.

At the present time 7 states have legalize gay marriage. Others will follow. Some states, like Texas, will never legalize gay marriage on their own. There are just too many religious right wing nuts in Texas for that to happen. But Texas and the other states that share its antiquated outlook on human rights for gay and bi people will finally be brought into the new mainstream of cultural reality by rulings from the Federal Courts which are inevitable.

Thank God for the ability of human beings to make cultural leaps. The day is just around the corner when gay people and the lives the lead will be just another part of our cumulative human culture. And as a culture we'll be much the better for it! It's a great time to be alive and part of great culture and social change.

Jack Scott


  1. To make a huge cultural jump sometimes requires a back step. I understand gay culture almost completely. There are quirks within it that I can't condone, but for the most part, I understand gay culture, such as it is. However, if gays are ever going to be accepted into mainstream society, they have to take a conservative approach. If they want to be accepted "just like anyone else," then they have to start behaving like anyone else.

    I've said this a number of times before, at the risk of sounding like an old coot. But the more gays tone it down, the better off they'll be. It's why I'm not a big fan of Gay Pride parades. Again, is it gay pride, or gay shame?

    How many times have we heard the comment, "He's gay, but you'd never know it…" But when many people think of gay, they still think of Liberace. That needs to change before a cultural leap ever happens.

    1. I agree with you Bob that sometimes gay guys are their own worst enemies. I have several gay friends and they all agree.

      Of course my gay friends are all older guys like myself and I guess that does make a difference in the way we see the world.

      What ever the formula for change is, I think change is reaching critical mass. Twenty years from now, we will live in a different world and gays will be just an ordinary part of it.

      With acceptance I think some of the guys who have been too quick to be in people's faces will tone it down.

      Jack Scott

  2. What a great post. In just the short time that DADT has been repealed, I have observed an interesting dynamic where I work (I work on a military base). Many of the old coots who would openly make anti-gay comments or jokes have suddenly found themselves faced with the reality that they are no longer the norm. Where they just assumed all along gays were those people who they had only heard stories about; now they are finding that they have co-workers who are gay or bi, and more importantly, they have co-workers who don't discriminate against them, and even shockingly, don't disapprove of them.

    It is interesting to see the modern day version of this image of the last old white guy on the street who is still holding a grudge that a black family had the nerve to move onto his block. All of his white neighbors don't give it a second thought and he can't understand why they don't see the injustice of it all. Slowly but surely, our culture is changing in a positive way.

    1. My son is career military in a command position. He tells me that the end of DADT has been a non-event for the most part.

      Some of the old guard has chosen to retire. He sees that as a good thing.

      He also tells me he's always known the gay guys under his command but could care less as long as they are doing their job and behaving as any normal soldier should.

      Jack Scott


I deeply regret that I must reinstate the verification process for those who want to leave comments on my blog. This is due to the intolerable amount of spam that spammers are attempting to leave on the blog.

At the same time I am changing settings so that those of you who have a Google Blogger ID or other recognized blogger ID will not have to have your comments moderated. My hope is this will encourage more readers to take the time to comment. The fact is I want to read comments with those of you who disagree with me as well as those of you who agree with me. All I ask is that you keep your comments clean and non-threatening.

The only reason I take the time to write this blog is to spur your thoughts and comments. Please do not let the spammers cause you not to comment. I know entering the verification words and numbers is a pain in the ass, but I hope you will not let the spammers cause you not to comment.

I still very much look forward to hearing from you.

Jack Scott

Anyone can comment on what I write in this blog. Regretfully, the recent amount of spam in my email account as required that I reinstate the word verification process for comments which I personally hate.

But at the same time I have loosened the comment moderation process so that those of you who have a Google Blogger ID or other recognized blogger ID will no longer need to wait for your comment to be moderated. I'm hoping this will tempt you to take the trouble to comment.

The truth is I want respectful comments both from those who agree with me and those who do not. All I as is that you keep comments to the point, clean and non-threatenting.

I look forward to hearing from each of you.

Jack Scott