The Blank Slate
Though we take it for granted that acquiring culture is a good thing, the act of acquiring it is often spoken of with scorn. The longshoreman and philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote, 'When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.' And we have a menagerie of metaphors that equate this quintessentially human ability with the behavior of animals: along with monkey see, monkey do, we have aping, parroting, sheep, lemmings, copycats, and a herd mentality.
Social psychologists have amply documented that people have a powerful urge to do as their neighbors do. When unwitting subjects are surrounded by confederates of the experimenter who have been paid to do something odd, many or most will go along. They will defy their own eyes and call a long line 'short' or vice versa, nonchalantly fill out a questionnaire as smoke pours out of a heating vent, or (in a Candid Camera sketch) suddenly strip down to their underwear for no apparent reason. But the social psychologists point out that human conformity, no matter how hilarious it looks in contrived experiments, has a genuine rationale in social life—indeed, two rationales.
The first is informational, the desire to benefit from other people's knowledge and judgment. Weary veterans of committees say that the IQ of a group is the lowest IQ of any member of the group divided by the number of people in the group, but that is too pessimistic. In a species equipped with language, an intuitive psychology, and a willingness to cooperate, a group can pool the hard-won discoveries of members present and past and end up far smarter than a race of hermits. Hunter-gatherers accumulate the know-how to make tools, control fire, outsmart prey, and detoxify plants, and can live by this collective ingenuity even if no member could re-create it all from scratch. Also, by coordinating their behavior (say, in driving game or taking turns watching children while others forage), they can act like a big multi-headed, multi-limbed beast and accomplish feats that a die-hard individualist could not. And an array of interconnected eyes, ears, and heads is more robust than a single set with all its shortcomings and idiosyncrasies. There is a Yiddish expression offered as a reality check to malcontents and conspiracy theorists: The whole world isn't crazy.
Much of what we call culture is simply accumulated local wisdom: ways of fashioning artifacts, selecting food, dividing up windfalls, and so on. Some anthropologists, like Marvin Harris, argue that even practices that seem as arbitrary as a lottery may in fact be solutions to ecological problems. Cows really should be sacred in India, he points out; they supply food (milk and butter), fuel (dung), and power (by pulling plows), so the customs protecting them thwart the temptation to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Other cultural differences may have a rationale in reproduction. In some societies, men live with their paternal families and support their wives and children; in others, they live with their maternal families and support their sisters and nieces and nephews. The second arrangement tends to be found in societies where men have to spend long periods of time away from home and adultery is relatively common, so they cannot be sure that their wives' children are theirs. Since the children of a man's mother's daughter have to be his biological kin regardless of who has been sleeping with whom, a matrilocal family allows men to invest in children who are guaranteed to carry some of their genes.
Of course, only Procrustes could argue that all cultural practices have a direct economic or genetic payoff. The second motive for conformity is normative, the desire to follow the norms of a community, whatever they are. But this, too, is not as stupidly lemminglike as it first appears. Many cultural practices are arbitrary in their specific form but not in their reason for being. There is no good reason for people to drive on the right side of the road as opposed to the left side, or vice versa, but there is every reason for people to drive on the same side. So an arbitrary choice of which side to drive on, and a widespread conformity with that choice, make a great deal of sense. Other examples of arbitrary but coordinated choices, which economists called 'cooperative equilibria,' include money, designated days of rest, and the pairings of sound and meaning that make up the words in a language.
Shared arbitrary practices also help people cope with the fact that while many things in life are arranged along a continuum, decisions must often be binary. Children do not become adults instantaneously, nor do dating couples become monogamous partners. Rites of passage and their modern equivalent, pieces of paper like ID cards and marriage licenses, allow third parties to decide how to treat ambiguous cases—as a child or as an adult, as committed or as available—without endless haggling over differences of opinion.
And the fuzziest categories of all are other people's intentions. Is he a loyal member of the coalition (one that I would want to have in my foxhole) or a quisling who will bail out when times get tough? Does his heart lie with his father's clan or with his father-in-law's? Is she a suspiciously merry widow or just getting on with her life? Is he dissing me or just in a hurry? Initiation rites, tribal badges, prescribed periods of mourning, and ritualized forms of address may not answer these questions definitively, but they can remove clouds of suspicion that would otherwise hang over people's heads.
When conventions are widely enough entrenched, they can become a kind of reality even though they exist only in people's minds. In his book The Construction of Social Reality (not to be confused with the social construction of reality), the philosopher John Searle points out that certain tacts are objectively true just because people act as if they are true. For example, it is a matter of fact, not opinion, that George W. Bush is the forty-third president of the United States, that O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of murder, that the Boston Celtics won the NBA World Championship in 1986, and that a Big Mac (at the time of this writing) costs $2.62. But though these are objective facts, they are not facts about the physical world, like the atomic number of cadmium or the classification of a whale as a mammal. They consist in a shared understanding in the minds of most members in a community, usually agreements to grant (or deny) power or status to certain other people.
Life in complex societies is built on social realities, the most obvious examples being money and the rule of law. But a social fact depends entirely on the willingness of people to treat it as a fact. It is specific to a community, as we see when people refuse to honor a foreign currency or fail to recognize the sovereignty of a self-proclaimed leader. And it can dissolve with changes in the collective psychology, as when a currency becomes worthless through hyper-inflation or a regime collapses because people defy the police and army en masse. (Searle points out that Mao was only half right when he said that 'political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.' Since no regime can keep a gun trained on every last citizen, political power grows out of a regime's ability to command the fear of enough people at the same time.) Social reality exists only within a group of people, but it depends on a cognitive ability present in each individual: the ability to understand a public agreement to confer power or status, and to honor it as long as other people do.
How does a psychological event—an invention, an affectation, a decision to treat a certain kind of person in a certain way—turn into a sociocultural fact—a tradition, a custom, an ethos, a way of life? We should understand culture, according to the cognitive anthropologist Dan Sperber, as the epidemiology of mental representations: the spread of ideas and practices from person to person. Many scientists now use the mathematical tools of epidemiology (how diseases spread) or of population biology (how genes and organisms spread) to model the evolution of culture. They have shown how a tendency of people to adopt the innovations of other people can lead to effects that we understand using metaphors like epidemics, wildfire, snowballs, and tipping points. Individual psychology turns into collective culture.