Culture: friend or foe?

Life Examined – No. 1

Culture is a common word with many meanings. In the field of anthropology, culture has been described as “the full range of learned human behavior patterns.”[1] Under this definition, culture includes everything from tooth brushing to wedding ceremonies, and culture runs even deeper than that. Might it be the case that the vast majority of our thoughts and actions are just a performance of the “learned behavior patterns” called culture? This calls into question whether we make our own choices or are simply imitating what we have seen others do. Drawing on the work of anthropologist Edward T. Hall, Thomas Elpel goes as far as to say, “our perceptions and decisions are dictated by deeply embedded scripts mimicked from parents, peers, and culture…our choices in life are not necessarily ours, and the perception of freewill is an illusion.”[2]

Photo by Michael Vito

If culture is so pervasive within our lives, if it determines so many of the actions we take, our first reaction might be to regard it as harmful. We may think that culture is robbing us of our free will, but perhaps there is some value to it. Since culture includes all learned behavior patterns, that means it includes skills such as acquisition and preparation of food and also spoken language. It is easy to see the utility of these skills, and the fact that language is an element of culture sheds light on one of culture’s primary benefits. Within a society, culture provides a shared framework for communication and mutual understanding. It is easy to imagine the misunderstandings and conflicts that would arise amongst even small groups of people without some elements of culture to moderate our interactions.

The concept of a meme helps explain how elements of culture take root within society. The word “meme” was coined in the mid-1970s by analogy to the word “gene.” Just as genes encoded in DNA are passed from organisms to their offspring, a meme is “an idea, behavior, or usage that spreads from person-to-person within a culture.”[3]

If there are ways in which culture exerts a positive influence on people’s lives, are there also ways in which culture has a detrimental effect? Consider the ancient Chinese practice of foot-binding. For those unfamiliar, this was a process wherein a young girl’s feet would be broken, folded under themselves, and tightly bound. Over time, repeating this process resulted in deformed feet that were very short in length and conformed to an aesthetic ideal. The practice was widespread in China until it was outlawed in the early 20th century. Here we have culture at work: an ideal (the aesthetics of short feet,) coupled with a technology (foot-binding) for achieving that ideal. Both spread as memes throughout a large society. Looking back on this practice it seems brutal and insane, yet within the cultural context of that society, it was seen as reasonable and beneficial. In fact, it is often the case that the peculiar aspects of a culture are invisible to those who have grown up in that culture. Edward T. Hall noted, “culture hides much more than it reveals, and strangely enough, what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants.”[4] In the case of a harmful behavior like foot-binding, the concept of meme might take on a more nefarious metaphor, that of pathogenic contagion, a virus sweeping through a population causing infection, in this case an infection of the mind. Could it be that within our own culture there are practices we take for granted, that others might regard as brutal and insane?

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One might wonder if it is possible to be free from culture altogether, or at least free from the undesirable aspects of culture. At the very least it is possible, if perhaps difficult, for an individual to eliminate harmful behavior patterns, but how can one become aware of all these patterns. If culture hides itself “most effectively from its own participants,” then perhaps an effective way to examine one’s culture is to make a conscious effort to not participate in it. Nineteenth century author Henry David Thoreau describes in his book Walden his “experiment” of living in a cabin in the woods for two years. He stated that he “did not wish to live what was not life.”[5], indicating, in a sense, the desire to strip away as much culture from his life as he could. It is debatable to what extent this is possible or even desirable. Nevertheless, this experience certainly sharpened Thoreau’s ability to examine the culture of his time. Could this be the same for each of us? Might we, by simplifying our lives, gain insight into the culture in which we live. Certainly, there is much to be learned simply by observing one’s own actions and the actions of those that surround oneself. Furthermore, there is the option of consciously choosing one’s actions rather than allowing the subconscious mind to replay learned behaviors. This is, of course, is easier said than done.

If we are able to identify elements of our culture that can be changed or improved upon, is it possible to effect a change throughout a society? If culture spreads by way of memes, then, of course, each meme must originate somewhere. In this way the actions of a single individual can begin to change the culture in which he or she lives. As a set of related memes spreads into a portion of a society it can create a subculture. Doubtless, we see many a subculture in the society in which we live. These subcultures may revolve around something as simple as a hobby or sport, a kind of music, or a style of dress. Subcultures are seen most frequently amongst people in pre- or early adulthood, individuals for whom the prevailing culture of their society has not become so entrenched. Often an element of a subculture reaches a critical mass, and so becomes a part of the mainstream culture of a society. Of course, once something becomes a part of the mainstream culture, it does not mean that it will always be so, as can be seen in the case of so many fads. Still, we are left with the question of whether we can see widespread improvement in our culture. The experiences of one troop of baboons in eastern Africa offer some intriguing insights.

Photo by Katie Hunt

First some background on the typical culture of a baboon troop: within the troop there is a group of dominant males. The remainder of the troop consists of females and non-dominant males. The dominant males severely harass and abuse the others in the troop, whereas the females and non-dominant males usually treat each other with respect and compassion. Neuroscientist Dr. Robert Sapolsky has observed troops of baboons in Kenya throughout his career and, in particular, monitored one troop of baboons for over 30 years. This troop was quite similar to any other troop and displayed the typical baboon culture of abusive dominant males. One day this troop encountered a large quantity of human food that had been thrown out, which was contaminated with harmful bacteria. The dominant males, as usual, were able to eat much more of the food to the exclusion of others in the troop. As a result, all of the dominant males died, whereas many of the other troop members who had eaten much less of the contaminated food survived. Some of the non-dominant males became the new leaders of the troop, yet they continued to exhibit benevolent behavior. It is normal for male baboons, when they come of age, to leave their birth troop and join another troop. As time passed and young males from other troops joined this troop, these young males would attempt to act out the abusive behaviors they had learned in their birth troops. When this happened, the formerly passive males, now in charge of the troop would make it clear to these troublemakers that such behavior was not acceptable. Soon these young males would abandon their abusive behavior and behave benevolently, as the other males in the troop did. Over 20 years later, in stark contrast to other known baboon troops, this troop continues to be free of harassment and abuse.[6] What lessons can we draw from this example? Is it possible that we can change our culture if we make a concerted effort to do so?


[1] O’Neil, Dennis. “What is Culture?” 2006. 12 Dec. 2012. <>

[2] Elpel, Thomas J. Roadmap to Reality. Pony: HOPS Press, 2008. p. 27.

[3] “Meme.” Merriam-Webster, 2012. Web. 12 Dec. 2012.

[4] Hall, Edward T. The Silent Language. New York: Doubleday, 1990. p. 29.

[5] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: Or, Life in the Woods. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1995. p. 59.

[6] Stress: The Portrait of a Killer. Dir. John Heminway. National Geographic Video, 2008. DVD.


  1. Bryan, thank you for this. Is free will an illusion?


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