Classical philosophy and Darwinian biology are far more compatible than is usually assumed. In fact, looking at either from the standpoint of the other can enrich and deepen our appreciation of both. From a Darwinian point of view, the theories of Plato and Aristotle deserve to be taken very seriously. From the classical point of view, Darwinian biology is much less reductionist than its enemies suppose.
Thursday, August 6, 2015
There Are Only Two Cultures
That’s right.There are only two cultures.Advocates of multiculturalism and cultural
diversity suppose that there are a vast number of cultures but often end up
with only two that matter: the dominant, oppressive culture and the oppressed
culture to be named later.That has the
effect of compressing all the “others” into one undifferentiated mass.
I first noticed this when I
attended a conference on Ethnic Studies some years ago.At one panel the chair rose to inform us all
of the importance of listening to diverse cultural voices.He was followed by a Native American scholar,
who was followed by an African American scholar and then an Asian American
scholar.Each of them told exactly the
same story about coming from a close knit cultural group and being exposed to
pressure from the larger cultural at some university.Each was an interesting, compelling
story.I found myself wanting to sit
down to drinks with each of the speakers.What I didn’t find in their stories was diversity.
I have always enjoyed literature that
plunges me into a world that I cannot otherwise share.Sherman Alexie’s wonderful stories put me
into life on and off the reservation, Junot Díaz has me follow love and loss
from the point of view of a Dominican American uber-male.Isaac Bashevis Singer nourished my soul with
tales of Jews in old Europe and New York.These literatures are treasures beyond price.They are, however, the stories of the same animal
in different circumstances created by the astonishing power of human story telling.
The problem with arguing that
there are many cultures is that there is no non-arbitrary way to distinguish
between one culture and another in order to count them.Is there one “Native American Culture”?One thing I have learned from my Native American
students is that the culture of one tribe is not the same as that of another
and that cultural differences emerge even within tribes.Likewise, Cuban culture is not the same as
Dominican culture, let alone Honduran culture.I learned that from watching Dexter.
Just as the divisions keep on
going downward, all the way perhaps to a single dinner table, so the mixing
goes upward.Are Cuban three generations
in Miami the same culturally as Cubans born and bred in Havana?My friend Ms. Patel from India married Mr.
Guthrie from Scotland.What is the
culture of their children?
If you want to know how many
cultures there are, you need some non-arbitrary way to make distinctions.The oppressor/oppressed distinction is one
attempt to do so, but I think it fails in two ways.One is that it is hard to tell who’s on
first.The New York Irish were on bottom
once, then they were on top, and now?The real power structures in New York may have little to do with what we
call ethnic culture.
The second problem is that this
distinction allows the oppressor to define the oppressed.What does it mean to be an Irish
Catholic?You might suppose it has
something to do with the Latin Mass, but you’d be wrong.For centuries it meant that you were the ones
whose land was taken away by the English, who wouldn’t begrudge you the steam
off their piss.
There is a way to distinguish two
very distinct cultures.I first began to
grasp it when I read Chinua Achebe’s seminal novel Things Fall Apart.The novel
tells the story of Okonkwo, a tribal leader in a fictional Nigerian
village.We see him before and after his
native culture is exposed to, and begins to degenerate in the face of, colonial
influences.This presents in stark terms
the collision between the only two cultures that there are.It is not the fact that the missionaries were
oppressors that made them distinct in culture; it was the nature of the
distinction that made the one oppressors and the other the oppressed.
Originally there was only one
culture.It was always centered at some here among some us.We are the people.Here is the place.Everywhere else is out there.Everyone else is them.The ancient Greek word for stranger (Xenos) also meant enemy.It’s us or them.Our temple is
the center of the world, the Middle Kingdom; the history of our people is the
history of the world.This culture,
which we may call unipolar, has its
own logic.It goes like this:
Why are these ways the best ways?
Because they are our ways.
Why are they our ways?
Because they are the best ways.
If that strikes you as circular
reasoning it strikes you right.That is
its awesome strength.In this circle, a
human soul can come to rest.All
questions are answered by the stories told by the elders.The circular reasoning at the heart of
unipolar culture discourages questioning.It doesn’t matter if one sacred story contradicts another, say if one
story says that human beings were created before the beasts of the field and
the other says that they were created after the beasts.Each story is true in its telling.
Unipolar culture is not primitive,
except in a purely temporal sense.It
probably required more brain power to manage as many stories as possible and to
learn the ways of different things without looking for simplifying principles.As Leo Strauss observed, one needs to learn
that the way of dogs is to bark and the way of women is to menstruate and the
way of the people to the north is to burn their dead.Since the human brain is not unlimited in its
capacity, the chief editing device was forgetting.Over time we forget that hero A and hero B
were different people and so hero Abe rises in status.
How a different culture emerged
is not entirely mysterious.Trade was
probably the most important driving force.It was possible for one people to trade with another without regarding
the relationship as essentially from the encounters with herds and the
flowering of fruit trees in their season.At some point, however, it occurred to someone that just as we see the
world from here, they see it from there and our there is their here.Their ways are theirs because they are theirs
and ours or ours because they are ours.When in Rome…
Multipolar culture probably
emerges in a lot of different places at different times but it becomes fully
conscious first (so far as we know) in ancient Greece.Herodotus’ magnificent history is the best
document of its emergence.Herodotus
recognized that no matter where you go, there you are.He listened to a wide range of stories told
by different peoples and understood that there were just their stories.When possible, he went to check out what he could
see for himself.The sphinx was carved
by the gods?Okay.But I notice it has chisel marks.Do the gods use chisels?
It was Socrates who used his own
chisel to cleave the circular logic of the original culture.
Why does God forbid murder?
Because it’s wrong.
Why is it wrong?
Because God forbids it.
That is unipolar thinking.Socrates spits it open by simply asking:
Is it wrong because God forbids it,
Or Does God forbid it because it is wrong?
If you answer the question one
way, you must go on to investigate why God forbids murder.Because human life is valuable?Because murder is socially disruptive?That way leads where Socrates is pointing:
If you answer the question the
other way, you hold to God’s command by an act of will (or, one might say,
surrender).Only now you know something
that the unipolar culture did not.You know
what you are doing.You know that the
law is not something “we” do the way flowers turn towards the sun.It is something you do when you are refusing
to turn the way other things and other people turn.
Either you view the world from a
single center, with a set of ways that define you and set everyone else apart
as other, Xenos, or you recognize that there are lots of points of view from
which to see the world and other peoples are maintaining their ways as best
they can just as you are.These are the
only two cultures available for human beings.
The one, however and however
unfortunately, withers when exposed to the other.That was the lesson of Things Fall Apart.A better
example, perhaps, is Paul Bowles short story, “Here to Learn.”A young Moroccan woman is cast out of her
family because she is raped.No, it
doesn’t matter in that culture that it wasn’t her fault.Through a series of misadventures, she ends
up in Europe married to an American (if I remember correctly) who promptly dies
leaving her a rich widow.Her plight is
made difficult by the fact that she doesn’t know what planet she is on.She knows nothing about the world, that is
round, that Europe is north of Morocco.Having wealth now, she hires someone to teach her about all this.She learns.
She resolves to return home to
show her family how wealthy she is.Wealth is one thing that they respected.When she gets there, the old neighborhood is gone.There is no trace of it, the houses or the
I am sorry that I just spoiled
the ending, but I did so with ruthless purpose: to illustrate my point.She was born into one of the only two
cultures.She left it.She can never go back.