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From species to humanity

Humankind and culture

Human society in general, not just societies in the plural, extends to all human beings, the total number of members of the animal species, homo sapiens. But we should not equate the human species with human society. As with other animals the qualities of the species are distributed among individual members. In total they make up humankind. It is through their social relations that they constitute societies and the total set of relations at any one time makes up what we can call world society.

For any animal species the essential requirements for survival include genetic inheritance, functioning organisms, a favourable environment and social relations. Society as such is not especially human. If we take our closest animal relatives, chimpanzees, in their natural habitat in Africa they constantly form and reform social relations, fission-fusion male-dominated societies, within larger territorially based exclusive communities. In captivity female coalitions develop to reduce male dominance. But both in the wild and captivity chimpanzees exhibit a diversity and adaptability in their social behaviour which permits wide variation in prevalent social relations. 4

It is this adaptability which human beings possess too which makes it impossible to show that any particular type of society is determined by biology. Individuals during their lives are capable of sustaining and experimenting with vastly differing types of social relations. Societies can undergo total social transformation as the history of revolutions shows.

In evolutionary terms the human organism has not just adapted, it has evolved adaptability. It provides for versatility, a collective freedom to draw on a vast repertoire of possible social behaviours under differing conditions. The range of social relations which human behaviour can support extends from individual freedom of choice to arbitrary rule of some over others. Hence the variations in human society are vast even while the biology remains stable, and explaining the sources of these variations is a distinct field of inquiry in its own right.

What makes human society a special case compared with the societies of other species is the development of culture, ways of acting, thinking and feeling which are transmitted from generation to generation and across societies through learning, not through inheritance. Culture includes language and technology both of which involve the communication of ideas and the possibility of sophisticated co-ordination of action. This vastly enhances adaptability.

It is not that other animals do not possess culture. Chimpanzee groups exhibit learning and the transmission of culture over time in the group. But the culture of human societies everywhere has been so much more developed for so long that it may have exercised an evolutionary influence on the human organism. This is what Edward Wilson calls gene-culture coevolution. Culture confers selective advantages for the organism with the larger brain, specialised larynx and prolonged period of maturation to adulthood which have evolved in the period of perhaps five or six million years since we shared a common ancestor with the chimpanzees.

But there is no evidence that the recent incremental development of culture since historical records began has required biological change. It has depended on increases in the scale and intensity of human social relations which it also helps to promote. Culture provides the repertoire of activities from which we choose and creates the resources we need to pursue them. It is both a product of collective effort and a means for individual expression. Language has both those features, but so also have art, science, education, religion and sport. We are able to perceive their abstract qualities as values.

Human efforts are channelled by values in certain directions and the outcomes of those efforts are in turn evaluated and become the basis for future efforts. This reflexive relation between values, activities and products absorbs and directs the energies of human beings. It is the basis of the transformation of nature and the environment for which archaeology provides the earliest evidence and which historically is ever accelerating. These are collective achievements which make possible the accentuation of individual difference. This is one of the more important paradoxes we and governments often find puzzling. Individualisation, as self-realisation and political project, depends on quite definite arrangements for sharing in a collective product.

Culture depends on individuals for continuous dismantling, reassembling and modification, but even more on social relations and the larger configurations of those relations we call societies. Society then has a quite definite place within the order of our world—set between species and culture, and an environment which in part we have made, it is our relations with each other, providing both a base and limits to what we as individuals can do.

In respect of society culture is a double-edged acquisition. Based on social relations it can also transform them. It provides guides and criteria which people take account of in their daily behaviour. These are norms which are always ambivalent; that is, they become facts in so far as we follow them but are ideals when we fail to measure up to them. The regulation of our behaviour by standards which we can choose to obey or not is a core feature of the human condition.

To culture we owe humanity, standards for our behaviour and the values we aspire to in a truly human existence. Yet it can equally produce inhumanity, the application of technology in genocidal horrors like the Holocaust. This was the most dramatic deformation of culture which the developing technology of the Modern Age produced. But that was merely a horrific episode in a period of recent history.

Now we are on the threshold of a transformation of the species, a possible new evolutionary stage when the potential exists not just to destroy people but to change genetic inheritance. The new genetics is important because it opens the possibility for science to change the biological basis of human life even as it fails to show that society is determined by genes. The 50-100,000 genes in the human genotype provide the preconditions for culture not its direction. This is provided by an alliance between scientific values and capitalistic interests, taking us into uncharted territory.

Sex and gender

The interplay of biology, society and culture always arouses the most intense controversy in discussions of sex, sexuality and gender. There are radically diverse views about the differences between the sexes, but also about what is typical, expected or appropriate in their relations with each other.

The intensity of debate arises in part from the complexity of the issues. The influences on each other of society, culture and human biology are not one way, nor straightforward. For instance the biological nature of human beings itself provides for social relations, and the topic of sex and gender is a main point of entry into understanding society.

Biologically human beings are built to reproduce themselves through relations with each other—namely, those social relations we call sexual. Changes in reproductive potential can influence society. For instance if, as some evidence suggests, males world-wide are losing fertility, perhaps for environmental reasons, this might mean declining demand on women’s capacity to bear children. In turn this might enhance the freedom of women in their relations with men.

But this is a long causal chain with many links. Male fertility is arguably the least important factor in determining the number of children a woman has, and relations between men and women are the outcome of politics and economics as much as of sex. There are plenty of other ways women may be subordinated to men quite apart from child-bearing.

The importance of sex for society is not simply as a reproductive mechanism but as a primary differentiation between individuals which creates mutual dependencies between them. Sexual identity is global in two senses. It applies to everyone. In market researchers’ terms it is a global category. Second, it travels world-wide, meaning that you carry this attribute wherever you go. In this sense the fact of being male or female crosses the boundaries of any society and is testimony to the unity of the human species. A sexual identity, being male or female, will be ascribed to you from birth, whether you want it or not, irrespective of sexual orientation, heterosexual or homo-sexual.

Relations between men and women are never exempt from considerations based on sexual difference. A central issue for any society is how far those concerns should go. Societies vary vastly in the extent to which they define activities and social positions as appropriate for each or just one sex. These varying definitions of the characteristics and proper behaviour for men and women are what we refer to as gender, those signs which people use to convey differences in sexual identity. We read male/female difference into a vast range of everyday things, in looks, work, clothes and language. But those signs vary from culture to culture, within and across societies.

The case of language makes us aware that the gender difference need not have anything directly to do with sex at all. In a language like French every noun reflects the gender difference. The sun, ‘le soleil’ is masculine in French, ‘die Sonne’ feminine in German, but the world as a whole is gendered in any culture even if not directly represented in grammar. In Chinese culture the male and female principles pervade the world and are represented by the mystical yin-yang sign which now is recognised world-wide. But this entwined embryonic globe interpreting the forces of life vividly illustrates that cultural expression of gender is only remotely determined by underlying sexual differences. Human beings give free play to their imagination and creative power in the expression of gender and variations in that expression exist between and within both societies and individuals.

At the same time gender competes with other principles as an organising factor in social life and is often concealed to serve other purposes. In particular power relations are gendered so that men world-wide have almost always enjoyed the greater share of the benefits of wealth and had easier access to public position and employment. Patriarchy, male rule, can persist while disavowing itself. Thus in the contemporary capitalist world business interests often seek to impose principles of rationality, efficiency and competitiveness and exclude questions of gender from work organisation. This appears to be consistent with political demands for ‘equal opportunities’, but it may effectively entrench male domination. Mary Wollstonecraft who made the classic nineteenth-century affirmation of the rights of woman sought to persuade them to ‘endeavour to acquire strength too’. Rights have to be asserted as generations of feminists have sought to do ever since. Removing gender from the agenda does not produce equality any more than equality before the law in the market has redistributed wealth.

The refusal to recognise the consequences of gender difference does not make it go away. Nor does legislation abolish sexuality. Sexuality is a social force, as well as a property of individual organisms. As a force for shaping social relations it extends vastly further than biological reproduction. It can bond couples of the same sex. But sexuality belongs no more to separate couples than it does to separate individuals. It pervades the whole of social life.

This means we can’t marginalise sexuality as something outside society. Indeed it is a prototypical medium for all social relations. It belongs to individuals by virtue of their prior relations with others. It appears as energy which can be converted to different forms. It is lodged in objects, fetishised. It can be promoted and exploited commercially. It contributes to the climate of organisations. It is maintained over time in and through relations with other people.

The channelling of that force is a potent factor in the formation of social relations. For instance, human beings in general avoid sexual relations with those with whom they have close relations in early life. This is backed up by culture, by the incest taboo, but it appears also as an emotional response which may have a biological basis. One obvious interpretation is that it prevents the genetic defects which arise out of inbreeding. But this avoidance occurs whether the individuals are biologically related or not. For instance, children of the same Israeli kibbutz do not marry each other even though they are not related biologically and there is no taboo.

A more plausible interpretation is that sexual avoidance among close associates in early life encourages sexual search beyond them and thus promotes relations between social groups, increasing the scope and power of alliances between communities. If there has been evolutionary selection of an innate response it may then be the result of the superior survival chances of larger groups. Sexuality as input, medium and outcome is then tied into the total configuration of social relations. As society changes so does sexual behaviour. In the past periods of free sexual expression have alternated with periods of restraint. Liberalising political regimes, relaxed social control, and sexual permissiveness were linked in Europe in the 1900s and the 1960s. What the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud and the erotic painting of Gustav Klimt did for middle classes in the earlier period was repeated for a mass market by the Rolling Stones and Carnaby Street (aided by the contraceptive pill) in the later.

When we refer in this way to the cultural expressions of sexuality it is evident that they cross the boundaries of groups and societies, easily transgressing their established norms of appropriate sexual behaviour. A woman born and brought up in Bangladesh but moving to the West finds the general expectation that she should move around openly in public an uncomfortable and embarrassing exposure. Conversely a Western woman walking on the streets of Dacca with bare arms will invite contempt. At the same time culture is constantly challenged by and changing through these encounters.

Human beings are caught between their universal acceptance that male and female are different sexes and a seemingly limitless variation in cultural expression of difference. This is the tension between sex and gender, between a biological divide and its cultural definition, which has always to be resolved in actual social relations.

Evolution and history

We tell the story of changes in culture and society as human history in the broadest sense; what has appropriately been called grand narrative. This collective self-awareness is itself a feature of culture. It enables us to distinguish different time-lines in our accounts of the species, its individual members, culture and society. Putting them together reflects the extraordinary diversity of actual life. Separating them makes for clear analysis and permits us to develop theories about their interplay.

In particular, maintaining different time-lines for culture, society and the species guards against major fallacies which beset thinking about the human past. We won’t fall into the trap of thinking that individuals today are more intelligent, creative, or caring than they were 10,000 years ago. They simply live under quite different conditions. We can guard too, if we think in terms of animal species, against treating social virtues as peculiarly human.

This will help too to forestall the idea that the development of culture, especially of a technical kind, where one invention builds on the last, marks the progress of society from savagery to barbarism and civilisation. This was the dominant belief in the West in the nineteenth century. We can distance ourselves too from the notion that societies have to go through necessary stages of development until they achieve the state of being fully ‘modern’. This reflected dominant Western ideology in the twentieth century.

The sheer pace and diversity of changes in culture only highlight the relative independence of social relations. Very different alternative arrangements are possible at the same time in the same society. In the United States today patriarchy persiqts in fundamentalist Christian families and egalitarianism in politically correct liberal couples. Or similar collective organisation may occur at very different periods of history—direct democracy for instance in ancient Greece, among native Americans before the United States was formed, or in service clubs or co-operatives today.

It makes some sense to talk of the development of culture in terms of building on past achievements, which is what the nineteenth century meant by increasing civilisation. But with society on the other hand there is a continual process of dismantling and reconstruction. This is why there is no clear direction in its evolution. Different social arrangements have different survival value, depending on the historical circumstances.

Overall, for human society as a whole we may be able to say that the development of culture has made it possible to sustain far more complex networks of social relations, but when we take any particular society then its future course is always open. The fate of business organisations is instructive here. Large size in itself never guarantees success or survival, and the case for any particular pattern of social relations, say centralisation versus decentralisation, is always contingent on circumstances.

Human society is neither in a permanent steady state nor advancing inevitably. If either were true it would not be half so interesting. It both resists and succumbs to cultural change, it bears utopian hopes and apocalyptic fears, it is subjected to collective experiment or worshipped as divine creation.

Sometimes human society is likened to a well-functioning system, but it is more like a ramshackle edifice in constant need of maintenance and repair. It also repeatedly requires reconstructions as human beings increase in numbers, now approaching six billion, on the same size plot of land since they first appeared on earth. Our recent awareness of the global risks to humankind should encourage new efforts towards world-wide co-operation. If we succeed it will be the triumph of hope over experience.

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The Nature of Human Society | Shaping the world

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