Culture Overrides Biology (Another falsehood)

At issue here is the idea that "biology" is slow and ponderous, glacial, even geological, in its rate of change, while culture is quick and snappy and makes rapid adjustment. Connected to this is a subtly different but very important idea: Culture actually makes sensible adjustments to compensate for changes in the biological realm.

Surely, it is true that culture can change more quickly than biology, and surely it is true that culture can make adjustments for biological effects or alterations. Indeed, the very essence of humanity is culture's effects on human capacities. We tropical ex-monkeys live in temperate, subarctic, and arctic environments because of clothing and fire, for instance. Our diets are diverse and rich because of our technology. Until the invention of agriculture (a bad idea all around) humans in most places in the world and at most points in history probably spent very little time in the direct acquisition of food because our technology (which is a cultural thing) is so wicked cool.

So, what am I complaining about with this falsehood?

Well, it is pretty simple. Despite the importance of culture, the adaptability of culture and its quickness are highly overrated. We tend to overestimate the actual utility of the cultural adaptation ... how much culture actually is adjusted to optimize a solution. This is something many people believe in but I see much evidence that culture is overrated in this area. The other is the speed at which culture changes things. Between the two, we see culture capable of doing some pretty dumb-ass things, or simply failing to do the obvious.

V. Gordon Childe noted this in one of his many treatises (such as "Man Makes Himself,"1 on culture. Childe was Australian born, and he returned to Australia for a dose of euthanasia, but in between he worked on Europe and lived in Britain. He noted that the gentry of Australia were accustom to wearing light linen suits during June, July and August and dark woolen suits in December, January and February, because this was the European/British fashion cycle. Never mind that the seasons were reversed. We evolved fur to keep us warm, then we lost the fur and replaced it with clothing, then we got stoopid.

Our modern Western diet is a construct of culture, and it also may be the single largest cause of death for most Western people. The diet could be culturally adjusted to not result in so much cardiovascular disease and cancer,2 but culture is incapable, it seems, of overriding the biology of food related desires. This should not be a big problem. Our biology demands that we eat, and our culture complies and cooperates in that effort, but the culture part is screwing it up.

One of the basic problems is that cultural practices rarely result from scientific thinking. Obviously. We inherit or receive from somewhere, or sometimes just make up, our responses to the environment (biological and cultural) and then we engage in those responses, often adjusting them stylistically but not functionally.

One day, up at my wife's family cabin, I helped my father-in-law put a row boat, upside down, on a set of blocks late in the fall. When we were done, he said: "I'm not sure why we do this. My father did this, and his father before him probably did it. So I do it. I'm afraid to not do it because there may be a reason for doing this."

And there probably was. But it is also possible that the reason is no longer extant or has changed in its importance. Great great grand daddy Knute's boat was probably a wooden sea-faring vessel of some kind (I'm imagining Vikings) while the boat we blocked-up was an aluminum fishing boat used in fresh water. I can imagine the requirements for winterizing would be quite different.

While we're still up at the cabin, I'll give you another example of how culture often works. When we leave a cabin for the week or longer, we do certain things. We put all the shades down tight. Each window has a shade that totally cover it, and each is closed before leaving. We turn off the water supply. Most interestingly, certain things are unplugged and certain things are not unplugged. Not unplugged: All lamps, any chargers that happen to be stuck in the wall somewhere, clock radios, microwave oven, toaster oven. Unplugged religiously: The electric coffee pot, the coffee grinder, the electric cappuccino maker and the doohickey that makes 'steamed milk' (a recent rather decadent but very nice addition to the cabin kitchen).

Why are the coffee pot, the cappuccino maker and the milk doohickey unplugged? All three have clear indicators showing if they are on or off. These three items and the grinder do not draw electricity when not in use, though the microwave and some of the chargers do. None of these items poses a threat of any kind plugged in while the crappy old clock radio in one of the bedrooms does (old clock radios are a common cause of house fires).

The reason, I believe, is that they all have to do with coffee, so they are classified, culturally, as "electrically ambiguous." This is because the original cabin coffee pot is a percolator. Percolator (at least the older plug-in types) do not show you that they are on or off with a light. In fact, the only way to turn them off is to unplug them. This ambiguity earned the old perc pots a regular inspection by anyone passing through the kitchen to see if they were plugged in. Then, if so, the plug would be pulled out of the wall if no one was at the moment drinking coffee and no coffee was brewing. In anthropology we might classify this as a fetish.

That sensible behavior evolved into a cultural practice of unplugging anything that has to do with coffee. There is not a scientific rationale for unplugging things, but rather, a cultural practice with a long forgotten and largely irrelevant grain of sense.

As far as the window shades and pump go, we have a mixture of sense and non-sense. We close the cabin shades for a few days at a time but no one shuts the shades of their home when they leave for the cabin, even for an extended period. Having a couple of shades open would make sense, because sunlight kills mildew spores. That mildew effect one gets in a cabin is in part because sunlight is not allowed in most of the time! I don't know why we close the shades, but I do know that I don't care about the shades, my wife's parents care somewhat about the shades and grandma's generation goes nuts if the shades are not closed. So, I assume this all can be traced back to some thing that would happen (or not happen) in the old days if you left the shades up.

Well, these cabin idiosyncrasies are interesting but not too broadly applicable except in that they may illustrate how culture seems to function in an illogical way.

One of my favorite examples of culture and biology working at different paces but in a counter intuitive way pertains to the relationship between the age of marriage and the age of first pregnancy. Assuming that biparental care, paternity, kin bonds, and so on are biologically and culturally important, there should be a regular relationship between the age of marriage and first pregnancy. And there is. This can get pretty complicated, and it varies across cultures, but the most common pattern is probably marriage a year or two before first birth. In some cultures, the first birth happens before marriage ... those are cultures where infertility is very high. Makes sense. In other cultures marriage is arranged quite young and sexual relationships are not expected to start between the husband and wife for quite some time. In still other cultures, the official marriage and the baby producing sexual relationships are tightly correlated, in others not. And so on.

The fact that many, or maybe most, cultures have a sensible relationship between more or less formal rules of marriage and the patterns of reproduction, child care, kinship, alliance formation between groups, and other important things would lead us to think that a change in one or more of those important variables would cause an adjustment in he marriage practices.

But, what really happens when there is a biological change in the age of marriage may not be as expected. In western societies, the age of menarche (first period, after which a female can become pregnant) has shifted in less than a century from somewhere close to seventeen years of age (or more by some estimates) to somewhere around 12. Holy crap. Nearly one third of the time of a girl's pre-fecund life has been taken off. Western women (girls) are able to become pregnant in one third less time than they used to, just from the time of their grandparents generation.

Surely one would expect the age of marriage and other cultural features that facilitate sexual maturity, sexual relationships, kin relationships, the economics of starting a household, and so on and so forth to adjust for this biological shift. But it really hasn't. In fact, the average age of marriage over the same time period has gone up. There is now a decade of fecundity unfettered by kinship in Western humans. And, our society is totally at a loss as to what to do about it. So much for culture's adaptability and speed!

This lack of rational thought (and the effect of 'culture' instead of rational thought) is seen in other ways as well. The fact that we are still debating global warming, the current division of opinions on health care insurance reform, the very existence of Michele Bachmann, are all inexplicable from any rational perspective. Culture may be powerful but culture has not been shown to exactly be sharpest knife in the drawer. I'm just sayin' ...


1I have to tell you a story. In graduate school, everyone had to take a pretty tough Oral Exam, which we all prepared for diligently, and almost all of us passed because of that preparation, and also because we didn't piss off the faculty too much. Then came along a student, whom I'll refer to as Eric (because that was his name). Eric didn't pass his exam outright, and it is generally believed that this was because he pissed off the faculty (and did not know some key things one should know, probably). What really pissed them off was when he was asked about Gordon Childe. Gordon Childe would be the equivalent for archaeology of, say, Thomas Jefferson for someone getting their Phd in American Political Science. You would know who he was and you would have read most of his work, and so on. So Eric was asked about Childe, and he hemmed and hawed and said something non-convincing. Then he was asked to simply name one of his books. Eric said (and I have this from Eric himself), "Well, there was that one book .... the one about masturbation. Oh, right, Man Makes Himself!"

2I am not suggesting here that most cancer is caused (or avoidable) by dietary regime. But some is, apparently. See comments below where I give a thumb suck estimate that 36 percent of the deaths in 2006 may have been linked to diet, in that a better diet may have resulted in death of a different cause or later in life. Essentially, much heart disease and stroke, and some cancer, is caused or exacerbated by diet. But, this could be way way off.

More Falsehoods !!!

This post is one of a series on the topic of falsehoods. The following is a list of falsehoods posts in order:


More like this

Quite nice. You've exceeded my hopes. Granted, it would have been better if you'd been able to successfully research the boat thing and the shades thing and at least guess specifically why these practices originated. Like you did with the coffee-pots, which I thought was brilliant, and something I've always wondered about myself.

I've known people who unplug the toaster religiously; I'd always presumed it was because the cord on a toaster is usually pretty short, so unplugging it makes it easier to move for cleaning or for counter-space. Perhaps it is just a hold-over of housefire paranoia, though.

If you spent some time researching the boat and shades and came up with just another example or two, I'd bet you could get an entire book out of it, which could be very successful. Your writing, by the way, does not suck.

Also, Michelle Bachmann is not as inexplicable as she might seem. Very simply, she is a religious stooge maintained in power by politically motivated evangelicals.

I actually know the answer for the sades, I think, but I've not verified it.

Exactly, and certain rugs. But mostly things that are not longer commonly used, or that are these days made of materials that don't fade much.

But there is a deeper link to older times, I think. The practice we see today is to close all the shades, regardless of where the sun ever is. THat could just be bad physics or overdoing a fetish. But, almost all NOrthern European cultures had a belief in "night air" and other things that led to shuttering and closing up homes. So there could be a bit of that left. I think grandma may be at the cabin this weekend. I'll be asking her.

As I understand it, the original logic for putting rowboats upside down was that one wanted any remaining little bit of water to drip out rather than collect and possibly causing rotting or other problems.

Note that this sort of cultural become much worse when they become connected to religious beliefs. I know a family that for a long time didn't eat cabbage on Passover. They apparently remembered that in the old country they never had cabbage until right after Passover so they assumed that there was some family tradition or halachic problem with consumption of cabbage on Passover. One of them many years later mentioned this to an older relative who explained that the reason they didn't have cabbage on Passover in the old country was that where they were the cabbage wasn't in season until slightly later in the spring time than when the holiday normally occurs.

Put aluminum boats up on blocks to prevent animals from wintering under it.

If that isn't a big deal and you're happy to have the cute woodland creatures use the boat as a safe haven, no harm done. Unless it's skunks, of course, although I can't imagine aluminum retaining too much skunk odor...

I've experienced this a bit with my father. One hot day on a long, cross-country roadtrip, we were stuck in a traffic jam. He reached over and turned off the air conditioning "so that the car wouldn't overheat." I explained that I didn't think this was a major problem with newer cars and that I had an engine temperature gauge. I turned back on the A/C and the car was fine.

Well, we have a bit of a hurricane checklist here:
Generator with mini-fridge, small freezer, and single-room A/C
Hurricane ingredients

pomegranates (or grenadine)
pineapples and pineapple juice
Orange juice

Make sure the doors and windows are secured
Make hurricanes

Well, first one has to ask WHY culture should change. Take junk food - manufacturers have figured out how to respond to your innate need for fats and sugars then feed you enough to kill you (while they make a profit). It is hardly adjustable by evolution as most people have had their kids before they croak so fitness is not that affected. But that in any case is all recent culture not old culture.
But culture can also make some pretty significant changes. When I was a kid a woman was considered an on-the-shelf old-maid if not married by the age of 21. Her husband would support her. Also black people in the USA were legally discriminated against.
Going bck a bit more slavery was considered the norm.
Cultural progress does happen.

Is it known why the age of menarche has dropped so much?

Is it known why the age of menarche has dropped so much?

Diet and exercise are big contributors; the usual body-fat influence that affects female athletes, for instance.

Also please note that Greg is indulging in his usual cherry-picking of extremes for purposes of getting his point across to whatever tender area he's selected. There are plenty of ancient citations to female puberty at 12 years or thereabouts. Puberty at ages not much different from today's were normal in European societies for the last several centuries.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 03 Sep 2009 #permalink

Respect to the age of menarche, I remember reading that one factor is temperature(or latitude), with menarche age lower in warmer climates. So here in Spain the age is about 12 years, and marriage is legal from 14 for girls, while in northern Europe it may have been 16 to 18 years old.

By Antoni Jaume (not verified) on 03 Sep 2009 #permalink

DC sessions is being a jackass, as usual. I made no comparison between ancient ages of menarche. I specifically cited the western and northern European shift, I cited a time frame, and I gave accurate data.

DCS is either making an egregious error that many people make or pointing out how to not make it. It is very easy to take some time period in the past (like the middle ages, or 1700, or whatever) and assume that that represents the "old way" and change has only happened since then. I'm sure that the age of menarche in humans is variable, as is stature, and that these variables go up and down.

As to the explanations for this recent 'secular trend' I'm not willing to suggest what the main explanation is at this moment, because I have not read the literature on it in about two years. Last I heard it was diet (sheer abundance of calories) and not electric lights, and not body fat. But I'm not sure of that. It is not latitude.

Our modern Western diet is a construct of culture, and it is also the cause of death for most Western people. The diet could be culturally adjusted to not result in so much cardiovascular disease and cancer

While heart disease and cancer are certainly the biggest causes of death, I don't know if we can make the leap to saying that our diet is the biggest cause of death, because most cancer is not caused by diet, and even some heart disease is not caused by diet. Do you have any data on how many cancer deaths and heart failure deaths would be prevented by dietary changes? I'm sure that it's a huge number, but necessarily most, especially for cancer.

It could be that it is not most.

For the most recent year counted (2006) in the US, Heart disease is nmber one at 26 percent. Stroke, diabetes, chronic liver disease, other hypertension together are about 12 percent. So 36 percent are caused by effects with a very large percentage in turn affected by diet, at least to the extent that a better diet may have had the person die of something else, or the same thing later (What percentage that is I have no idea).

Cancer is about 23 percent (second).

So if 80 percent of this first group would be limited by better diet, and one fifth of cancers would be as well, then about 33/34 percent of deaths are hastened by diet. So not the majority of deaths, but the single largest cause.

Ironically, food poisoning is probably not even on the chart.

In western societies, the age of menarche (first period, after which a female can become pregnant) has shifted in less than a century from somewhere close to eighteen years of age (or more) to somewhere around 12.

Are those mean, mode, median ... ? What standard deviation?

(The current one is easy enough to track down -- the historical one, much less so.)

And, asshole or not, the effect of body fat (and indirectly diet) on female reproductive systems is very well documented.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 03 Sep 2009 #permalink

Body fat is important, but (and I reiterate that I'm not sure what the current thinking is) that total calories was a better predictor than body fat. The fat issue has more of an effect at the lower end, and there are other things that happen at the higher end .... including anovulation ...

There are dozens of papers on the changes in age of menarche.

The current median age of menarchi is under 12.5 in the US

I've probably overstated the older age of menarche (but I know I saw that somewhere!!!) but I'll check and adjust it. Much of what is written about this has very rough estimates for age of menarche before 1960 or so. There are some very likely biases in the data, which is mostly recall data, with circumstances leading to a later than accurate age in some cases, or an earlier than actual age in other cases.

Check Peter Ellison's book if you are interested in body fat and femal reproductive physiology.

Greg, we're converging. That's not acceptable.

The numbers I recall (undoubtedly from weaker sources than yours) put menarche in the recent past around 15-16 years, but also noted that there was a lot of variation. Part of the problem was that written accounts tended (who could have imagined it?) to focus on the upper SES groups, who were also likely to be better fed etc. Serious sampling bias there.

The sources I checked also pointed out that many earlier sources tended to use proxies for menarche since that was not something normally discussed outside of the family -- and marriage or pregnancy as a proxy for menarche is obviously flawed.

At the other extreme we have halachic and canon law sources, which are biased in the opposite direction: dealing with the more "precocious" girls. 12 yo menarche in the 2000 YA period [1] happened often enough to set the halachic age of majority for women, for instance. Jewish sources are useful on this thanks to the rules regarding menstruation (albeit in the context of married girls, but also early marriage and childhood betrothal.)

The more comprehensive records are from church birth records, which may not be authoritative for menarche but are useful as upper bounds. FWIW there were a lot of births to girls in the 13-15 yo range over the course of centuries, even though the age of marriage back then was much older than people today would expect.

Short summary: from my reading it's a damned risky bet.

[1] Sue me.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 03 Sep 2009 #permalink

I think the following can be safely said:

1) The age of menarche, like body size, stature, and other life history variables, varies both as a norm of reaction and possibly genetically (but it looks like mostly the former) across time and space considerably, with rages of median values from about 12 to about 17.

2) Several independant studies of European populations show that a shift from the higher end of this range to the lowest known values has occurred as regions are modernized or as populations move from less developed to more developed areas.

The overall magnitude of this shift could be about 4 or 5 years. Which, still, is not compensated for or adjusted for by any cultural shifts of which I'm aware. Well, I suppose there are more programs addressing teenage pregnancy and such but this is small scale compared to the population wide shift. And not really cultural (like marriage patterns changing or child care patterns formally adjusting) but sociological and governmental.

Greg, you are correct that this is a biological change, which may be culture driven, which we have not yet adapted to, culturally or otherwise. I have heard of an organization which is pushing to lower the age of consent to 12 years old. That would be an example of a cultural adaptation to the situation. Sociology, religion, government, and etc. are all part of culture. You should not separate them out.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 03 Sep 2009 #permalink

Regarding your last statement: I agree, but there is a difference between the ongoing interaction between the person/personality, the collectivity, and the participant vs. the overarching social. It isn't all one mushed up thing with no functional distinctions. On the ground, in this case, this translates into social programs designed by people who specialize in desigining social programs, like the recently constructed "family center" in a nearby community, bought and paid for with school district dollars, and essentially a facility to manage all the issues of having 10 to 15 percent or so of the female student body pregnant or with an infant in a given year, vs. how families and individuals and relationshiops etc. organize to support the child raising effort.

When considering the cultural vs. the overarching social, one may lead the other, they may be in close step, or they may be opposed at any given time and the relationship is almost always dynamic, especially after change. Right now I think we are seeing the overarching social slowly (but in some cases effectively) acting (reacting) and the cultural is doing all sorts of things. In some communities there is an increasingly built in expectation of young girls having kids now and then, but there being an expectation is not the same as being effectively handled.

Several interesting stories here, cool stuff.

"A wooden sea-fairing vessel" is more likely a wooden seafaring vessel.

By Douglas McClean (not verified) on 03 Sep 2009 #permalink

Thanks for the OL's Greg. Now, as regards your thesis here:

IMO what we're seeing in your examples (and many others) is biology overriding culture, specifically the human tendency to ritualize behavior without understanding it. This may relate to the fact that, prior to the invention of science, or perhaps writing, most "explanations" for why things were done were analogical (allegorical). Thus, we see creation stories, including the biblical version of a widespread Middle Eastern story where the original 8-day sequence has been shortened to six (with a rest day on the 7th) by combining two sets of days into one (creation of land and creation of plants into day 3, creation of "beasts of the earth" etc. and creation of man into day 6), the whole thing used to justify "keeping the Sabbath holy".

This mythological explanation bears no relationship to whatever functional, practical, reason(s) there may have been for requiring a day off from work (IMO it was the same reason English Yeomen were required to practice their archery one day a week: there's some evidence that the bows used in pre-Davidic Judea were longbows, requiring constant training/practice from childhood for proper use). Thus it's impossible to justify changing a practice (say, because the longbow has fallen out of use), since there's no scientific explanation available.

According to Barber&Barber: "When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth", there were valid uses for such myth (prior to writing), allowing important lessons to be encapsulated in memorable stories. This probably went on (IMO) since at least 40KYA, the point at which modern humanity had spread from Africa over most of the prior human inhabitants.

The point being, it was adaptive to accept ritualized behavior without questioning the rationalization for it, or attempting to manipulate it, because that rationalization served a valid purpose, but not a scientific one.

Appendix (mostly just to try out an ordered list).

Here are the probable creation days from the original creation story:

  1. Then the Gods said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And the Gods saw that the light was good; and the Gods separated the light from the darkness. And the Gods called the light day, and the darkness night.
  2. Then the Gods said, "Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters." And the Gods made the expanse, and separated the waters which were below the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so. And the Gods called the expanse heaven./li>
  3. Then the Gods said, "Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear"; and it was so. And the Gods called the dry land earth, and the gathering of the waters seas; and the Gods saw that it was good.
  4. Then the Gods said, "Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit after their kind, with seed in them, on the earth"; and it was so. And the earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit, with seed in them, after their kind; and the Gods saw that it was good.
  5. Then the Gods said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth"; and it was so. And the Gods made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also. And the Gods placed them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, and to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness; and the Gods saw that it was good.
  6. Then the Gods said, "Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the heavens." And the Gods created the great sea monsters, and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind; and the Gods saw that it was good. And the Gods blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth."
  7. Then the Gods said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth after their kind"; and it was so. And the Gods made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind; and the Gods saw that it was good.
  8. Then the Gods said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." And the Gods created man in Their own image, in the image of the Gods They created him; male and female They created them. And the Gods blessed them; and the Gods said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth." Then the Gods said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food"; and it was so. And the Gods saw all that They had made, and behold, it was very good.

Compare this with the biblical story (linked above), note the plural ("Elohim"), which was used as a "name of God" by the time this story was put together (7th century BCE).

On the very important topic of why one puts boats upside down and on blocks- in the far north here any water than gets into a boat will freeze and expand over the winter causing damage to the boat as well causing rot in wooden boats. As someone else noted, animals will use a boat not on blocks for shelter.

By the way, I should mention this: As we put the boat up on blogs, I had assumed we were doing this so that it was up off the ground, would provide less shelter for vermine, etc. The boat is aluminum but the seats are wood (and a part of the stern). The point of the story here is the frank admission that we don't really have the rational (though we can assume or guess or reconstruct it) passed on to us along with the practice.

Still working on the shades.

As someone who has extremely little connections to my parents and beyond, and always had, (as well as being fond of information) most of the stuff you mention is baffling and disturbing... Why would people think that little? It reminds me of the joke where an adult daughter finally gets curious enough about an old family tradition of asking the butcher to cut the ordered steak into half, to ask the mother why it's done. The mother admits she does not know, and asks her mother, who states that she did it because her frying pan was too small to accommodate a whole one...

I suppose I should feel lucky for learning to automatically distrust people if they do not provide me with logical reasons for their actions/views before I even had started school as a kid. :-/

At issue here is the idea that "biology" is slow and ponderous, glacial, even geological, in its rate of change, while culture is quick and snappy and makes rapid adjustment., answer me this: what happens when the glaciers are changing faster than the culture adapts to it, as we have nowadays?

Yogi: Good point! Next falshood: "Glaciers change at a glacial pace" ...

One day, up at my wife's family cabin, I helped my father-in-law put a row boat, upside down, on a set of blocks late in the fall. When we were done, he said: "I'm not sure why we do this. My father did this, and his father before him probably did it. So I do it. I'm afraid to not do it because there may be a reason for doing this."

Your father-in-law is stoopid. If a row boat is stored upside down, and elephant will wander by and fill it with urine. And a row boat full of elephant urine smells awful . But if the row boat is upside down, the boat's arched shape sheds the elephant urine easily, and it doesn't fill with urine.

In ancient Rome, the "officially" standardized ages for puberty were 12 for girls, 14 for boys. (Originally, Roman law had put simply "puberty" as the minimum age for marriage; later this was standardized to 12/14.) So having it at 12 was apparently standard at the time.

Wasn't the 16-17 thing a feature of the 1800s primarily, with all their unusual traits (compressed waists, bad diets etc.)?

By intercoastal (not verified) on 06 Sep 2009 #permalink

The sentence *Until the invention of agriculture (a bad idea all around) humans in most places in the world and at most points in history probably spent very little time in the direct acquisition of food because our technology (which is a cultural thing) is so wicked cool.*

confuses me a bit.
Up to the invention of agriculture we would have been busy acquiring food almost 24/7 hunting and gathering and all. Also we'd be moving around a lot. All in all we'd be very occupied with survival.
So, maybe you mean *After the invention of agriculture* ? As, we would have had a lot more 'free' time available to us with the semi-guaranteed food from the farms ?

Gilian: There have been numerous studies of foraging people around the world, but since the beginnings of agriculture go back to 7 to 10 thousand years ago or so in most of the many places where that occurs, and for various other reasons, it is best to consider mainly tropical and subtropical and temperate groups. In any event, the actual foraging time spent by these groups is nothing like an eight hour day and certainly not 24/7 (when would you sleep!). The total workload for most horticultural populations using traditional horticulture is much greater than for foraging groups.

The invention of agriculture did not reduce the work load.

In comparing foraging and farming groups, it also seems that the frequency and severity of food crashes is much greater in the latter (farming) groups, so your basic periodic starvation is more of an issue for those who grow their own food.

In comparing foraging and farming groups, the overal quality of the diet has often been reduced for farming groups. In fact, much of the recent evolution we've seen in our species is probably adaptation to crappy diets that came about with horticulture. (and no, this is not about horticulturists getting smarter. It's about horticulturist adapting to anemia and also probably certain diseases).

Then we add in the fact that constant ongoing warfare is not found among foragers but is common among hortulturists.

When you do horticulture, you have to stay in one place and tend/protect your potential crop. This means you can accumulate wealth. Wealth which you, and others, see as worth fighting for. You also, so to speak, crap up the place as a result of long occupation. This suits various parasites and other disease organisms. Their cause is helped by increased population density. You are also dependent on your crop(s) as your major source of calories, and thus begin to limit your food sources. If you crops fail, you can starve. Maybe go fight someone with crops which did not fail. So I agree with Greg's previous post.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 07 Sep 2009 #permalink

Ah, that makes a lot of sense, thank you for the explanation.

You seem to jump back and forth between the speed of culture and the rationality of culture. I suggest that these two topics have very little to do with each other, and you could present a clearer argument if you were to stick to one for your discussion. Cultural Evolution does move faster than Biological Evolution, but these two are distinct from each other because they function using very different processes and mechanisms, which is not to say they donât effect each other. Cultural Evolution is no more (or less) rational than Biological Evolution, and we should not expect it to be because we do not control Cultural Evolution.

If you are interested in Cultural Evolution you should visit Digdugâs blog at:

This blog uses the Complex-Systems Theory of Culture (the only published scientific theory of culture) to explore current topics in cultural evolution that are pertinent to America and the world.

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