Cultural Pathology

Culture is not just art, music, language, clothing styles, and ethnic foods. Importantly, it also includes the fundamental values, norms, and beliefs that define a society's way of life. Thus, the classic problem of social science has been to understand how and why some people and groups deviate from the standards of society, sometimes even resorting to crime and terrorism. Recent attention on closed groups has once again raised the question, "Why do people believe weird things?" — to borrow from a recent book title (Schermer 2002). The problem of social order thus depends upon the dynamic interactions between cultures, subcultures, and countercultures.

For decades, various anthropologists have considered whether or not there is a cultural equivalent of the human genome underlying differences of belief and behavior across groups or whether cultural context differentially expresses elements from a common repertoire available to all humans. One way to approach the issue might be to study culture with methodologies similar to those of bioinformatics.

A key bioinformatics construct is the genomic code, the cultural equivalent of which has been widely discussed under the concept of "meme" (Dawkins 1976). Cross-cultural signals are often undetected or misidentified, and cultural miscommunication is commonplace, leading one to suspect the existence of such codes and their differentiation among social groups. Levi-Strauss (1966) refers to cultural concepts, or artifacts, as "things to think with." Such shared concepts may, however, be more a form of externalized representation, or "cognitive Post-It Note," with important information processing functionality for a social group.

The prevalence of fundamentalist cultural and religious movements, for example, suggests that there may be an equivalent of the "auto-immune" response at the cultural level. Religion appears to be what Talcott Parsons (1964) called an "evolutionary universal," essential to the functioning of societies and prominent in every long-lasting culture. Within the realm of religion, diversification also appears to be universal, and it may be vain to hope that all people can eventually come to share compatible religious beliefs (Stark and Bainbridge 1987). At the present time, it is crucial to understand that revitalization or nativistic movements appear to be universal in times of great social change (Wallace 1956). Such movements tend toward increased orthodoxy and the involvement of charismatic leaders. Anthropologists have studied such movements from the time of the "Ghost-Dance" cults of native North Americans at the end of the 19th century to the rise of militant groups in Islam today (La Barre 1972).

"World-views" may be self-regulating, in this respect, each dominant ideology naturally stimulating the evolution of counter-ideologies. Just when Western Civilization rejoiced that it had vanquished Nazism and Marxism, and the "end of history" was at hand, radical Islam emerged to challenge its fundamental values (El-Affendi 1999). Quite apart from the issue of terrorist attacks from radical fringes of Islam, the entire Muslim religious tradition may have an evolutionary advantage over western secularism, because it encourages a higher birth rate (Keyfitz 1986). An inescapable natural law may be at work here, comparable to that which regulates the constantly evolving relations between predators and prey in the biological realm, ensuring that there is always a rival culture, and complete victory is impossible (Maynard Smith 1982). However, deep scientific understanding of the memetic processes that generate radical opposition movements may help government policymakers combat them effectively. It may never be possible to eradicate them entirely, but with new scientific methods, we should be able to prevent them from driving our civilization to extinction.

A science of memetics, created through the convergence of many existing disciplines, would likely give a basis for understanding the relationship between social groups and globalization — a topic of enormous recent interest. Fundamentalist groups are no longer "fringe" as they practice tactics to deal with variety and change, and they have become a topic not only for cultural anthropologists but also for law enforcement and governments in general. Certain "ideas" may have the force of a social virus that spreads as quickly and can have as deleterious effects on a population as do biological viruses (Boyd and Richerson 1985; Dennett 1995; Sagan 1997). It is important to examine such theories and to consider whether or not people are naturally vulnerable to "hacking" in the concept domain, as their computer networks are vulnerable in cyberspace. At the same time, memetics can help us understand the forces that promote cooperation between people and sustain culturally healthy societies (Axelrod 1990).

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