THE EVOLUTION AND LOSS OF HUMAN CULTURE
by
Chris Maser


I do not think any civilization can be called complete until it has progressed from sophistication the unsophistication, and made a conscious return to simplicity of thinking and living. — Lin Yutang


In the giant process of evolution, relationships among things are changing continually as complex systems rise from subatomic and atomic particles. In each higher level of complexity and organization we find an increase in the size of the system and a corresponding decrease in the energies holding it together. So as evolution proceeds, the forces that hold together the evolving systems, from a molecule to a human society, weaken as the size of the systems grows.

Moreover, Earth has been exposed for billions of years to a constant flow of energy streaming from the sun and radiating back into space. On Earth, the flow of energy produces the vast variety of living systems from the simple, such as an individual cell, to the complex, such as a human society. Each system uses the sun's energy to fuel its own internal processes, and each in turn provides fuel to others.

During its evolution, every system must develop the ability to constantly balance the energy it uses to function with the energies available in its environment. Ecosystems and social systems, like organisms, constantly bring in, break down, and use energy not only for repair but also for regeneration and to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

For a society to function so that its human components can survive and reproduce, Nature must maintain its cycles in such a way as to provide enough energy for society to use. If some of the cycles that we humans tinker with and alter begin to deviate too much from the evolutionary track that Nature has established, then we tend to introduce "corrections." We seek new sources of energy, we nurture new varieties of plants, and we invent new modes of production.

When, however, enough human-altered cycles break down simultaneously, we must call into question the logic of our social system itself. This notion may have caused French author Émile Boutmy to observed America and write:

[Americans'] one primary and predominant object is to cultivate and settle these prairies, forests, and vast waste lands. The striking and peculiar characteristic of American society is, that it is not so much a democracy as a huge commercial company for the discovery, cultivation, and capitalization of its enormous territory.… The United States is primarily a commercial society … and only secondarily a nation.…

Such scrutiny is wise, because what society thinks of as "corrections" are really self-reinforcing feedback loops, the outcome of which is not necessarily in keeping with our desires, regardless of what we try to do. Human societies either transform in a truly corrective sense—realigning themselves with the biophysical principles governing Nature—or they vanish.

Life and society are tenable as long as a particular human population remains within the carrying capacity of its habitat. Carrying capacity is the number of individuals that can live in an area without degrading the habitat that supports them. When, however, the limits of carrying capacity are exceeded, the social system must change and correct the way it overtaxes the environment's source of energy or disappear into its smaller, more strongly bound components, such as tribes, families, or even individuals.

To survive, all societies must evolve in response to environmental changes, those usually brought about by their own activities. So far, groups of humans have evolved through stages of gathering food, hunting, nomadic herding, agriculturalization, industrialization, and now the global information age. Each stage has had a successively greater impact on the environment, and each cultural shift has brought with it the need to transcend the socially created, environmental problems it has caused.

Today, as never before, the environmental transgressions of a few powerful nations—like the United States—affect the whole world. Human society as we currently know it, in all its various stages of evolution, stands at the crossroads of such environmental degradation that all generations, particularly those heretofore unborn, will suffer ever-increasing depervations.

If the industrialized nations insist on maintaining their present course of environmental destruction, human societies, including ours, will collapse worldwide. If, on the other hand, we humans are wise enough to transcend our destructive ways, we can, through conscious decisions, create the opportunity for our societies to evolve more harmoniously into the future than might otherwise be possible.

For us to continue our evolution, we need to protect one aspect of our culture that we normally neglect:  language. Perhaps one of the greatest feats of humanity is the evolution of language, especially written language, which made culture possible. Language, which we seem to take for granted, is not something we generally think of as becoming extinct. And yet languages are disappearing all over the world—especially those of indigenous peoples, which are spoken languages only.

Language is the storehouse of ideas. It allows each succeeding generation to benefit from the knowledge accrued by generations already passed. It is a tool, a catalyst, a gift from adults to children. By means of language, each generation begins further up the ladder of knowledge than the preceding one began.

One of the greatest values of language is that it allows us to search for truth and to strive for those ideals that we, as a society, perceive to be right and just. In this sense, language has become an imperative for the survival of human society, because the tenets of society are founded on language. We simply must understand one another if our respective societies are to survive.

Every human language—the master tool representing its own culture—has its unique construct, which determines both its limitations and its possibilities of expressing myth, emotion, and logic. So long as we have the maximum diversity of languages, we can see ourselves—the collective human creature, the social animal—most clearly and from many points of view in a multitude of social mirrors. And who knows when an idiom of an obscure language, or a "primitive" cultural solution, or the serendipitous flash of recognition spurred by some ancient myth or modern metaphor, may be the precise view necessary to resolve some crisis in our "modern" global society.

How many potential answers, how much ancient wisdom, will be lost, because we are losing languages, especially obscure, "primitive" ones, to "progress?" As languages become extinct, we lose their cultural sources along with their perceptions and modes of expression. Because language is the fabric of culture, when a language dies, the demise of the culture—not necessarily the people—is imminent.

One such dying language is that of the coastal Tlingit Indians of southeastern Alaska, so Richard and Nora Dauenhauer raced time to collect the Tlingits' tales before the language died with the few elders who still spoke it. Nora remembered when speaking her native Tlingit tongue brought punishment at school and shame on the streets. Now it's too late for Tlingit to survive as an everyday language. To survive at all, it must be preserved as literature.

Since Nora began collecting Tlingit stories in the 1960s, only three of the twelve elders whose tales are printed were living. "We only know of two young men who can speak Tlingit, two under the age of forty. All of us who can speak it are now grandmothers," she said in 1987.¹

With the loss of each language, we also lose the evolution of its logic and its cultural myths and rituals—the metaphors of Creation that give the people a sense of place within the Universe. Each time we allow another human language to become extinct, we are losing a facet of understanding, a facet of our collective selves. As a global society we are slowly making ourselves blind not only to ourselves and to one another but also to our relationship within the Universe.

Our growing blindness through the extinction of languages is exacerbated by the global spread of such languages as English, German, and French. They are replacing more obscure ones at a tremendous cost of lost cultural history, lost identity, and lost dignity.

For the last decated or so, some have been pushing English as the "official language" in the United States. Those who support the "English-only" movement claim that bilingualism creates cultural divisions and hinders new immigrants' abilities to assimilate, but critics believe the English-only movement is a cover for racism. This may well be so, for as poet Allen Ginsberg said, "Whoever controls the language, the images, controls the race." But regardless of the motive, to lose one's cultural myth, which only one's own language can adequately portray, is to lose one's sense of place and identity in the Human Family and in the Universe.

And, if diversity at some point does equate to the stability of a dynamic society, we are simplifying—and therefore destabilizing—society not only through the loss of languages and their cultures but also through the proliferation of a few chosen languages. Both of these things are destroying the spiritual vitality of the humanity's cultural myths and the rituals on which they are founded.


ENDNOTE

  1. Sue Cross. 1987. Pair rescue legends as Tlingit tongue dies. The Corvallis Gazette-Times, November 15.


©chris maser 2006. All rights reserved.

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