Monday, February 1, 2016

Pros and cons of cultural isolation

There is no other idea expressed in this blog which is at the same time so intuitively obvious, yet hard to understand (when starting from the mindset of the mainstream culture) as the idea of cultural isolation. In this essay I want to try to explain it better, not just in an abstract mathematical way (which I have done before, and do here again in an appendix*), but in an appeal to intuition and common sense. I also want to explain why it is so hard for many people to understand.

The origins of Humanism go back to the jewish prophets and Jesus. We see here a reaction to tribalism, parochialism and predatory nationalism, which breed war, small mindedness, bigotry, suspicion and even hatred of outsiders. During the renaissance this movement flowers and brings about an explosion of science, art, and ideas in general.

And now, in these current times, who can deny that we benefit intellectually and aesthetically from sharing ideas with people all over the world? Not just ideas but feelings, and images/videos/films showing each other how we live. A tourism industry also helps promote this mutual understanding of cultures. This brings us closer together, creates more understanding and empathy, and as a result, at first look, it seems to promote cultural diversity. Not only diversity of ideas and lifestyles, but of products--the "global village" produces more abundance and diversity than an old fashioned local village possibly could, although some people benefit much more than others. Economic protectionism is passe after we have seen the abundance produced by global trade. At the same time, we have seen disasters produced by cultural isolation in the form of cults, where members are not allowed contact with the outside world.

So why would I suggest that there are not only benefits to cultural and economic isolation, but that for some purposes the benefits outweigh the costs? First I have to clarify that by isolation I don't mean complete isolation. I mean pretty strong boundaries. The strength depends on the situation, and also on the stage of the new culture that is forming. When starting a new culture from a strong civilization, stronger boundaries are needed than when starting from a decaying or collapsed civilization. When starting a new culture, stronger boundaries are required than once the new culture has gained some stability. Starting a new civilization requires stronger boundaries than starting a new culture.

This is not so hard to accept. It is also not so hard to accept that nation states use the strategy of setting boundaries in order to grow and maintain their own autonomy and culture. What we are not used to thinking about are the benefits of isolation for smaller groups than nation states, and the failure of isolation even at the level of nation states because of the rise of empires and recently the global economy, both of which attack isolation explicitly in order to succeed.

Why start a new culture when the old one could just be modified in a piecemeal way? Rather than answer this in general, let us specialize to our present global culture of neo-liberal economics, Progress of science and technology, and humanist values.

Globalization has brought not only benefits, but problems. If there were only benefits there would be no need to modify the old culture or start a new one. The problems are known to most people and I don't need to go into them here. They affect not only the third world, but the first world, and indeed the non-human world as well. Unlike reformers, I have come to believe that most of the benefits of globalization can't be detached from the problems. For example, I don't think we could have our electronic gizmos and internet communication without people in the third world suffering to produce them, and without structural unemployment* and work alienation here in the first world. Another example: our wealth depends on burning fossil fuels and no amount of "green technology" will grant us our current extravagant lifestyle as these fossil fuels become harder to extract and dwindle in supply. A third example: environmental destruction and our complicity in it will continue as long as we are dependent on products that are produced without our knowledge, and as long as we are disconnected from our immediate environment and think ourselves above nature.

If you can connect the dots and see the gordian knot of the benefits and problems then you will realize that what we need is not piecemeal solutions but a new culture. You will encounter opposition if you take Einstein's advice and try to solve the problems with a new mindset or Bucky Fuller's advice and try to create a new culture that will make the old one obsolete.  The opposition will come not only from people unconscious of the connections between benefits and problems, or people who are consciously aware of the problems but too selfish, comfortable or blissfully unaware to give up their privilege, but from many feedbacks, ways of doing and being and institutions, which is to say the opposition will be systemic, not personal.

There are two ways that one can fail without isolation/strong boundaries, in analogy with what happens in biological speciation (genetic drift and selective disadvantage within current species). The first is that you've made a beneficial change in your new culture. but you get worn down by distractions from the old culture and eventually your beneficial change gets lost in distractions such as trying to pay the mortgage, the rent, the taxes. Your children get distracted and seduced by the old culture (mostly through media, but also through their peers in the old culture) and return to it and your culture fails to propagate. The second way one can fail is that though you have something that is beneficial in your new culture once mostly formed, it is detrimental in the old culture, or even in the new culture if just starting. For example, you want a gift economy, but if you try that with people from the old culture, they take advantage of you. Or you want a local technology, but until you've built up your infrastructure, you are at a disadvantage if you start a business to try to compete with people from the old culture who use power tools while you are using hand tools. If you can provide for your own culture, then you don't need to compete with them in their economy, and you can get away with using hand tools. Or you want altruism but people find that family loyalty is easier within the mainstream culture than group loyalty, and altruism towards people outside the group does not give much return on energy investment and the groups that do not achieve some isolation get burnt out as a result. Or you want polyamory but all the legal institutions are biased in favor of monogamy, most therapists are biased in favor of monogamy, most of your friends are biased in favor of monogamy.

Any attempt at a true solution of the problems of the mother culture without insufficient boundaries will be co-opted by the old culture in order to maintain itself and eliminate threats to its existence, since the very existence of the old culture depends on the benefits which depend on the problems.  Sometimes attempts at solutions will be thwarted just from inertia, unless the attempt has strong boundaries to keep out the old culture. The more you depend on the old system, the more it can interfere and thwart your attempts to create a new system. The old system is bigger and stronger than the new system in its infancy and it is normally the groups that try to change the system with insufficient isolation that become obsolete, instead of the other way around. Seen in this light, cult-phobia is an attempt by the old culture to prevent threats to its existence. The "global village" meme is an attempt to make people in the first world feel good about having slaves in the third world (John Michael Greer calls it the "global plantation") and to instill the idea that isolation is bad. The supposed diversity of the global village is seen to be an actual attempt to instill conformity to the mainstream culture of impersonal economic relations and consumption as a sacrament, where even local sub-cultures are to be consumed to feed one global culture. We need some space from this voracious beast to grow a new culture, or preserve an old one that has still not been consumed by the global culture. We can't effectively create a new culture if we are dependent for our livelihood, or even technologically on the global one, though this is unavoidable in the short run.

There are many positive historical examples including the Amish, Hutterites, catholic orders of monks and nuns who were able to form new cultures due to their relative isolation from their mother culture. Other monastic orders also achieved isolation and formed new cultures, such as buddhist monks of various sorts.

Modern global civilization also arose in the Renaissance from isolation of various people including Issac Newton and his colleagues in the Royal Philosophical society during the plague, Renee Descartes during his sickness, the British culture which gave us much of our economic and political theory, relatively isolated on an island from the rest of Europe and the catholic church, the Italian merchants who also achieved some isolation from Rome and gave us modern trade.

Medieval culture in Europe arose from the isolation of various barbarian tribes from the Roman Empire once it was on its downward trajectory (makes it easier to isolate then) and the isolation of various Christian communities both before and after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire.

The American culture also emerged with relative isolation from England and the rest of Europe.

There are also many negative examples of how without cultural isolation, new cultures fail to form. This happens every time a new supposedly "green" technology is discovered that is supposedly going to change the world  or save it from ecological destruction, but instead is brought into conformity with the culture of unsustainable consumption (this has happened since the industrial revolution, but now there is a new flavor of "green").  Another example is the repeated failure of intentional communities that do not achieve sufficient cultural isolation.  They fail partially due to economic pressures, but mostly due to internal strife. The need for isolation is obvious when there are economic pressures or other intrusions of the mainstream culture such as land speculation, but not so obvious when there is internal strife.

Cultures, like species, carry their memetic/genetic  environment within them. The founders of any new culture bring some of the old culture with them in their minds and social behaviors so that even if they are explicitly isolated from other people in the mainstream culture (thus avoiding drift), they can only be isolated from their own minds and social behaviors in a limited way. Only one or a few memes need to be initially changed to achieve implicit isolation, but they have to be the right ones that actually produce a new stable valley in negative fitness space, providing implicit isolation. There are many candidates for such so called master memes, including localism (which is a distinct idea from isolationism, but I won't go into it here), love, Ostrom principles, altruism, integral consciousness. But most cults and "green" businesses choose memes that do not give them enough isolation from mainstream culture, even if they manage like some cults to be geographically isolated. An example of a cult at the national level is the former Soviet Union, which achieved explicit isolation from the capitalist culture, but not implicit isolation because the mindset of the soviets was still one of Empire. In the language of this blog, the soviets did not choose to change a master meme and hence could not get out of the valley of the civilization of Empire. In another post I have talked about how given both the advantages and disadvantages of isolation, a sweet spot has to be found for each attempt to create a new culture between too much and too little isolation.

The basic idea is that if a group is to grow not just by biological reproduction, it needs to recruit new members, so it can't be completely isolated (unlike biological species). Also nowadays we need a lot of help from the mainstream culture before we can be self-sufficient on a village level.

So I hope it has become clear that despite its disadvantages, some measure of isolation is important for creating a new culture or civilization.

 * you can check the BLS website here: inputting the following series:
LNU02076930 – Employment Level, 16-64 years
LNU00000060 – Civilian Non-institutional population, 25-54 years
LNU00024887 – Civilian Non-institutional population, 16-24 years
LNU00000095 – Civilian Non-institutional population, 55-64 years and see that about 32% of the american population between the ages of 18 and 65 is not participating in the mainstream economy, despite the official government propaganda of 5% "unemployment rate"

** Indeed a good understanding of evolutionary biology and systems theory in general, explains why isolation is important when trying to form a new culture or a new species. Here are several observations and hypotheses that form the basis for such a theory:

First, that complex, stable living systems such as cells, organisms, breeds, species, cultures, tribes, nations and civilizations form and maintain boundaries, with various levels of permeability. Diversity and life itself would not be possible without membranes, or other effective boundaries.

Second, that though genes can propagate freely within a species, they propagate less between breeds, and they do not propagate at all between species. This requires no physical membrane, yet it happens through mechanisms that involve behavioral and biological barriers to gene exchange and viability even if exchange occurs.

Third, that the genesis of a species (not only its continual stability) requires strong barriers to gene exchange with the mother species. This happens for two reasons: first that genetic drift from the mother species can wipe out mutations in the nascent species, even if they are beneficial. Usually they are not beneficial  (so drift can wipe them out even faster) when starting from the mother species, but are beneficial in the nascent species. The nascent species provides an environment that is conducive to its own propagation, turning a mutation with a selective disadvantage (in the mother species environment) to one with a selective advantage (in the nascent species environment). So if a mutation is getting selected against in the environment of the mother species, it would help to give it the best chance possible by protecting it against random drift from the mother species, with explicit mechanisms of isolation such as geographic and behavioral ones. The second way to protect it is by giving it an environment where it has a selective advantage, which is the internal gene environment of the new species. This creates an implicit isolation from the mother species, one that can best be visualized by valleys connected through a mountainpass, where the height represents negative fitness. The first mechanism of isolation from external drift causes speciation. The second mechanism of isolation by increasing selective advantage both causes and is the effect of speciation (a form of positive feedback).

Though this can be made mathematically precise, it is perhaps too abstract for most people to understand.  I have not published anything about this theory in a peer reviewed journal, as I no longer have the institutional backing to do so. Though I expect this theory to be not so radical for current evolutionary biology, the situation in sociology is more complex. The analogy is between breeds and cultures, and between species and civilizations. There are slight differences in how reproduction happens in the biological and cultural cases, but I don't think they affect the theory. The main elements of evolution operate in both cases: random mutations, selection and drift, combined with complicated hierarchical networks of genes or memes.

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