Human Cultural Evolution -- Part Two


Richard F. Taflinger

This is Part Two of a Two Part Discussion of Human Cultural Evolution

This page has been accessed since 28 May 1996.

For further readings, I suggest going to the Media and Communications Studies website.


The camp was not just a specified location in an area found by chance or by dusk to which all members of the band could return to share food. Eventually, the protohumans began searching for optimal locations, those that would provide the best conditions. These conditions would include being central to resources for more efficient exploitation, and necessities such as water and shelter close at hand.

The effects of having a conscious knowledge of the desirability of a location, necessary to be able to select one, could be far-reaching. First, whoever found it first would want to hang onto it -- possessiveness.

Second, whoever found it would realize its desirability and expect others who came along to recognize that desirability. This would lead to distrusting the motives of strangers -- xenophobia.

Third, the more desirable a location, the more the group would want to protect it to extend their stay. This would lead the group to manage their resources so they would last longer, rather than simply taking all they could find and moving on. This would give the land a relative value of its own, a feeling of "home."(10) That value would remain even when the resources grew scarce. Eventually, this would lead to a concept of cyclical time (seasons, the calendar, regular periods of abundance and scarcity), astronomy and astrology, animal husbandry, agriculture, territoriality, politics, economics, law, and religion, all those things that separate humans from all other creatures on earth.

All of this because our long-past ancestors needed someplace to share food? Yes, because this fundamental change in animal behavior evolved to maximize their survival and continued to do so. Let's take just one example, the concept of time. No matter how optimal a location, it changes as time passes. Most animals move on when conditions deteriorate. On the other hand, our ancestors learned that moving on was not always necessary -- it was possible to stay in one location because conditions changed on a fairly regular basis, from good to poor and back again.

However, to decide to stay requires an ability to predict what might happen, not in the next few minutes or even hours, but weeks and months. This requires a sense of time as a distinct and measurable entity, not merely an eternal "now".

The first measurement, the one that virtually all animals know, is the day. There is little more obvious in the world than the sun and its cycle of night and day. A second is the seasons, during which conditions change and trigger responses in plants and animals. Most of these responses are genetic or instinctive, such as migration or hibernation. There is little or no planning involved in these responses -- they are simply reactions to changing conditions.

Early humans began to notice a third, more subtle cycle, the waxing and waning of the moon; they could begin to measure months. They also began to relate the moon cycles to the cycles of the seasons, and thus of ecological conditions. By counting months, they could predict when seasons would change, and thus prepare for conditions before they changed.

However, the conditions were not immutable. That is, just because things happened the same for years doesn't mean they will happen just that way this year. Humans may have noticed that animals would migrate along a certain route beginning in the second full moon after the longest day of the year -- only this year the animals didn't show up. What went wrong? Perhaps disease wiped them out; perhaps they took a different route because the terrain changed; perhaps an asteroid hit them. How would the humans know? But if you have the imagination to see the relationship between a changing light in the sky and the turn of the seasons, you have the imagination to try to find explanations for things that do or do not happen. Such explanations, of course, will be based on your own experience. Since you have control over some things in your life, it isn't such a stretch to imagine that someone has control over the animals. Such a being would be a deity. The camp leads to a sense of home to a sense of time to a sense of religion.

This, of course, took place over millennia as humanity underwent cultural evolution. The other facets of human life, from agriculture to politics to law, evolved along with a sense of time and religion.


The sharing of food not only led to the camp, but the dependence of each gender on the other for survival. Such a dependence created new relationships between all the members of a band, males and females, adults and young.

The greatest change was for the adult males. To understand this, let's look at the females' life.(11) The females' life revolved around the members of the camp, in particular the young, with which they were often burdened. They gathered food in groups, ate it in groups, cared for the young in groups, groomed and played in groups. They, of course, were in charge of the young's early training in all aspects of life, from food gathering to social interaction. And, as the protohumans evolved closer and closer to true humanity, the training became more and more extensive. Nonetheless, the females' life was probably much the same as other primates'.

However, the males' life changed drastically. Rather than being virtually independent of all relationships other than competition with other males for status or breeding rights, he now became dependent on other members of the band. As hunting (as opposed to scavenging) became a more important and complex activity, cooperation rather than competition between the males was necessary to improve the success rate. Naturally, competition continued, but it was more ritualized and social: less breast-beating and physical intimidation to establish status and breeding rights.

The males' relationships with the females also altered drastically. Among most primates most interactions seem, for the males, to be designed to gain her permission for breeding. Among baboons, a male may act as a babysitter for a youngster, but it seems to improve his chances of being the mother's next consort: his solicitude has an ulterior motive. Observers have seen low status male chimps grooming an estrus female, then, when no high status males are watching, beckoning the female to join him in a secluded spot, his intentions obvious.

However, with the protohuman males getting much of their food from the efforts and good graces of the females, their interactions changed. Now she was more than a vessel for his genes, to be filled and forgotten; she was necessary for his personal, not just genetic, survival. Thus, his interest in her and her welfare went beyond that of a purely sexual one.

Her interest in him also extended. As the childhood of her young lengthened to have the time to learn everything it needed to know, her need to train and care for it increased as well. To do a good job, she not only had to devote more time and care to each child, she could have fewer. This made each child more valuable. And the meat the males brought in and shared with her and her child improved the child's chance of surviving and thriving. In addition, her male children needed training that she couldn't provide: inter-male relationships and the specialized skills of the hunt. Thus, it behooved her to form a closer relationship with the males (or at least, the meat they brought in).

Obviously, this closer relationship between males and females took time to develop. Archeological digs of some very early camps of protohumans that had learned to use fire show distinct separation: one large central hearth and another off to one side. From the artifacts such as tools, stone chips and bones around these hearths, many scientists opine that the larger hearth was for the females and young, while the smaller was for the males. Thus, instead of a single integrated society, there was still a social separation between the males and females.

However, later (in time) sites show a greater integration of the members of the bands, with less distinction of the hearths. It appears that both sexes gathered around all the hearths. Clearly, the social relationship between the sexes had grown closer.

Several new facets of primate life resulted from this change in each gender's dependence on the other. The first was the appearance of the nuclear family: a female, a male, and their children. Of course, the basic family was the female and her young. However, it would be more efficient for her to have a specific male to provide the meat and give her male children the training they needed. In this way, she could be certain of both.

Theories abound about the emergence of the nuclear family, its assumption of a monogamous relationship between the male and female, and its effect on human society, especially since it is contrary to the social life of virtually every primate (and most other species) on earth. Desmond Morris (THE NAKED APE) calls it the pair bond, and bases it on the female making sex sexier by developing breasts, buttocks and earlobes, and staying sexually receptive at all times. Because of this "sexiness", the male stays interested in her, and stays with her. I don't believe this is the case (see Chapter Three for a discussion). If one female developed these characteristics to attract and hold a male, so did the other females. Any female could satisfy the male's promiscuous nature, since they're all just as "sexy". No, there must have been more than just sex to hold together a nuclear family.

I believe it developed because of the mutual dependence of each gender on the other, and the complex social life that arose because of the camp. First, the male depended on the females for his plant food. It would be better for him to have a specific female to approach for it to guarantee getting some. In return, he would bring small game to her.(12) Thus, both would benefit from an individual rather than a group relationship.

Of course, it could be argued that there is no need to bring sex into such a relationship. They could just be friends. However, that would assume that the male (remember, he's still not a fully civilized human) removes sex from a relationship with a female, which would have been unlikely.(13) Such a relationship would have a sexual element. Thus, the facets involved in sexual attraction and selection would enter the formation of a nuclear family (see Chapters Three and Four for a discussion of sexual attraction and selection). Her criteria for a mate would include his being an excellent hunter, since the better he was as a hunter, the better she and her young would eat. His status in the society would also contribute to his desirability as a mate. Such status would probably be based on his ability as a hunter: planning, tracking, commanding, killing. This would probably gain him a greater share of any large game, and, as his mate, she and her young would benefit.(14)

Another major change of each gender's dependence on the other would grow from the development of the nuclear family. That change would be the growth of paternal interest in the young. In most primates, the males' interest in the young is non-specific and transient. That is, any youngster is interesting -- for a while. A male would play with it, or tolerate its attentions, until it grew tired of it (unless, of course, there's an ulterior motive as mentioned above). Then, he would walk away or hand it to its mother with an "It's yours -- do something with it" attitude. With the typical primate system of reproduction, promiscuity for both males and females, paternity is more a guess than a certainty. The closest a male can come to knowing whether any particular youngster is his is to be the only, or the last, mate a female has, and even then he's far from sure. Thus, the male neither knows nor cares whether the youngster is his, and thus has no paternal feelings for it.

With the growth of the nuclear family, it became possible for knowledge of paternity to arise. She has selected him as her mate, and he has exclusive breeding rights. Thus, any young produced during their relationship are probably his, and he begins to take a more than cursory interest in them. This would be particularly important as the society grows more intricate and the training of the young becomes more complex. The male's need to contribute would increase, especially for the male children. He would have to teach the boys the ins and outs of male competition and cooperation, and the skills needed for hunting and gaining status. He would also take an interest in the girls. He would want to match them with the best possible mates to improve not only his genetic heritage but his status. The former was probably an unconscious urge, but the latter would be a conscious linking of his line with another that had prestige. The more desirable his daughters, the better a match he could hope for.


Of course, these two major changes in protohuman life, the camp and mutual dependence of the sexes, have created problems since they run counter to many aspects of biological life that evolved over the eons. In particular, the problems arise when cultural evolution runs up against biological evolution.

The camp, and the area it controlled, became important in and of itself (see above). This meant the possibility of conflict between rival groups for the same area. With that conflict came the possibility of battle and war, and the violation of the principle of self-preservation. In other words, individuals would die in defense of their camp. Defense, in this case, can be defined as either protecting against attack from outside, or attacking to gain better resources, which would defend the band against the shortcomings of the band's current situation. This fell to the males for biological and cultural reasons. First, males are biologically less valuable than females; second, the males' competitive nature would suit them for conflict, both against an enemy (perceived or real) and against other males in the group with whom each male is competing for status (the better the warrior, the higher the status); third, the males' hunting skills are easily adapted from killing game to killing each other. Thus, the camp would lead to a widening and intensification of the normal male competitiveness.

Sex and reproduction would also change dramatically. The rise of the nuclear family and its accompanying knowledge of paternity and increase in male participation in rearing children would lead to a change in male/female relationships. The extended training period would reduce the number of children any female could have. With the male devoting his attention to her, rather than being promiscuous himself and siring as many children as possible, each child would become more important to him. Thus, he male would become possessive and jealous, and wish to control the female's sex life -- no more casual sex or promiscuity for her. This would be to insure, or at least improve the chances, that any children she had were his, justifying his investment in her and her offspring.

Men's and women's lives would have changed even more as society developed beyond the gatherer-hunter stage. When the gathering of resources turned to accumulation of material goods that could be transported into the future (See "Greed" in Chapters Three and Four for a discussion of this), and the means of collecting those goods, women's share in the division of labor lost status. The invention of agriculture, animal husbandry and trade contributed to the lessening of women's status as providers for the community. All three replaced hunting as the men's contribution to the community.

It was logical that the men would take on the tasks of agriculture, herding, and trading. It is probable that women invented agriculture, since they were the ones most intimately acquainted with plant life, and most likely to have noticed the relationship between dropped seeds and later plant growth. However, as agriculture turned from haphazard to large scale, it joined herding and trading as occupations bearing many of the characteristics of hunting: distance, time away from the central area, lack of interaction with infants and young children, competition with other men for the best deal or greatest yield, individual decision making, etc.. Such characteristics fit the evolutionary path of males more than that of females. Thus, men would be the members of a community most likely to be involved in these occupations.

In addition, women would become valuable commodities in and of themselves. The most valuable members of any animal species are those that bear and rear young, that pass on genes, that guarantee posterity. Women were those members of human society. However, human society dealt with not just the immediate future, but months and years in the future. Women and their special ability to produce life, and the human ability to project that ability far into the future, made a woman more valuable than any other possible commodity. They were a resource transportable into the future that provided not only the survival of the individual, but the survival of the individual's genes. With men controlling trade, and the ones concerned with guaranteeing paternity (after all, a woman knows who is the mother her child; men can never be absolutely certain), having control over women as reproductive beings became a priority for men. This led to male-dominated society considering women as chattel, to the harem, the dowry, the necessity for female virginity, the duenna, parental permission, marriage and divorce, draconian punishment for adulterous females, chastity belts, and all other societally imposed restrictions on male/female interactions (such interactions were assumed to be sexual and therefore for reproduction). All were designed to guarantee the paternity of any offspring a woman had, that her children were also her mate's.

Human culture has, of course, continued to evolve, at an ever increasing, if uneven, pace. Much of this evolution has been the result of the human ability to think and create. We have gone from the horse and buggy to the space shuttle in less than a century. However, more problems arise as societies evolve at different rates and in different directions. Technology allows all societies to interact, but the disparities in their cultures can cause conflict. What one culture considers the way for people to relate to each other can be anathema to another. One need merely observe the difference in attitudes about women, children, men, competition, cooperation, status, etc. (by both men and women) in American, Iranian and Japanese societies. They run the gamut from medieval to modern.

Even within a society there are disparities. The United States is a mosaic of conflicting cultures. You just have to walk a few blocks down a single street in a major city to see this, as you pass from Chinatown to Little Italy to the French Quarter, etc.. Each culture has evolved its own priorities, attitudes, taboos and necessities, that influence the way each member of that culture perceives the world and the people around rher.

Cultural evolution created new paths in the human psyche. For this book, those new paths included self-esteem, personal enjoyment, constructiveness, destructiveness, curiosity (beyond the proverbial cat's), imitation, and altruism.


10 A sense of "home" is one that relates a location to emotional, physical or mental ease. This is evident in the number of phrases and cliches relating to "home": "Home is where the heart is"; "home is where you hang your hat"; "Home, Sweet Home"; "A man's home is his castle"; "Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home"; etc..

11 We'll stick to primates, since their lifestyle is probably the most like that of protohumans.

12 Although large game such as deer or pig, or game that required a cooperative hunt to bring down such as elephants or rhinoceros, was undoubtedly shared among all the members of the band, it is probable that small game (rabbits, birds, etc.) were too small to provide more than a taste to each member of the group. However, it would be sufficient to provide a good meal for three or four. Thus, small game probably remained the proerty of the hunter who brought it in, to share as he deemed fit.

13 As Harry says to Sally in When Harry Met Sally, men and women can't be friends -- sex always gets in the way.

14 Competition between the males would turn from breast-beating and intimidation to demonstrations of skill. Such demonstrations would establish their status, and gain them greater breeding rights, or the right to mate with the most desirable female(s).

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