The Origin of Cultures: How Individual Choices Make Cultures Change

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What makes a 17-year-old girl decide to wrap a bomb around her body, walk into a supermarket, and detonate it, killing herself and an 18-year old girl shopping there? In this provocative and important book, renowned anthropologist W. Penn Handwerker shows that individual choices, from the fatal to the mundane, are fundamentally questions of culture—what it is, where it comes from, and the complex ways it changes and evolves. In accessible and engaging prose, he walks readers through the process of how the human imagination produces new things, shaped by culture and experience but also constantly evolving in unpredictable ways. He shows how understanding cultural dynamics, which explain one girl’s decision to murder and another girl’s decision to shop, will help us address critical policy questions, from reducing the likelihood of terrorist attacks to responding to global epidemics and addressing climate change.

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Product Details

Meet the Author

W. Penn Handwerker (Ph.D., Oregon, 1971), Professor of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut, trained as a general anthropologist with an emphasis on the intersection of biological and cultural anthropology, and has published in all five fields (applied, archaeology, biological, cultural, and linguistics) of anthropology. He conducted field research in West Africa (Liberia), the West Indies (Barbados, Antigua, and St. Lucia), the Russian Far East, and various portions of the contemporary United States (Oregon, California’s North Coast, Connecticut, and Alaska). He developed new methods with which to study cultures while he studied topics that included the causes and consequences of entrepreneurship, corruption, human fertility, and both inter- and intra-generational power differences. His current research focuses on the possibility that the most effective collective action for community sustainability reflects the cultural assumption that each person knows what's best for him or herself.

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Table of Contents

Preface 7

1 The Puzzle 9

What's This Thing Culture? 15

Directional Change in Productivity 16

Revolutions Produce Qualitative Change 18

Names Aren't Cultures 24

Many Cultures Intersect to Make a Person 26

A Thing, Sui Generis 27

Galton's Problem 30

The Argument in This Book 33

Selected Bibliography 34

2 What Makes a Door? 37

What Exists Now Shapes What Comes Next 39

New Things Come from Old Things 41

What Exists Now Could Not Exist Without What Went Before 43

Why Cultures Must Evolve, Unexpectedly 47

What Sets Us Apart? 50

Selected Bibliography 53

3 Sensory Fields and Cultural Outputs 55

Different Experiences Produce Different Cultures 55

Sensory Isolation and Information Flow 60

We Take Our Cultures with Us 62

We Learn from Our Neighbors 67

Information Volume Regulates How Much We Learn 70

Two Rules for Cultural Design 74

Cultural Dynamics 78

Selected Bibliography 80

4 Why We Don't Learn What We Could 81

Why We Tell Good from Bad 82

Winnowing the Good from the Bad 83

Winnowing Makes for Incremental Change 85

How We Tell Good from Bad 89

What This Means 92

What Makes Consequences Change? 94

Cultural Evolution Shifts Course when Consequences Change 97

Selected Bibliography 104

5 Consequences Depend on the Distribution of Power 107

Consequences Elicit Cultural Assumptions 109

A Fish Rots from the Head 113

Lower Level Power Concentrations Also Unleash Violence 116

Subordinates Find Ways to Empower Themselves 119

A Shift in the Distribution of Power Elicits New Cultural Assumptions 121

Selected Bibliography 129

6 Lessons Learned 131

A Thought Experiment 134

People Do violence to Defend Themselves138

More Often than Not, Different Does Mean Better 140

How New Things Acquire Immense Power 141

What about the Future? 144

Selected Bibliography 149

Index 151

About the Author 155

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