Civilization: diffusion and impact of culture

March 19, 2011 at 12:22 am (Civilization) (, , , , , )

This is part 2 of my Civilization series.

Diffusion and impact of culture

The reality of human interactions is that we fear and avoid what we don’t understand.  Most conscious thought about culture is about differences: “we” have this way of doing things, “they” do something else.  This affects all interactions in a fundamental way.  Similar cultures will mix more, trade more, share more than distant cultures.

But culture is more than a way of being – it affects the way people interact in and behave very deep ways.  Turchin’s theory of civilization says that Asibiya – the ability for group action – builds up exactly on the borders between cultures.  This is because the definition of “us” becomes very clear when contrasted to a very different “them”.  It’s a nasty fact of humanity that people can show great altruism and kindness to others, yet on an everyday level it is often nepotism – aggression towards people out of your group – that rules.  The origin of states arises from small tribes lies that form strong bonds –  which is precisely what Asibiya is designed to explain.

Culture and religion are integrally related, and religion is an aspect of culture that kingdoms have some reasonable control over.  Although switching between Christianity and Muslim faiths has been a long and painful process for many nations, religions can splinter off and yet remain fundamentally the same thing to the peasantry.  Protestantism appeared mostly as a response to Catholic domination and attempts to influence politics. Although almost the same faith, the differences create a strong “us and them” feeling in people – at least the nobles – that allows wars to be justified and alliances forged.  Yet both are “us” when compared to their more different neighbours – Muslims, or the Sikhs, or the Jews.

Differences in religion and culture in general control what is acceptable and unacceptable in war, whether the enemy is just an ally with the wrong king, or an inhuman devil.  What do the populace think of the king burning an enemy city?  If there is little shared culture with the city then people will be content, possibly even happy to see the influx of “free” goods and slaves.  But if people know people of the persecuted culture, trade there, visit there on pilgrimage or have a religious empathy for them, then they will object, strongly.  In ancient times, warfare often resulted in the burning of cities and the taking of slaves.  Conversely, during the late middle ages (and most civil wars) the European nobility fight each other – and people do die – but cities go on much as they always had because nobody would benefit from harming the people.

So how does cultural difference arise?  It seems natural to expect that prehistoric states varied greatly more than we see today – the same is certainly true of African, Papuan, American and other tribal societies, which also support a great deal more genetic diversity.  Culture goes back millions of years, to before our split with he great apes, and has perhaps appeared in limited form in many species. From this very diverse state, culture has “diffused“, so that ideas are shared.  Where some ideas lead to (or are simply associated with) success, they tend to dominate and spread to wide areas.  Because of this association with success, culture often spreads where people spread: farming, metal working, and other highly succesful strategies are clearly visible in the genetic record.

Since culture moves with people, and people do not move homogeneously but in waves, displacing those who have gone before them.  On the front of this wave is always a new technology or way of life, and with it associated a very different way of being from those on the other side of the divide.  Further (more historical) examples are the Roman expansion into the barbarian lands, the American conquest, the formation of Russia and of Australia, and of China (during multiple periods).  These waves do not grow forever, but they do leave cultural borders at which Asibiya can grow due to the added pressures of living in proximity to a strange and dangerous culture.

Living on a cultural border is both a very dangerous, and potentially very rewarding.  Almost all great empires are formed there, and the mixture of cultures allows each to take on a form very distinct from its origins.  Examples abound, and counterexamples are hard to find – Egypt, China, Greece, Rome, the Islamic empire, Russia, Britain, America – all were forged on the borders of the strongest empires of the previous era, and most often on the border at which the largest cultural differences occurred.

Culture is also important as a way of spreading change within established groups, not just in forming nations.  Money, writing, mapmaking, shipbuilding, architecture – all these and more ideas can be exported through the movement of people that use them.  It also shapes how people interact and function in everyday lives.  Successful ideas spread on the back of cultural diffusion, and to take them in, an empire must also import the aspects of culture associated with them.  Just look at how American business – and in parallel it’s culture – exported throughout the world today.

Relation to civilization

This leads to a clear dynamic for culture in civ interactions: the magnitude of trade and other agreements depends on the degree of similarity between the two cultures.  It really is better to be at war with distant heathens than your neighbours because of the lost revenue, and the disapproval of your subjects.

An important dynamic can be that the presence of a very different other on the border will unite people to a degree – they have more motivation to be united.  But the same force can quickly flip to work in reverse – if an empire is very large and unstable, then a  new and dynamic culture may form from the fusion of two very dissimilar ones, rebelling from their host empires and – if initially successful – able to gather momentum at a pace that will lead to their rapid ascension as the new power.

Cultures that interact will be exchanging people, culture and ideas, and will become similar according to how strongly this occurs.  The deliberate adoption of an imported technology will come at the cost of imported culture – a dynamic that enables cultural victory by exporting your nations ideas to the world.  And conversely, the collapse of an empire that has already exported much culture is not so catastrophic because in its ashes lie the shared cultural bonds that will enable the pieces to be picked up, and will find itself in a far more familiar world.

As before, this needs to be implemented as a genuine dynamic that can form part of a player’s strategy.  It will probably correspond to the creation of a new cultural group – the fusion between the two original groups – that can pick and choose the cultural traits that are most suitable for the current times.  In a sense, it is more likely that religion be created from such a succession than a religious movement will cause a succession to happen – the historical examples of Christianity and Islam both indicate that a lot of similar thought was around in the time period.  They both found success by exporting cultural values that were successful.

Essential reading for this section:

*P. Turchin: “Historical Dynamics :Why states rise and fall” (2003) (this is needed for all sections…)

Hamon & Loh 2010: “The Index of Cultural Diversity A New Quantitative Measure of Trends in the Status of the World’s Languages”.  Language Documentation & Conservation.

Battaglia et al 2009: “Y-chromosomal evidence of the cultural diffusion of agriculture in southeast Europe”.  European Journal of Human Genetics (2009) 17, 820–830.

Wen et al 2004: “Genetic evidence supports demic diffusion of Han culture”.  Nature 431, 302-305 (2004).

Byrne 2007: “Culture in great apes: using intricate complexity in feeding skills to trace the evolutionary origin of human technical prowess”. PRSB.

This series:

Back to “rise and fall”

Civilization index



  1. Rise and Fall of Civilization: Index « Thoughts about thinking said,

    […] Diffusion of Impact and Culture […]

  2. Civilization: rise and fall « Thoughts about thinking said,

    […] Forward to “diffusion and impact of culture“ […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: