Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Culture and science

Is there a way of understanding why humans continuously and constantly and without exception engage in cultural activity? It seems to be something that we are biologically inclined to do. If we are, then what is the nature of that drive? What is it doing for us? The better off humans are the more time they spend engaged in issues of style: buying art, buying gadgets, clothes, cars, furniture or whatever and making choices between one look of things and another look of things.

The root of this behavior lies in the need to play at being someone else or at inhabiting other worlds. We have a fantastic ability to move from the world in our heads to the "possible" world in our heads and all the other possible worlds that we can imagine.

The most important thing humans can do is to imagine how things could otherwise be and make choices about them. That's the key to our evolutionary success. We only notice how powerful that process is when we meet people who can't do it - severely autistic children for example, who are incapable of switching worlds - who in many senses can appear completely intelligent, but they are completely incapable of seeing that there's any world other than the one they perceive at this moment. This makes them incapable of cooperation and deception since they can neither create common worlds nor create situations in which one could see a different world from the one it really exists.

To a very large degree, cooperation and deception is what distinguishes humans from other animals. The constant engagement in culture enables us to continually rehearse this ability we have - imagining, exploring, extrapolating other worlds.

This is the point at which there is a deep connection between art and science: each is a highly organized form of saying "let's see what would happen if the world was like this".

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