The Reciprocal Influences of Culture and Technology

Ryan McKenna

As the human species has progressed from its early stages of development such as Homo Erectus to the current state of man today, culture had played an important role in advances made in technology. Studies of cultural macroevolution, or the changes in the trajectories of different human societies driven by environmental factors rather than by social, economic, and political machinations (228), as well as studies of cultural microevolution, the examination of changes within and among human societies in terms of human actors, motives, and actions (228), have determined that changes in various aspects of human culture have directly influenced changes in human technologies. Paul Ehrlich, a renowned entomologist and expert on the subject of human overpopulation, discusses issues pertaining to the impact of culture on technology in his book Human Natures: Genes, Cultures and the Human Prospect. Human culture has undoubtedly influenced technology, but it is also quite possible that these changes in technology have also had a profound impact on culture.

One cultural change that influenced technology was increasing population density among societies of human beings, which had an important effect on the development of agriculture, specifically leading to the domestication of plant species (232-233). As hunter-gathers became more advanced in their methods, such as developing weapons like the spear and bow and arrow, they were able to kill more animals, which eventually led to the depletion of this food source. With an increasing number of people and a decreasing food supply, humans were forced to look at other options to satisfy their need for food. Not all efforts to turn to agriculture as a food source were deliberate however; early farmers inadvertently selected plants that when removed from the ground did not lose their seeds, and were subsequently easy for the farmers to gather the seeds and plant them in different areas. As knowledge of the agricultural system spread and the growing of plants for the specific purpose of consumption became a common practice, agriculture became an integral part of human existence and in turn impacted various aspects of culture. For instance, hunter-gatherers that had previously relied only on animals as a source of food began to incorporate local vegetation into their diet, and this could have expedited the domestication process (235). The shift to an agricultural society also affected humans in that it allowed the population to continue growing. Mothers also had more food to feed their newborn or infant children, as plants are soft and easy to chew (236). Humans also were able to develop immunity to new diseases thanks to developments in agriculture, as many farmers also kept domesticated animals that aided in this process. This allowed societies of people who made use of agriculture to effectively wipe out groups that were not yet agricultural societies because the non-agricultural societies would contract diseases from the agricultural societies they encountered and would die because they lacked the capability to fight them off – one example of this is the struggles of indigenous New World people who came in contact with European settlers (237). Agriculture is just one instance where changes in culture brought about a change in technology and that change, in turn, influenced culture.

Another technology that was brought about by a cultural change is the rise of the state. As populations grew and people began to live with the same groups of people, states were formed. There were various factors that contributed to the need to form states, and these factors were noted by anthropologist Robert Caneiro of the American Museum of Natural History. Caneiro claimed that there were three main kinds of circumscription that influenced the creation of states: geographic, resource, and social circumscription (239). Geographic circumscription is the idea that people were forced together into societies by physical barriers such as mountains or waterways. Resource circumscription maintains that people remained in certain groups because that resources outside of their group were scarce or of poor quality. Social circumscription explains people living together on the basis that there are other groups on their periphery that limit expansion. For whatever reason or combination of these reasons drove a society to create a state, people established permanent groups, and thus the institution of the state was born. This institution had inevitable consequences on culture, some of which were positive and others of which were negative. On the positive side, the development of states led to a flourish in the arts and learning, as well as provided protection and security for the people living in them. Negative effects of the formation of state included a rise in intercommunity violence; specifically as people fought over control of territory and important resources (256). Conflict also arose as people attempted to spread ideas and religious beliefs, or more specifically, attempted to impose their beliefs on others. The creation of state had both positive and negative effects on culture, but undoubtedly influenced culture nonetheless.

Religion is yet another cultural aspect that was influenced by technology and also influenced culture. As the human population grew and organization and structure became an issue, people looked for a means by which to establish some sort of order amongst themselves. While many groups held spiritual beliefs prior to the advent of organized religion, people with similar beliefs began to join together in societies and establish a concrete set of rules and practices that made their lives more controlled and also more efficient. Organized religion was born from the necessity of structure (254). For example, many of the polytheistic religions in Mexico and Central America were started at the same time the technology of stratified states was developed, sometime before Spanish conquest. The structure that organized religion brought about was needed as populations grew but supplies of resources remained constant; without this structure, societies may have deteriorated into primitive states of extreme competition or even states of war. After the advent of organized religion and the subsequent rules and structure they brought to society, culture was clearly impacted. For one, religious elites in certain societies used religion to establish and build urban civilizations (255). Inequality was also born from religious hierarchies, and with inequalities among people came discrimination and unfair treatment as those with status looked unfavorably upon those who did not. Religion remains one of the key progenitors of discrimination even today because some religious constructs convince people that their elevated status is a divine right. Not all that religion has brought to society has been bad however; many religious groups have been at the forefront of efforts to aid the disadvantaged of the world. Organized religion was instituted because it met a fundamental need of society, and it remains an important influence on culture even in modern times.

Most advancement in technology are born from unmet needs in society, and once they are established, become important components of that society’s cultural makeup. The rise of agricultural manipulation, the founding of states, and the establishment of organized religion each came about to fill a void in human existence. Each also had subsequent effects on culture; after their advent, the societies they were born from were never the same. In the same way culture influenced human technologies, human technologies had an analogous effect on human culture.


Influence of Technology on Culture

Ehrlich, Paul R. Human Natures: Genes, Cultures and the Human Prospect. Island P, 2000.

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last updated 3/9/07