Culture and Technology: Which One is Pushing Forward the Other?

Tom Coughlin

Since the early days of Homo sapiens, we have endured many cultural and technological changes. Many historians now are wondering, what usually comes first? Does a radical advance in technology force our cultures of the past and present to change? Or, do the changes in our cultures' wants and needs press for technological advance? These questions have yet to be answered, but through our class readings and discussions one would get the feeling that technological advances more often caused cultural change, with the degree of change varying between societies. This paper looks to review these technological advances and then bring into question whether one can really determine which influences the other.

One of the greatest technological revolutions that historians and sociologists are able to study is the Agricultural Revolution of our forbearers. Because of this revolution, Homo sapiens moved from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a static lifestyle of domesticating plants and animals. Paul Ehrlich in his book, Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect, discusses how the large scale cultural evolution that ensued could have not occurred without the original technological revolution. "Without farming, which freed some people of the chore of wresting nourishment from the environment, there would be no cities, no states, no science, and no mayors, fashion models, professional soldiers, or airline pilots." (Ehrlich, 227) Yet, Ehrlich explains that even though a technological revolution was spreading throughout the world, not all cultures ended up with the same social practices. This is best seen in his discussion about the islands Mangaia and Tikopia and their inhabitants.

Both the peoples of Mangaia and Tikopia originally embraced the Agricultural Revolution. But, these two societies would have different cultural reactions to the change this revolution brought. The people of Tikopia would eventually switch over to a "sustainable arboricultural system," realizing that domesticated animals like pigs were too destructive to the farming system. The Mangaians, on the other hand, stuck with both domesticated animals and plants as sources of food. As a result, the natural environment, and thus the production of food on the island, deteriorated with time. Archeologists have found that as "pig and chicken bones faded from the late prehistoric fossil record and the native fauna declined, two new items showed up as major features of the Magaian diet - rats and people." (Ehrlich, p. 245) Eventually, this cannibalistic society found on Magaia would crash while the Tikopian society would remain stable through modern times. Ehrlich explains, through cited observations by Patrick Kirch, that other cultural differences, besides their eating habits, factored into why these two civilizations went different directions after adapting the agricultural system. "The Mangaians 'chose a path that led in the end to terror: to the stalking of sacrificial victims in the night, to the incessant raiding of neighboring valleys, to a political system built on bruit force.'" The Tikopians instead paid the price through population controls. Although these population controls were at times harsh, they seem "to have been a mutually agreed-on price." (Ehrlich, p. 246)

A second reading we did in class that explained cultural change as a result of technological change was found in an article by Colin Chant. In this article, Chant concedes the notion that cities could not have been created without the development of agriculture. As technological advances were made on farms and production rates rose, the cities grew as well. Cities not only provided a place for specialization and trade, it also provided its people a safe place to live. People no longer had to worry about defending their farm or harvesting their yearly crop. They could concentrate on a profession that they were either better at or simply enjoyed more. (notes)

A reading I found very helpful outside the class was entitled "The Fiber Revolution", by Joy McCorriston. In this article McCorriston explains that technological innovation, and its impact on social change can be traced all the way back to Mesopotamia. McCorriston's example of technological innovation is a rather small one, the change from flax to wool as the main textile fiber of the society. But the change in these textile fibers parallels a very large change in Mesopotamia's culture.

During the transformation of ancient Mesopotamia from a landscape of relatively independent and self-sufficient communities to a highly integrated complex of rural and urban settlements, flax was replaced by wool as the principal textile fiber. This shift coincided with the development of large textile producing workshops along side the formerly ubiquitous small-scale, household based producers.

McCorriston explains that when the people of Mesopotamia switched over from flax to wool, a lot of labor was freed up. (see table 2) Not only was labor freed up, but land as well. The people of Mesopotamia therefore were now able to produce other agricultural products, like cereal grains with their free land, and use their excess labor force to move into areas like specialized crafts. (McCorriston, p. 527) This move into specialization also coincides with the relocation of many individuals as well. People during this period, though not as rapidly as the Early Dynastic Period, start to move from their rural living quarters to the cities. (McCorriston, p. 526)

All of these readings point to the idea that a technological advance is what eventually leads to cultural change. But they are also all based on "fuzzy" knowledge from the past (McCorrison admits a lot of his theory is hypothesized). So one can try to apply this theory to a more modern day example. Did Herman Hollerith invent his tabulating machine at the turn of the century because our culture needed a better way to keep track of information, or did this invention simply give rise to all sorts of tabulating and computing machines that our culture accepted with open arms? In a sense, it is the same predicament as the chicken or the egg question. I feel it is therefore tough to explain which pushes the other to further evolution. Nevertheless, the two have a very unique relationship and have been interacting since man first evolved.


McCorriston, Joy. "The Fiber Revolution". Current Anthropology, Volume 38, Number 4, August - October 1997. p. 524.

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