The Influence of Culture on Technology

Thomas K. Madore

Throughout the course of human history, technological inventions and innovations have usually occurred as a result of underlying, yet sometimes obscure cultural influences. By obscure, I do not mean vague or unintelligible forms of technological advancement by way of culture; rather, I am suggesting that the role culture assumes in its impact on technology is sometimes difficult to directly distinguish. For example, when examining the emergence of cities on the surface level, one may not initially conceptualize Chant’s view that “the emergence of cities was…the result of interacting, indigenous developments in technology, culture, and social organization.” (Colin Chant, Chapter 2: Greece, pp.48) In the view of an undiscerning student of such material, the origin of cities may have merely arisen “as a result of intensive trading in the eastern Mediterranean region.” (Chant, pp. 48) While this notion is primarily true, it does not, at the surface level, encapsulate the importance of culture in this, and other forms of, technological advancement.
At this point, it is important to consider the actual definition of culture in order to grasp the essence of its form and function in the course of the world’s technological advancement. As defined in The Oxford American College Dictionary, culture includes “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively; a refined understanding or appreciation of this; the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people or other social group; (and) the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.” The first part of this definition provides stark evidence to anyone who may doubt the given idea that culture indeed influences technology in that it states “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.” Technology fits into this definition perfectly since it is a clear “manifestation of human intellectual achievement.” Thus, the notion of cultural evolution as a sort of pathway for technological advancement is plausible and convincing when one studies human nature and the course that it has taken throughout history.
In his study “Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect,” Paul K. Ehrlich portrays what I believe is an excellent sort of magnifying glass through which to examine the diversity of cultural evolution in terms of its influence on technological advancement. Ehrlich contends that many social scientists “mostly examine changes within and among human societies in terms of human actors, motives, and actions—looking at what (he likes to call) cultural microevolution.” (Paul Ehrlich, Chapter 10, pp. 228) Such cultural microevolution can be quite useful in explaining technological development in a wide array of fields. For example, microevolutionary factors exhibit how the technological era began in the ancient Middle East when humans began grinding and polishing their stone tools, rather than chipping them, and culminating with the mastery of iron smelting and their ability to construct “superior implements.” (Dick Teresi, Chapter 8, “Lost Discoveries: The ancient roots of modern science,” Simon and Schuster, 2002, pp. 327) Moreover, cultural microevolution serves to explain economic implications of development such as the diffusion of the Agricultural Revolution in the ancient world. The foundation and spreading of agriculture is an immense accomplishment that is studied through the lenses of cultural microevolution. For example, it is believed that, “of all human activities, agriculture has had the greatest impact, not only in stimulating rapid population growth and the development of elaborate civilizations, but also in altering the earth’s land surface.” (Charles H. Southwick, Chapter 13, “Historical Aspects of Environmental Destruction,” Oxford Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 129) Thus, agriculture is a direct product of cultural necessity; increased population and other microevolutionary factors called for an innovation in the manner in which food was obtained. Over a period of thousands of years, agriculture was therefore developed and utilized as the new means of obtaining food, which alleviated the strain and reduced the time necessary to perform what was previously a much more laborious and time consuming task. In essence, cultural microevolution is an important mechanism with which the student of this material can learn how culture inspires new technology.
The other aspect of Ehrlich’s cultural evolutionary conception, often less studied by social scientists, is that of cultural macroevolution, the “extrinsic environmental factors” (Ehrlich, pp.228) that effect innovation and change. This cultural macroevolutionary side of development is as equally important as the microevolutionary notion, and is applicable to numerous civilizations as well, such as the Inuit. That the Inuit could not develop farming or a reliable form of agriculture is not a result of a lack of microevolutionary motive, rather it was due to the fact that “there were no plants suitable for domestication in their environment and the growing season was too short.” (Ehrlich, pp. 228) These factors were extrinsic and environmental, not the results of innate human motives.
Moreover, cultural macroevolutionary implications may serve to explain, in part, why China, which was the world’s early leader in technological development, did not proceed to conquer the world, as did Europe, which lagged considerably behind in many key technologies. While some critics, such as Dick Teresi, assert that the Chinese were so technologically advanced that they “may have given the West a chance to ‘reinvent’ and rename their innovations,” (Teresi, pp. 366) this unsubstantiated claim does not serve to explain why China, with such a gigantic arsenal of an armada, did not discover and control the early world. For instance, “the lack of geographic barriers within China allowed single rulers to control the entire area and prevented balkanization such as occurred in Europe: China, unlike Europe, did not subdivide into large numbers of separate states and cultural centers that competed with one another and became centers of innovation.” (Ehrlich, Chapter 11, pp. 268) Additionally, China was isolated, geographically, from other civilizations, and therefore did not benefit from “cross-fertilization of ideas.”
However, other, microevolutionary factors also contributed to China’s not being a world leader in exploration. China itself can be considered somewhat of a monopoly given its extrinsic environmental features which make it isolated and detached from neighboring competition. In contrast, however, Europe is the product of a consortium of small, independent nations, who were “forced to allow economic competition” among their new and growing technologies. (Ehrlich, pp. 269) Thus, economic forces, which led to the formulation of capitalism, enabled Europe to develop in a different manner than did China: China was, and still is, controlled primarily by a form of dictatorship, in which the leadership regulates, among other things, the “behavior” of the people. In Europe, however, the view eventually was that “men pursuing their private passions conspire unknowingly toward the public good.” (Ehrlich, pp. 269) Thus, that China did not conquer the early world was ultimately a combination of interwoven and interrelated cultural micro and macro evolutionary factors.
Ultimately, as depicted, culture is omnipresent in all technological advancements over the course of history, whether they are the result of intrinsic societal dynamics or the extrinsic factors of the environment. As history clearly documents, whenever technology changes, some pressing force of culture has had an effect on it. Moreover, I think there is a sort of invisible complimentary system between culture and technology; that is, whenever technology changes, the culture will adapt its way of life to fit the technology. For example, with the invention of the technology necessary for agriculture, cultures worldwide changed their hunting and gathering way of life in order to utilize the new technology and expand its horizons. In essence, culture indeed influences human technology, both in a micro and macro evolutionary manner, but technology also simultaneously molds the way in which cultures function.

Return to ENVS2 homepage

Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies

last updated 2/22/03