Thursday, June 2, 2011

Thoughts on Cultural Evolution

This past weekend I attended a family event in Ohio (happy birthday, Grandma Joy!). The dinner conversation with my five tablemates was lively, thought provoking, and wide-ranging. At one point, the conversation drifted to cultural evolution, and it got me thinking. At their best, cultures are vibrant, pulsating entities that change organically over time, incorporating new elements as readily as they maintain a connection with the past. The Norbertine priests at my college had a motto for their order that I think describes the way cultures should work: “ever ancient, ever new.” 

Unfortunately, cultures don’t always evolve organically as one would hope. A number of factors can catalyze inorganic cultural evolution, but overzealous governments and the vagaries of global economics tend to be the biggest contributors. One recent example of a government trying to actively direct a culture's evolution is the Swiss government (along with the Swiss citizens who voted for the measure) who outlawed minarets in Switzerland. Many commentators labeled this law as out-and-out xenophobic racism. This execrable description may be true. At the same time, though, I can’t help but think that another driving factor of the vote is a tiny bit more sympathetic. A country like Switzerland has a centuries-old culture that is closely tied to its Alpine identity, and for better or worse minarets aren’t a part of that tradition. They just don’t quite match the décor, so to speak.

Pictured: Not a Chalet

Although I can sympathize with this general goal, I don’t agree with it (at all). The impulse to preserve a culture can be strong. I get it. But trying to impose artificial controls on what Swiss culture can or cannot be is not the way to preserve. Besides, though I've never been to Switzerland myself, I can't imagine that the culture is exactly the same now as it was a couple hundred years ago. Time marches on, and cultures are going to evolve no matter what you do. Some of the best evolutions of culture have come from the mixing of disparate traditions. Look at the Moorish influence on Spanish culture for a shining example. The current influx of North African and Middle Eastern immigrants into Switzerland (and the rest of Europe) has potential to lead Swiss culture down exciting new cultural roads. 

Now, here’s where the issue gets complicated. The other factor I mentioned that leads to inorganic cultural evolution was global economics. China is a great example here. China’s economic growth over the past thirty years is unprecedented in its immensity and celerity. With their growth, however, comes the trappings of middle class wealth. One highly visible example of this is the ubiquitous KFC. I don’t know when KFC first came to China or why it became so popular, but I do know that it’s rare to find a Chinese city without a couple of KFCs. 

Seriously. This country is way into KFC.

By itself, the encroachment of KFC into China is not likely to change the natural evolutionary course of China's 5,000-year-old culture in a major way, but it is symbolic of the many little ways that economics are affecting the culture. To my mind the major difference between this situation and the Swiss scenario is that in Switzerland the government is trying to keep Swiss culture untouched by outside influences, and in China the populace has embraced them. I'm of two minds here. In Switzerland, I tend to think that a mixture of cultures can only be positive in the long run, but in China I feel like something is lost when the West creeps in. Perhaps this belies a certain irritating fetish for the exotic on my part (as well as many privileged Westerners). If that's true, it's a personal fault worth digging out. However, I think the larger issue is that a cultural export based on crass consumerism (like genial old Colonel Sanders) never really grew organically in the first place. This may be a bit redundant, but it seems to me that for a culture to incorporate new elements organically, those new elements must themselves have grown organically. 

Believe it or not, I don't have any actual answers here--just thoughts. These are complex issues, and nothing is anywhere near as simple as I might claim it to be in the paragraphs above. I'm just philosophizing a bit. To bring this back to street food (which is why we are all here in the first place), one of the delightful things about street food is that it did evolve organically. It has not been commercialized in any significant way. Eating street food is a great way to support the local peculiarities that together make up the larger culture of a nation. It's a chance to get away from the homogenization of culture and get into hyper-specialization. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: it's the little details and differences between cultures that make life so exciting. When cultures are allowed to grow organically without the rigid influence of commercialism or government strictures, they produce wonderful things. Thank heavens for that.


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