Stroll into your local Starbucks and you will find yourself part of a cultural experiment on a scale never seen before on this planet. In less than half a century, the coffee chain has grown from a single outlet in Seattle to nearly 20,000 shops in around 60 countries. Each year, its near identical stores serve cups of near identical coffee in near identical cups to hundreds of thousands of people. For the first time in history, your morning cappuccino is the same no matter whether you are sipping it in Tokyo, New York, Bangkok or Buenos Aires.
Of course, it is not just Starbucks. Select any global brand from Coca Cola to Facebook and the chances are you will see or feel their presence in most countries around the world. It is easy to see this homogenization in terms of loss of diversity, identity or the westernization of society. But, the rapid pace of change also raises the more interesting question of why – over our relatively short history - humans have had so many distinct cultures in the first place. And, if diversity is a part of our psychological make-up, how we will fare in a world that is increasingly bringing together people from different cultural backgrounds and traditions?
To get at this question, I argue that we need to understand what I call our unique ‘capacity for culture’. This trait, which I outline in my book Wired for Culture, makes us stand alone amongst all other animals. Put simply, we can pick up where others have left off, not having to re-learn our cultural knowledge each generation, as good ideas build successively upon others that came before them, or are combined with other ideas giving rise to new inventions.
Take the axe as an example. At first we built simple objects like hand axes chipped or “flaked” from larger stones. But these would give way to more sophisticated axes, and when someone had the idea to combine a shaped club with one of these hand axes, the first “hafted axe” was born. Similarly when someone had the idea to stretch a vine between the ends of a bent stick the first bow was born and you can be sure the first arrow soon followed.
In more recent history, this ‘cumulative cultural adaptation’ that our capacity for culture grants has been accelerated by the rise of archiving technology. Papyrus scrolls, books and the internet allow us to even more effectively share knowledge with successive generations, opening up an unbridgeable gap in the evolutionary potential between humans and all other animals.
Chimpanzees, for example, are renowned for their “tool use” and we think this is evidence of their intelligence. But you could go away for a million years and upon your return the chimpanzees would still be using the same sticks to ‘fish’ for termites and the same rocks to crack open nuts – their “cultures” do not cumulatively adapt. Rather than picking up where others have left off, they start over every generation. Just think if you had to re-discover how to make fire, tan leather, extract bronze or iron from earth, or build a smartphone from scratch. That is what it is like to be the other animals.
Not so for humans. Around 60,000 years ago, cumulative cultural adaptation was what propelled modern humans out of Africa in small tribal groups, by enabling us to acquire knowledge and produce technologies suitable to different environments. Eventually these tribes would occupy nearly every environment on Earth – from living on ice to surviving in deserts or steaming jungles, even becoming sea-going mariners as the Polynesians did. And amongst each one we see distinct sets of beliefs, customs, language and religion.