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You believe whatever helps you survive
Sometimes, cultures evolve certain beliefs not because they are correct but because of the placebo effect, the self-fulfilling prophecy, and...
In ancient China, people believed (and some still do) in the efficacy of traditional Chinese herbal medicines, many of which have been found to have no medical value.
Say you are a person living in ancient China and you have a high fever. If you believe that herbal medicines can treat your fever, you would go ahead and take the medicine. You then feel very optimistic that you would get well soon and have a good night’s sleep. This way, you are benefiting from the placebo effect, which boosts your chances of surviving the fever. You live to tell the tale about how effective those herbal medicines are.
On the other hand, there is a different person in ancient China who does not believe in the efficacy of herbal medicines. She does not take any herbal medicines and does not benefit from the placebo effect. She dies.
Over time, there are less and less people like her, and more people like you. Eventually, everyone thinks herbal medicines work great.
In ancient India, Buddhist priests would bathe to wash away spiritual uncleanliness. The bathing culture quickly spread to China and Japan. Apparently, people who bathed frequently for whatever reasons had lower likelihood of contracting diseases. It is easy for them to interpret their relative lack of disease as spiritual cleanliness. It became, therefore, easy to convince others to adopt the bathing ritual. Eventually, everyone bathed. Those who didn’t contract diseases more frequently, died more easily, and were deemed spiritually unclean.
In ancient Maya, Medieval Europe, China, and…basically everywhere, people believed in the ruler’s divine right to govern. Because of this belief, people tended to revere their rulers and coalesced around them more often. Rulers who enjoyed such reverence of divine rights were able to consolidate their powers, gain a steadfast adherence, raise mighty armies, and project their powers far and wide to build a grand empire.
There are also many other cultures which didn’t believe in the divine right of a ruler to govern. People from these cultures were slow to coalesce behind their rulers and so the nations they built tended to be smaller and more decentralized. These cultures don’t really appear in history textbooks that often (except the Greeks) because they tended to be conquered by larger theocratic empires. Or, they are simply overlooked because of their lack of geopolitical importance in the grand scheme of history.
In feudal empires, the stability of the empire was highly dependent on the centralization of power. The more centralized power is in the central government, the less likely that local feudal warlords could fissure the unity of the empire. In such a feudal system, the merchant class is a long standing nemesis of the ruling elites. The merchants practiced the art of trade and monopolized the financial bloodstream of the empire. They are, however, uneducated in the art of governance and unsuited for positions of great governmental influence.
Almost as if by a lucky coincidence, many large feudal empires have customs or religions in place to keep the merchant class from power. Christianity, for one, denounced the handling of money, saying “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” The Lawists in ancient China has, similarly, said “the method of governing used by an enlightened ruler is to keep the number of merchants, craftsmen, and wandering tradesmen low and their status humble.”
Perhaps the ruling class is just always conspiring against the merchants? Or perhaps the merchants holding too much power indeed destabilizes a centralized empire and leaves it in disarray so much that many major cultures had learned to adopt some kind of preemptive immunity against the rise of merchants.
Imagine yourself an average participant of capitalism in modern day America. You are told since very young that “America is a place of limitless opportunity” and “you can achieve whatever you dream of in America if you put in enough hard work.” You feel very positive and confident. You get a job, make unwise investments, and you go broke and lose your job. But you don’t give up. You get another job, make more investments, and go broke again. You still don’t give up and continue trying. Upon your fifth endeavor, you succeed and become a famous millionaire. Then, you go on to have children and tell them to never give up on their “American dreams.”
There is another guy in America. He never heard of the message of the “American dream” in his life. He gets a job, makes unwise investments, and he goes broke and loses his job. He never believed that “hard work is all one needs for success.” So, he loses hope and becomes an alcoholic instead. He goes on to tell his children that “capitalism is an eternity of hellish suffering,” no matter what they choose in life.
Eventually, there are more and more people like you in the upper class of America. People who are like the other guy find themselves squeezed towards the lower class. (This is a great irony of elite progressives by the way. They brandish the defeatist message at their lower class constituents and then go home to tell their children to never give up on their dreams…).
How are you? I bet your natural response is “I’m good, how are you,” but internally you know that you are losing the will to live from working a spreadsheet for 8 hours in front of your computer and cried for 3 hours straight last night because you broke up with your romantic partner. So why lie? Well, just imagine what the world would look like otherwise. How are you? “I’m depressed, and tired of this world.” Emotions are contagious and tend to reinforce themselves. If everyone in the world pretends to be happy and jolly, the world would be filled with positive and hopeful energies, helping to alleviate the negative attitudes some people hold towards their life.
There are approximately three types of people in the world: Nihilists, Existentialists, and Agnostics. In summary, nihilists think life is meaningless and nothing in the world has any intrinsic value. Existentialists apparently think that life’s meaning is a matter of free choice of each individual?!? Agnostics don’t care; they just live on with their lives.
Only about 1% of Americans are nihilists. Is it because nihilism lack sound philosophical standing? Or is it because nihilism forces us to confront our greatest fears and directly contradicts our biological instinct of survival?
Imagine you are a nihilist. You think life is quite pointless. You feel unmotivated, depressed, and hold a cynical grudge towards the world. Naturally, your chances of suicide increases and your chances of success decreases. You are less likely to preach to others about your philosophical ideals…because…well…you don’t care!
An existentialist, or a creationist would behave much differently. They love life! And they are enthusiastic about spreading their philosophy / religion. They have higher chances of success in life and are more likely to have offsprings. Their beliefs subsist much more easily.
So, it is only natural that, given an abundance of time, the number of nihilists left in the world would be few and scattered.
The bottom line is that the evolution of culture does not really care about what is right or wrong. It does not care about if herbal Chinese medicines are scientifically effective or not. As long as it achieves some beneficial effect to the culture, it is likely to stick.
There are actually two different types of cultural evolutions in the examples I gave.
The evolution of individuals. When a cultural gene (meme) imparts certain advantages to its individual adopters, these individuals are more likely to survive and achieve high social standings, which allows the cultural gene to persist and spread.
The selection of groups (I don’t want to call it group evolution because I don’t want to be associated with the group selectionists). The world started out having many many tribes all with different cultures and customs, all shoved onto a boxing ring to play in a knockout tournament. Tribes with cultures that give them survival advantages are able to gobble up other tribes or simply wait them out. Eventually, you get a few finalists empires with cultures that are highly geared towards survivability. In this case, the culture genes in question does not grant individuals survival advantage. Instead they improve the survivability of the entire community or state. The competition also does not exist on an individual level. The competition exists between states.
Now, cultural evolution must sound nice and dandy. But I think it’s important to be reminded that cultural evolution doesn’t really care about your feelings or quality of life. The evolution of each cultural gene only cares about the survivorship of that gene. So, a cultural gene can survive if it spreads very well, even if it lowers the quality of life for individuals (Cultural evolution does not serve the people).
A great analogy for culture is bacteria. It infects you and only cares about its own survival. It could be good to your body or it could be bad.