The Origin of Cultures: How Individual Choices Make Cultures Change

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Nonspecific Binding
  • Copyright: 2009-09-15
  • Publisher: Routledge

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What makes a 17-year-old girl decide to wrap a bomb around her body, walk into a supermarket, and detonate it, killing herself and an 18-year old girl shopping there? In this provocative and important book, renowned anthropologist W. Penn Handwerker shows that individual choices, from the fatal to the mundane, are fundamentally questions of culture—what it is, where it comes from, and the complex ways it changes and evolves. In accessible and engaging prose, he walks readers through the process of how the human imagination produces new things, shaped by culture and experience but also constantly evolving in unpredictable ways. He shows how understanding cultural dynamics, which explain one girl’s decision to murder and another girl’s decision to shop, will help us address critical policy questions, from reducing the likelihood of terrorist attacks to responding to global epidemics and addressing climate change.

Author Biography

W. Penn Handwerker (Ph.D., Oregon, 1971), Professor of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut, trained as a general anthropologist with an emphasis on the intersection of biological and cultural anthropology, and has published in all five fields (applied, archaeology, biological, cultural, and linguistics) of anthropology. He conducted field research in West Africa (Liberia), the West Indies (Barbados, Antigua, and St. Lucia), the Russian Far East, and various portions of the contemporary United States (Oregon, California's North Coast, Connecticut, and Alaska). He developed new methods with which to study cultures while he studied topics that included the causes and consequences of entrepreneurship, corruption, human fertility, and both inter- and intra-generational power differences. His current research focuses on the possibility that the most effective collective action for community sustainability reflects the cultural assumption that each person knows what\'s best for him or herself.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. 7
The Puzzlep. 9
What's This Thing Culture?p. 15
Directional Change in Productivityp. 16
Revolutions Produce Qualitative Changep. 18
Names Aren't Culturesp. 24
Many Cultures Intersect to Make a Personp. 26
A Thing, Sui Generisp. 27
Galton's Problemp. 30
The Argument in This Bookp. 33
Selected Bibliographyp. 34
What Makes a Door?p. 37
What Exists Now Shapes What Comes Nextp. 39
New Things Come from Old Thingsp. 41
What Exists Now Could Not Exist Without What Went Beforep. 43
Why Cultures Must Evolve, Unexpectedlyp. 47
What Sets Us Apart?p. 50
Selected Bibliographyp. 53
Sensory Fields and Cultural Outputsp. 55
Different Experiences Produce Different Culturesp. 55
Sensory Isolation and Information Flowp. 60
We Take Our Cultures with Usp. 62
We Learn from Our Neighborsp. 67
Information Volume Regulates How Much We Learnp. 70
Two Rules for Cultural Designp. 74
Cultural Dynamicsp. 78
Selected Bibliographyp. 80
Why We Don't Learn What We Couldp. 81
Why We Tell Good from Badp. 82
Winnowing the Good from the Badp. 83
Winnowing Makes for Incremental Changep. 85
How We Tell Good from Badp. 89
What This Meansp. 92
What Makes Consequences Change?p. 94
Cultural Evolution Shifts Course when Consequences Changep. 97
Selected Bibliographyp. 104
Consequences Depend on the Distribution of Powerp. 107
Consequences Elicit Cultural Assumptionsp. 109
A Fish Rots from the Headp. 113
Lower Level Power Concentrations Also Unleash Violencep. 116
Subordinates Find Ways to Empower Themselvesp. 119
A Shift in the Distribution of Power Elicits New Cultural Assumptionsp. 121
Selected Bibliographyp. 129
Lessons Learnedp. 131
A Thought Experimentp. 134
People Do violence to Defend Themselvesp. 138
More Often than Not, Different Does Mean Betterp. 140
How New Things Acquire Immense Powerp. 141
What about the Future?p. 144
Selected Bibliographyp. 149
Indexp. 151
About the Authorp. 155
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.

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