Culture and Complexity

June 14, 2010 โ€” Have you heard of the Emperor Penguins? It's a species of penguins that journeys 30-75 miles across the frigid Antarctic to breed. Each year these penguins endure 8 months of brutally cold winters far from food. If you aren't familiar with them, check out either of the documentaries March of the Penguins or Planet Earth.

I think the culture of the emperor penguins is fascinating and clearly reveals some general traits from all cultures:

Culture is a set of habits that living things repeat because that's what they experienced in the past, and the past was favorable to them. Cultures have a mutually dependent relationship with their adherents.

The Emperor Penguins are born into this Culture. The Culture survives because the offspring keep repeating the process. The Emperor Penguins survive because the process seems to keep them safe from predators and close to mates. The culture and the species depend on each other.

Cultures are borne out of randomness.

At any moment, people or animals are doing things that may blossom into a new culture. Some of these penguins could branch off to Hawaii and start a new set of habits, which 500 years from now might be the dominant culture of the Emperor Penguins.

But predicting what will develop into a culture and what won't is impossible--there's too many variables, too much randomness involved. Would anyone have predicted that these crazy penguins who went to breed in the -40 degree weather for 8 months would survive this long? Probably not. Would anyone have predicted that people would still pray to this Jesus guy 2,000 years later? Probably not.

Cultures seem crazy to outsiders and are almost impossible to explain.

One widespread human culture is to always give an explanation for an event even when the true reason is just too complex or random to understand. The cultural habits are always easier to repeat and pass down then they are to explain.

I don't have any profound insights on culture, I just think it's fascinating and something not to read too much into---it helps us survive, but there's no greater meaning to it.



  1. Interesting factet: there are apparently 38 colonies of Emperor Penguins in Antarctica.

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