Popular Science Monthly/Volume 83/August 1913/The Relation of Culture to Environment from the Standpoint of Invention

Popular Science Monthly Volume 83 August 1913 (1913)
The Relation of Culture to Environment from the Standpoint of Invention by Clark Wissler
1580016Popular Science Monthly Volume 83 August 1913 — The Relation of Culture to Environment from the Standpoint of Invention1913Clark Wissler




THE relation between man's life and the physical make-up of the earth has always been a serious problem. In our schools we often hear the doctrine that geography is nothing more than the study of peoples in their adjustment to the particular part of the earth they inhabit. This emanates from the teachings of the great German geographers Humboldt and Ritter, to whom the physical features of the earth were the determining factors in the distribution of life. Later Ratzel took up the problem from a strictly human or anthropological point of view and gave us the term anthropo-geography. The rapid development of anthropology during the past twenty years, and especially its recent trend toward a cultural point of view, has again brought to the front this question of relationship between human activities and physical geography. To anthropology the problem becomes rather fundamental, and while not by any means so inclusive as it must be to anthropogeography, which must depend upon the truth of the assumption for its existence, is nevertheless one whose solution is a matter of some consequence. Thus the question of culture and environment becomes the common concern of at least two sciences, geography and anthropology.

A full discussion of the subject would take us over the whole field of geography and anthropology; hence, we may here consider but a few points. As a rule, those who discuss this problem know a great deal more of geography than they do of anthropology and indeed it is but recently that we had at hand anything like a complete collection of data on the culture of even one non-historic group of people. As field anthropologists are now industriously increasing our knowledge of such peoples, it may not be out of place to discuss the general problem from the standpoint of these data.

In such discussions it is convenient to make a provisional distinction between cultural phenomena and biological phenomena and the most convenient is that based upon heredity. The strictly anatomical characters, physiological and psychological functions are innate, while culture is not innate but acquired by the individual during life by imitative or educative processes. We can thus set over on one side man's biological equipment, his bodily functions, mental characters, instincts, etc., as against or in contrast to the cultural characters, or products of these activities in social life.

The biologists have given us some idea of the kind of physiological equipment man is born with and the psychologists have made some progress in the description of the psychological equipment, all of which is no doubt familiar to the well-educated. On the other hand, the development of anthropology has been so rapid and the points of view so illy formulated that a few remarks as to the character of culture seem necessary. On one point all students are agreed, viz.: that it is the functioning of the psychic part of man that produces culture. When it comes to assigning cultural phenomena to specific psychic activities there is some difference of opinion, but for the most part it is recognized that since culture is not inherited it must be a construct and as such is largely the work of the intelligence. For a long time many psychologists and sociologists have seen in this distinction one of their most important problems. To them it appears that social progress or cultural change of any kind is in last analysis the production or creation of something by the psychic activities of individuals, which process has been regarded as invention. In practical life we are accustomed to apply this term to ingenious mechanical devices, but in fact anything produced by our psychic activities, whether it be a new game, a word, a picture, a song, etc., is the same kind of thing and one to which the term may be applied. Any such invention taken up by a social group of people becomes thereby a trait of culture.

Culture as anthropologists use that term is a complex of elements as varied as those making up our own lives. Most geographers, however, give their attention almost exclusively to the economic aspects of culture, or to those traits listed in anthropological literature under the head of material culture. This, no doubt, comes about because it is in these phases of life that culture and geography are in most direct contact; language, religion, literature, art, family organization, etc., are less articulated with geographical phenomena, but geographers are quite given to sweeping them all into the economic category and claiming the most intimate contact throughout. It is clear, however, that the primary problem is to be found in the relation between man's material culture and the earth, which for convenience we shall designate as the environment. Our question then becomes as to what kind of a relation exists between material traits and environmental characters.

Material traits, such as methods of preparing food, the manufacture and use of tools, the methods of the chase, weaving, pottery, etc., are clearly inventions, and if the environment has anything like a determining or a causal role in the making of culture, such must be manifest in the inventive processes themselves. Our problem here is complicated by the existence of two stages or steps. In the first place some individual must develop the idea and demonstrate it; then it must be taken up by others and become more or less common to the social group. The invention, however, remains such regardless of its fate at the hands of social selection. Yet we must consider several possibilities since it is conceivable that the environment might be the determining factor in the selection alone, leaving the individual free to invent as he choose. Hence, our discussion falls under two heads: (a) The relation of the environment to invention; (b) to the selection, or socialization of inventions.

One of the fundamental problems in the investigation of invention has been the determination of what the process really is. It is in a way a creative process, but it must have something to work upon; it can not make something of nothing. We need not, however, distress ourselves with the puzzle as to whether there can ever be a distinctly new idea, for an invention in the cultural sense is a new relation assumed or observed between old experiences rather than an experience itself. When the geographers claim that all concrete experiences involved in such an invention must come from the environment, they are on indisputable ground. Thus it is undoubtedly due to the presence of snow that the Eskimo invented the snow house and to experience with birchbark that the Eastern Woodland Indians devised the bark-covered tipi. The real problem is as to whether there is anything in the very nature of birchbark as a part of the environment that necessitates the invention of a certain peculiar kind of house. Unless one holds to an ancient belief, he must assuredly say that there is no such necessity. It is true that a person who never experienced birchbark directly or by hearsay could not have made the invention, and if he had, it could not have passed into practise unless the material was made available by the environment. Thus it is clear that the environment furnishes the materials from which inventions are made and which thereby enter into the so-called material cultures of peoples. But the essential thing in an invention is the relation between experiences. In the case of birchbark the relation between bark experience and house-building experience can have no existence outside of the psychic life of man, the environment can lay no claim to it. Its production must emanate from the human mind and not from the earth. It seems, therefore, that we have here an answer to our query, for by the nature of the inventive process the determining factor is found in mental activity. Environment furnishes the materials and in that sense only limits invention. To invent a birchbark-covered house a man must have lived among birch trees, but the mere living there does not require such an invention.

We have noted that an invention becomes a cultural trait when taken up by many individuals. In this case the relation is handed on and on by education and imitation and so cultural traits are after all based upon a recognized relation between experiences. The causes that lead to the adoption or rejection of an invention must be recognized as the chief factors in the determination of culture, but we must note that they are selective only and not real producers of new things. As in the previous discussion our quest for the producer ends at the threshold of the inventive process. In this case, however, we start not with the unrelated experiences, but with the invention already made and offered to society.

Many of the factors entering into the choice of society are familiar to the general reader, for in sociological literature will be found lengthy discussions of prejudice, tradition, the function of the genius, etc. These, it will be observed, are social, or human factors, and are not due to the environment. Yet when we take material culture alone it must be recognized that with respect to it these social forces are less active. The experience of the world is that while a savage will throw away a stone knife and substitute a steel one after the first trial, he will be very slow to change a religious practise and especially a social custom. We may expect then greater opportunities for the socialization of material inventions and that industrial progress will be more rapid. But there is a fallacy here, for while it is true that a savage will quickly substitute a steel knife, it will be otherwise if one of his tribe attempts to develop the manufacture of knives, or even engages in extensive trade with knives, for then at once there will be a conflict with social customs. Nevertheless, it is probably true that most improvements in weapons, tools, etc., will, when demonstrated by the inventor, find little resistance and in most cases positive encouragement. The criterion would then be the usefulness of the new invention. Thus to a roving people a birchbark house might be an improvement, provided birchbark was readily attainable or transportable. Here the environment appears as a selective factor because the adoption of any particular set of traits appears finally as an adjustment between the community and the environment. But, as such, the environment is a passive factor, for the inventions that happen to fit sufficiently well to survive pass into the cultural complex, while the others fall by the wayside. And, after all, we must not forget that the fitness of an invention is a matter of judgment and that many a maladjustment to the environment passes as the superior trait because of an error in social judgment. It is truly surprising how ill-fitting the adjustments may be and still give men time and strength to maintain family, religious and political organizations of considerable complexity. We see then that while an invention must work to survive, there is no guarantee that it will be given a fair trial and be allowed to stand according to its deserts. Its fitness is chiefly a matter of social belief, and as such subject to all the ills and vagaries of folk thought.

In general it seems that the tendency of some geographers is to lay very great stress on the part played by the environment in the development of culture. Because they see how the environment sets limitations to human culture, or inventions, they sometimes assert that in it are to be found the causes producing cultures. A more acceptable view seems to be that which recognizes the province of the environment in deciding as to what may not become a part of human experience, but that among the experiences it makes possible is a wide range, in fact almost infinite range, of yet to be discovered relationships among which are many that may enter into the culture of the future, if both the man and the hour come. If in the discussion of this question we do not lose sight of the inventive nature of the processes producing material cultures and the curious psychic origin of the underlying relationship of ideas, on the one hand, and the passive limiting character of the geographical environment on the other, we shall not be led far astray. It is natural that in the study of geography emphasis should be given to the physical, faunistic and floral characters of the environment, but this should not warrant the assumption that these characters will in themselves be a sufficient explanation of the cultural differences observed among the peoples of the earth. It is also to be expected that anthropologists will overweight the value of the psychic factor in the formation of cultures because they deal in the main with such phenomena, but they in turn must not ignore the limiting character of the environment. The value of such discussions as this can only consist in holding each group of investigators to the proper recognition of the relations between their respective fields. Environment vs. culture may never cease to be the debatable ground over which the opposing parties struggle with varying fortunes, but we believe that a little analysis of the phenomena will reveal the chief factors, make evident their relative values and so lead to saner views.