Building a Culture, pt 4

This series has focused on religion. Of course religion is only part of culture. I also want to point out that culture is generally not created by one person. But rather it’s a series of efforts over long periods of time that shape social behavior. These movements in cultural development could start out as folklore: cautionary tales, bedtime stories, and the like. They could also be part of mate selection. Parents(in addition to society in general) might pressure their children to select mates that follow the cultural rules. Prestige versus shame can shape behavior as well to keep people inline with cultural rules of conduct. One hunting tribe might honor the hunter who brings in big kills to encourage hunters to compete and work hard provide for the tribe. While another tribe might insult the hunter or belittle his accomplishments to keep him humble in an attempt to prevent jealousy and conflict. Two radically different behaviors. Each designed to solve totally different problems.

Now, let’s look at environmental conditions that could cause problems for a society to solve. First thing, they’re going to want food. The second thing is water. Water can be more problematic. Humans use an enormous amount of it from drinking, cleaning, bathing, cooking, and sanitation. Third, shelter, and forth security. These are essentially the basics of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Culture will be designed around making sure these bases are covered. If you don’t believe me, try not having a job or means to support yourself and see how well society treats you. Not too good. That is because our culture shames people that do not follow the rules. And notice, these rules are not written down anywhere officially. We follow them because “that’s just the way it’s done” without giving it much though and then teach them to the next generation.

Now, let’s talk about some real world environmental differences and how they affect culture. China is a very old civilization, plagued by earthquakes causing their people to constantly rebuild after unpredictable disasters. Their culture emphasizes harmony and cooperation, this allows them to better work together to keep order in a chaotic natural environment. European colonists that came to North America saw this land as a mineral rich, underdeveloped nation. American culture stressed Manifest Destiny, rapid expansion, the American Dream, and consumption in the early days. Of those, consumption and entrepreneurialship persist. Our culture emphasizes rapid growth. Japan has a large population, densely packed on a small island, much of which is uninhabitable mountain. Japanese culture is very rigid with lots of rules governing honor and codes of fighting in an effort to maintain order. Japanese culture emphasizes social harmony in a resource limited environment. India, another densely populated area of the world uses a caste system to minimize interaction and thus limit personal conflict.

Oh, let’s not forget counter culture. In China, you have groups that protest against their government, when they feel their rights are more important than the maintaining of harmony. In American culture, we have groups that want to limit consumption or want to conserve, be it natural resources, the environment, or animals. There’s lots of examples of Japanese rebellion counter culture that can seem strange to the rest of us. The caste system in India is becoming a thing of the past. All of these examples are gross simplifications of extremely complex regions of the world. But hopefully you see where I’m going with this.

Food, Water, Shelter, and Security are the main issues that humans will develop culture to deal with. No two environments will be exactly the same, thus no two societies will have exactly the same culture. Now, Although this is the foundation of culture, this doesn’t cover music, dress styles, food preparation, ceremonies--the stuff people generally think of when they think about culture. Most of us in American Culture decorate Christmas Trees, don’t wear white after Labor Day, say “Bless you” after someone sneezes, and celebrate American Independence by shooting off fireworks made in other countries. This is all pretty weird stuff. And although it’s important to us, none of it solves problems in our environment. So how does this fit into things? These are all temporary elements of culture, that, while fun to participate in, may all go away two hundred years from now and be replaced with completely new, and equally strange customs. As you write your fictional world, you should be able to make up as much weird customs as you want, mixing and matching from other cultures, as long as these don’t conflict with the foundational, problem solving cultural base.

Ok, let’s close with how speculative elements can affect culture. Magic and high technology are tools that will first be used to solve basic problems much like culture does. Wizards and sorcerers are going to be a lot more interested in doing practical things like automating farm work, channeling out aqueducts, constructing housing, and maintaining order than they are in... well just about everything that they seem to do in stories. Nearly every fantasy story out there has wizards obsessed with war and combat related magic. This is not realistic. Now, you might be thinking that fantasy, by definition, is not supposed to be realistic: that defeats the entire purpose. True, but I think global culture is changing. And the epic fantasy that captivated fans of Tolkien is slowly being replaced by a harder, grittier, and more realistic brand of speculative fiction. That’s my hope at least.

This concludes my thoughts on building culture from the ground up. I hope it was helpful. I’d love to hear any thoughts on it. Next week, lets take a break from world building and get back into writing.

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