Culture and Our Brains

Our surroundings quite literally change how we see the world.

In my earlier piece, “Is Traditionalism Inherently Racist?” I promised a longish follow-on discussing the degree to which culture is hard-wired.

While the idea is hardly new to me, a conversation between Ezra Klein and Harvard anthropologist Joseph Henrich on the former’s podcast (“If You’re Reading This, You’re Probably ‘WEIRD’“) gave me some new insights. It’s somewhat circuitous and wide-ranging, so I’ll do a shorter post more narrowly focused on the question and perhaps others in the coming days.

Note that the transcription seems to have been done by some sort of AI system, which made mistakes no English-speaking human would have made.

Klein’s setup:

In social science, or at least certain corners of it, WEIRD is now an acronym. It stands for a certain kind of person: western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.

And WEIRD people, who have been the people we’ve been surveying and studying for a lot of research on psychology, they actually turn out to be different, much more so than they, than we often realize or admit. There are all these things we take for granted as basic elements of human psychology and ethics that are actually peculiar to the WEIRD psychology.

We take them for granted because we feel them. We take them for granted because we study ourselves and then use that to extrapolate to human nature, but we shouldn’t. The idea that we have a stable self that exists across all contexts, that a person’s intentions should be central to any evaluation of their actions, that guilt is a widely felt emotion, that self-esteem is crucial for happiness, we treat all these as truisms, but they’re not.

While Henrich’s focus, as an anthropologist, is on differences between different countries, tribes, and the like, most of the findings would hold true of the microcultures within a diverse country like the United States. Our cultural lenses give us very strong senses of what is proper in a given situation that we tend to imbue with moral value. We naturally see our norms as “normal”* and see deviations from that as, at best, weird and, quite often, as outrageous if not evil.

The selection bias of so much Western social science is worth noting at the outset.

HENRICH: [A] lot of what you read in a psychology textbook or any of your typical psychology papers come from sampling one particular population. And as psychologists, and anthropologists, and economists began to measure psychology around the world, we found a great deal of variation along things like individualism, the relevance of shame versus guilt, the importance of analytic versus holistic thinking, the role of intentionality and things like moral judgment, and a number of other areas — time thrift, temporal discounting, and I could keep going. But there’s this interesting pattern of global variation in how people think about the world.

So, understanding that others simply think about the world quite differently than we do is very important. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we can detach ourselves from our own cultural biases.

This is also quite important, and very much plays into our long-running conversation about what constitutes racism, homophobia, bigotry, etc.:

HENRICH: [W]e have a simple story that we give people where someone is at a busy market. They have a bag with a few items in it. And in one story, they put the bag down to look at some items that are displayed on a counter, and someone else comes up and takes the bag and disappears off. And then by varying the story in different ways, we can make it clear that the person had a very similar bag, which they put down right next to it, and then they accidentally picked up the wrong bag. Or a case where it’s clearly a theft and they were trying to make off with the goods.

And then we asked people questions about how blameworthy the person is, how much they should be punished, things like that. And what we find is that we go all the way from WEIRD societies where it’s all about the intention. Really, people want to kind of forgive the guy who made a mistake. All the way down to there’s no difference. The person is out their goods one way or another.

Another way to think about this, if you accidentally burn someone’s house down or if you intentionally burn someone’s house down, the bottom line is the person has no house. So it just turns out that how important those intentions are, those mental states and — you can do it with beliefs or intentions — really varies across societies from places where it’s not important at all to places where it’s super important. It’s probably the most important single factor.


And so you can see this in the history of European law, where there’s a lot of discussion and logic chopping and labels for different mental states that characters might have when doing something that could be a crime. Did they intend to do it? Did they think the thing that they did could do it? So there’s all these ways that lawyers break down the mental states of the actors. And each of these has implications for the nature and details of the crime, and the degree of culpability, and the punishment, all these kinds of things.

But lots of societies have just done the simple thing. If you go back and you look at preChristian law codes, if you accidentally shoot a guy with an arrow, then you have to pay a certain blood price to his family. And nobody cares if the arrow glanced off of a deer or if you were just trying to kill him. And then you see this in lots of other societies where intentionality either plays no role or a smaller role than the sort of obsession over the details of the mental states.

Through my WEIRD lens, I think imputing bigotry to actions/systems/rules that have an unintentionally disparate impact is wrong. But there are whole groups of people who only care about results, finding the whole discussion about intentionality bizarre.

This, too, has played out in some recent conversations here:

HENRICH: [O]ne of the things that I try to push in the book, or try to really press on, is this idea of an interpersonal pro-sociality or morality versus an interpersonal. So one is this reality you have with strangers towards arbitrary rules, whether it’s paying your taxes, giving blood to strangers. All these things that help make society run. But it’s really kind of faceless, and you’re not really helping anybody you know. Versus the kind of more normal human morality where I got friends and family, and I want to do stuff to help them, and those are my priority.

Now, of course, everybody has that interpersonal morality. But it’s a question of how much emphasis you’re putting on one and how that you’re going to make the trade offs versus that general principle, don’t lie in court that’s required to make the system run. People can’t be always lying in court. So it’s that kind of trade-off. And then much of my book is about trying to lay out how that unfolded over centuries to get us to the place where we are today. And you shouldn’t think of today as an endpoint. I think things are dynamic, and directions are changing, and that sort of thing.

Western society—Henrich argues that it’s largely due to the influence of Christianity and, in particular, the Catholic church over centuries—has comparatively abstract rules of behavior.

[M]yself and lots of collaborators have made the case that societies that had beliefs in these more powerful, moralizing gods were able to galvanize more cooperation in larger groups. So if you believe that God was incentivizing you with, say, heaven and hell, then that can lead people to behave in somewhat more pro-social ways and allow trade, mutually beneficial transactions, larger cooperation, cooperation and warfare.

And so simple experiments that we’ve done is — one is just to go around the world to different societies. And we’re going to remote villages in Africa and Fiji and New Guinea and stuff and just asking people questions, getting measurements of their degree to which they believe in a god that is moralizing and punishing that has control over the afterlife.

And we find that if we give people a choice between allocating money in a way that the experimenter can’t be sure what they did to their community or themselves versus some coreligionist distant stranger who they don’t know, they’re more fair. They’re not totally fair, but they’re more fair towards the stranger in this monetary allocation when they report believing in these more powerful, moralizing gods.

Back to the hard wiring:

HENRICH: [W]e’re a cultural species, that our reliance on this cultural learning is actually part of our evolved phenotype. So we’ve genetically evolved to come into the world as babies and start imitating and acquiring and using cues to figure out who to pay attention to, and drinking in all this.

So we have a lot of extra brain. And we have changes in our developmental cycle which allow us to acquire social norms during middle childhood, say, ages 5 to 10. We internalize them. So we use them to help us navigate the world. We’re willing to pay costs if the norm demands those costs. But that can lead to all kinds of different ways of thinking about the world because even something like whether we see a visual illusion depends on the world we construct.

So one of my favorite experiments are these the Müller-Lyer illusion, which is the two arrows where one of the arrows are in and the other of the arrows are out. Well, if you grow up in a world without carpenter corners — and anthropologists have done the work in the 1960s — you actually don’t see that illusion. So you literally see the world differently. And I think that captures a lot of some of the stuff we were talking about earlier with the role of self-esteem and stuff. You literally see the world differently.

EZRA KLEIN: You have a great line here where you write, you can’t separate culture from psychology or psychology from biology because culture physically rewires our brains, and thereby shapes how we think. Your example there with the carpenters corners is, I think, a pretty good example of that. So how does culture rewire our brains?

JOSEPH HENRICH: The idea is that we come in with a degree of plasticity in order to help us acquire the information processing that allows us to navigate the institutional landscapes, the incentives that are built up in the institutions. So just my favorite example and the one I start the book off with is when you learn to read, you get specialized neural circuitry in your left ventral hemisphere. It impinges on some of your facial processing.

So literate people are right-biased in their facial processing, but nonliterate people are much more symmetrical in their facial processing. So what neuroscientists thought was a product of humans, a right bias in the brain in terms of processing faces, turns out to be a product of literacy because you spend all this time as a child building this machine that can read. It reads automatically. One of the fun things I say in the book is that if I show you a word, you can’t stop yourself from reading it.

Even though this is just a learned skill, it’s a thing that most cultures didn’t do over human history, but now it’s an automatic piece of our brain. It takes up neurogeography. It affects things that have nothing to do with reading, so you process speech differently once you’ve learned to read. We have a thicker corpus callosum. So we know the actual biology is different. But this is all due to this cultural value on reading.

So, when we say that people from different cultures see the world differently, it’s not a figure of speech. Our cultural experiences literally rewire our brains.

There’s a whole lot more to the interview and I may circle back to it in the future. I’m off to an overnight staff ride, so it won’t be today or tomorrow.


*My wife frequently ribs me for thinking that my experiences are “normal,” whereas other ways of seeing and doing things are “weird.” To which I always respond, “Well, yeah.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. MarkedMan says:

    Really interesting, James. Food for thought.

  2. Jen says:

    I’d be interested in seeing an analysis done on people like me, who grew up all over the world. There are loads of “third culture kids” out there, and I do wonder what that would show/what it would say about the theory outlined above.

  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    Third culture kids. Thanks for that term, had not heard it. I lived in France for three years when I was 7-10 and an oversimplification of my life story could be: I wanted to return to a version of that European life. I’ve never been really content anywhere in the US. (And I’ve never, no, not for a moment, accepted American baguettes as the real thing.)

    On the larger topic, yes, we are shaped by experience. DNA, lived experience, free will and random chance are the four intertwined forces that shape us. I’m WEIRD. And the model does seem to work rather well, doesn’t it? Not a lot of famine in the WEIRD. Not a lot of ebola. I mean, the ‘R’ does stand for ‘rich.’ In fact China started going a bit WEIRD and almost overnight there were a whole lot of people no longer on the edge of destitution. I mean, you do have to look at the macro results which seem pretty good for western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic as goals.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    I’ve been posting about certain aspects of this for 20 years under the topic “Visualcy”. I think that as a society we are making a transition from a literate society to a post-literate or “visual” society that literally changes how brains are “wired”. Social media have accelerated this transition.

  5. CSK says:

    @Jen: @Michael Reynolds:

    What’s also interesting is that you can move around the United States and experience different cultures. I don’t know if I count as a TCK; I was over 21 when I traipsed to Edinburgh for four years.

  6. gVOR08 says:

    Is this equivalent to the realization years ago that inbred lab rats are a lot dumber than street rats?

    One of the fun things I say in the book is that if I show you a word, you can’t stop yourself from reading it.

    Years ago I saw a thing with the words red, yellow, green, and blue written several times in random order with each word printed in the colors red, yellow, green, and blue randomly. The challenge was to read off the colors, not the words. It’s impossible. Or perhaps only impossible for a WEIRD.

    This is another example of how The Bell Curve was so stupid. How do we compare IQ scores across cultures that literally think differently?

    I’ve argued in these threads that the focus in law on motivation and state of mind is counterproductive. That’s a Pragmatic argument that instead of deterring the action we waste huge effort debating things we can’t possibly know. That’s a different argument.

  7. Jen says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I was over in Southeast Asia as a kid, and in Europe as a teen. I saw children suffering from malnutrition, and diseases like leprosy, measles, and people covered with smallpox scarring early on in my life, and then the contrast with the remarkable way Europeans lived…all while missing big chunks of collective US culture. That leaves a permanent impression. I’m “weird,” for sure, but maybe not (solely) in the way this piece indicates.

    @CSK: Yes, that is true that one can experience different cultures in the US, but there is something different about being removed from cultural touch points like food and television shows and to an extent religion. Having lived in countries where TV wasn’t an option (no signal, no television), no peanut butter, no Catholic Church (I was raised Catholic but what does that even mean when chunks of time were spent in a majority-Muslim nation and there were no churches to attend?)–it’s definitely a different upbringing. And it’s likely why I’m still far closer to a handful of other TCKs I met while living abroad than I am to any of my US high school or college friends (except, interestingly, a few who lived overseas as well).

  8. Jen says:

    This discussion reminds me of one of the (granted many) reasons I detest Mike Huckabee. He made some comment during the 2012 election cycle that President Obama “wasn’t really American” because he’d lived in Indonesia as a child (Huckabee actually said that Obama had grown up in Kenya, but then said he “misspoke” and meant Indonesia). Yes, it was birther dog-whistle nonsense, but cloaked in a verifiable fact that Obama had lived abroad.


  9. Rick DeMent says:

    When I was in college in the ’70s I took a class that had us read a book by a woman named Gail Sheehy. The book was called “Passages” and basically it outlined what she claimed were typical passages that women went through at various stages of their life. She claimed that certain conflicts and growth happened at predictable stages of each woman’s life. The book was largely interviews with women in their 20s, 30s, 40s and so on.

    Later when she decided to revisit her book she found something kind of startling. She had assumed that these ” passages” were, more or less, set in stone. It turned out that none of it really held up. When she started interviewing women two decades later, she found out that the patterns weren’t remotely the same. It turns out that her first book was less a chronicle of the “predictable” conflicts and growth in each decade of a woman’s life, but more a chronicle of the conflict and growth of white middle class women in various stages of life at the time she wrote the book. In other words the context of when you were born had a lot to do with your experience of aging.

    I’m finding this dynamic playing out all the time to the point where I have become fascinated with what I am going to call “generational memory” for lack of a better term. I’m sure academics have already sussed this out but if anyone knows what the accepted academic term is for this idea I would love to read some of the literature.

    An example of this “generational memory” is my personal knowledge of motion pictures from the 30s, 40’s. and 50s. Being born in 1960 I was at an age when many of the most popular blockbuster films from the 50 and earlier would be re-released to cinemas on a regular basis. Old Disney films would be re-released, same for blockbuster films from the 50’s like the Ten Commandments, or early 60’s like Hello Dolly. The movies you would see on prime time televisions in the early 70s would be films that were well received in the early 50s and 60s but not quite popular enough for a theater re-release Anything contemporary would be a made for television movie (Anyone remember Brian’s Song?). Daytime television would show films from the 30s.

    As a result, actors like Paul Muni, Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, Bette Davis, the Three Stooges and Humphrey Bogart. were very familiar to me. Those old films were played on daytime afternoon movie shows and so on. As a result I had way more knowledge and familiarity of films that came out decades before I was due to the performance rights regime in place when I was a kid. I work with a 21 year old and not only does he have no notion of who any of these people are but he is pretty unaware of similar performers from the 90’s. All of this because of how Film IP was managed in the 1960’s

    Another way to look at it is that the moon landing, the pinnacle of scientific accomplishment in 1969, is as remote in time to my grand kid as World War I was to me. Of course I knew people with living memory of that time when I was in my late teens and early 20’s. To my grand kid the Civil War might as well be the battle of Hastings.

    So it is not just different cultures, it’s generations, language, race, faith communities, different locations growing up, every single thing that makes your experience unique to you figures into this (Music today is crap, not like the objectively great music made when I was a kid).

    Every day I am more astounded that we can even get along as well as we do (or that my wife and I can still live together in peace and relative contentment ) given that every individual’s worldview is so unique. That we even understand each other at all is a flat out miracle.

  10. CSK says:


    This makes me smile reminiscently. At the beginnings of movies, the Edinburgh theatres would run ads about this WONDERFUL NEW THING…Checking accounts! Pay your bills by check! Yowza.

    And I recall being exasperated by the non-existence of showers, decent coffee, and ice cubes for one’s drink at bars and restaurants.

    I assume that’s all changed now.

  11. MarkedMan says:


    This is another example of how The Bell Curve was so stupid. How do we compare IQ scores across cultures that literally think differently?

    I actually read “The Bell Curve” when it came out, when I was just generally interested in the concept of intelligence and how it was measured and mismeasured throughout the ages. (Best book in this area? “The Mismeasure of Man” by Stephen Jay Gold. In any recent edition there is a forward describing all the flaws in “The Bell Curve”.) The number one thing I took away from “The Bell Curve” was that even if you accepted everything the authors laid out in their thesis, their conclusions didn’t make sense. One reason is that intelligence as they measured it is distributed along a curve (suprise! a bell curve). They have data that shows the bell curve of lighter skinned people is shifted rightward (towards higher intelligence) than that for darker skinned people. But if you take the two curves and lay them on top of each other, you find it is mostly overlap. In other words, whether you are black or white the odds are that your measured intelligence falls within the overlap. As I remember it (and this goes back decades) the authors take group averages to explain the outcome of a specific individuals, and you can’t do that! If lower incomes, decreased educational success, etc were due solely to IQ then if I took 1000 dark skinned individuals and 1000 light skinned individuals with the same IQ, they should fare about the same. The fact that they don’t is what endemic and inherent racism is all about, but the authors discount this fundamental truth.

    Here’s an analogy. On average, NBA players are more likely to bump their heads on low overhangs than non-NBA players. If we plotted the curve of number of bumps per year for NBA players and a separate curve for non-NBA players, the NBA player curve would be shifted to the right. If the cause of their bump-itude was their innate NBA-ness, then individuals would be more likely to bump even when compared to non-NBA players of the same height. But if instead it has to do with their height, they would be similar.

  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:


    How do we compare IQ scores across cultures that literally think differently?

    You don’t. And yet we will still object to the notion that IQ tests* have cultural bias imbedded in them.

    *And SAT, ACT, various scholastic achievement benchmark tests, and the tests we use to determine who is “gifted” enough to “deserve” places in schools that offer specialized programs, for that matter.

    ETA: WA! I’ve been finding that my tremor is starting to double click the “send” button so quickly that I only get a “this comment has already been posted” message rather than being returned to the thread. It’s happened on multiple occasions over the past two days. Weird, but not WEIRD.

  13. wr says:

    @Rick DeMent: “When I was in college in the ’70s I took a class that had us read a book by a woman named Gail Sheehy. The book was called “Passages” ”

    That you feel you need to explain what “Passages” was makes me feel very old. I never read it, but when I was a teen in the 70s it was one of those books that everyone knew — like Roots, Fear of Flying, The Joy of Sex and The Thorn Birds…

    I guess maybe people still recognize Roots.

  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: Culture shock in the other direction while I was living in Korea–no checks or checking accounts*. Every account you have is a drawing account managed by cards** that had the small gold microchips on them that didn’t show up on my Western Bank account cards for another two expiration dates. It was a hoot seeing business people coming to the bank machine at the end of the day and shoveling huge handfuls of cash into them to be counted and credited to their accounts.

    *Koreans who need to be able to sign contracts get their name converted into a stylized pictogram-like image that is then registered with the government. There was a big scandal during Lee Myung-bak’s administration because he had his signature block changed when he became President and there was confusion about some documents and his old “signature.”

    **And, of course, because I was a foreigner with an E-2 visa (commercial language school teacher), my card only permitted me to get cash from an ATM. I didn’t have debit card service on cards for two more school changes.

  15. Mu Yixiao says:


    I guess maybe people still recognize Roots.

    The song by Alice Merton? 🙂

  16. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Hell… I remember being the person shoveling stacks of cash into the ATM (my last job, I got paid my monthly salary in cash).

    I’m sure you can appreciate how happy I was when I learned I could pay my utilities via WeChat.

    The oddest thing for me was that I couldn’t get 2 cards for the same account. The numbers are all pre-printed, and when you open an account, they just pull one off the stack in the drawer and copy the number into the account creation screen.

    So… in order for me to send money home, I had to open a 2nd account, send that card to my mother, transfer money from account 1 to account 2, and let her know she could go to the ATM at her bank to draw out money to pay my mortgage.

  17. MarkedMan says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Not to mention the age old conundrum of: what exactly is “Intelligence” such that it can be measured by a single number? Is there really any such animal? I’m not giving Binet grief here, he came up with a useful test. But in calling it “Intelligence” he opened up a huge can of worms.

  18. anjin-san says:

    @Rick DeMent:

    Anyone remember Brian’s Song?

    Brian’s Song had a huge, but unfortunately not lasting, impact on the football-obsessed guys I hung out with way back in jr. high school. It was a window into complexities of adult life that was accessible because of the football theme and the quality and believability of the production.

    Being a pro football player does not make you a demigod with a perfect life? Men can love and support a male friend and not have it be weird? (We were terrified of anything that smacked of “gay,” though we had just about zero idea of what that actually meant.) A black guy and a white guy can be tight and it can just be normal? All of these things did not really fit into the cultural construct that framed our thinking at the time.

    It’s a shame the lessons of Brian’s Song did not stick. The prevalent culture among boys that I grew up in was one of endless putdowns – you crapped on the guys below you on the food chain, and the guys above you crapped on you – pretty much endlessly.

    I read the Wikipedia article on Brian’s Song, which is, not surprisingly considered to be an all-time great television production. It’s a shame that we did not get more of this, and there is probably an interesting discussion to be had about why that is.

  19. Mister Bluster says:
  20. Gustopher says:

    I am reminded of two things.

    First, Jaynes’ The Bicameral Mind which posits that consciousness as we recognize it came about around 2400 years ago, long after civilizations. (There are a lot of problems with the book, but it is fascinating, with consciousness essentially being a memetic mind virus. I reject it as much for the implication that Native Americans didn’t have consciousness until white people showed up as much as any bad or outdated science)

    Second, our species is 3 million years old, and everything seems to have changed 10,000 years ago with cities and new organizing structures. Jaynes’ underlying thesis (thought patterns being spread and redefining what it is to be human) doesn’t get into this because there was no evidence, but it likely applies here better than his actual main thesis.

    We’ve evolved physically to a state where our brains are capable of holding any number of very complex thoughts around organization of our species, and I would posit that those thoughts are now evolving through natural selection, to become more dominant, and more transmissible.

    Capitalism is a virus, just like covid or Ebola or the flu. Same with religion, Christianity, colonialism, QAnon, etc. They cannot reproduce on their own and need a host to do so, and they have no interest in the well being of the host.

    Which of course leads to the awful conclusion that when Elon Musk talks about a “woke mind virus” he is correct.

  21. DK says:


    Which of course leads to the awful conclusion that when Elon Musk talks about a “woke mind virus” he is correct.

    I mean he should know, he has it. The virus he speaks of has clearly caused the Woke Derangement Syndrome currently infecting Musk, his buddy DeSantis, and the rest of the Republican Party.

  22. Modulo Myself says:

    I think the question of whether norms are hard-wired by culture misses what bothers the defender of norms, which is the basic idea that norms come out of repression. And it should bother people. Rod Dreher aside, I don’t know if all homophobia comes from repression, but something is going on with normies and their supposed norms which is not about ‘the rules’.

    What’s annoying in the case of WEIRD is the cheery way the western educated individual doesn’t seem to know anything about western civilization at all, especially that of the 20th century.

  23. Mimai says:

    It would be interesting (to me anyway) to have this discussion with the following stipulation: no one is allowed to mind-read their interlocutors or anyone else for that matter.

    I’m not suggesting that this should replace the current discussion. Or that it would be better (or worse) than the current discussion.

    Rather, I just think it would be interesting to juxtapose the two.

  24. Modulo Myself says:


    The Jaynes book is interesting, in an acid/70s/Jodorowsky way. For the record, he thinks that gods came into being because the human brain was undeveloped and basically schizoid, leading to leaders hallucinating gods telling them what to do. But the timeline doesn’t seem to fit what is coming into greater view about ‘prehistory’ which I’m basing on having read most of the insanely-long David Graeber book about real evidence on complex societies in human prehistory and how intentional they were, and it was convincing in the same way that a book telling me the opposite would be convincing, in that I don’t know anything about prehistory.

    I feel like a 1-volume book designed to explain human thinking is going to have major flaws, especially if it’s very current and can be applied to the most recent election.

  25. Gustopher says:

    @Modulo Myself: Jaynes’ theory is less that ancient people are schizoid with an undeveloped brain and more that they hadn’t been exposed to the right triggers that created the jump to modern consciousness, which he attributes to contact with other cultures because of increased trade and refugees from the Sea People. I don’t recall exactly how the interaction between cultures was supposed to create the idea of consciousness, but it was also responsible for the spread.

    He definitely starts with an idea and works backwards trying to fit things to it, bending things past their breaking point.

    But it may be one of those “right on the generalizations, wrong on every single specific” situations.

    But back to cities! The development of cities in both the Old World and New World at roughly the same time baffles me. It’s after the land bridge between Alaska and Siberia has sunk, and contact has been severed.

    This leaves a few possibilities:
    1. It’s a coincidence that means nothing.
    2. The idea that would create large cities in several thousand years was sparked in the Old World and carried across.
    3. There was contact, we just don’t have evidence for it.
    4. There were cities before then which we don’t know about.

    I lean towards either 3 or 4. (3 could be aliens!, but probably not)

    And then there are writing systems and administrative practices, but the Spanish deliberately destroyed a lot of the Mesoamerican writings, and the Iroquois and North American nations don’t appear to have been big on writing things down.

  26. Kathy says:


    I don’t know the timing of when cities arose where. But there have been several revolutionary developments that occurred independently in places far removed from each other. Namely writing and agriculture, I think also coinage.

    These may not have happened at roughly the same time, though. I don’t recall knowing approximate dates and such.

    Cities, though, are a natural outgrowth of sedentarism, which itself is a natural outgrowth of agriculture. Still, there have been hunter gatherer sedentary people here and there. In the Pacific Northwest, I think, where the land was so rich in food and other resources, people living there had no need to look for better pickings elsewhere.

    I don’t know whether they developed cities, though.

    Lastly, going back 10-11 thousand years, you find permanent structures before cities in some places, like Gobekli Tepe. I’ve no idea whether that happened in our hemisphere too

  27. Mr. Prosser says:

    @Gustopher: Cities may be a natural outcome of socialization. Once agriculture becomes dominant over non-settled hunting and foraging the need for specialization increases as groups increase from extended families to multiple families and eventually a hierarchy of power develops. I don’t think cultural diffusion can explain cities. Particularly in the New World (which is a term that proves I am WEIRD).

  28. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mu Yixiao: That’s interesting. In order to send money home, I did have to go to the bank and needed to have the SWIFT (?) receiving bank information, though.

    And my first ATM card had no numbers on it at all. To do anything other than get money from the ATM, I had to bring my passbook (including for currency transfers home).

    ETA: In Korea, you pay your utility bill at the convenience store. No, I don’t know how that started. 😉

  29. Kathy says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    ETA: In Korea, you pay your utility bill at the convenience store. No, I don’t know how that started.

    In Mexico too.

    Also at the bank, at supermarkets, some department stores, and some pharmacies.

  30. Modulo Myself says:


    Well, in that last charming thread you have someone commenting that they experienced racism in America whereupon they’re told that actually America is one of the least racist countries on earth, and have they ever been to Europe. Commentator says yes, and then they’re condescended to about how they don’t know shit about Europe or America. And then the guy who blithely waves off American racism gives a long account of being at a graduation and how terrible it is when selfish assholes cheered longer than the time allotted to them, which is apparently the real crime.

    I don’t know anyone in the world like this except people who are going through extremely bad divorce proceedings but I don’t think that’s the case here. You can’t act like that in the normal world (while blathering about norms) and expect actual worldly people not to do some mind-reading, because you are not reading yours.

  31. Modulo Myself says:


    You know–I don’t think I finished the Jaynes book. I only really finish novels, tbh. I do remember the Sea People but it’s a bit hazy.

    With anything regarding prehistory, there seem to be so many we have to relearn what we know books that I don’t have any faith in either my limited learning or my limited relearning. With cities I would say #3 and #4 are plausible. Catalhoyuk in Turkey around 7500 BCE could be an early form of a city, and who knows how many more settlements like that are out there, or how far back they go.

  32. Mister Bluster says:

    @Kathy:..and some pharmacies…

    When I lived in a Chicago suburb mid ‘60s, drugstores took payments for the electric utility Commonwealth Edison. When you paid the bill you got two free light bulbs. I was told that the electric company had been doing this for years to encourage the use of electricity.

  33. Liberal Capitalist says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    “I’ve never been really content anywhere in the US.”

    Ditto. I’ve not heard the term third culture kid, but it really does define also the first gen American experience.

    I grew up in a Lithuanian household. Learning to speak Lithuanian, learning Lithuanian history, hearing Lithuanian music… and then I went to school and found out just how “foreign” it all was from my experience.

    And we lived in Michigan.

    This has had a dramatic effect on my entire life. In university, my areas of study were Political Science, Sociology, and Geography… all of which were to try to understand why I felt so out of place in “society”.

    When I entered the workforce, with a focus on technology, I found myself traveling the world and fitting in in most places far better than in the USA. They got me, and I got them… and that is just a weird thing, always coming back to a country that just seems completely wrong.

    Years later, my brother commented that he saw a Mexican family celebrating some event, and it seemed that we had far more in common with them (culturally/sociologically) than we did most of America.

    This cultural concept of “melting pot” just isn’t really real.


    Of course, if we really want to talk about cultural concepts, let’s talk about the false ideologies of commerce and profit.

    Those two are destroying the planet. and even with 8+ billion humans there could have easily been resources enough for all. Instead we are on the brink of collapse.