The Sources of Culture Change

Christopher Henry Dawson
AFTER a century and more of historical specialism and archeological research, of the minute criticism of documents and sources, the time has come when it is becoming possible to reap the fruits of this intensive labour, and to undertake some general synthesis of the new knowledge of man’s past that we have acquired. It is a truism that we cannot understand the present without a knowledge of the past or the part without the whole, but previous to our own age it has been difficult to realize this. Men were forced to rest content with the history of a few favoured peoples and exceptional periods-like classical Greece and Rome or our own immediate past-that were islands of light in a sea of darkness. But now, thanks not only to the sensational discoveries of the great civilizations of the Ancient East, but even more to the patient investigation of the dry bones of archaeology-literal bones and fragments of pottery and rude implements-a general vision of the whole past of our civilization has become possible. There is still no lock of gaps in our knowledge, there is an affinity of problems that still await solution, but at least the broad outlines are there, and no educated person need any longer be ignorant of the primary foundations on which our civilization has been built up.


The practical importance of this knowledge is obvious. If we have not a general framework into which to fit our knowledge of history, we are forced to fall back on some lesser unity in relation to which we order our ideas, and this lesser unity will of course be the national state. During the last two centuries the history of Europe has been given an almost exclusively national interpretation. And since the unit is a political one, the method of interpretation has tended to be political also, so that history has often sunk to the level of political propaganda and even some of the greatest of the nineteenth century historians – such as Macaulay, Froude, Treitschke, and Mommsen himself – have been unashamed political partisans.


This state of things was one of the great predisposing causes of the late War, and it is certain that the peoples of Europe will never be able to co-operate in peace, so long as they have no knowledge of their common cultural tradition and no revelation of the unity of European civilization. Now the alternative to the nationalist conception of history is the cultural or sociological one, which goes behind the political unit and studies that fundamental social unity which we term a culture.


I. The Nature of Culture. What is a culture? A culture is a common way of life – a particular adjustment of man to his natural surroundings and his economic needs. In its use and modification it resembles the development of a biological species, which, as Dr. Regan pointed out in his address to the British Association in 1925, is primarily due, not to change in structure, but to the formation of a community, either with new habits, or in a new and restricted environment. And just as every natural region tends to possess its characteristic forms of animal and vegetable life, so too will it possess its own type of human society. Not that man is merely plastic under the influence of his material environment. He moulds it, as well as being moulded by it. The lower the culture the more passive it is. But the higher culture will express itself through its material circumstance as masterfully and triumphantly as the artist through the medium of his material.


It is true that three of the main influences which form and modify human culture are the same as in the case of the formation of an animal species. They are (I) race, i.e. the genetic factor; (2) environment, i.e. the geographical factor; (3) function or occupation, i.e. the economic factor. But in addition to this there is a fourth element – thought or the psychological factor – which is peculiar to the human species and the existence of which frees man from the blind dependence on material environment which characterizes the lower forms of life. It is this factor which renders possible the acquisition of a growing capital of social tradition, so that the gains of one generation can be transmitted to the next, and the discoveries or new ideas of an individual can become the common property of the whole society. In this way a human culture is able to modify itself more rapidly and adapt itself more successfully to a new environment by an inheritance of acquired characteristics, such as does not seem to exist under the purely biological law of development which governs animal species. The formation of a culture is due to the interaction of all these factors; it is a fourfold community – for it involves in varying degrees a community of work and a community of thought as well as a community of place and a community of blood. Any attempt to explain social development in terms of one of these to the exclusion of the rest leads to the error of racial or geographical or economic determinism or to no less false theories of abstract intellectual progress.


At present the dominant fashion is to look to the racial factor as the deus ex machina of the human drama. Yet race is itself but the product of the process of interaction that we have mentioned. In the address to the British Association to which I have already referred, Dr. Tate Regan shows how various species and subspecies of fishes have been differentiated owing to their segregation in particular areas and the corresponding variation of their habits. Thus the plaice of the Baltic have become differentiates from those of the North Sea, and the colonies of freshwater char in the lakes of Great Britain and Ireland, which have been segregated since the glacial period, have acquired each their special group characteristics.


Now the same process occurs in the formation of human races. A particular way of life in a particular environment produces a specialized human type if it is continued over a long enough course of time. Thus the Mongol is the result of a uniform way of life on the steppes of Eastern Central Asia, a totally different way of life in the tropical forest has produced the Negro, and so on. In other words, the primitive cultures of the nature peoples have endured for such vast periods that their human products have become stabilized as fixed types, which have remained the raw material, as it were, of all the later developments. And every subsequent culture, in so far as it involves a way of life peculiar to itself, tends to produce a new racial type, even though it does not enjoy uniform conditions long enough to be fixed. It may be that the unscientific habit of talking about “the Latin race” or “the Anglo-saxon race,” instead of the Latin or “Anglo-Saxon” culture, is due to a half-conscious popular realization of that fact.


It must of course be admitted that many racial characteristics, such as skin color, and probably nose form, are due to a purely passive reception of climate and geographical influences. Nevertheless, in the formation of any culture even of the lowest type, such as the ways of living of the prehistoric ancestors of the Negroid or Mongoloid peoples, human activity and spontaneous co-operation with nature take a leading part. Perhaps no culture is more completely controlled by, and in harmony with, its environment than that of the Esquimaux. He belongs to the Arctic no less than the animals on whom he is a parasite – the seal and the reindeer. At every point – in his use of skin for boats and tents and clothing, of bone for weapons and tools, of blubber for warmth and light – he is bound down to an absolute dependence on the little that nature has given him. Yet his culture is not a necessary result of climactic and economic determinism, it is a work of art, a triumph of human inventiveness and endurance, and it is the fruit of an age-long cultural tradition, which may well stretch back as far in time and space as the Magdalenian culture of the European glacial age.


And here, too, we see that a culture may be no less a fixed type than is a race. When once a new way of life has been discovered, when man has attained some permanent state of equilibrium with the external world, he will preserve it indefinitely from age to age, and any change will come, not from within, but from the foreign pressure of some external culture. Today the Esquimaux are learning a new manner of life, they are becoming civilized, but at the same time and for the same reason they are a dying race.


II. The Problem of the Change and Progress of Cultures. In spite of this tendency towards the fixation of culture in unchanging social types, it is impossible to deny the reality and importance of cultural progress. This progress is not, however, as the philosophers of the eighteenth century believed, a continuous and uniform movement, common to the whole race, and as universal and necessary as a law of nature. It is rather an exceptional condition, due to a number of distinct causes, which often operate irregularly and spasmodically. Just as civilization itself is not a single whole, but a generalization from a number of historic cultures each with its own limited life, so Progress is an abstract idea derived from a simplification of the multiple and heterogeneous changes through which the historic societies have passed.


Hence in place of a single uniform law of Progress it is necessary to distinguish the following main types of social change:


(A) The simple case of a people that develops its way of life in its original environment without the intrusion of human factors from outside. This is exemplified in those primitive race-forming “pre-culture,” of which we have spoken above.


(B) The case of a people which comes into a new geographical environment and re-adapts its culture in consequence. This is the simplest type of cultural change, but it is of great importance. There is a constant process of steppe peoples entering the forest, and vice verse, of mountaineers descending into the plains, and inland peoples coming into contact with the sea. The consequences are most striking when the climactic differences of the two regions are widely different, as in the case of the invasion of India by peoples from the steppes and the plateaux of Central Asia.


(C) The case of two different peoples, each with its own way of life and social organization, which mix with one another usually as a result of conquest, occasionally as a result of peaceful contact. In any case, this involves the preceding factor (B) also, for at least one of the two peoples.


This is the most typical and important of all the causes of culture change, since it sets up an organic process of fusion and change, which transforms both the people and the culture, and produces a new cultural entity in a comparatively short space of time. It is the origin of practically all those sudden flowerings of new civilization, which impress us as almost miraculous (e.g., le miracle Grec). It is possible to compare this process of fusion of peoples and cultures in very numerous instances in different ages and in different parts of the world, and everywhere we see the cycle of change passing through the same phases and lasting for an approximately similar. First there comes a period of several centuries of silent growth during which a people lives on the tradition of the older culture, either that which they have brought with them, or that which they found in the land. Secondly there comes a period of intense cultural activity, when the new forms of life created by the vital union of two different peoples and cultures burst into flower; when we see the reawakening of the forms of the old culture fertilized by contact with a new people, or the creative activity of a new people stimulated by contact with the old autochthonous culture. It is a time of great achievement, of abounding vitality, but also of violent conflicts and revolts of spasmodic action and brilliant promise that has no fulfillment. Finally the culture reaches maturity, either by the absorption of the new elements by the original people and its culture, or by the attainment of a permanent balance between the two, the stabilization of a new cultural variation.


(D) The case of a people that adopts some element of material culture which has been developed by another people elsewhere. This is a completely superficial change compared with the last one, but it is of great importance as showing the close interdependence of cultures. We see how in the past the use of metals, agriculture and irrigation, a new weapon or the use of the horse in war, have spread from one end of the Old World to the other with amazing rapidity. Moreover, such material changes bring with them profound social changes, since they may alter the whole system of social organization. We have seen instances of such change almost in our own times; in the case of the adoption of the horse by the Indians of the Plains, and the spread of the use of firearms and of European clothing among primitive peoples. But it is remarkable how often such external change leads not to social progress, but to social decay. As a rule, to be progressive change must come from within.


(E) The case of a people which modifies its way of life owing to the adoption of new knowledge or beliefs, or to some change in its view of life and its conception of reality. Up to this point it may seem that the process of culture change is a rigidly deterministic one, and leaves no room for any free moral or intellectual progress.


For it might be thought that if the highest products of a culture are the flowers of a social organism that has had its roots in particular geographical and ethnological circumstances, no permanent and objective progress will be achieved and the greatest works of art and thought will simply reproduce in a more sophisticated form the results of the past experience of the organism. Certainly we must admit that every past condition will express itself in the life-impulses and life-concepts of a society, and that thus the cultural achievements of a people are largely determined by the past. But this does not occur mechanically. The existence of Reason increases the range of possibilities in the fulfillment of instinctive purpose. An old impulse acting in a new environment, different from that to which it was originally adapted, may not be merely a decadent survival, but a stepping stone to the acquisition of new powers and to some new conception of reality. Thus there is the continual enlargement of the field of experience, and thanks to Reason, the new does not simply replace the old, but is compared and combined with it. The history of mankind, and still more of civilized mankind, shows a continuous process of integration, which, even though it seems to work irregularly, never ceases. For Reason is itself a creative power which is ever organizing the raw material of life and sensible experience into the ordered cosmos of an intelligible world – a world which is not a mere subjective image, but corresponds in a certain measure to the objective reality. A modern writer has said: “The mind of man seems to be of a nature to assimilate itself to the universe; we belong to the world; the whole is mirrored in us. Therefore, when we bend our thoughts on a limited object, we concentrate faculties which are naturally endowed with infinite correspondences.”


We cannot shut our eyes to the significance of this steadily growing version of Reality, which is at once the condition and the result of the life-purpose of human society.


It is easy for us to see how in the case of modern science or Greek philosophy a culture has been directly moulded by the influence of thought. But the importance of the psychological factor is not confined to purely intellectual knowledge, it is manifested equally in the religious outlook, which dominates even the most primitive cultures. Every religion embodies an attitude to life and a conception of reality, and any change in these brings with it a change in the whole character of the culture, as we see in the case of the transformation of ancient civilization by Christianity, or the transformation of the society of Pagan Arabia by Islam. Thus the prophet and the religious reformer, in whom a new view of life – a new revelation – becomes explicit, is perhaps the greatest of all agents of social change, even though he is himself the product of social causes and the vehicle of an ancient cultural tradition.


And thus the great stages of world-culture are linked with changes in man’s vision of Reality. The primitive condition of food-gathering and hunting peoples does not necessarily imply reasonable purpose or any reflective vision of Reality; consequently it does not imply civilization. The dawn of true civilization came only with the discovery of natural laws, or rather of the possibility of man’s fruitful co-operation with the powers of Nature. This was the foundation of the primitive cultures of Elam and Babylonia and Egypt. To it belongs the discovery of the higher agriculture, the working of metals and the invention of writing and the calendar, together with the institutions of kingship and priesthood and an organized state.


It governed the progress of civilization for thousands of years and only passed away with the coming of the new vision of Reality which began to transform the ancient world in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C. – the age of the Hebrew Prophets and the Greek Philosophers, of Buddha and Confucius, an age which marks the dawn of a new world.


– Dynamics of World History, Christopher Dawson, Section I, pages 3-11

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