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Evolution and Ecology

by on September 11, 2011

Julian H. Steward’s article, Evolution and Ecology, delves into the topic of cultural ecology and discusses how humans have adapted, transformed, and changed over the span of our existence and what role nature played in our cultural evolution.  Steward starts off by explaining what “cultural ecology” means exactly in the context of the paper and it’s defined as “… the study of processes by which a society adapts to its environment.” (43) After this statement, you realize the view Steward’s article takes because it covers how the environment has shaped a culture or group, not the other way around. Steward goes on to talk about when a culture is required to live and interact off the land, and says you have to take into account the huge amount of environmental and social factors (population density, distribution, technology, and language) that go into the exploitations of the land.   Also, Steward discusses the historical processes humans have been through in order to adapt to their environment in order to create their own culture. These processes include the migrations of people, transmission of cultural heritages to successive generations, and local inventions. (45)

What I found interesting was the balance most early societies had to find between cooperation and competition in order to survive off the land.  For example, smaller groups or bands would need to cooperate together if they live in a region where the food is sparse and everyone needs to chip in. On the other hand, if your group is too large then the cooperation aspect decreases because everyone is trying to fend for themselves before the food is gone. The role the environment plays in this situation is a strong one because if humans do not adapt to their group’s needs and learn how to be sustainable in their environment then they could face dispersion or death. Unproductive societies may lead to being social unrest and could become fragmented; productive ones are able to achieve social cooperation which would lead to technological advancements and eventually a more complex society. (51) As Steward concluded the article, he proposed that after the industrial revolution we started creating an artificial environment through our “nuclear power, hydroponic and synthetic production” due to being disconnected from our environment for so long. (56)  The one question I wanted to ask the class was:

Do you agree with Steward in that we are creating a space station society where are becoming more and more alienated from our own environment? Or are we just progressing naturally in our own cultural evolution that will improve our future?

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6 Comments
  1. This question is very complex. It seems that we can agree that cultures are defined by environmental determinism. Yet is seems now that humans have reached a higher level of control on the environment, cultures are being shaped by other societies politically and economically instead of environments. This is changing the way cultures interact and differentiate themselves from one another and their environment. Ultimately, we are becoming more and more unified or generic in terms of cultural differences. This does not mean our cultural evolution is going to improve our future and alienate us from our environment. We are a part of the environment whether we can or cannot control it. What we do within our environment will have both negative and positive outcomes and long-term and short-term effects. For example, in Padoch’s article, the high demand for the acai palm fruit has changed at the local and state level in the Amazon, impacting the land, resources, and changes in cultural practices. I believe we repeating historical changes to the environment that impact our culture, just at a magnified level.

  2. Frederick Reisen permalink

    I also believe this is a very complex and hard to answer question. As Steward mentions in his article, in accordance with most any who studies cultures, different cultures do things differently. There may be shared ideas in terms of means and ends but there is always a difference. With that being said I believe while there is a form of alienation from the natural world that has been happening and will most likely continue there are also those who have been doing things the other way around. The “back to the land” movements of the 1970’s in America and the formation of communes is a good example despite their inability for universal success. Even today communities are being formed to work with the land and ask what the land may need from them. But in terms of large global government I think the strain between economic struggles and the price of change is a huge factor in the stalemate between further alienation and some sort of “better?” alternative.

  3. From a global perspective, i can see how Steward would think that technology has created an artificial relationship with the environment. However, i think that a lot of this has to do with the power of knowledge and the ability to understand how we are being affected and affecting the environment on both an individual and global level. As Kristin claimed earlier, we will always be tied to the environment no matter how far our technological advances become. On the other hand, I can see American culture becoming more and more alienated from nature because our ideologies of it are skewed. There are steps that we can all take to improve our environment without relying so much on technology as we have been taught to do.

  4. 242colleencarey permalink

    This question is hard to answer. I agree that in some ways, we are always progressing naturally in a way that will improve our future. Progress is inevitable, we see it throughout history in medicine, technology, and everyday life. As this progress is occuring though, I think in some aspects we are becoming more alienated from our environment. Now more than ever, the environment is degrading. Some people are trying to aid in this degration, while others continue to not take into account the enviromental consequences of their work or “progress.” While this is true, it’s also true that people have always degraded the environment to a certain extent. But now I think the degration is to a greater extent, and that’s why I agree with this idea of alienation.

  5. i believe that in some aspects technology has completely alienated us from our natural environment. in this day and age people are so consumed with their smart phones, ipads, and other technological nuances that the natural environment has at some extent taken a back seat. i believe that the concept of technology and advancement is in some ways very natural due to the fact that we as a culture are always evolving, but at who’s/ what expense? i feel as though the idea and advancement of capitalism and industrialism has crippled and perhaps hindered the priority of environmental priority. i suppose that our society tends to look through a certain “lens” that is focused on the individual and the “now”. this mentality of focusing on the present opposed to the bigger picture and the consequences of our current actions resulting in destruction down the road is in my opinion a spectrum of alienation. to an extent i think that technology is a form of escapism, which coincides with some degree of alienation.

  6. While there are many people who are striving to find a more conservative method of interacting with our environment I still feel that this process isn’t occuring at a global or mass level. For me this results in something similar to the beginning of the film Wall-E. I think that in our efforts to create a better future we are in reality alienating us just from the environment but rather everything that it has the capability to provide us. Our environment helps to sustain us and I believe we should be taking a more careful and considerate approach to how we use it. I believe it would be most resilient as an inverse relationship- it provides for us and we should provide for it.

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