Culture and Adaptation Lecture


There are many ways that human cultures have to adapt; and the following is an example of how two institutions in the U. S. may have to find new ways to adapt to historically relevant ways of doing things.  Those things (adaptations) do not seem to be relevant in today’s world anymore.

Over the last year it seems like the worst news has been about jobs.  When we Americans think of jobs, we think of making a living, which is the universal cultural theme this series of lessons covers.  According to TechCrunch at, in an article by Jon Evans, there is going to be more trouble about jobs in the future.

He says,  “Trouble is, America, more than any other nation, is built around the notion that all able-bodied adults should have jobs.  That’s going to be a big problem.”

How So?

What exactly does Jon Evans mean?  It has to do with another article at by Paul Kedrosky, financial adviser, writer, entrepreneur and venture capitalist.  Kedrosky believes that fire departments are no longer as important as they once were because fire departments’ calls “are only 20% about fires.” In other words fire departments are “organizations that, despite their name, deal with everything but fires.”  So here we connect fire departments with jobs.  After all, being a fireman is a fairly “high status” way of making a living because they are first responders.

1937 Ford Fire Truck

According to both Evans and Kedrosky, however, it is history, and culture, that has such organizations like fire departments, post offices, and many other institutions, trapped in the past so that, “we can’t get to the future.”  In other words, these institutions are more historically important than they are culturally important in the present.  Both writers are calling attention to the fact that we may be able to solve problems in better ways than what historically seemed necessary.  If fire departments don’t respond to fires as much as they used to, then reorganization may be on the brink. We already know the post office is having problems because emails are much more efficient than putting something in an envelope, finding a stamp, and walking to the mailbox.  And who wants to wait days for the recipient of our message to reply?  The fire departments and the United States Postal Service are just two institutions that are trapped in their own history.

Jon Evans has a label for this trapped position.  He calls it “cultural technical debt.” He believes a recent AP report that many of the jobs that have been lost over the last five years “will never return.”  This, then, will be a new age of cultural adaptation, where technology, and perhaps robots, will replace the jobs that most of us have had in the past.  Only culture will eventually take us to the next level!

This course will help you understand the many ways and means of making a living.  Every culture makes a living according to the adaptations that have been made, or are being made, within the cultural environments with the resources that are available.

About Adaptation

The definition of [glossary slug=’adaptation’ /]in the glossary on this site refers to the processes by which people learn to cope with environmental forces or stresses relative to survival.  As we saw in the video and in the paragraphs that follow, survival is not necessarily just about using culture to acquire the basics like food, shelter and clothing.  Survival also requires knowing what behaviors are relevant in specific circumstances, not just in making a living.

A wider and more inclusive definition of adaptation is, “the non-biological responses of the individual or population to modify or ameliorate an environmental stress . . . therefore cultural adaptation represents humanity’s most important tool” (Frisancho 2006).

The in depth study of human adaptation involves taking into context contemporary theories and concepts related to bio-cultural adaptations as well as physical adaptations.  Theories relative to bio-cultural processes are much too broad for this course, yet we will approach it in another lesson.  This course promotes understanding of culture, and the many ways it prodces every day patterned behaviors.

As we saw in the video, the boy is confused and is not aware of the cultural cues for proper behavior in his new surroundings.  This is one primary purpose culture serves – to provide us with the appropriate behaviors and cultural cues that are socially accepted by others who share in our same surroundings.  Learning appropriate behaviors in various circumstances allows us to satisfy all kinds of needs without confusion.  When we visit other cultures, this is what we have the most trouble adapting to – the cues that we need to be accepted.

Culture is so much associated with adaptation that we rarely view it in larger terms.  We discuss it more with regards to how it may help us to obtain our biological needs such as food and water, or shelter and clothing.   However, as demonstrated in the video, learned behaviors are very important in many different daily encounters and in a variety of cultural settings.  The following are some humorous ads that demonstrate how even a bank must advertise in different settings due to culture.

Another example is demonstrated by an experience I had in a small Maya village in the Guatemala Highlands.  I was recruited to teach children of various ages about ways to avoid diseases and “microbios” (microbes, germs).  I finished telling them a story about how coughing and dirty hands can spread germs; and I had several children come to the front of the class to demonstrated how covering the mouth when coughing and washing the hands helps to keep others from getting sick.

Before the children left the classroom I wanted to hand out soap and washrags.  I told them to get in a line so they could take their turn in receiving the small packet of health supplies.  There were about fifty to seventy-five children; and they all crowded around me at once holding their hands up and clamoring to get what I was trying to hand out.

We know that lines help to promote order, they lessen chaos, and they promote discipline to name a few advantages of this adaptive process.

One of the earliest behaviors children learn, beginning in pre-school in America, is to form lines.  Children learn to form lines for leaving the classroom, lines for being served lunch, lines for fire drills, lines for going out to recess, lines for going potty, and lines for taking turns in a myriad of other activities.  Most of the children I taught in Guatemala had not had a school experience.  Very few of them attended school because their parents cannot afford the $250.00 a year to enroll a child, especially when there are 6, 7, or 8 children in a family.

As a novice teacher in a foreign country, it did not occur to me beforehand that children would not comprehend what forming a line meant. Another example, in the same village, but with adult women, was scheduling appointments for various health exams.  They were given times to be at the clinic when the doctors could see them.  When the clinic opened at 9:00 AM the next day, all the women came at once – all at the same time.  They did not know or understand that appointments were scheduled at certain times.  There was no cultural familiarity of what it was like to have an appointment.  These culturally learned and adaptive behaviors are shared in many cultures, but certainly not all.

Watch the film several times to understand the way in which culture teaches (or does not teach) proper behaviors that are necessary for order in a chaotic world.

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