Cultural Transmission


We recently had the great pleasure of seeing the Spanish Harlem Orchestra.  Wow, their music was sheer elegant, passionate rapture.  Such energy and complexity of sound from a piano, bass fiddle, congas, timbale, congas, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, a saxophone/flute and 3 marvelous singers.  I did not understand the words as I do not speak Spanish but who cares when the music carries so much meaning regardless.  This is not my native culture which leans more towards Americana roots and Celtic tunes, a different energy and complexity, different rhythms, etc.  In today’s electronic world cross cultural pollination is becoming more common, of course, and so cultural transmission is becoming more complicated than it once was.  And with a shorter half life.  At one point in the concert the orchestra’s leader and founder, Oscar Hernandez, said they wanted to change the pace and play a tune in a style that has been mostly relegated to the past, a style he remembers well from his youth in the Bronx, a style he said he “chooses not to forget”.  After playing it, a lighter, less dense and lovely arrangement, he said, “Now you understand why we want to remember it”.  Indeed.

Allan Schore (see post below) describes how the basis for cultural transmission is laid down early in development as non-conscious biases in implicit learning begins with attachment.  From here we begin to acquire cultural patterns in language, emotional inflection, music, art, etc.  A remarkable biological mental platform supporting socialized thinking and feeling.  Though these cultural differences sometimes seem large, e.g., Bedouin, Celtic, Mediterranean, Inuit, etc., we are in fact able to comprehend much from other peoples.  Whence did such phenomena arise?

In 1976 Julian Jaynes published The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind in which he posited the interesting hypothesis that humans did not achieve our highest level of consciousness, i.e., conscious of being conscious, until 2000-1000 BCE.  Before that human mentality was more automatized, less flexible, and operated implicitly.  When faced with problems mental voices from the right hemisphere ‘spoke’ to the left which then could act on these signs from the gods.  I have left much out here of the basis for his thinking; it is more complex than that.  But I bring it up because 1500 BCE seems very late for such developments.  Cultural transmission was certainly in full swing by the early periods of the Old Testament, Grecian and Egyptian civilization, not to mention the Chinese.  The Egyptian and Mayan pyramids, Stonehenge and other early achievements of civilization such as calendars and writing, all predate this period.  Agriculture, which I think, along with star watching, marks the beginning of true empirical efforts appears around 10,000 years ago.  Burial practices began before that in the stone age.

Finally consider the cave painting spread over Europe.  These paintings are found deep in caves in places very difficult to reach scattered over Western Europe.  The earliest is in Spain and comes from around 30,000 years ago.


Roughly 15,000 years later in France we find more horses deep in a cave.


And then back in Spain another 5,000 years later, we find this:


All of these reflect artistic skill and development.  All are deep in caves.  All concern animals presumed important to the tribes.  These speak to the prior arrival of cultural transmission, even heightened language development.  They speak to the choice “not to forget”. The appearance of greater technological capabilities lie another 5000 years in the future and after that, the ball really gets rolling.  For an engaging fictional account of such paintings read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman.

Believing that humans were not fully conscious until we developed the means to create artifactual symbols amenable to manipulation by many others, even believing that some apes and Cetaceans do not have some sense of being conscious of being conscious, seems a bit like believing the sun goes around the earth.  A bit unconscious about the limits of our perspective.

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