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Cultural survival (was: Slovak-American Christmas Memories)

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  • Martin Votruba
    ... This is getting OT, but there appears to be great support for what you say, Ron, in a book just out (by the author of Guns, Germs and Steel). It addresses
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 4, 2005
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      > If we held solidly to tradition we would change none of the above
      > items, but how far back would we go?

      This is getting OT, but there appears to be great support for what
      you say, Ron, in a book just out (by the author of Guns, Germs and
      Steel). It addresses the other end of your succinct question and
      asks "how far to the future would we go?"

      I include passages from a review of the book (Collapse) from The New
      Yorker. It begins with the puzzle why there are no fish bone
      remnants on the sites of the extinct Norwegian colonies in Greenland,
      and finishes by addressing some of our present cultural assumptions
      about survival.


      votruba "at" pitt "dot" edu

      x x x

      [...] There are no fish bones in Norse archeological remains,
      Diamond concludes, for the simple reason that the Norse didn’t eat
      fish. For one reason or another, they had a cultural taboo against it.

      Given the difficulty that the Norse had in putting food on the table,
      this was insane. [...]

      Why did the Norse choose not to eat fish? Because they weren’t
      thinking about their biological survival. They were thinking about
      their cultural survival. Food taboos are one of the idiosyncrasies
      that define a community. Not eating fish served the same function as
      building lavish churches, and doggedly replicating the untenable
      agricultural practices of their land of origin.

      It was part of what it meant to be Norse, and if you are going to
      establish a community in a harsh and forbidding environment all those
      little idiosyncrasies which define and cement a culture are of
      paramount importance. “The Norse were undone by the same social glue
      that had enabled them to master Greenland’s difficulties,” Diamond
      writes. “The values to which people cling most stubbornly under
      inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the
      source of their greatest triumphs over adversity.” He goes on:

      "To us in our secular modern society, the predicament in which the
      Greenlanders found themselves is difficult to fathom. To them,
      however, concerned with their social survival as much as their
      biological survival, it was out of the question to invest less in
      churches, to imitate or intermarry with the Inuit, and thereby to
      face an eternity in Hell just in order to survive another winter on

      Diamond’s distinction between social and biological survival is a
      critical one, because too often we blur the two, or assume that
      biological survival is contingent on the strength of our
      civilizational values. That was the lesson taken from the two world
      wars and the nuclear age that followed: we would survive as a species
      only if we learned to get along and resolve our disputes peacefully.
      The fact is, though, that we can be law-abiding and peace-loving and
      tolerant and inventive and committed to freedom and true to our own
      values and still behave in ways that are biologically suicidal. The
      two kinds of survival are separate. [...]
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