Can science help us change culture? In particular, can it help us change a dominant/majority culture that knowingly and unknowingly discriminates against those who aren’t members of this dominant culture? Can science point us to specific exercises and activities that will help us become mindful of our privilege and change our programming? How can we be more productive in our work to create a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion that works for everyone? I hope to make some headway in answering these questions in this series.

Steve Slocum, SalaamUSAThese and many other questions were borne out of several years of working to bring people together across cultural, religious, and other barriers via the nonprofit I founded, SalaamUSA.org. We’ve held a lot of events and brought a lot of people together, but I have to say it has been at the expense of a huge amount of energy. Connecting across cultural barriers does not come naturally for people. Some reading I’ve done has caused me to wonder if there might be some science out there that could help us do this work more productively.

So, this will be a very fun little series exploring some of the science around culture, and how we might use that science to affect culture. We’ll be looking at things like the similarities between human cultures and nonhuman cultures, even at the level of single celled organisms, how the behavior of crowds and swarms may be predicted and manipulated, and the neurology of decision-making – all with the hope that understanding human culture through the lens of science will help us craft methods and programs to help us adapt to the global society we have created for ourselves in the last decades.

I’m learning as I go here, and simply passing on what I’m learning for the benefit of my readers. One of the things I have been observing over the past couple of decades, since I stepped out of my exclusivist/supremacist Christian belief system, is that the Western model of learning and education is to break things down into more and more specialty fields and to produce specialists in these highly specialized areas of learning. In my father’s bout with pancreatic cancer just before he passed on, in the process of undergoing and recovering from surgery, we were interacting with a radiologist, an anesthesiologist, an oncologist, an endocrinologist, a pathologist, and probably a few more. Hospitals have only recently developed the role of the “hospitalist,” who attempts to make sure all the different specialists are recommending well coordinated treatments.

As a Masters degreed mechanical engineer turned social activist, I have a strong appreciation for science. And I’ve become fascinated with my recent discovery of the connections of many of the so-called “life” sciences with the social sciences. What piqued my interest was a wonderful book called, The Strange Order of Things – Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures, by Antonio Damasio. Damasio is the chair of the Neuroscience department and a professor of psychology, philosophy, and neurology at the University of Southern California. He brilliantly postulates that social order can be traced back to microbiology – that the governing principle is homeostasis at a cellular level. It’s a kind of “theory of everything” about how life works. I’m still reading the book after two years; it’s incredibly rich and really has me thinking.

Another amazing book that a friend recommended is, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, by Frans DeWaal, which adds a layer of knowledge which would seem to support Damasio’s model. It’s a delightful read, containing study after study and numerous anecdotal stories suggesting that there is a lot more intelligence and intention taking place among the nonhuman species than humans give them credit for.

My goals in writing this series are twofold:

  1. To make some of this rather esoteric stuff a little more accessible to the everyday reader.
  2. To put it all together and extract some working principles, based on science and data, that will inform our social activism and make it more productive.

On a very basic level, I’m going to attempt to break out a few areas of science that are relevant to our topic of changing culture, provide a very limited and simple understanding of these areas of science, then synthesize the parts back into a larger whole to give us a little bigger picture.

In the Part 2, I’ll talk about some of the biology of groups of organisms so we can start thinking about how this relates to human tribes. See you next time!

I’d be delighted to get your feedback. Please leave your comments below and feel free to ask any questions.

Part 2

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