Dr. Motaleb Azari is Associate Professor and Chairman of Department of Studies in English, Payame Noor University of Chenaran, Chenaran, Iran. He has published 2 books and 44 articles on English Language and Literature.   email: motaleb1stmarch@yahoo.com


Socio-cultural Evolution of Ancient Civilizations and
Formation of Cultural Diversity in Modern Literary Works

Dr. Motaleb Azari

It is assumed that within the present existing civilizations, certain revolutionary processes took place through a combination of the major types of collective action- rebellions, intellectual and religious heterodoxies, and central political struggles. But a closer look at the historical evidence clearly indicates that these characteristics are not true of the processes of cultural changes and transformations that took place in all civilizations in their historical, traditional periods; rather, a variety of combinations of continuity and change in various spheres of institutional life took place. Hence, each civilization has followed its own course toward change and transformation. the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity, defined by language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and the subjective self-identification of people are the by-product of such transformations. Tracing the evolution of modern ethno-cultural identities from ancient civilizations, and with a close reading of a number of contemporary novels, the present paper examines how a unified vision toward socio-cultural differences has created a well-knitted cultural diversity in modern literary works.

Alfred Krober and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of “culture” (1952). However, the word “culture” most commonly refers to the cumulative deposit of beliefs, knowledge, experience, attitudes, values, religion, meanings, hierarchies, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired and accepted, generally without thinking about them, by a group of people in the course of generations by communication and imitation from one generation to the next. In fact, culture, as a social practice, is not something that individuals posses, rather it is a social process in which individuals participate, in the context of changing historical conditions. As an “historical reservoir”, culture is an important factor in shaping identity (Pratt 1). Before exploring cultural identity as a status function in formation of cultural diversity, it is imperative to examine various civilizations and their resulting cultures with a focus on the degree of diversity in their major institutions and social structures through history. The present paper, then, moves to examine the degree of such cultural diversities in the works of modern literary era.

The evolution of human civilization has its moments of enlightenment for prehistory, especially for the study of peoples on a relatively simple and environment-bound level of organization (M. D. Coe - 65). With the pristine or any other civilizations we have moved to what is called a higher level of integration wherein additional kinds of causality must be sought. The precipitous ascent from an early “formative” village life to the Olmec civilization is an example of social evolution for which the valid explanation may well lie in the realm of ideas and institutions behind primitive social life.

During the course of both ancient and modern times, human societies have evolved to levels of great socio-cultural complexity. The study of these “high cultures”, “states” or “civilizations” presents problems of great magnitude, and few attempts to explain them (whether ethnographic or archeological) have been made with success. In recent years, a growing body of data suggests that complex societies are not amenable to the simple kinds of structural, functional, or “culturological” analyses which anthropologists have traditionally carried out. However, these anthropological and ecological approaches are the only historical evidences for the study of primitive social lives and the formation, as well as interaction, between primitive customs (Flannery 399).

The world’s ancient civilizations and their cultural interactions, including the earliest civilizations in the Andes (Peru, Bolivia), Mesoamerica (Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras) as well as “Pristine states”, have long been a subject of scholarly interest and debate. These civilizations evolved before written history began in their respective parts of the world, and all share striking numbers of characteristics despite their having arisen totally or partially independent of early civilizations in the Near East, Egypt, and India—all three of which were in contact with each other. It is not yet known to what extent early civilizations in Persia and China were autonomous. (Flannery 400).

From the standpoint of cultural evolutionists, the “lowest savages”, represented by the Tasmanians and Australians, were taken as representing the first phase of cultural evolution of ancient civilizations, and the “folk ways” of European peasants, their festivals, superstitions, etc., were regarded as “survivals” from the first phase (Thomas 181).

However, in formation of different cultural practices among ancient civilizations, most of the classical, as well as the more modern analysts of social change—evolutionary and Marxist alike—tend to depict the emergence of these cultural practices as a transition between stages. They write as if the transition from one stage to another involved both concomitant changes in all institutional spheres—political, social, and economic—and a radical break with the past (Eisenstadt ch.1).

In the process of the transformations toward creating various cultural practices, most of the ancient civilizations shared several basic cultural orientations or codes which distinguished them from some of the other civilizations emerging in the same period. The first phase of such transformations were characterized by a conception of a high level of autonomy and distinction of the cosmic (religious) and mundane orders and by a strong emphasis on the necessity of linking the transcendental sphere and the mundane order. Second, although they shared this emphasis on the tension between the cosmic and the mundane world with other civilizations, they included some kind of this worldly activity as a bridge between the transcendental-cosmic and the mundane world, or in Weber’s terminology, as a “focus of salvation”. Third, there developed within these civilizations a strong emphasis on various sectors of the population to either the cosmic or the social order and a relatively autonomous access of at least some groups to the major attributes of one order or the other (856).

Since these transcendental and mundane characteristics are known as the first form of diversity in cultural practices within ancient civilizations, some critics (Mnsfield 1991) suggest that cultures have replaced modern civilizations and there is really no such thing as civilization and no such thing as being civilized. Therefore, Mansfield dismisses the project of civilization which is seen to be behind the forces of colonization and hegemonic superiority and not only the diversity in socio-cultural practices. In fact, civilization is not replaced by culture; rather, it is the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity, defined by language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and the subjective self-identification of people. Accordingly, to investigate the concept of cultural identity in modern societies, we need to explore, at first, the nature of cultural practices within modern civilizations and their interaction within societies. Now, to clarify the degree of cultural diversity in modern literary works, we may first categorize the existing civilizations based on their specific characteristics. Then only one can decide on how these major institutions have created varieties of perspectives toward the basic elements of modern literary works.

At present time, there exist, seven major civilizations; Western civilization built upon Catholicism and Protestantism, Western Europe and North America; the civilization built upon Orthodox Church, Eastern Europe, the Islamic civilization, the Hindu civilization, the Persian civilization, the Chinese civilization and the Japanese civilization. According to some critics, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa exist as “Candidate(s) for Civilization”. Historically, these civilizations are known to have taken note of and thereby benefited from the achievements of one another (Ikenberry 162). Accordingly, in every civilization we find distinct traces of knowledge and innovation received from other civilizations. For example, in Europe’s progress leading up to the English enlightenment we see foundational knowledge received from the Islamic civilization which in turn has received knowledge from several other civilizations, Persian and Greek ones, before developing then offering its own intellectual product to Europe. The well-received novels in 20th century, all have traces of intercultural relations between characters. In fact, creating a unified vision toward varieties in ethno-cultural practices is the main concern of many modern writers. For example modern American and Canadian literature have lots of believable characters who share the same degree of sameness in their intercultural interactions. That is why Sula in Toni Morison’s writing reminds us of a typical Eastern character in American society and John Field in Saul’s The Paradise Eater share the same characteristics with Amir in Khalid Huseini’s The Kite Runner.

At present time, in some multicultural societies, such as The United States, Canada and Australia, we face a brand new civilization, known as “capital industrial civilization” which unlike the classic civilizations is a result of hegemonic superiority and is built upon a faith in man’s intellectual capacity. This capital industrial civilization can change the conventional attitudes toward different cultures and causes “cultural hegemonies” in such multicultural societies. This is the reason why classic civilizations still tenaciously hold on to values, even in fragmented forms. Almost without any exception, the modern literary works fall into the same category and share the same characteristic as they depict political ideologies, social realities and economic determinism, as three consequences of such an industrial civilization. By the turn of century, many writers tend to fill the gap in an ideology of a fundamentally secular character of this capital industrial civilization.

In the present century, to many people, “foreign” has become a synonym for “danger.” They can see and hear it in their media, taste it in their food, and sense it in the products that they buy (Rothkop 1). As mentioned earlier, many modern writers find it unavoidable to fill the gaps between ethno-cultural differences and replace socio-cultural conflicts and cultural hegemonies with cultural diversities in which a unified vision toward varieties creates a proper situation for respecting “out groups”. We may now examine one of the modern literary works as an example of how cultural diversities are shaped within a multicultural community and how they embody the unique characteristic of their original civilizations.

John Field—the protagonist in The Paradise Eater—who had moved twenty years back from Canada to Thailand is enough aware of the fact that if he ever wished to demand his original Canadian culture as a right, he first would have to detach himself from Thai culture. He prevents his daughter “mix(ing) up” with any Western culture; Amara—a close friend of Field suggests: “Hey, Johny boy, listen, … why not send Songlin to university with Dang? That would be better.” Field replies: ‘“I’ve told you, she’s Thai. I don’t want her mixed up [abroad]’. He pointed to Amara’s husband. ‘Look Tanun playing Fats Waller instead of working. If he’s confused, think what would happen to a half-bred like Songlin’”. Field further prevents his daughter from learning English, “She doesn’t need to learn English. … She’s Thai. … Later, maybe. I don’t want her confused. I don’t want her getting any ideas” (The Paradise lost 54; ch. 3). He goes to the extreme while asking his daughter: ‘“why don’t you let your hair grow?’ She stopped in surprise and ran a hand through her short, Europeanized cut. ‘Only peasants wear their hair long.’ It was said without prejudice.” Field tries to convince her, “Still, it would look nice.” To this comment, Songlin appears both “embarrassed and pleased at the attention.” Field himself feels embarrassed, because “he realized that he was accustomed to long hair on the bar girls, all of them peasants” (68; ch. 4). Without taking any part in cross-cultural conflicts, Field gives room to both Canadian and Thai cultures and is completely satisfied by their co-existence within his personal life. He is only afraid of his daughter not recognizing the situation and abandoning her Thai identity in favor of assimilation.

On the whole, many modern writers are enough aware of the dangers that cultural conflicts may create. Looking at the 20th century’s genocides, in each one, leaders had used culture to fuel the passions of their armies and other minions and to justify their actions among their people. Therefore, creating a well-knitted vision toward cultural diversities seem unavoidable to remove all the boundaries from the life of modern social life.

Works cited

1. Coe, M.D. “San Lorenzo and the Olmec Civilization.” In; Dumbarton Oaks Conference on the Olmec. E. P. Benson. Ed. Washington, D C: Dumbarton Oaks. October 28th and 29th, 1967. 65. Web. 2014.
2. Eisenstadt, S. N. Revolutions and the Transformation of Societies. New York: Free Press, 1978. Chap. 1. Print.
3. Flannery, Kent V. “The Cultural Evolution of Civilizations.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 3. (1972): 399-426. Web. 2014.
4. Ikenberry, John. “Just Like the Rest.” Foreign Affairs 26. (1997): 162-3. Web.
5. Kroeber, A. L. and C. Kluckhohn. Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions. New York: Vintage Books, 1952. Print.
6. Mansfield, Harvey C. Jr. “Political Correctness and the Suicide of the Intellect.” Presentation made at a colloquium sponsored by the Heritage Foundation. Washington DC, 1991. Web, 2013.
7. Pratt, Nocola. “Identity, Culture and Democratization: The Case of Egypt.” New Political Science 27.1. (March 2005): 1. Web. 2012.
8. Rothkop, David. In Praise of Cultural Imperialism? Effects of Globalization on Culture. Foreign Policy, 1997. Web. 2014.
9. Saul, John Ralston. The Paradise Eater. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1988. Print.
10. Thomas, W. I. “The Comparative Study of Cultures.” The American Journal of Sociology 42. 2. (Sep.1936) : 177-185. Web. 2013.

© Author
(Published in Kafla Intercontinental - Summer 2015)