4 Oct 2010

Cultural Stem Cells

Posted by jofr

Do “cultural stem cells” exist?

Lewis Thomas made this observation in his book The Lives of a Cell:

“Maybe the thoughts we generate today and flick around from mind to mind…are the primitive precursors of more complicated, polymerized structures that will come later, analogous to the prokaryotic cells that drifted through shallow pools in the early days of biological evolution. Later, when the time is right, there may be fusion and symbiosis among the bits, and then we will see eukaryotic thought, metazoans of thought, huge interliving coral shoals of thought.”

If we can compare genes with memes and cells with thoughts, are there any “cultural stem cells”? Undifferentiated self-replicating entities based on abstract ideas? Stem cells are cells found in all multi-cellular organisms. They are characterized by the ability to renew and replicate themselves, they also can differentiate themselves into a diverse range of specialized cell type. Stem cells are the base of life, they can found at the beginning of every multi-cellular organism, but they are also very dangerous and can be a source of cancer. The cancer stem cell hypothesis says that cancer may be caused by stem cells gone bad. If “cultural stem cells” exist, then they could be source of cultural cancer, too.

Families and Dynasties

Now, is there such a thing as a cultural or social stem cell? A stem cell is an entity which can replicate itself. Therefore a cultural stem cell is a social group with certain ideas, beliefs and traditions which replicates itself. Is it the family which give rise to clans, tribes and dynasties or is it the small circle or group that meets regularly in a certain room or place, which leads to religions, ideologies and social movements? Well, both.

Families are the basic unit of all societies, modern and ancient ones. A family is a group of people which shares common genes. The purpose of a family is to replicate, maintain, and sustain itself. It is the family which give rise to clans, tribes and dynasties, examples are the tribes in Afghanistan or Scottish clans. These clans and tribes existed before any ancient culture. Families are the founders of corporations in economic systems, for instance the Porsche family – Ferdinand Porsche and its descendants – founded the Porsche automobile corporation. Since the dawn of culture, families are also the founders of royal dynasties, for instance the royal houses of Europe, the House of Windsor, the House of Hohenzollern, etc., or the “Kennedy Dynasty” in America (see “The Kennedys: Dynasty and Disaster”, John H. Davis, McGraw-Hill, 1984). Descendants of a family tend to glorify their ancestors, because it increases their own legitimation to rule.

In general, there is also a group of people which shares common memes. This can be small group of thoughtful, committed people which follow a certain ideology or try to achieve a common goal. As Margaret Mead said, a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can act like a stem cell for a political party, a large organization or a social movement. Both attributes seem to be critical, “thoughtful” means the group has some common idea or ideology (such as “Shawarma for everybody”, “A man should have a mustache”, ..), and “committed” means it follows it against all odds. A typical meeting place would be a temple, church or meeting room, where all members of the group meet regularly to realize their culture.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ~ Margaret Mead

Culture and Social attrators

Culture here means a set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group. Cultural entities are always based on social systems, where ideas can manifest themselves, where they affect the behaviors of the members, and where they can be transmitted from one member to another. Religions and ideologies belong to the most fundamental ideas of social systems. According to David Sloan Wilson (and his book “Darwin’s cathedral”), religious groups are adaptive units subject to group selection. The most fundamental social entity is the small group.

Religious systems are long-lasting social movements, they act as a social attractor which is able to hold a group together: the ritual assemblies attract the members regularly to a certain location. A small social movement can turn into a huge religion if the society evolves toward a stable state, where all members of society share certain desired properties: freedom/justice/work/peace/love/happiness/etc. A group where all members act selfless and altruistic is certainly more stable than a group where members are selfish and egoistic.

Sometimes it is quite simple to start a social movement, as this video shows (see also here). A leader needs the courage to stand alone and look ridiculous. What he is doing and teaching is so simple, that it is easy to follow him. The first follower makes a leader out of the lunatic. If a few more followers join the group, then we already have a very simple social movement which follows some idea or ideology.

Blueprints for a soul

They are many ideologies and belief systems. Can they be considered as a blueprint? Can we construct minds from different parts or pieces ? Is there a blueprint for a soul? Everyone is born into a certain cultural context, a kid in Germany will learn German and German culture, and a kid in America will learn American and American lifestyle. A christian scholar will become a Christian, and an scholar of Buddhism will become a Buddhist. Yet in principle each of us has the freedom to choose his own blueprint. Someone who creates and invents his own blueprint is often a leader or a prophet. If the life of a leader or history of a nation is written down, it may become a blueprint for the minds of future generations. “Holy books” are often autobiographies of famous prophets or contain the history of the own country and culture. “Holy books” and belief systems in general which specify the right kind of behavior can be considered as “memetic blueprints” to build souls and social systems, because they specify the glue that keeps societies together. They are the scripts which contain the rules that direct our plays. They are taught in schools and temples.

Temples and Ideologies

Besides the house of the family, where the family meets regularly, temples and meeting rooms for small groups where simple and primitive ideologies are preached are perhaps the closest things to cultural stem cells, especially if the ideologies or religions which are taught have a strong missionary aspect. Ideologies are undifferentiated self-replicating entities based on abstract ideas: consistent bundles or “shoals” of thoughts. They can be applied to many areas, and taught in many buildings. A temple can be a palace for king, a school for a culture, a university for a science, a town hall for citizens, a meeting hall for a political party or a building for a company. In short it can be a house for a small group of people, which organizes themselves in many ways. Like cells which can appear in different cell types, social (sub-)systems can appear in different types, namely

  • Cultural systems: Humans / Language
  • Religious systems: Priests / Belief-System
  • Scientific systems: Scientists / Science
  • Military systems: Armies / Military
  • Economic and banking systems: Companies / Economy
  • Political systems: Parties / Ideology

At the beginning all cells are equal in the body of multicellular eukaryotes. There are only a few which replicate themselves rapidly. During the course of time, different types of cells develop and take over certain functions. For social systems it is similar, in the beginning there were only a few, and they were all similar. During the course of time, many different types of systems emerged. Let us take a short look at the history of these systems.

Cultural systems: since 10.000 BC

Language is the foundation of every culture. Without language, no sharing of knowledge would be possible. The first languages appeared together with the first humans around 100.000 BC, probably earlier, at least they were present when the Neolithic Revolution took place 10.000 BC, where gatherers became farmers and hunters cattle breeders. Cultural systems alone are mostly harmless, they become dangerous if religious or military aspects come into play, for example if other cultures are condemned or combated, or if the culture tries to replicate itself actively. Most religions involve some kind of missionary aspect, where members are forced to convert others to the religion, thereby spreading the religion.

Religious systems: since 3.000 BC

Ancient Egypt, Bronze Age: Religious systems are stem cells of culture. As the ancestors of political, systems, and economic systems they are the oldest and most ancient social systems. They are undifferentiated and have very different functions, they contain laws to regulate behavior and provide a framework for a legal system. They are at the same time a political system with a single party which offers an ideology or vision and is symbolized by certain signs. They are scientific systems which explain the world. They are cultural systems with a certain language and particular customs, which is determined by the holy book. They are biological and ethnic systems, if the religious leaders belong to a single family or dynasty. The earliest and most ancient cultures are a mixture of religious, political and cultural system: they were religious palace enonomies (without coined money). The king was the religious, political, military, economic and cultural leader, all at the same time. The palaces of the Minoan civilization were not only royal residences, they were religious, political, military, economic and cultural centers, similar to some ancient Egyptian temples, which were shrines, centers of government, administrative offices, and storage spaces, too. In the book “An Introduction to the Ancient World” from Lukas De Blois and R.J. van der Spek the authors argue that

“Throughout the whole history of the ancient Near East, agriculture formed the basis of the economy. [..] In the ancient Near East the temple and the palace were the chief landowners [..] The palace and the temple were never entirely independent of one another”

Scientific systems: since 800 BC

Ancient Greece, Bronze Age: Science at the beginning meant Philosophy, the most basic science besides Physics. In Ancient Egypt, science and religion was inseparable, the gods were also used as an explanation how the world works. The first independent scientific system appeared in Greece, together with the first Philosophers Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc. The Greek started to realize that religious stories often crystallize hard-won wisdom about human nature – but some also thought that the stories are too limited to embrace what we now comprehend about the cosmos. Later in the Middle Ages, the first scientists were Philosophers, too, and they belonged to the Christian church, for example Roger Bacon and Thomas Aquinas. Early previews of other systems appeared for the first time, too, for example organized sports in form of the Olympic Games, and precursors of modern politics (democracy is Greek, demokratia means rule/kratos of the people/demos).

Military systems: 1st century

Ancient Rome, Iron Age: The first independent military system appeared perhaps in ancient Rome. Even in Ancient Rome there the political and the military system were still tightly coupled, and the social standing of a person impacted both his political and military roles. Humans have always been fighting wars, as long as they exist. It is hard to say where the first independent armies emerged, where the general is no longer the king, the president, or the chancellor. Even in the USA the president is still the commander-in-chief. The Roman army marks the transition between the conscription-based armies of the early states and the mainly volunteer, professional standing forces of the later eras.

Economic and banking systems: 14th century

Europe, Middle Ages: The slaves in Greece and Rome where precursors of modern workers, since no independent economy existed. Really independent economic systems appeared for the first time in the Middle Ages (at the time of the House of Hohenstaufen) together with the first banking dynasties. The first banking dynasties emerged in the 14th and 15th century: the Medici in Italy and the Fuggers in Germany. The first modern stock corporations appeared in medieval Europe, too.

Political systems: 18th century

The first precursors of independent political systems appeared in ancient forms in Greece and Rome, but in full form including political parties, political ideologies and voting systems after the French Revolution in the 18th century. Although finally all the systems mentioned above have appeared in independent forms, it took still two centuries and many wars (including two world wars) until they reached independence in most of the countries.

Fascism, Communism and Terrorism

During WWII, fascism and fanaticism spread like a cancer throughout the world. After WWII, communism began to dominate more and more countries. The corresponding ideologies affected all areas of culture and led to a system of poor differentiation (where religious, political, military and economic sub-systems were more or less equalized) and high aggression, just as it can be found in some malicious tumors. And they were all a failure. History has shown that such classless societies do not work. Marx argued that differentiation into different systems and classes is bad. The theories from Marx and Communism in general aim for a classless society without division. But equalizing revolutions lead to stagnation, deterioration and corruption of society.

Fascism is even more equalizing than communism. Are fascism and certain forms of religious fanaticism a kind of cultural cancer which can emerge from cultural stem cells? They emerge from small groups where an ideology is preached, i.e. they go all the way back to religious systems. The Nazi party began somewhere in Munich in a beer cellar (Hofbräukeller), where a radical form of fascism and antisemitism was preached in the meetings of the German Workers’ Party. The leading members of the later Nazi Party including Adolf Hitler, attended and met one another here. The beer cellar acted a bit like a cultural stem cell.

Consider another example, the Al-Quds Mosque Hamburg, a mosque in Hamburg, Germany, that preached a radical form of Sunni Islam. Al-Quds is where some of the September 11 attackers including Mohamed Atta, attended and met one another, forming the Hamburg cell. This little Mosque where a radical form of Islam was preached acted indeed a bit like a malicious stem cell. It produced more terror cells around the world. And it was located right within western culture, just like cancer cells originate within the body. The 9/11 attackers of the Hamburg cell were educated partly at German universities and flight schools in the USA. The planes they hijacked were American planes. In cancer it is similar: the cells which attack the body originate in the own body, probably in malicious stem cells.

For stem cells, the cellular environments are important. “Good” cells can turn “bad” in a bad neighborhood – leading to cancer. For cultural stem cells, the context and the environment are important too. They can prosper if the right idea is proposed at the right place and the right time. The Al-Quds Mosque was active at a time when Osama bin Laden was desperately looking for suitable suicide attackers to take revenge on the USA. In the beer cellar 1920 in Munich, Adolf Hitler found the right words at the right place and the right time to trigger a mass movement, which lead to the cancer of fascism, a crude mixture of militarism and imperialism. The old system was weak and broken, there were hostile tendencies in the society towards certain privileged groups, civil war or terror groups were a constant threat. Under these circumstances, cultural stem cells are especially dangerous and can have severe consequences.


There are two basic objects which can be considered as a cultural stem cell: the small group with common genes – the family – and the small group with common memes in general, i.e. the small group of thoughtful, committed people. Both are the basic unit of all societies, modern and ancient ones. They are powerful and dangerous, because they can be used to maintain, regenerate and recreate a society, but also to destroy it.

It looks like fascism and certain forms of religious fanaticism act indeed a bit like a kind of cultural cancer which emerges from cultural stem cells. Temples, mosques and meeting rooms for small groups where simple and primitive ideologies are preached are perhaps the closest things to cultural stem cells. They are simple and fundamental. Like religions and ideologies, they accompany humans since the dawn of history. And if we do not pay attention, they will remain a threat.

(Thanks to Robert Critchlow who pointed me to the quote of Margaret Mead).

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2 Responses to “Cultural Stem Cells”

  1. […] do have these kinds of throwbacks in forms of cultural evolution. I wrote about it earlier here and here. I think that some of their ideas are not completely wrong. If we consider cultural evolution, […]

  2. […] evolution similar to biological one, with phenotype and genotype, then it makes sense to look for cultural stem cells and cultural cancer. Contemporaries in the time around  WWII  were used to speak of […]


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