Culture, Part III or: Who Tends the Untendable?

To recap: I am not merely a single organism. Instead, I am composed of trillions of single-celled organisms in intricate partnership. But I am greater than the sum of my parts—these single-cells have an emergent culture that is the “self.” And this culture of the self is similarly-fashioned to societal cultures.

Now to the exciting conclusion!

Despite all I’ve written, no doubt we are all still biased to look upon ourselves as single organisms. A human being. And science would agree. Seems the culture of our single-cells is enough to qualify as an organism in its own right.

So why not other, higher-order cultures? The one’s built from multi-cellular organisms (us)? Let’s run through the seven characteristics of life once again (using business cultures once more as an example):

  • Responsiveness to the environment: ✓ New technologies available? Increased consumer emphasis on sustainability? Of course the business culture adapts.
  • Growth and change: ✓ Does this even need defending? Of course business cultures grow and change over time.
  • Ability to reproduce: ✓ Ever heard of sub-brands? Or new regional or international branches? How about companies splitting off from a parent company and making a go of it on their own? That is a culture reproducing.
  • Passing traits onto offspring: ✓ That new corporate branch or company that split off? Of course it carries the legacy of its parent culture with it.
  • Homeostasis: ✓ Businesses strive, and have processes in place, to keep internal workings running smoothly and to restore order following disturbances.
  • Breath and metabolism: ✓ Requires a change in definition, but arguable. What makes a business culture continue to function? An influx of resources—raw production materials, energy, labor, dollars—which are converted into an outflux of finished products/services and waste which are in turn used to keep the influx of resources and internal processes humming. That is breath and metabolism to my eyes.
  • Made of cells: ✓ Cells are involved, us multi-cellular beings, so you could make the argument the culture is made of cells. Also, have you ever seen a cubicle? Looks like a cell to me.

My god, it seems all the cultures that permeate human society are themselves organisms. Not a new idea this. Still, very cool.

But there is one final piece to this puzzle, which starts with the etymology of “culture,” from the Latin cultura—to grow, to tend, to cultivate. As in: farmers “culture” their fields. (If this seems unfamiliar it’s because we’ve noun-ed the word in common parlance, we now tend bacteria cultures instead of culturing bacteria.)

What does this have to do with the definitions of culture we’ve been throwing around? As mentioned before, cultures are used as a perceptual and behavioral framework. In a way, the cultures of our lives “tend” to us, providing pattern and structure so we don’t flounder in the harsh and unguided world we live in. The same goes for the self, it tends the little cells that are its component parts, helping each and all survive and thrive. The general idea being: cultures grow, are alive and expansive, but have some manner of “higher power,” some higher culture, managing that growth.

So how high does the ladder go? I’m just going to say it outright: the biosphere, the collective culture of every living being on planet Earth. And what exactly does that culture like?

God.

But not the God, omnipotent creator of myth. Just as you don’t create your cells, and cultures don’t create groups of people, this god did not create life. It arose from life. But we don’t need to throw out all of the old religious conception. And just we can perceive the culture of ourselves and our societies, we can perceive the culture of the biosphere. God is merely some more-difficult-to-conceive mega-organism. And god does pattern the lives of its constituent parts, as much determining your life and fate as the God of myth. Sometimes he is the cruel God that determines who lives and who dies. And other times, he is the omnibenevolent God of Love. For real.

Spring is upon us. Go for a walk. Smell the sweet and colorful blossoms of life. Feel the soft breath of wind brushing over you. Gaze up at the blue-vaulted sky. Experience the world around you, feel its breadth. I assure you, what you will feel swelling within your heart is love. And that love is the culture of our world.

Blue Marble

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