Culture, Time, and Possibility

Thus far this chapter has focused on how culture improves and facilitates prospection. This section will look at the other side of the coin: how prospection improves and facilitates culture. If constructing culture is the human way of solving the basic biological problems of survival and reproduction, then prospection benefited humans by strengthening culture.

Culture is possible without prospection. Ethnologists estimate that several dozen species have some degree of culture (e.g., de Waal, 2001), and most of them have no sign of being able to think about the future (let alone do so collectively, sharing their understanding of the future with each other). Culture is understood as learned behavior that is shared socially. That can work just by having individual animals copy and mimic each other's behavior, so that something that one of them learns or invents can be transmitted to others in the group.

But prospection greatly improves the power of groups to share information. Collective planning becomes possible when group members can share a vision about the future. Learning and even teaching can occur without an immediate problem to solve: People can share information that is not immediately useful but is likely to be useful in the indefinite future.

Before fleshing this out with examples, we point out one more feature of the contribution of prospection to culture. To take advantage of prospection, it may generally be necessary for cultures to acknowledge the indeterminate nature of the future. That is, culture must work with the realization that the future is a matter of multiple possibilities rather than a fixed pathway.

We have already covered some examples of this. Trust is only meaningful in a world of multiple possibilities. Whether someone is trustworthy is a matter of whether that person will treat others fairly and honor promises despite the tempting possibility of doing otherwise. Both the trustor and the trustee understand that what is at stake is how the person will choose when there are multiple options and alternatives later.

Even when it seems that culture is about knowing what is inevitable, usually there is some aspect of multiple possibility that is relevant. For example, in recent decades meteorologists have become much more effective at predicting major storms, such as hurricanes. These predictions do not enable people to prevent the hurricane (at least not yet). But people can reduce the damage caused by the hurricane by making preparations and taking precautions. Otherwise, what's the use of knowing that a hurricane is coming? Knowing about future events that one cannot control is useful for enabling us to control the things we can control. In the hurricane example, those are things like loading the refrigerator with extra ice (to sustain freezing in case of power failure), filling the tub with water (in case water service is disrupted), and putting the pool furniture into the pool (where it won't blow away or break windows).

The calendar might seem an exception to the principle that culture constructs the future as possibilities rather than certainties. But the calendar is useful as a framework for organizing the possibilities. It is pretty much guaranteed that there will be a day known as March 12th next year, and another one the following year. For practical purposes, that much is a certainty. But that certain fact provides a basis for constructing possibilities. Members of the culture can use that date to make plans.

Let us return briefly to the earlier example of the air travel and the reality of Monday. Without a precise map of the future, one could not make airplane reservations, and indeed the airline business really depends on having the calendar structuring the future in order to operate profitably. The airline commits itself to organizing a particular flight on next March 12th, and doing that is a matter of ensuring that there will be an airplane with fuel and staff, as well as the rest of the support structure. The plane has a limited number of seats, each of which contains the possibility of taking one person from the departure point to the destination. These are possibilities. People wishing to travel from the departure to that destination can buy seats on that plane if they want to travel on that day. When all the seats are sold, the possibilities for other people to get on the flight are sharply reduced.

Airline flights are one of many ways in which the collectively shared understanding of the future contributes to how culture can improve the lives of individuals. The next section will cover an even more important and pervasive one of these: money.

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