Growing as It Goes: Is Culture a Superorganism?

One of the more defining times of my life was when I was teaching on the reservation at Navajo College during the hantavirus scare, and the Navajo religion does not believe in germs. The lab tech in charge of microbiology at one of the hospitals was my wife. People have been asking me why I do not post about that, given the present lockdown situation. Well, I do not want to wax political in three posts, and I’m not going to now. But those times do come to mind in reference to biologist D.S. Wilson’s book Does Altruism Exist? (2015) which I will be reviewing here.

Every decade or so, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) seems to find a new microbe to get us scared about, and the scare almost 30 years ago was the hantavirus. It was fortunately limited to the Navajo reservation, but no one knew if it would stay there. No one knew much about it; it was new to science. (It was a new and different species of hantavirus, and it caused a different type of illness). Also, it was scarier than some other scares because it struck and killed young healthy adults, especially athletes, and at the time no one knew how it was transmitted (which meant no one knew how to prevent getting it).

So as I was saying, the Navajo religion doesn’t believe in the germ theory of disease. (It is not unlike how some evangelical Christian religions do not believe in bioevolution, and it is a belief just as firmly held).

So there we were (my wife and I), being the walking symbols of the germ theory of disease, when what should arrive but the hantavirus and the CDC.

Thus this post is going to be about a clash of cultures as it relates to biologist D.S. Wilson’s book Does Altruism Exist? Wilson argues that ants and bees can work together as a collective because the ants and bees all perform their assigned roles without exception. And he thinks that, likewise, altruism can only exist if everyone participates. If only some people act altruistically, then those who make the self-sacrifice will be eliminated by natural selection. But it is important to have some degree of people working together, and in Wilson’s view that is what culture does. It forces people to all act, to some degree, for the greater good.

In technical terms, Wilson argues that ants and bees survive because they are “superorganisms,” and the definition of a superorganism is that it is a collection of individuals who sacrifice for the group by having a division of labor and a sharing of resources. But also, everyone participates.

In other words, Wilson argues that coercion is a good and necessary part of what culture does. He does not, of course, believe in burning heretics at the stake, but he does think that each culture has its own way of fending off extinction by enforcing some kind of conformity onto each and every one of us. The way that wolves have bowing down to their alpha male to keep them from killing each other, so humans have our culture to keep us from killing one another.

And regarding extremes such as preventing felonious criminal behavior, perhaps he is right. But is coercing conformity, and subduing nonconformity, really how cultures more generally grow and flourish?

In responding to this argument, I am simply going to give some impressions of my times with the Navajos and let my readers connect the dots.


First of all, I was very pleased with how it went with my students. For instance, one day another faculty member said to me, “You know, no one is going to show up at your class tonight because everyone will be at the big dance.” I hadn’t even known that there was a big dance, like a prom (not like a Navajo ceremonial dance), but I dutifully showed up at my classroom at the appointed hour. And sure enough, no one else was there. But then after five minutes, four or five of them showed up and forcibly hauled me over to the big dance.

And I still remember the music.

Traditional Western music has the accent on the first and third beat out of four (X x X x). Think of Jungle Bells. But rock and roll usually has the accent on two and four (x X x X), as in I Want to Hold your Hand. However, the music at this dance had the base and percussion playing like the traditional Native American drumming that we heard in the old Hollywood movies, with the accent on just the first note and then three softer ones, X x x x. X x x x . Over and over. But the melody line in this music was pure rock and roll. Very intriguing.

“You’re too analytical,” my students told me. (True enough).

I also gave it a try at learning Navajo. (The “j” in Navajo is pronounced as an “h,” of course. The word is Spanish, being what the missionaries from Spain called the Navajos centuries ago). The Navajos call themselves the Dine (dih-NAY). They are descended from Athabaskan tribes in Northwest Canada and Alaska who migrated south. The college I was at has since changed its name from Navajo College to Dine College.

Anyway, I found a woman determined to teach me Navajo. We would sit face-to-face, and she would say words for me to repeat. But I have to tell you, it is impossible to speak correct Navajo without spitting. And there was something about me spitting (maybe it was from my culture) that made me unable to do it very well right in people’s faces like that. So I couldn’t quite say the words correctly. And I don’t know what the words meant that I actually said, but this poor woman literally fell to the floor with laughter.

It was so bad that we had to give it up. (I don’t think of myself as linguistically challenged. In college I took three terms of ancient Greek and could read Plato and the other ancients in their original language, from which I picked up an intuitive feel for what the Greeks were about; and I had hoped to do the same with the Navajos). But as it happened, this poor woman could not stop laughing. (The Navajos laugh easily, in my experience).

In the end, she decided to teach me just one phrase that I could say back phonetically by sheer rote in case I needed it in a social situation. I suspect that she was thinking of something like “Yes, thanks,” or “No, thank you,” or probably “I don’t speak Navajo.” But I thought a moment and decided on, “It grows as it goes.” It is amazing how it works to respond to almost anything with that saying, especially when teamed with a shrug of the shoulder and maybe a wry smile. It’s like being philosophical about whatever the other person said. It grows as it goes.

So I became known for saying that. I liked that phrase because it implied that situations change and that what once worked and seemed logical might not later on. It was an acknowledgement of change, as in “Time changes the rules.” I later collected similar notions from song lyrics, such as “Time made a fool out of me” (Mick Harvey), or “Always thought time was on my side. I guess not this time” (Tori Amos).

But I also talked more seriously with some friends and students about how many of them had been forcibly removed from their parents and placed in boarding schools to learn the White Man’s ways and to deprive the Navajo parents of the ability to pass on their stories and traditions to their offspring. That was done deliberately for the stated reason of being “for your own good.”

The Navahos considered it traumatizing, for both parent and child, and not at all for their own good. An important part of Dine College is to teach the students all the old stories. (Occasional accounts make the boarding schools seem like a thing of the past, but I know people younger than I who that happened to. I visited one such school just a few years ago with a Navajo friend who unambiguously disagreed with everything that the guide said).

The Navajos are technically their own nation and make and enforce their own laws. But they are heavily dependent on federal monies, which is how they can be forced into things like boarding schools. They technically receive free medical and dental care. But get this: The different kinds of teeth are termed “essential” or not, and the ones which are not essential, such as molars, are not fixed for free but only extracted for free. So whereas you and I might expect to get a filling or a crown, a Navajo gets a tooth-pulling. (Remember, I am really talking about a clash of cultures here, and about coercion).

Fortunately, regarding the differences in believing in the germ theory of disease or not, there have been some developments. What has happened—what has evolved, we might say—is that many enlightened physicians on the reservation have learned not to push their differences but rather to blend them, to use a medicine that incorporates both Western science and the Medicine Man.

 Of course, there are others (mostly physicians who come in for a year of “volunteering’ to get some practice right out of school) who still take the “I’m right, and you’re stupid” approach to the two theories of disease. But the enlightened ones are much more able to actually help the patients. (I am sure that there are studies to that effect).

The Navajos keep their most sacred beliefs secret, but a lighthearted and open way of looking at it is as follows. Instead of believing in germs (if one is feeling a little peaked), one can go to the Medicine Man to have oneself checked out for curses having been placed on you. (And let’s be honest. We all have days when we feel that, given how things are going, we wouldn’t mind being checked out for curses. Getting them removed costs extra, of course).

But my point is that the two are compatible, in the interest of getting along. I have oversimplified the Navajo position, but from that we can see how it is possible to do both (check for curses and take an antibiotic) provided that we are not wanting to make an issue out of who is right. Stated more seriously, the Medicine Man performs ceremonies that can promote spiritual healing.

So then here comes the hantavirus and the CDC.

I distinguish between the field workers who actually deal with the patients, illnesses, and germs and the bureaucrats back in Atlanta with their feet up on their desks. The latter have a very well-deserved lousy reputation, and I am not going to defend them. But here is another lesson about culture and coercion. Polls (from before the current situation) show that only 30% of healthcare workers believe what the bureaucrats say. But that is hardly surprising because Atlanta openly admits to lying to the public “for their own good.” An example that many people have heard about is when it was discovered that drinking red wine was statistically good for your heart. The CDC managed to keep that information suppressed for about a decade in the belief that it didn’t “want” people thinking that it was okay to drink alcohol. (And I’m not saying that they should. But to me, science is about an open discussion, not about what authorities “want”).

There should be little question as to why the CDC has credibility issues.

But a more pleasant topic is the field workers themselves. I am happy to give my impressions.

There used to be a comedian who did a takeoff of a man who drank too much coffee and so was shaking all jittery all the time. Imagine a room full of such people, and you have what it looks like to see a room full of such field workers. (I hope I am not offending anybody; I have friends who do this). Their problem wasn’t coffee, of course, but the pressure to solve the problem.

But I have to hand it to them. They took over everything, and they figured it out in pretty short order. The virus came from mouse feces which was stirred up by dancers dancing in the dirt which was then breathed in as dust with the virus on it.

And the Navajos didn’t seem to mind having this bit of information about how to avoid this very scary disease. (Not many people noticed, bit China reported a hantavirus case last March).

So those are my impressions. I hope that my own fish-out-of-water stories make it clear that I tend to question Wilson’s view that a successful culture has to be about enforcing conformity over nonconformity. And the same is true of cultures meeting other cultures.

I will give a more science-oriented answer to Wilson in my next post.

Until then, I will leave you with the impression that culture does not have to be perceived as a pre-established static set of rules wherein each individual dutifully plays one’s respective role. (I suspect that that impression of culture is behind Wilson’s ideas). But instead of being a static set of rules, culture can be about a dialectic between new ideas and the old

 It grows as it goes.

PHOTO CREDIT: This photo of the corn maidens is of a Navajo rug hanging on my living room wall.

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