Hiatus Post — Barriers to Change

The institute will be on hiatus for this week but we’ll return next week with a fresh batch of posts and podcast, all focused on the topic of meat. Until then, please enjoy excerpts from the recently published book Why Did Ancient Civilizations Fail? (available for purchase on Routledge and Amazon).

Societies both big and small erect barriers to change. Anthropologists lump these types of resistance into five categories. The term tradition is often used to maintain a social status quo because one practice has had (or is perceived to have had) success in supporting the community. You might recognize this in the phrase “don’t fix what isn’t broken.” In anthropological fieldwork, it is common for members of a society to explain that they farm, cook, or live a certain way because “that’s how my parents, grandparents, and ancestors have always done it.” In other instances, ethnocentrism bars change because a group may, correctly or not, believe that their way of doing something is inherently better than another group’s method. For example, if I told you that “squat” toilets common in parts of Asia,1 were scientifically proven to be better for your health than western toilets,2 would you run out to remodel your commode? This is similar to the idea of having relative values, where even though you might understand that squat toilets may be better for you, it does not change the fact that you prefer a sitting one. Another barrier to change are the norms of modesty, where certain changes may not be acceptable because of cultural rules. Bacon, in all of its pop-cultural glory, has yet to catch on in Jewish and Muslim countries because of specific cultural rules outlawing pork products. Finally, communities may have a fatalistic outlook, where it is believed that our lives are on a set course and accepting new practices will not change the inevitable future. The phrase “it’s God’s plan,” is a common refrain used to explain bad news and is indicative of this mindset.

Societies, especially societies that are living hand to mouth, are notoriously risk averse. If, for example, a farmer who grows just enough food to feed his family is told about a new type of crop that will double his yield with half the work, he might see it as being “too good to be true” and avoid it because he knows that the traditional methods will provide enough to survive. If, however, a few neighbors have adopted this new crop with success, he may be tempted to change after a few years. On the other hand, if those neighbors starve when the new crop fails, it reinforces his decision to maintain traditional methods. All of these barriers to change and risk aversion are present in simple and complex societies. Our own society, which champions technological solutions to the world’s problems, refuses to seek viable alternatives to finite fossil fuels on a broad scale. Similarly, the recent uproar over genetically modified organisms3 (GMOs) might be seen as a product of this same process. Today’s GMO protester is the same as a farmer who avoids a new “miracle” product. Perhaps the new product is safe and will double yields, but it is best to be sure it does not have long-term negative effects before it is widely adopted.

1For those of you unfamiliar with this type of toilet, it is basically a hole in the ground over which one squats. The internet will provide more than enough images of this if you care to look.

2For the sake of argument, I stated that it was scientifically proven, but that is not the case. Some studies show squatting to be better (e.g., Rad 2002), while others disagree (e.g., Rane and Corstiaans 2008).

3I want to put in a point of clarification here, because I have had many students who do not understand the difference between GMOs, selective breeding, and hybridization. More than a few times, students have said that all domesticated crops are GMOs and that we have been altering plants’ genes since we domesticated them 10,000 years ago. This is not quite true. Selective breeding is the manipulation of domesticates’ genes through breeding only those plants or animals with desirable traits. This occurs within the natural variation of that plant (i.e., we can only breed a corn plant with a cob as large as can survive within the parameters of that species). A hybrid results from breeding two closely related species, such as white-tail and mule deer or horses and donkeys. Again, they are bred through natural fertilization and can only exist within the natural variability of those species. GMOs are produced by splicing DNA from one species into another in a laboratory. For example, Monsanto makes an insect-resistant crop that contains genetic material from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium (Monsanto 2009). The genes are artificially combined, not interbred in a natural way. The genome has been modified in a laboratory setting. This is completely different from hybrids or selective breeding.

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