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 Modernization as a Form of Cultural 

Adaptation to the Environment


Napoleon Wolanski

Each change can be progressive. This is rather a matter of public opinion, the evaluation of this fact. Progress can also be called modernization. It is not a biological matter, and only in part it is a social matter (judgement what is modern). First of all, it is a cultural matter (category).

Material culture has a practical beginning, as this was a production of the primitive tools. Early artistic activity also had a practical value because it was presumably magic in the intention of the artists. Material and non-material cultures became a unity. The genesis of culture was, thus, of adaptive value and at the same time it was conservative. Where biological mechanisms failed, culture determined survival.

It is not univocal which elements of culture are old-fashioned and which are modern, or which are regressive and which are progressive. Each time this requires a separate evaluation with respect to a certain criterion. This criterion can be adaptive value.

Nouveaux riches and parvenus take fashion for progress and modernization. Unfortunately, this seems to be also the case of the young generation. Thus, it can be stated ironically that the present modernization is worthless as, related to fashion, it typically neglects cultural traditions (often breaks them deliberately) and has no adaptive values.

Modernization in the contemporary European and North-American civilization is associated with the elements of urbanization and industrialization processes. It is thus worth considering the consequences and cost of modernization to the environs of humans. A question arises whether modernization always means progress.

Modernization should be associated with the comfort of life. But this is a controversial issue since for most people a comfortable life is associated with material goods, and the side-effects of their production, utilization, and disposal typically account for degradation of the environment and deterioration of well-being.

It is important not to oppose modernization to tradition. Modernization rooted in tradition should contain adaptive values, determining persistence and worthiness life.

Evolution and Civilization

According to the present state of knowledge the humanization processes occurred in savannas of southern Africa over millions of years ago. About 20-25 thousand generations of nomadic groups of humans extended their range over distinct climatic regions (Fig. 1). And man himself changed accordingly. Less than 10 thousand years ago (4000 generations) nomadic groups settled because they started to cultivate the land, and over the life span of 300 generations permanent human settlements had been developed. These settlements became the basis of the urban civilization, lasting for about 100-150 generations. Genetic adaptations occurred through changes between generations. Thus, a generation is the unit of biological evolution. The number of generations since the time of the colonization of cool regions and since the development of towns is too small for the evolution of biological adaptation (Wolanski, 1989).

The biological (genetic) adaptation thus replaced by the cultural protection of the organism adjustments became secondary in importance, relatively small and not inheritable (Fig. 2). Such a cultural protection can be called progressive from the perspective of time and environment.

Civilizations are typically defined as very advanced forms of the social existence, based on the written language, arts, belief (religions), and relatively high technology. They are cultural expressions of a specific form of socio-political organization adequate to the environment. Civilizations emerged, developed, and died, like species in nature. Similarly, in nature some common attributes of life evolved and consolidated, also a universal trait of human culture developed, which now-a-days predominate in all civilizations. A common property of life are the functions of proteins, (some authors define life as a spontaneous tendency to a permanent reduction of disorder or entropy). Similarly a universal trait of mankind, developed in the process of evolution, is culture as a non-biological form of satisfying the needs along with the preservation of the common interest. The essence of the biological existence lies in the struggle for existence between organisms, whereas the essence of the social existence of the humans lies in the altruism understood as humaneness.

The evolution of mankind followed biological, social, and cultural pathways, presumably just in this sequence. Many authors argue that the biological evolution of the humans is finished (Wolanski and Henneberg, 1990). It is a paradox that culture sustains (secondarily so to say) the ‘animal’ nature of the humans, as it protects the organism against the necessity of the biological changes. Culture thus counteracts the evolution of human organisms towards the forms progressively more distant from the animals. Thus, if it is true that the biological evolution of the humans has stopped, this is due to culture. In the ‘animal’ body a "creator of culture" evolves. Culture stabilizes the biological essence of the human beings. That is, culture, which is subjected to evolution, inhibited the biological evolution of the humans. In other words, developing the psyche, culture petrified some of the humans. I am not sure if this contradiction cannot lead to the destruction of Homo sapiens. When a ‘climax’ equilibrium is reached, the ecosystem does not evolve any more. If this is also true of a species, this would imply that culture, which is the second environment for the humans (E.B. Taylor), is leading to the state of an ‘adjustment’ of society to environment, that is, to a ‘climax’. Further improvement of the species becomes impossible, and this seems really to be true with respect to the humans. Thus, does it imply a threat to the species?

A parallel problem, however, is the extent and rate of environmental changes brought about by over 5 billion brains of the humans living now-a-days. The mass of "thinking tissues" of the contemporary human beings is equal to the body mass of 100 million people living 3 thousand years ago (Wolanski, 1989). Minds (brains) of those 5 billion people conceive ideas and transform the world, whereas their bodies require food, clothes, apartments, and still need new products of civilization for a comfortable life.

Some social changes accounted for large cultural changes. For example, the dominance of ownership yielded a division of people, giving their needs a largely intimate character. In this case, progress means either increasing the sum and diversity of needs (demand) or more goods, especially new products (supply).

In the evolutionary sense life is maintained as a result of the genetic transmission of the structures determining the needs and functions, whereas humanity is maintained through the cultural heritage (transmission of verified experiences) deciding upon the existence of a society, in particular, under given conditions (to which it is not adapted biologically). Like the gene the pool of population can be modified from generation to generation, also, the cultural heritage (the contains of culture) is subject to changes. Just at this point we can speak of the genetic mutation as a new genetic information and of the innovation as a new element of culture. Mutations that are not eliminated are considered in biology as the so-called adequate as they have an adaptive value. Analogously, the innovations that have adaptive values within the scope of culture could be called modern, as they determine progress.

If a new civilization predominated even on the scale of a large part of the globe, it can dominate the world only for a while on the scale of the history of mankind. But it will also have its contribution to the formation of the human culture as a group experience. Factors integrating the world are permanently present in history. In biology, however, competition with other organisms to propagate their individual genes is the form of existence, whereas in culture the assurance of a common persistence seems to be the form of existence.

It is argued that more than 20 important civilizations developed in the history of mankind, of which at the most five survived (Toynbee, 1934-54). This might have happened because they had a stimulating contribution to the general culture of mankind. In my opinion, only civilizations beneficial to the mankind as a whole could persist, although they decided the existence of local societies.

Individual species represent specific systems of behaviour. These systems are directly (genetically) transmitted. When they become useless, the species either evolve or die. The humans adapt to the environment almost directly through their culture. There are, however, many ways of survival, depending on the conditions under which a given culture was formed. The extinction of some civilizations can be related to the extinction of the nations representing them. This happened when a given mode of life, called civilization in social sciences or an adaptive strategy in biological sciences, proved to be inefficient.

Culture, like genes, is subject to evolution which is of adaptive importance in the face of the new environmental conditions and has conservative importance to the species and social values of the earlier generations.

Modernization is a new kind of adaptation. A new culture represents a new kind of linkage with the environment. New civilizations are new adaptive systems, new homeostatic systems. Inter-civilizational transition can thus be the source of a break in the earlier relations to the environment, and can create new relationships.

Modernization is a cultural adequacy to the actual environmental conditions, including natural, social, and technical surroundings. Progress thus involves everything of positive value to mankind. Other changes cannot be called progress from the point of view of human evolution.

Consequences of Development


New needs cause actions forming new cultural environment. In the evolutionary perspective they lead to the transformation of civilization.

If the biological evolution of the humans is really ended, this will be the reason why the development of civilization cannot be stopped. The following attributes of human nature can corroborate this statement: the immanent tendency of the humans towards changes (E.B. Tylor), instinct of progress (A. Comte), primeval habit of making progress (E.A. Westermark), vanishing of the feeling of satisfaction with the existing conditions (the concept of the spiral of progress).

The spiral of progress works in the following way. Humans adjust to new conditions physiologically, and psychologically they are habituated to them soon. If these conditions are favourable, the satisfaction with them gradually disappears. A need for new conditions satisfying the requirements and aspirations develops, releasing the initiative of new changes. But in these new conditions, the feeling of satisfaction vanishes again with time, giving rise to new needs, aspirations, and so on. In this way, circles are made and never follow the same trajectory, and this is a sort of spiral (Fig. 3), because the earlier conditions are changed. Typically, we call progress the general direction of the development. However, as the intended favourable changes have different side effects and because of their high rate and large scale, one may ask if the total effects can be called progress. This is an important ecological problem.


An increase in the consumption of goods combined with an environmental pollution can have a deteriorating net effect on the quality of life. This happens because side-effects emerge with a delay, they are often difficult to predict, and not always impress the imagination. Attempts to stop the progress lead to frustration and degeneration, whereas activity can be switched in another direction (e.g. toward a useful action).

The sequence of events given above can be summarized as follows (Fig. 4). As a result of the specific character of human nature, a change of needs takes place at certain time intervals or permanently. This has an effect on the innovator activities and civilization progress. Modernization conceived in this way leads to hygienic activity, increased safety of life, easier or more efficient work. This change in the mode of life and living conditions accounts for a decline in mortality and longer life span, directly leading to a higher density of the population, and indirectly to a numerical increase in the needs. The last two factors enhance both consumption and production. When the production and consumption exceed a certain threshold, they account for the exhaustion of non-renewable resources, environmental pollution, and stress. These three evident factors deteriorate the living conditions, enhance civilization diseases, shorten the life span, etc.

Presumably, specific factors disturbing the health condition in the urban-industrial civilization include the excess of the stimuli overriding the capacity of the nervous systems of the humans (Spengler and Dunckan, 1956), the abundant new sub-threshold stimuli to which the organism was not adapted in the evolution, and the cumulative effects which cause changes in the organism, generally non-specific (Duda and Aleksandrowicz, 1990). This problem requires further epidemiological studies.

A cultural feedback of the described cycle of changes and their consequences (Fig. 4) is a new correction of the needs and the resulting activities which can be called modern.

Consequences of Cultural Maladjustment (Non-modernity)

The consequences of changes in the mode of life and the environment are most readily seen at the beginning and the end of life, that is, in the periods of the greatest order and the highest entropy in the human development respectively (Roszkiewicz, 1991). For this reason we will analyze the biological consequences of the social and cultural changes with respect to these periods of the individual development of the humans.

Infant mortality is considered as an index of the level of the health service and economic condition of the country. It seems, however, that it is also an important index of social tension and cultural values. Infant mortality in Poland dropped over the post-war period from a mean of about 120 to 16 per 1000 live born. Fluctuations of this index in the post-war Poland are closely related to the fluctuations in economy (Fig. 5), as indicated by the analysis of the changes in the annual national income. Any acute change in the economy was combined with an increased infant mortality, including an increase in the difference in the infant mortality between towns and villages to the disadvantages of the villages. Such periods were also the times of an increased social tension.

All these fluctuations, however, did not essentially change the position of Poland among other European countries (Fig. 6). It seems that this permanent position is primarily due to the health culture (health habits: diet, mode of life, hygiene, stresses, etc.). Culture in this sense is equally conservative in the society as genes are biologically. The position of Poland in terms of health does not seem to be determined by the economic position of Poland and even less by the organization and development of the health service, especially with respect to the infant mortality. Culture is responsible for the idea that Poland is on positions 4 to 7 among the countries with the highest infant mortality in Europe.

The virtue of poverty advocated by some ethical systems promotes neither the economic development nor the civilization progress. Cultures that adhered to the credo of asceticism and the virtue of poverty still remain in poorer sanitary conditions, and have higher infant mortality (e.g. in countries of Roman Catholic Church as Poland, Italy, Spain, Portugal) than the countries that reformed their ethical and cultural systems, and propagated the acceptance of wealth. Making wealth a virtue, culture was reformed in such countries as (protestant) Germany, Sweden and England, made economic progress, raised the level of education, reduced the infant mortality, and extended the life span.

Quite a different matter is the unbridled consumption related with wastefulness of goods, which now-a-days threatens in various forms of the pollution our planet and exhaustion of non-renewable resources. An example of this direction is the excessive production of goods and the philosophy of life in which "to be" is replaced by "to have". And here moderation should really be recommended.

An essential difference exists among moderation, controlled progress in the world economy and asceticism, which is worth emphasizing when considering civilization systems predominant in the contemporary Europe, and even in the contemporary industrial countries in Europe and North America.

Early in this century, the Jews in Poland had higher incomes, better apartments, and higher level of life in general, but their culture did not enhance their health because of the "rituals imposed by culture" (Miklaszewski, 1912). Among the people arriving to new industrial centres and towns in Siberia over the last four decades, the incidence of disease has been 10 times that of the Russians inhabiting these areas for several generations (Alexeeva, 1986). This has also been the case with the new harbour in Gdynia, constructed in the 1930s, and repopulated in the 1950s when Szczecin changed the state. Infant mortality there was one of the highest in the country during the period when the rate of immigration from other, mostly rural, areas was high (Fig. 7). Functioning of rural cultural patterns revealed a biological inadequacy of these families to the life in town. Culture developed under different climatic and social conditions, when indiscriminately transferred to distinct ecosystems, including socio-economic systems, combined with the maintenance of ethnic barriers to the residents, leads to cultural inadequacy. Using an ecological language, a niche formed under given conditions cannot function under different conditions.

Another example of the discussed relationships can be the mean life expectation of newborns in Polish villages and towns. On the world scale, the life span in individual countries increases when the urban population reaches 40-50 per cent of the total population. Above this threshold, no further increase in the life-time is observed, and even a decrease seems to occur. This pattern is apparent in Poland. The life-time is shorter in towns than in villages when the urban population is reaching 50 per cent for men (this happened in 1963) and when it is above 50 per cent for women (Fig. 8). This is also likely to be an environmental effect the contemporary towns are facing, a crisis and the degeneration of mankind.

Modernization is a new outlook on the world, where intelligence determines the ability to detect patterns and gumption defines as the ability to utilize these patterns. They are the different aspects of modernization: cognition and action. The value of these two aspects can be measured by the effectiveness of the adjustment to the environment.

Politicization and management are also innovatory activities. The activities of politicians and economists leave traces, sometimes wounds, in the biology of the nation. This can serve as a warning for hasty decisions that in my opinion predominate our social life. A transfer of models developed under distinct biological and socio-political conditions to a given country with different history and specific character can be deceptive and cause new wounds. Our results (Wolanski et al., 1992 a, b, c) show that the optimum conditions for child development in Polish families (high education, high income, and small family) are not optimal in Japan. In Western societies, family is mostly based on the productive effort of one person (typically the father of the family), whereas in the Far East on the family as a social unit. Under those conditions, child development is optimal in large families with average education level and average income.

Differences between civilizations cannot be compared to differences between species, but they cannot be neglected, as they represent distinct features making mutual understanding difficult.

The values of modernization range from positive to negative, and real values of the same changes can be different, depending on the situation (e.g. environmental conditions and habits). They are typical of different civilizations.


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