Martin Puchner thinks it does—and explains why in his wonderful new book. Culture: The Story of Us, from Cave Art to K-pop deploys the histories of a vast range of times and places to convince our culture-warring world that amalgamation can work very well. The “us” of the subtitle signals Puchner’s intention: in an era of atomizing identity politics, deployed by both the radical left and right, he wants readers to recognize the many historical instances when cross-cultural transmission has been—and still can be—beneficial, rather than larcenous or contaminating.
A twofold thesis unifies the book. One is that the leftist ban on “cultural appropriation” entails a misunderstanding of the way cultures can appreciate (in both senses) when they meet, rather than merely collide. This seems true: if I think your dinner order looks excellent, and therefore decide to order the same menu item, that is very different from sticking my fork into your plate and gobbling a chunk of your entrée. Puchner’s other thesis is that the conservative aversion to immigration and multiculturalism whitewashes the wonderfully multicolored patchwork of human history. He shows that those who reach across cultures can be heroic rather than invasive, arrogant, or exploitative.
The “story” part of the subtitle matters almost as much as the “us” part. Puchner vividly recounts many times when the importation of a foreign story has positively transformed a culture.
Across the entire geographic and chronological recorded history of human societies, storytelling has enabled different ways of seeing and thinking to be communicated without being overtly threatening to dominant structures of power and belief. Puchner—the Wien Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard—has made that case in The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization (2017) and promoted transcultural experience as the general editor of The Norton Anthology of World Literature (2018). Now he takes an even broader view, engaging with archeology, anthropology, sociology, and world history.
The book’s sweeping and revisionist view of the dynamics of our species merits the place it seeks among books that have reached wide intellectual audiences. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997) and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011; English translation in 2015) became mass-media events. Diamond, resisting imperialist and racist rationales that claim cultural and genetic superiority, offers a materialist, geographical, and environmental explanation of how Eurasians came to dominate modern history. Harari argues that our species has been shaped and empowered, and has come to dominate life on the planet, through our capacity for large-scale cooperation, including collective assent to beneficial fictions.
Puchner’s book is in some ways a love child of those two lines of argument, urging a nonhierarchical understanding of cultures and a respect for the power of fiction, language, and shared imagination. Culture, however, is less deterministic than its immediate ancestors, in ways that make it an interesting case in historiography. Compared to Diamond and Harari, Puchner makes more room for the small. His method is neither an old-fashioned chronicle-like history focused on wars and monarchs nor an Annales-school deployment of broad economic statistics to recover the textures and struggles of ordinary daily lives. He does not offer a pessimistic focus on the depredations of power, nor does he attempt to reach back into human evolution to explain our species. Instead, he combines the Great Man theory of history with the so-called “butterfly effect” of chaos theory, whereby one tiny creature’s effort can cause something like a hurricane far away. Several of the transformative cultural events he depicts depend entirely on the heroically tireless efforts of a single person—sometimes a sovereign, but occasionally a person of no special status—to carry ideas across time and national boundaries. Other chapters describe a random but happy coincidence that eventually causes a massive shift in a society.
Transformative figures need not have been obviously successful. For example, Puchner notes Toussaint Louverture’s deployment of Enlightenment methods such as economic statistics and political philosophy to justify and thereby empower Haiti’s resistance to Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon put Louverture in prison, where he died, seemingly forgotten. But Louverture had set the stage for the eventual defeat of slavery and other colonial oppressions, while recentering and decolonializing the Enlightenment itself.
At a meta level, Culture refutes the claim by some identity-politics absolutists that—for example—a white, male, middle-class UCLA sophomore biology major from a Los Angeles suburb who loves Quentin Tarantino movies and Kendrick Lamar tracks cannot achieve, and must not presume to express, any understanding of a person of color who shares many of those other traits.
Puchner insists that studious effort can overcome much greater separations. Give him an unearthed sculpture of a one-eyed head, with no associated inscription, and he will give you the life story of an ambitious Egyptian queen named Nefertiti from the 1340s BC who may have invented monotheism (perhaps as a result of an unusual royal love match), but who could not sustain it after building an entire new capital city as well as a new religion for Egypt. Puchner will also convince you that the head was sculpted thousands of years ago by a man named Thutmose, who evidently measured the proportions with his fingers and was in possession of a good well and a storehouse of wheat and barley. Furthermore, he will prove that Thutmose was emboldened by Nefertiti’s radical innovations to use a new style of representation for royal portraits, but that he abandoned this sculpture (which, paradoxically, probably accounts for why it survived the intervening millennia) when the new capital city was abandoned. And finally, he will show that Thutmose probably abandoned the sculpture because Nefertiti’s likeness would be valueless or even dangerous due to an only-too-familiar kind of backlash against her cultural innovations and the near collapse of her empire.
Puchner is good not only at familiarizing the past but also at defamiliarizing it. He slips a wittily modest two-page afterword into the Nefertiti chapter, mentioning a small tribe on the outskirts of Egypt’s empire who were brushed by side effects of the main event. Eventually we realize that the tribe is actually the Jewish people, seemingly steered by that glancing blow toward the Judeo-Christian monotheism that dominates so much of the history and culture of the millennia that follow.
All that hard-won retrospective knowledge, furthermore, is the product of teamwork across time and space by another “us”: scholars of many nationalities and races. Human collaboration discovers human collaboration.
The same narrative skill and sympathetic imagination shape Puchner’s 14 other lively case studies of the power of cultural syncretism. The ancient Romans imported the even more ancient Greek culture (which had adopted the device of a written alphabet from the even more ancient Egyptian culture), leading to the magnificent cluster studied as “classics.” The 16th-century poet Luís de Camões takes the next step, modeling his epic of heroic Portuguese nation-building on the Roman one that Virgil developed on foundations established by Homer’s Greek version (Puchner does not mention the odd coincidence that one-eyed Camões was combining the works of blind Homer and full-sighted Virgil). Nobel Prize–winning Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka was educated in the British colonial system that included Greek literature, then moved to England where he studied Shakespeare, then returned to liberated Nigeria and deployed his multicultural awareness in the theatrical genre that could best help his fellow citizens navigate their postcolonial experience. Soyinka therefore draws on ancient Oyo culture and modern Yoruba culture, but also on Hamlet and (from ancient Greece) Euripides’s The Bacchae.
Even though these are mostly stories of survival rather than of demise, Puchner draws us in like a skilled murder-mystery novelist with teasing questions. In introducing the history of a giant pillar discovered by a 14th-century Indian sultan, he asks, “Who had made it? And how had it stayed up?” just as he had earlier asked of the Nefertiti bust, “Who was this mysterious queen? […] And why was one eye missing from her otherwise perfect face?” That pillar turns out to have been commissioned more than a millennium earlier by Ashoka the Fierce to commemorate his transformation into Ashoka the Righteous, an advocate of wide religious tolerance and kindness to all creatures, thanks to a random encounter with a Buddhist monk.
Launching the tale of another wandering advocate of Buddhism, Puchner asks, “What was there for him in China, so far from the sacred landscape he cherished?” Discussing what was claimed to be the original Ark of the Covenant, Puchner’s question is, “How did this sacred object of the Jewish people end up in an Ethiopian church?” Early in his exploration of the origins of the Baghdad Storehouse of Wisdom, Puchner wonders, “Why would a caliph of Baghdad dream of a Greek philosopher who had been dead for twelve hundred years?” A strategic cliffhanger: “Would the presents be enough to convince [the Spaniards] of Moctezuma’s power and make them turn back?” Moreover, “what was it that Dürer thought he saw” and “[w]hy would [George] Eliot use Casaubon’s name for her negative portrayal of a nineteenth-century philologist”? By plausibly solving these myriad mysteries, Puchner essentially says “yes, we can” to positive cross-cultural understanding.
My chief reservation about Puchner’s argument is also what makes his book such a pleasurable and uplifting read: its optimism. The danger of his approach is that it underrates the importance of a culture’s coherence to its followers. Cultures are not just great works of art; they are also instruments for overcoming conflicts between the uniquely open and various qualities of human consciousness and the need for some shared assumptions to allow us to function as the intensely collaborative species that we are, as well as to lighten the burdensome knowledge of our mortality.
“Here’s one view of culture: the earth is populated by groups of humans, and these groups are held together by shared practices,” the book’s opening sentence reads, acknowledging that hunger for coherence. Puchner links that view with the repugnant white-supremacist trends currently typified by the Proud Boys, panicked by the decline of a fantasied ancient manly Aryan culture. On the opposite political wing, and of course less reprehensibly, he also links it to progressives who, haunted by the intertwined legacies of racism and colonialism, simplistically condemn anything that looks like cultural appropriation.
The problem with multiculturalism is not exactly political, even if its most visible consequences seem to be. It is also cognitive. Puchner notes that “[w]hen one culture adopts the entire spectrum of art from somewhere else, those artworks, which in their original context evolved gradually over time, now arrive all at once, confronting the grafting culture with a dazzling and confusing array of options.” I suspect that cultural collisions in general leave people’s minds similarly dazed.
Higher education should help inoculate young people on both wings against a reflexive repudiation of novelty and complexity. The creation and appreciation of the creative arts should inculcate something like the “negative capability” that John Keats saw in artistic geniuses, especially Shakespeare: the ability to dwell patiently “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts.” But campus culture wars and the flight from humanities majors to STEM suggest that those engines of tolerance are collapsing under the weight of our tribal politics and economic bottom-line criteria of value.
Scholarly recovery of alternative cultures can assist critique (Indigenous cultures are proving increasingly valuable in this regard), but such critique is welcomed neither by an anti-intellectual proletariat nor by the elite beneficiaries of current arrangements (such as the Koch brothers), who have the means and motive to amplify the convenient-for-them reactionary resistance to new perspectives.
Puchner tells us “of a Greek who invented a false story of Greece, and a Roman who invented a false story of Rome; of an Ethiopian queen who used the Ten Commandments to tell a new story of origin.” Such fictional nation-building is the work of the genre called epic, but this quest for a return to early origins goes beyond nationhood: it derives from people’s quixotic yearning for a firm foundation for identity and belief.
Puchner seems well aware of the ubiquity of that atavistic yearning, but he resists acknowledging that it entails a grudge against cultural newcomers, whether they are imports or innovations. That grudge is evident in some of the stories he tells—for example, the diary of a Buddhist monk, sent by Japan on a mission to China in the ninth century, “records the backlash, in China, against the import of Buddhism, while his own diary became, indirectly, subject to a backlash against Chinese imports to Japan.”
Puchner, however, prefers to focus on instances when an idealized past is welcomed back. Confucius “singled out a distinct historical period, from which some alleged records and other remnants had survived, as an ideal,” and about a millennium later, in turn, a Buddhist monk was trained on “the so-called Confucian classics,” which supposedly “hailed from the distant past and celebrated that past as an ideal.” When he turned to Buddhism, that monk felt driven to travel to India (at great risk), “yearning for the source, the place where the cultural innovation, whatever it is, can be enjoyed in its original state, or at least through whatever traces remain of it.”
The exploitation of that yearning is proof of its power. In the 11th century AD, the great Persian scholar Ibn Sina (known in the West as Avicenna) “chose to disguise his original thought by pretending that all he was doing was teasing out points that had originally been made by Aristotle.” The Ethiopians claimed “that their practice of Christianity, which was being dismissed as a strange sect, was actually a more ancient and authentic form of Christianity” (as Protestants in Europe emphatically did as well), and their conquerors found they had no choice but to return the holy book on which Ethiopia’s claim was based when it became clear that “[w]ithout its foundational text, Ethiopia could not be governed.”
In its formative years, “the United States returned to Rome for inspiration.” The French Revolution, and the revolution of enslaved Haitians against the French, claimed to be simply recovering old rights. In fact, the painting Puchner uses to introduce his chapter on Saint-Domingue (as Haiti was then known) shows J. B. Belley, a formerly enslaved Senegalese man who helped lead the uprising, leaning on a bust of a French opponent of slavery that is “painted in the style of Roman antiquity—a reminder that revolutions often begin not with a hope for rupture but with a yearning for a return to the past, in this case, the political institutions of the Roman Republic.” He adds: “The portrait brings together people who contested slavery, economic exploitation, and imperial ambitions. To this end, they drew on the political institutions of ancient Rome, which were almost two thousand years old.”
And so it goes—backwards. If you want to change a culture, pretend you are actually restoring it, throw sops to our innovative but neophobic species. For instance, “during a period when people felt they were moving rapidly away from the past and relentlessly pushed forward by progress,” men started wearing kilts in Scotland: “[T]he longing for the comfort of tradition was so intense that, when those traditions didn’t exist, there was a large market for making them up from scratch or, more likely, from scraps of other traditions.”
This hardly seems like a parade of witnesses for the idea that cultures happily embrace novelties. The book’s subtitle could plausibly be emended to The Story of “Was.”
For every alien belief system that is welcomed and then thrives in the society that encounters it, countless others are reflexively and even brutally driven out by closed-minded xenophobia in the general population or by the cultural equivalent of customs and immigration officials among the elites. It is no mere coincidence that several of Puchner’s examples of benign importation are diachronic rather than synchronic. A source distant in place and time is more assimilable than a noisy neighbor because there are fewer associated threats. The problem for the globalized 21st century is that we can all hear each other, and we constantly bump into each other.
Even those sociocultural systems that thrive can develop alliances that disserve human well-being, leaving us helpless to resist the blind self-preservation embedded in those systems. Puchner’s chapter on Haiti provides a stark instance of that kind of dysfunction, when a Black hero of the uprising against slavery ends up concluding that he needed “to employ enslaved people to work the fields given to him upon his emancipation.” Our inability to escape capitalism and nationalism in order to address the massive disasters of climate change is another glaring example. The importation and exaltation of Indigenous ways of knowing and behaving may be our last best hope, since those ways can draw on humanity’s atavistic bias.
What I mistrust about Puchner’s thesis is not its welcome defense of cultural amalgamation but rather its presumption that cultures improve as they mate and evolve, because those matings or amalgamations that don’t serve human thriving would go extinct for lack of carriers. That presumption overlooks the way cultures sometimes serve their own replication rather than the well-being of humanity.
Cultural forms (especially ones whose last name is “ism”) can function like the single-celled Toxoplasma gondii, which—without any conscious intent—tricks insects and mammals into suicidal behavior that helps the parasite enter new hosts. Or like the lancet liver fluke, which sends an agent into the brains of ants that makes them sit atop blades of grass so they will be eaten by cattle or sheep, whose guts are the parasite’s ultimate host. Something similar happens inside us, when gut bacteria convince us to eat unhealthy foods that allow them to outcompete other gut bacteria. But it is not only a physical function.
While the power of cultural evolution is vastly underrated by people outside the field, the dystopic potential of that power is underrated by people within the field. Biologists have long since overcome their old assumption that evolution is progress toward higher levels of perfection, but the triumphalist reading of cultural change (reinforced lately by prominent scholars such as Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, and Joseph Henrich) needs a cautionary postscript. The cultural constructs that survive and expand are, by a Darwinian (though not neo-Darwinian) process, the ones that are best at recruiting and retaining carriers to preserve and propagate those constructs, not the ones that might be ideal for the long-term thriving of human beings and humane values. Allying with the sanity- and community-protective conservative tendencies of the human mind, such constructs can co-evolve with our species in ways that make them parasites rather than mutualists.
Less abstractly, the Kremlin has shown how destructive memes can be deliberately released into the culture of a rival nation—by, for instance, using Twitter bots to convince many voters that one’s political opponent runs a giant pedophilia ring. As tribalist, nationalist, authoritarian, and theocratic movements undermine tolerant and democratic societies worldwide, a humanistic analysis of how the creative arts and a liberal arts education can resist these dysfunctions adds valuable perspective to more scientific work on cultural evolution.
While the spread of cultural forms may be partly conditional on what they contribute to human reproductive fitness, that does not assure that they will be beneficial to the continuing wellness of people and their ethical values. They may instead function like meiotic drive in genetic evolution, selfishly claiming a share of their host environment (which is a community of human minds) disproportionate enough that it can afford to damage some of those hosts. For compact instances, consider how religions with costly rituals (such as genital mutilation of young women) tend to outcompete less damaging ones, apparently because such sacrifices signal an alluringly convincing commitment to the belief system.
Puchner acknowledges that cultural institutions “can degenerate all too easily when people lose interest in them”—but they can also evolve, for their own competitive survival, to exploit the peculiarities of our minds and social needs. While one form of cultural evolution, according to Puchner, “depends on the ability to pass down information and skills from one generation to the next,” another form is shaped by the differential abilities of various kinds of information to be passed along, and to find loyal carriers. Cultural communities do not want their sacred objects plundered or their beliefs ridiculed, but they are generally glad to have more adherents.
The evolutionary advantages of the relatively intricate and flexible human mind come with risks and tasks that would have been intolerable for our communitarian species, were it not for a conformist bias that manifests itself in cultural forms. Those forms reduce, to a manageable few, the nearly infinite set of choices we would otherwise encounter at any given moment. Off-loading the inconvenient burdens of sustaining both sanity and community onto local cultural conventions creates a risk that those conventions themselves will evolve from being our servants into being our ruthless masters.
Among the sites of stubborn, cautionary cultural encounters from the past half century, consider Srebrenica, Belfast, Jerusalem (not for the first time), Aleppo (in Othello and now again), and the Turkic Uyghurs and Falun Gong practitioners in China. A few decades earlier, fascism not only drew on nativist cultural legacies but also allied itself with nationalism and militarism, both of which could then virulently infect adjacent nations. The worse communism and capitalism behaved, the stronger they made each other. Look at what happened (and then keeps on happening) when Christianity repurposed Judaism, when Islam adapted Christianity, when Sunni and Shiite Muslims adopted different forms of heritage and hierarchy. Puchner himself acknowledges the brutal destruction of the magnificent Aztec capital by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. Culture change often becomes a story of us versus them.
So, cultural evolution has not necessarily enabled the survival of what most deserved to be saved but merely the survival of what was most successful in getting the complicated human machine to preserve it. Puchner admires the way “cultures under assault” from European colonialism “developed astonishing strategies of resistance and resilience,” but many horrifying cultural forms have proven no less adept and determined at perpetuating themselves. Nor have cultural blends been reliable alternatives to hegemonies: while empires have often forced their home cultures on the people they conquered, the impositions were often no less effective when they improvised within the existing belief systems of the conquered populations. Excellent, fascinating, and currently relevant as Culture: The Story of Us certainly is, there is room for another, less uplifting analysis in which the human will to progress plays a much smaller role. It could be called something like Culture: The Functions of It.
Puchner scrupulously strives not to privilege white Western European culture—at moments perhaps overachieving in that regard. Yes, the Renaissance was fueled by “classical manuscripts, some of which had found their way to Italy through Arabic commentators,” but that description of a beneficial meeting of cultures neglects the fact that this happened because, in 1453, the Ottoman forces had violently driven scholars out of Constantinople on behalf of Islam—a conquest that entailed the massive destruction of Byzantine culture and its 1,000-year-old civilization (the book rightly blames Christian Crusaders for having done major damage there centuries earlier). Conversely, lamenting how many ancient texts were lost because “Christian monks refused to copy material from the pre-Christian era” seems harsh, considering the crucial role played by devout Christians such as Cassiodorus and Boethius (neither of whom are mentioned by Puchner) in the preservation and copying of ancient Greek texts in the sixth century AD.
Still, Puchner tells us so much, and does it winningly. We should be grateful for his encouragement. He bravely leads the Enlightenment brigade, undeterred by the threat from canons to his left and right, giving recognition to those who have deeply and voluntarily invested in the project of shared knowledge and wisdom. In his generous admiration for receptivity to cultural diversity, however, he may underestimate the inherent conservatism of cultures.
Let’s go back to the blunder Queen Nefertiti and her royal spouse evidently committed in creating not only an entirely new capital city but also a new monotheistic theology, abandoning patronymics, and generating a new (and androgynous) style of representation of royalty and deity, after “a remarkable degree of continuity over hundreds of years” during which “originality was not a valu[e] but a failing” in art. No wonder that, “[f]or the next several thousand years, Akhenaten was known only as ‘the criminal of Amarna.’” No wonder Nefertiti’s heir, the famous pharaoh Tutankhaten, quickly “changed his name to Tutankhamun, to signal that he was abandoning the new faith of his father and returning to the god Amun.”
The status quo often seems utterly corrupt, and hopelessly inadequate to carry us toward our best individual and collective selves. Freedom beckons, especially to the young. But the gigantic casualty lists of radical reform movements of the 20th century raise a lot of red flags (some of them literally)—not just Nazism, but also Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China, Joseph Stalin’s Russian Communist state, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the Shining Path rebels in Peru, among many others.
The end of academia’s underexamined reverence for “Western civilization” carries no such threat; on the whole, it seems a valuable corrective. Still, it is easy to share Puchner’s dismay at “the arrogance of later generations who neglected precious cultural artifacts and practices because they didn’t conform to the religious, social, political, or ethical ideals of the moment.” Nathan Heller’s much-discussed recent New Yorker article about the decline of the English major quotes a young, nonwhite Harvard professor who regretfully blames that decline on “students arriving at college with a sense that the unenlightened past had nothing left to teach.” It is frustrating for a devout Shakespeare teacher like myself that so many colleagues have begun insisting that the most important thing to tell students about Shakespeare is that he was a dedicated agent of white supremacy and deeply complicit in all the later evils of racism and slavery. More broadly, the assumption that people in the past who do not sound like “us” must have been idiotic or immoral is shockingly egotistical. Perhaps academia has actually accomplished its aims in curtailing reverence for ancient cultural heroes too well.
Yet, the works of imperial cultures have mostly been horrifying, and they remain consequential. How do we respect the past without failing the future? How can we peacefully amalgamate all the cultural forms of an increasingly globalized species? Lately, I worry that multiculturalism (oddly, Puchner never uses any form of that term) may be an oxymoron. What if it is both clearly inevitable and nearly intolerable? Let’s hope that Puchner proves the more foresightful reader of the next chapters in our story.
Robert N. Watson is distinguished professor of English at UCLA, where he has served as chair of the Faculty of Letters and Science and vice provost for educational innovation. He is the author of Cultural Evolution and Its Discontents: Cognitive Overload, Parasitic Cultures, and the Humanistic Cure (2018), as well as books about Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Japanese cinema, the history of the fear of death, and the roots of modern environmentalism in Renaissance literature and painting. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker and many other journals.