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Monday, December 13, 2010

Monday Ground Up: Cultural Innovation and Imitation-Historic Roads to Economic Stability

This is a guest post contributed by Lisco Johnson.


Throughout the millennia there have been thousands of individual cultures – from small tribal groups to cultures that spread across the globe. Just 100 years ago, “The sun never set on the British Empire” with Britain’s expansive commonwealth spread from Australia to India to South Africa across the Atlantic to Canada. Today, the UK, while still an chief player on the world stage, no longer maintains a global empire.

Breaking the Maya CodeCultures are born, grow, thrive and die out for numerous reasons. Between 1000 and 1300 AD, the Mayan culture covered most of current-day Central America and large portions of modern Mexico. The Maya, it could be argued, were the greatest world culture during its Golden Age, yet the magnificent temple cities constructed by the Maya were deserted by the time Europeans arrived in the region in the mid-1400s.
There are many theories why this one-time cultural innovator disappeared – dispersed into the jungles, and then into villages and cities where modern day Mayans still live today. Cultures rise and fall.

Cultures evolve and devolve. All we have to do is glance at the history of humankind to see that even the greatest civilizations rise and fall.

Is there a single characteristic anthropologists turn to attempting to decipher what makes great societies thrive? 

What makes a culture great? In fact there are many, but when given careful scrutiny, we can see case after case of great societies that were innovators of new ideas and new technology, and societies adapting the ideas and technology of “outsiders” for the benefit of the people who comprise the imitative society.


Mayan astronomers created a calendar so precise that, once decoded, amazed modern day science. This culture studied the heavens, charted movements of celestial bodies and developed an intricate system of mathematics to record time and events.

At about the same time, European culture was mired in the Dark Ages when innovation was replaced by the simple need to survive. Indeed, there were learning centers in London, Paris and other medieval cities but innovation wasn’t part of the culture in general.

Instead, innovation was taking place on the Yucatan Peninsula and throughout the Middle East where innovative thought led to the creation of algebra (al-jabria) and fundamental social sciences. Idn Khaldun (1332-1406 AD), a great thinker of the time, is credited with the creation of the sciences of economics, the philosophy of history and the scientific method itself.

Khaldun, in his most important writing, The Muqaddimah (1377), lays out testing standards that are still used today in modern research. While Europe was studying pseudo-sciences like astronomy and alchemy, the Middle East was laying the foundation for the work of Sir Isaac Newton in moving forward the world’s body of science.

Innovation occurs during the early days of the great Greek Empire. This was a culture that valued learning and pondered the things its members saw around them. Archimedes defined “displacement” while sitting in a public bath and ran through the streets shouting, “Eureka. EUREKA!” that translates into “I found it.”

Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Aristophanes and other great minds and great artists moved world culture forward during Greece’s Golden Age of Learning. However, de facto, innovation alone does not sustain a society. And all societies are not innovators. Some have mastered the art of imitation to create sustainable and even robust economies.


For centuries Japanese culture demanded of its people an unquestioning acceptance of a strong social contract. The people obeyed orders. They followed instead of led. Individuality was frowned upon. “Fitting in” was woven into the fabric of Japanese society for thousands of years.

The leaders of Japan discouraged innovation and even feared it. This can be demonstrated by the strained history of Japan’s early engagement with the West. In 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in the land of the Shogun. The Japanese referred to these ambassadors as “hairy barbarians.” Instead of embracing the innovation engagement with the West would deliver, Japan remained a closed society until the outbreak of World War II.

After the war, the U.S. pumped billions of dollars in building new factories for the Japanese economy. The U.S. also sent its most innovative, creative minds to Japan to teach this isolationist society modern manufacturing and business development techniques. The Japanese took these assets and, in a single generation, built an economy that provides high-tech electronics, automobiles, heavy equipment and ships to a global market.

However, the Japanese continue to discourage innovation. Fitting in and not making waves is still the centerpiece of Japanese culture. Japanese universities, for example, lag in the implementation of technology on their campuses. Few universities have local access networks in place, though other innovative societies have LANs in secondary schools to encourage the exchange of information essential for innovation.

When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global OrderChina serves as another example of a nation that imitates rather than innovates. Prior to engagement with Europe and North America, China was a society based on a cult of personality. The Red Guard, the hope for China’s future, waved Mao’s Red Book as they marched in unison before the reviewing stands. Mao’s Great Leap Forward sent university professors to work in the rice paddies. Innovation was absent.
Today, 35 years later, China’s economy ranks just below the U.S. economy in gross domestic product (GDP) and some economists project that China will overtake the U.S. in GDP by the year 2015.

Yet, China does not innovate. It imitates. It adapts business practices employed in Western business communities. It employs technology imported from the EU and U.S. to build computers, manufacture clothing, build consumer electronics and, soon, Chinese- made cars will be sold in the U.S., adding to an already competitive market. In 2009 the U.S. government had to prop up one-time car giant, Chrysler, to prevent one of the “Big Three” auto makers from collapsing under its own weight.

A Country’s Greatness Is Defined By Innovation

China is certainly a powerful country. However, can it be called a great country?

The Chinese government discourages dissent, thus lessening the free exchange of ideas. Search engine giant, Google, no longer serves the Chinese market, pulling out after government censorship became more than Google would tolerate.

Indeed, foreign investment and foreign innovation is welcome throughout China. Many innovative companies from innovative cultures maintain a business presence in this major influence on global economics.
However, China’s government has also declared “internet addiction” to be a mental disorder and has established over 300 “re-education” camps to treat the illness called curiosity. The Chinese people follow. They don’t lead.

China’s power comes from its endless supply of low-cost labor, NOT from its learning centers or cultural centers. The cultural mores of the past remain firmly in place and the government functions in constant fear of another Tiananmen Square uprising among the people.

Countries that foster innovation will continue to grow, though at a slower rate in difficult economic times. These countries produce the tools of tomorrow while those countries that discourage innovation are destined to follow through imitation.

Both innovation and imitation have led to successful, expanding economies. However, looking back through history from an anthropologic perspective, clearly those cultures that encouraged innovation lasted longer and moved the body of world knowledge forward.

Imitation-based cultures have always lagged. They may be powerful. However, it is the fostering of innovation that makes a culture great.

This is a guest post contributed by Lisco Johnson, a history & fitness lover who owns a website offering free tips & articles on how to build muscle

Picture sources

 ©Kassus Statue d'Ibn Khaldoun sur l'avenue Habib Bourguiba à Tunis (Tunisie)

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