We humans are a crafty breed. We’ve adapted ourselves to live in nearly every area of the planet; from coastlines to inland, frozen tundra to deserts. Through innovation of resources at our disposal, civilizations have developed almost everywhere, and within these civilizations, cultures were formed and carried down through generations. Today, some of us embrace our culture completely, others not at all, and the rest embrace culture selectively, with each subsequent generation adjusting it little by little.

Culture includes such things as language, food, social constructs, customs, and religious beliefs. The non-physical aspects of culture are dependent only on its ability to be communicated, whereas the physical aspects — predominantly including food — depend partly on communication but greatly on available resources. For this reason, moving to a new country centuries ago meant leaving behind a lot of your culture, particularly food. Recipes themselves moved easily but when certain ingredients weren’t available, they had to be adapted to what was available. Even the non-physical aspects of culture changed, since some things are taboo or illegal in other places. Culture, then, always changes.

Let us remember that despite it being illegal nearly everywhere else, cannibalism is still an ongoing tradition in the Korowai tribe of Papua; imagine bringing that culture to Canada! In this absurdity lies truth; culture is always subject to local social standards, and it us today that determine these standards, not our ancestors. Such is the purpose of evolution; we adjust our behaviour when our necessity demands it and when our knowledge allows it. Or to put it another way, to blindly follow tradition impedes our development.

If we’d kept the cultural tradition of patriarchy and women were never accepted as equal to men, who would argue that society would be better off? Similarly, other traditions have been increasingly disposed of over time, such as circumcision, spousal abuse, and classical slavery. Even English is far different than what it was centuries ago.

In these ways, culture is selectively changed. We choose the traditions that carry on as they are.

Today, our survival is not as impaired as it was with our ancestors. I’ve heard culture used as explanation of dietary choice. The logic is that because our ancestors ate a certain way out of necessity, this must influence our choices now. This argument is accompanied by the belief that eating similar foods as our great-grandparents will help us remember our heritage. While I accept this premise, to truly remember one’s heritage involves more than a few meals. Our ancestors survived by consuming the foods available to them. I don’t believe that we can properly remember our heritage through diet when we live under different circumstances. We cannot suppose that we are more like our ancestors when our culture is derived by choice and not by necessity; and this is not to say that culture should be abandoned, but its context must not be forgotten. I don’t believe that our choices today can be rightly explained with the simplicity of culture when culture itself is a complex accumulation of survival necessities.

With the planet’s population growing and migrating, we’ve come to an impasse between sustainability and preference. Most people, particularly in developed nations, are no longer limited by what resources are available because globalization has made all resources available; so instead, we make choices. Products are shipped around the world to satisfy these choices, often at great economical and environmental expense. Never before in history has there been such an abundance of seafood so far from the sea. We seek a sense of self that many of us find in culture, but this culture is not the same as it was with our ancestors. It must not be forgotten that culture developed out of necessity; to survive, to thrive, and to explain the world we live in. And just like in evolution, when our situation changes, so must we.