Why is it that some cultures advance, while others stagnate, stumble, or fade away? It's a question that's asked often about the resource-rich continent of Africa, which has seen so little progress over the past few centuries, and which is being asked again this week as the world's attention focuses on the tragic fortunes of plague-ridden Haiti. 

In a column called "The Underlying Tragedy," David Brooks writes that part of the reason the Haitian earthquake was so devastating was the poverty of the country--poverty that has persisted far longer and more pervasively than in many neighboring countries that had similar histories, and even had similar brushes with dictatorial and dysfunctional governments. He quotes historian Lawrence Harrison, who he says wrote that "Haiti, like most of the world's poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences"--including its backward voodoo religion, high levels of social mistrust, poor child-rearing traditions, and a lack of any internalized sense of responsibility.

"We're all supposed to politely respect each other's cultures," Brooks writes. "But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them." 

I haven't read Harrison's work. But interestingly enough, that same point was made in a fascinating PBS series currently airing, called "The Human Spark." Hosted by Alan Alda, the first segment of the series went in search of an answer to what sparked the change in our ancient Neanderthal-era ancestors that allowed some of them to advance into what we call "modern humans" with more advanced language, skills, and technology. 

More than a quarter million years ago, some of our ancestors migrated from Africa to Europe, becoming known as the "Neanderthals," while other groups remained on the southern continent. What happened next differed dramatically. The Neanderthals in Europe, a small number of perhaps 20,000, lived mostly in isolated locations and caves, with no evidence of trade or shared culture with other groups of Neanderthals. They existed by tradition, doing what had worked for the previous generation, hunting meat and living in the same manner--and in some cases living in the very same cave--for 200,000 years. 

Now, any culture that manages to survive 200,000 years can't be judged an abject failure. But the European Neanderthals did not evolve mentally or physically, or develop any new skills or tools. Their distant cousins in Africa, on the other hand, developed a much more open culture, where innovation led to innovation, and evidence of trading and sharing of information--and even more advanced weapons that would have required more complex language to use effectively--has been found dating back at least 150,000 years. 

In the process, their brains evolved, as well. And when those more advanced "humans" then migrated north into the area still occupied by the tradition-bound Neanderthals ... they quickly eclipsed the Neanderthals, who dwindled in number and soon became extinct. 

What was it about the African groups that made them start innovating, trading, and evolving as a people and a culture, when their northern cousins didn't? I don't think anyone's come up with a definitive answer. Perhaps it was the weather and terrain, which facilitated more travel and chance encounters with other groups. Isolated caves in the hills and mountains of France don't lend themselves to chance discoveries of other groups, who might do things a different, or better, way. 

But in any event, the result is clear. The groups that were open to other groups and cultures, possessed enough curiosity to seek new items and ways of doing things, and embraced change as a good thing were the ones who thrived, evolved, and survived. It's a lesson worth at least a few moments' thought. 

For one thing, it provides at least a measure of reassurance that while the repressive movements of the world who rage at modern changes or cultures can make the process bloody, they will, eventually, fail. At least if history is any guide. And it may at least illuminate part of the problem, if not an obvious solution, in trying to aid development in cultures that don't inherently value progress or change. 

Part of what makes the images coming out of Haiti so wrenchingly heart-breaking is the realization for most of us that the problems there go far beyond the devastating damage of an earthquake. This unfortunate island nation is burdened with problems so complex, deep, and pervasive that it seems almost beyond our ability to solve them. 

But the story of the Neanderthals also has implications for modernized nations who may be better equipped to handle earthquakes, but are still struggling with issues of changing demographics, globalization and immigration. For sure, not all innovations are good ideas (see: credit default swaps). Recklessness is a hazard in any situation or culture. But we also cling to the past; to a country the way it used to be, or the way we think our grandparents remembered it, at our peril. Clinging staunchly to tradition did not serve the Neanderthals well. 

It's never easy to merge ethnic groups, accept change, or figure out how to balance the new dynamics of a changing, multi-cultural world. But the skulls and artifacts of those ancient cultures in Africa--who became the people we are today--argue compellingly for the power of an open society over the limits of one bound by habit, tradition, or too great a desire to keep external influences at bay.