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Planet of hats is the name of a trope where all inhabitants of a planet share a defining characteristic, of which there are many sub-tropes like environment or economy. I'd like to focus on the culture.

Is it realistic to have planets with defining cultures?

I'd like to share my initial thoughts, hopefully without influencing the answers too much. I see there are two conflicting factors:

  • Economically, it makes sense for a highly-integrated interstellar society to specialize, such that certain products are produced on one planet but not another; this is also known as comparative advantage. This would have the same effect on a planet's culture, making it distinct. Real-life (but much smaller) analogies would be Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and Wall Street.
  • On the other hand, such a high integration would also cause cultural ideas to spread, diluting the unique cultures. We see this in how similar and cosmopolitan our modern cities are, whereas they were far more distinct only a few generations ago.
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I'll start with a definition of culture:

The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively. (OxfordDictionaries.com)

Culture is defined as something done or shared collectively. By definition any group of people will have their own culture. Cities, university campuses, neighborhoods, countries, and I'd venture a guess that yes, even whole planets or civilizations would have their own culture, with creations, activities, practices, etc. that are unique to that planet (i.e., very common or popular there, but very rare elsewhere).

But I say that with a few caveats.

  1. First, there will be exceptions. Consider the tradition of Trick-or-Treating. This is very much a part of the culture of Halloween in the US, being an almost universal experience for children here. On the other hand, there are parents who for whatever reason don't feel like dressing up as monsters (or what have you) and begging for candy is acceptable behavior, and those people skip it.

    The idea of a planet where there is presumably billions of sentient life forms are unlikely to all believe exactly the same thing, and there will likely be exceptions.

  2. The second caveat is that culture may be one of the few things that an inhabited planet might share, because the definition demands looking at how the group behaves as a whole. If most people do it, it's the planet's culture. Something like a planet where literally everyone wears hats, as the trope implies, seems incredibly far-fetched, barring any sort of environmental demand that makes it a requirement. (Everyone on an un-terraformed Mars would probably need air masks or more, because the air is so thin.)

  3. I should perhaps include a third caveat here, to address the idea of a hive mind--a collection of organisms that share a single brain. Because they share the same brain, it is quite reasonable for all of them to do the exact same thing, including all wearing hats. But I think this represents a different scenario; from at least one point of view, they are all one single organism, and "culture for one" is debatable.

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We tend to ignore things that could be our own "hat". If aliens came across us, they might gloss over all of the things that we think are massive, important aspects of our individual cultures, and just see us as a planet of lunatic murderers, or observe our intense and utterly bizarre obsession with conversation as a means of interacting with people in the same room. These sorts of things would gloss over our unique cultures, and leave an alien visitor with the impression that we ourselves are inhabiting a planet of hats.

I'm loathe to say it, because it makes me sound like some sort of ultra-nationalist skinhead, but with our present globalisation, we absorb more of other cultures than ever before. As we exchange and adopt everyone else's traditions and incorporate them into our own, it'll become harder and harder to distinguish cultures from each other, until we resemble a homogenous culture-blob.

Fortunately, the limits of human lifespans provides plenty of opportunity for subcultures and other tweaks to disappear and reappear, so there's always change, which leads me to my next point; if the dominant or sentient species of the proposed "planet of hats" lives a very long life, they would change significantly less (assuming they are otherwise similar to us in our thought processes) because they would get set in their ways, and have more opportunity to spread their ingrained ways to the coming generation, which helps to keep the old ways. Of course, this all relies on massive globalisation, as any great distance promotes difference in practice, simply because people have an opportunity to learn, free of the influence of the parent culture.

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Differences in group dynamics

One deciding factor is the psychology of the inhabitants. Human cultural similarities and cultural distinctiveness are shaped by factors such as individuals' competing drives to fit in vs. stand out, or our attraction to romance and reproduction outside the kin group. Those strongly influence things like migration patterns and new cultures splitting off from old ones. Or, imagine that our neural hardware for language were more hard-wired, such that everyone on earth spoke mutually intelligible languages.

As a third example, research has shown that humans have an almost universal tendency to believe that there are intrinsically different types of people -- and it operates similarly whether the groups are based on biology (race), kinship (ethnicity), or religion / purity (caste). Without that, humans might be much less likely to fracture into political / racial / religious groups and might have a more homogeneous global culture.

Other differences in psychology

Alternately, imagine a species that is less flexible than humans. Perhaps they evolved in a more stable, unchanging environment, and didn't develop as wide a repertoire of behaviors. Or, perhaps they had stronger and different pressures than we did, and so evolved a psychology that's more strongly oriented toward one thing. e.g., on a planet where dragons periodically swoop down from the sky, all people in all cultures might be what we would perceive as a "warrior race" (or they might be the Planet of Computer Programmers Who Never Ever Go Outside).

Differences in perspective

In either of those cases, you can imagine that those species might perceive individuals as being different in all sorts of ways that aren't apparent to us -- they'd only be a planet of hats from our point of view.

You can also imagine aliens coming to earth and being surprised by how all of us are so uniformly obsessed with language or building things and consider us a cartoonish planet of hats.


So, I would say that a planet of hats is not an unreasonable concept. But, if you deal with its inhabitants in any depth, you'd need to think about what kind of people they are.

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All of the above answers are good, but I wanted to add one thing: it largely depends on the culture of the people looking down at the "planet of hats."

In an episode of Star Trek, it's easy to identify some planets as being unrealistic because they're mostly like us, so their preoccupation with one thing (like a ritual or an item of clothing) seems blown out of proportion, and thus exaggerated.

But there are MANY things which are universal among humans of Earth today, and many of those aren't natural or "a given" at all. The best example I can think of is clothing: every major culture on Earth, and at any time in our history, wore some kind of artificial layer of material outside their skin. Some considered it mandatory while some were more flexible, and certainly the styles differed widely, but if you think of it, that's still kind of weird. Not a single nudist empire, anywhere, at any time in Human history? What an absurd notion, that every single culture on Earth would wear clothes!

Such a line of thought might track for an alien race, but only if they themselves didn't wear clothes. Similarly, a telepathic race might be shocked at our obsession with speaking and writing, or an asexual race might be horrified at the amount of time we spend on sex and gender issues.

It all just depends on the assumptions made by those who are watching the planet.

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    $\begingroup$ The natives of Terra de Fuego had no clothes up until the time of Darwin on the Beagle. He wrote about it and found it disturbing. They didn't wear clothes because they had little to make clothes out of and little skill or technology to do so. The swam almost constantly and lived primarily on shell fish, so clothes would have just gotten in the way. $\endgroup$ – TechZen Nov 7 '14 at 8:23
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It could well be possible to have an entire planet with very much the same culture everywhere if the planet were a colony. Colonies start with a small subset/subculture of a parent population/culture and all subsequent generations inherit from that culture. The culture of the colony is more homogenous than the parent.

American English is a good example. Although Americans come from literally every human culture our language is English. England has (or had prior to the 20th century) 80 some-odd regional dialects. America, with a population equal to the entirety of Europe, has four. That is because America was initially populated primarily from by migrations from four localized regions in England. Even non-English speaking immigrants to Americans end up with one of the four principle dialects that can be heard in factors like word choice and idioms if they retain their mother accent.

Compared to England, America is a "planet of hats" in regards to language at least. Americans can be readily distinguished from Brits by almost everyone one earth. Were England a galactic civilization and America a planet, even one with a very large population, language wise at least, it would appear an entire world, speaking the same language, with only very minor variation from continent to continent.

If you imagine a spreading stellar civilization, with colonies founded from subpopulations which then spin off colonies of their own subpopulation and so on, each colony would start from increasingly homogenous groups. After a few iterations, you could end up with a very uniform looking culture scattered over an entire planet.

The same effect did happen with human genetic diversity as humans spread out of Africa. 80% of human genetic diversity remains in sub-saharra Africa and everyone else has the remaining 20%. Because virgin territories were settled by subpopulations that were likely there extended families, the further you get walking distance from Africa, the more genetically homogenous the populations become over wider and wider areas. Pre-Columbian people's suffered so horribly from old world diseases in large part because that sorting process left them with far less genetic diversity than old world peoples.

A homeworld where a species evolved would have never be a planet of hats. Long histories, local adaptations and pre-industrial isolation would produce a wide range of variations that would likely never really disappear.

So, in sum a "planet of hats" would likely be:

  1. A colony
  2. Founded by a distinct subculture of the parent culture
  3. Fairly isolated from the parent and other influences for some time.
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I don't think it's terribly far-fetched for planets to be nearly culturally homogeneous in one aspect or another. There's really not a huge difference between each country with significant internet access- at least not big enough that you can tell someone is, for instance, obviously German except in certain cases. Fashions are converging toward homogeneity on Earth as it is (not to mention that just about everyone loves obsessing over US politics even in other countries), so it's actually quite likely that a space-faring planet is going to have certain defining aspects of their culture since they almost definitely had their version of the internet for at least 50 years prior to your arrival. The newer the planet is to the planetary union, the more distinct their culture will be from the rest of the union. This could just as easily include things like hats as more subtle things like slang or philosophy.

Basically, the nature of humanity and, presumably, other intelligent species is that culture spreads and diffuses until a nearly-homogeneous equilibrium is reached. Of course, there are always going to be subtle regional differences, but there are also going to be common threads across all of them. The less that logistically separates people, the more that the people find in common. That's part of why Europeans and Americans/Canadians are generally pretty similar and largely indistinguishable while the British and Japanese are somewhat more distinct from their continental neighbors.

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One way to answer this question would be to establish the observer perspective. If the aliens on the planet have striking biological or cultural differences, it even one single striking feature, it may overshadow anything else in the eyes of a human observer. Asari in Mass Effect series are a good example of it. They are themselves very diverse, have complicated social structure etc, but for the human observer they are blue tentacle-haired babes first and foremost.

As for the 'globalization' argument - here I wouldn't agree. Globalization doesn't produce single unified culture without any conflicts. First off, some theoretics of globalization speak of 'glocalization' - underlining the local differences in the face of global pressure. One can argue that the modern Islam is the product of such glocalization - never before were Muslims of different cultures do similar in lifestyle and values.

Also, even with globalization, there are other differences - in income and education, in climate. There are differences in culture between people living in big cities and in small towns, etc. So, among themselves the aliens would and should still have similar differences, even if the outside observer doesn't notice them.

There are two things that would simulate the effect of the 'planet of hats', however. First is the sort of 'airport effect'. The outsiders may see mostly the spaceports and the area immediately around them - and it would be not only similar globally, but similar enough to the 'galactic' culture of your setting to not to care.

The second one would happen if outsiders interact mainly with the aliens of similar socal and economic backgrounds - in our terms, English-speaking big-city college graduates. If you are interacting with only such people, you would have an impression of a single unified culture - at the same time, at their own planet there could be places where people still eat their young, because it was done so traditionally.

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So there are a number of subversions in Star Trek and Star Wars (the two big users and abusers). Star Trek generally operates on a level that the more individuals of a species you meet, the more the the facade of monoculturalism drops. The Romulans were a major subversion in that they were Vulcans that rejected Vulcan's culture of logic and struck out to make a society that had a place for a Vulcan's natural passionate nature. Bajorans (who pretty much had a whole series devoted to their politics) had a lot of political drama around both secular and spiritual politics (their hat was spiritualism) with the resident character Major Kira being more private about her faith (she went to services but could carry on a conversation without mentioning matters of faith). There were a lot of Vulcans who used their "logic" to excuse their condescension for other races and Klingons were nuanced from Cold War Soviet stand in to an Imperial Japan style honor based society, though very few were as dedicated to the lofty concepts as Worf (A Klingon raised by humans) had been lead to believe. The Ferengi, introduced as a species where Capitalism is a religion was thoroughly explored and showed that the society did have conflict points. We see in one episode that despite going to great lengths to keep customers at all cots and would normally shun things such as slavery and genocide because they are unprofitable, there is an Assassination Class (Called Eliminators) in Ferengi Culture who kill for profits (which is normally abhorrent in general Ferengi society because it's not a money making venture). It's generally understood that the people who take these jobs of killing for money are more in it for the killing than the money... asking for money makes it less taboo than it already is... but only by margins.

Star Trek's extended lore explains that the Planet of Hats phenomena as noted by humans is evolved because humans have a hat as well: According to the aliens, Humans loath confinement. This lines up with the very first pilot of Trek, "The Cage" but also explains the vast number of of cultures from Earth that seem lacking from other worlds. Because of this, Humans are never happy being set to someone elses rules, resulting in conflicting religions and nation states and all sorts of creative efforts to push out on things that didn't play by the rules.

Star Wars plays something similar to Vulcan/Romulans. In one extended universe work, we meet an Ithorian (One of the aliens from the cantina in A New Hope... the one that has a neck attaching to a head at a 90 degree angle.). Ithorians are said to be peaceful and pacifistic with a specialization in environmental restoration and terraforming. However, they're also seen in more violent career paths and engaging in piracy, smuggling, and jedi bad guy beating. So how does this justify pacifistic Ithorians? Because the Ithorian government exiles all the trouble makers, which means they only are worried about the ones who follow their society rules.

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