Why Cultural Evolution Needs a Distinction Between “Genes” and “Phenotypes”

I’m thinking I’m about to burn out on cultural evolution, so this will be relatively short and informal.

* * * * *

Ever since I began thinking about a Darwinian process for cultural evolution back in the mid-1990s I’ve insisted on making a distinction between phenotypic entities (which I’m now calling “phantasms”) and genotypic entities (which I’m now calling “coordinators”). Why? My basic reason was to preserve the analogy between the cultural evolutionary process and biological.

That’s understandable, and it was a reasonable thing to do – back then. But there’s been a great deal of discussion about whether or not such a distinction needs to be made for cultural evolution, and if so: how do we make it? Some thinkers, like Dennett and Blackmore don’t make such a distinction at all, being content to theorize about memes, which are thus more like viruses than genes. To be sure, they’ve not gotten very far, nor for that matter has anyone else. But still, the issue must be faced, for there needs to be a better reason for such a distinction than the mere logic of analogy.

After all, what if the underlying logic of cultural evolution is different from that of biological evolution? What if there is no distinction comparable to the genotype-phenotype distinction?

My contention is that there is such a distinction and I’m now prepared to offer a reason for it:

Culture resides in people’s minds and the mind is in the head. We cannot read one another’s minds.

The environment to which cultural entities must adapt is the collective human mind. That’s been clear to me for a long time. And, of course, various conceptions of collective minds have been around for a long time as well. The problem is to formulate a conception in contemporary terms, terms which admit of no mystification.

I did that in the second and third chapters of Beethoven’s Anvil (2001) where I argued that when people make music together, and dance as well, their actions and perceptions are so closely coupled that we can think of a collective mind existing for the duration of that coupling. There are no mystical emanations engulfing the group. It’s all done through physical signals, electro-chemical signals inside brains, visual and auditory signals between individuals.

In this model the genetic elements of culture are the physical coordinators that support this interpersonal coupling. These coordinators are the properties of physical things – streams of sound, visual configurations, whatever – and as such are in the public sphere where everyone has access to them. Correspondingly, the phenotypic elements are the mental phantasms that arise within individual brains during the coupling. These phantasms are necessarily private though, in the case of music making, each person’s phantasm is coordinated with those of others.

If those phantasms are pleasurable ¬– I defined pleasure in terms of neural flow in chapter four of Beethoven’s Anvil – then people will be motivated to repeat the activity and those phantasms will thus be repeated. One of the factors that lead to pleasure is precisely the capacity to share the experience with others. The function of coordinators is to support the sharing of activities and experiences. Just as genes survive only if the phenotypes carrying them are able to reproduce, so coordinators survive only if they give rise to sharable phantasms.

Culture is sharable. That’s the point. If it weren’t sharable it couldn’t be able to function as a storehouse of knowledge and values.

* * * * *

That, briefly and informally, is it. Obviously more needs to be done, a lot more. I can do some of it, though not now. But much of the heavy lifting is going to have to be done by people with technical skills that I don’t have.


Book Preview: Speaking Our Minds

This is a guest post by Thom Scott-Phillips, previewing his new book, ‘Speaking Our Minds: Why Human Communication Is Different, And How Language Evolved To Make It Special’, which has just been published by Palgrave MacMillan.

Research in language evolution does not pay much attention to pragmatics – the study of the communicative basis of language use. By way of illustration, the index to the Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution lists only 8 pages under ‘pragmatics’. In contrast, 213 pages are listed under ‘syntax’ and related terms. This is, I think, a major error.

Continue reading


Terminology for Cultural Evolution: Coordinators and Phantasms

I’ve decided that it is time for some new terms. I’ve been using “meme” as the cultural analog for the biological “gene”, which is more or less the use that Dawkins had in mind when he coined the term. But I’ve decided to scrap it. I also need a term for the cultural analog to the biological phenotype.

From “meme” to “coordinator”

The problem with “meme” as a term is that it has accumulated quite a bit of conceptual baggage. None of that baggage is compatible with my sense of how the cultural analogue to genes function, and much of it is harmful nonsense. Oh, as a popular term as in “internet meme” it’s fine and, in any event, it would be foolish of me to try to interfere with that. The trouble comes when you try to use more or less that meaning in a serious investigation into culture. No one has yet made it work.

I’ve expressed my views in a long series article, book chapters, posts and working papers going back almost two decades. Here’s my most recent thinking:

If I jettison “meme”, however, what’s the alternative?

I don’t like coining new words so I’d like to use an existing word. I’ve decided up “coordinator,” which expresses nicely the function that these entities have to performer. The cultural analog to the gene coordinates the minds of people during interaction, whether face-to-face or through various media. This is not the place to explain that – you can find plenty of explanatory material in the above-linked documents, and others as well. I note only that the term sidesteps the notion of bits of “information” that get passed from person to person, brain to brain. On the contrary, it helps explain how we can, in effect, walk about in one another’s minds (cf. Peter Gärdenfors, The Geometry of Meaning, 2014 chapters four and five).

From “ideotype” to “phantasm”

What about the analogue to the biological phenotype, the individual organism in its environment? Ever since I first thought about cultural evolution as a process of “blind variation and selective retention” (in Donald Campbell’s formulation) I figured that the selecting was being done by groups of human beings and therefore that the environment of cultural evolutionary adaptedness had to be something like a “group mind.” In some way, what was being selected had to be public. I first articulated that position in an article I published in 1996, Culture as an Evolutionary Arena (Journal of Social and Biological Structures). But it took several years before I arrived at a satisfactory, albeit still provisional, formulation. Continue reading


Book Review: The Nature and Origin of Language (Bouchard 2013)

This review appeared originally in the LINGUIST List at http://linguistlist.org/issues/25/25-4460.html

Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/25/25-1636.html

bouchardAUTHOR: Denis Bouchard
TITLE: The Nature and Origin of Language
SUBTITLE: First Edition
SERIES TITLE: Oxford Studies in the Evolution of Language
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Hannah Little, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Review’s Editors: Malgorzata Cavar and Sara Couture


This monograph outlines a new perspective for the origin of language. Its central premise is that language’s arbitrariness was the main innovation causing language to emerge. Bouchard frames this thesis in the context of Saussurean theory and his own Sign Theory of Language (STL). Arbitrariness, then, is the thing that evolutionary explanations of language must seek to explain, and Bouchard proposes humans’ uniquely evolving Offline Brain Systems (OBS) as the main driver in the emergence of language. OBS are proposed by Bouchard to be uniquely human neural systems that are activated even in the absence of direct stimuli, allowing us to represent things not currently present. Throughout the book, Bouchard’s ideas are presented in opposition to ideas of the origins of language from a generative perspective, which I will cover in more detail throughout the review.

The book is quite lengthy, but demands to be read from cover to cover in order to follow the arguments, and is not something that can be easily dipped in and out of, which is demonstrated by the use of acronyms which are mostly only glossed once and used in every chapter.

Continue reading

Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 11.55.58

How to speak stone-age bullshit

This is a guest post by Christine Cuskley.

As a general rule, there is much that is very badly written about specialist academic disciplines. From farts curing cancer to hot wet aliens, academic research often isn’t well-represented in popular outlets. Research on language and language evolution are no exception. So, generally, people who spend their working days immersed in language research let such flawed reports flow over them like so many offers to publish their thesis for the small fee of £300. You can’t possibly feel miffed at every one or you would explode and get nothing done, and there’s already so much on the internet to distract me even the most focused linguist.

But today I’ve seen something so utterly cringeworthy that it simply shall not pass. In a recent article for The Daily Mail, a man named Christopher Stevens For The Daily Mail adapts an excerpt from a book called Written in Stone, which is by Christopher Stevens (presumably) For Himself. I will direct all criticism towards his nom de plume, on the off chance that he originally submitted a clear, well-thought out, and accurate excerpt from his excellent book which was then mercilessly butchered by an ignorant editor. As an up-front disclaimer, I haven’t actually read the book itself, and I am very unlikely to. Assuming this adapted excerpt is any indication, the book is a mess.

Continue reading


John Lawler on Generative Grammar

From a Facebook conversation with Dan Everett (about slide rules, aka slipsticks, no less) and others:

The constant revision and consequent redefining and renaming of concepts – some imaginary and some very obvious – has led to a multi-dimensional spectrum of heresy in generative grammar, so complex that one practically needs chromatography to distinguish variants. Babel comes to mind, and also Windows™ versions. Most of the literature is incomprehensible in consequence – or simply repetitive, except it’s too much trouble to tell which.

–John Lawler


The next event in the ways to (proto)language conference series has been announced and is being held in Rome!
Call for Papers below:
24-26 SEPTEMBER 2015
Roma Tre University
Michael C. Corballis (University of Auckland)
Dan Dediu (Max Plank Institute for Psycholinguistics)
Francesco D’Errico (University of Bordeaux)
Daniel Dor (Tel Aviv University)
Ian Tattersall (American Museum of Natural History)
Elisabetta Visalberghi (Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies – CNR Rome)
We call for:
The list of conference areas includes:
* animal cognition
* animal communication
* anthropology (linguistic, social, cultural)
* cognitive science
* cognitive semiotics
* computational modelling
* general evolutionary theory
* genetics of language
* gesture studies
* linguistics
* neuroscience of language
* paleoanthropology
* philosophy of biology
* philosophy of language
* Pleistocene archaeology
* primatology
* psychology (evolutionary, comparative, developmental)
* speech physiology
Talks and posters:
Please submit an abstract of 400 words prepared for anonymous review to the EasyChair website: https://easychair.org/conferences/?conf=protolang4
Submissions should be suitable for 30 minutes presentation (20 min for presentation and 10 min for discussion).
Please submit a proposal including: (a) Title of the symposium, (b) name and affiliation of the organizers, (c) a general description of the symposium (400 words), (d) abstract of each contributed talk (100-150 words)
Submissions should be suitable for a two-hour session and include 3 to 5 presentations.
The organizers are responsible for submitting the full symposium program to the EasyChair website:  https://easychair.org/conferences/?conf=protolang4. The organizers will also act as chairs of their session.
Note: abstracts of talks, posters and symposia must be submitted in .doc (or .docx) or .txt, no PDF format will be accepted.
Submission deadline: 1 February 2015
Notifications of acceptance: 20 March 2015
Early registration deadline: 30 June 2015
Conference: 24-26 September 2015
The Protolang conference series creates an interdisciplinary platform for scholarly discussion on the origins of symbolic communication distinctive of human beings. The thematic focus of Protolang is on delineating the genetic, anatomical, neuro-cognitive, socio-cultural, semiotic, symbolic and ecological requirements for evolving (proto)language. Sign use, tools, cooperative breeding, pointing, vocalisation, intersubjectivity, bodily mimesis, planning and navigation are among many examples of such possible factors through which hominins have gained a degree of specificity that is not found in other forms of animal communication and cognition. We aim at identifying the proximate and ultimate causes as well as the mechanisms by which these requirements evolved; evaluating the methodologies, research tools and simulation techniques; and enabling extended and vigorous exchange of ideas across disciplinary borders.We invite scholars from A(rcheology) to Z(oology), and all disciplines in between, to contribute data, experimental and theoretical research, and look forward to welcoming you at one of our conferences!

Why I Abandoned Chomskian Linguistics, with Links to 2 FB Discussions with Dan Everett

It wasn’t a matter of deep and well-thought princple. It was simpler than that. Chomsky’s approach to linguistics didn’t have the tools I was looking for. Let me explain.

* * * * *

Dan Everett’s kicked off two discussions on Facebook about Chomksy. This one takes Christina Behme’s recent review article, A ‘Galilean’ science of language, as its starting point. And this one’s about nativism, sparked by Vyv Evans’ The Language Myth.

* * * * *

I learned about Chomsky during my second year as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. I took a course in psycholinguistics taught by James Deese, known for his empirical work on word associations. We read and wrote summaries of classic articles, including Lee’s review of Syntactic Structures and Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. My summary of one of them, I forget which, prompted Deese to remark that my summary was an “unnecessarily original” recasting of my argument.

That’s how I worked. I tried to get inside the author’s argument and then to restate it in my own words.

In any event I was hooked. But Hopkins didn’t have any courses in linguistics let alone a linguistics department. So I had to pursue Chomsky and related thinkers on my own. Which I did over the next few years. I read Aspects, Syntatic Structures, Sound Patterns of English (well, more like I read at that one), Lenneberg’s superb book on biological foundations (with an appendix by Chomsky), found my way to generative semantics, and other stuff. By the time I headed off to graduate school in English at the State University of New York at Buffalo I was mostly interested in that other stuff.

I became interested in Chomsky because I was interested in language. While I was interested in language as such, I was a bit more interested in literature and much of my interest in linguistics followed from that. Literature is made of language, hence some knowledge of linguistics should be useful. Trouble is, it was semantics that I needed. Chomsky had no semantics and generative semantics looked more like syntax.

So that other stuff looked more promising. Somehow I’d found my way to Syd Lamb’s stratificational linguistics. I liked that for the diagrams, as I think diagrammatically, and for the elegance. Lamb used the same vocabulary of structural elements to deal with phonology, morphology, and syntax. That made sense to me. And the s work within his system actually looked like semantics, rather than souped up syntax, though there wasn’t enough of it. Continue reading


The Theory of Cultural Ranks at 3QD

abstract principles one v2.jpg

Posted at 3 Quarks Daily: Evolving to the Future, the Web of Culture

Europeans had been trading with Asian peoples since ancient times. But things began to change in the 15th Century when the Spanish and Portuguese sent ships across the oceans, followed by Northern Europeans in the 17th Century. By the late 19th Century Europeans had colonized most of the rest of the globe and, on the whole, held themselves superior to other peoples.

And why not?

How else would you account for their success? After all, the Europeans were vastly out-numbered by the peoples they’d subjugated and the subjugated territories were far away from the European homelands. Military technology of all sorts gave Europeans decisive advantage in armed conflicts of all types. Technologies for travel, transport, and communication were important as well. And, I suspect, modes of social organization played a role too. Isn’t capitalism, after all, a mode of social organization?

We can argue the details in many ways, but there’s no getting around European superiority. But how do we account for that superiority? That’s the question.

The obvious account is to declare innate superiority, and that’s what our ancestors did. The white race was superior to other races and that’s that, so they believed. As such, they were destined to rule the world. Not only that, but it was their responsibility to bring the benefits of their superiority to other peoples.

We no longer believe in racial superiority, and the idea of human races is in trouble as well. Whatever it is that accounts for Europe’s superior capacity for conquest and governance, it is not biology. It isn’t in the genes.

Which means that it must be in culture, for what else is there? And now things get tricky, for culture is poorly understood. All too often we talk about culture as though it were a homogeneous essence that flows through nations like water between the banks of a river. For all practical purposes, the way this conception of culture accounts for European conquest differs little from chalking it up to superior genes. Continue reading

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 11.58.29

Workshop on Causality in the Language Sciences

The MPI for Mathematics in the Sciences in Leipzig is hosting a workshop on Causality in the Language Sciences on April 13 – 15, 2015.

There is a call for talks and posters here (deadline January 10th, 2015).

Invited speakers include Balthasar Bickel, Claire Bowern, Morten Christiansen, Dan Dediu, Michael Dunn, T. Florian Jaeger, Gerhard Jaeger, Anne Kandler and Richard Sproat.

From the conference website:

Although the tenet of “correlation does not imply causation” is still an important guiding principle in language research, a number of techniques developed in the last few decades opened new scenarios where testing causal relations becomes possible. Recent advances in information theory, time series analysis, phylogenetics, stochastic processes, dynamical systems, graphical models and Bayesian inference (among many others) set the stage for a new and exciting chapter in the field.

In parallel, in the last few decades an unprecedented amount of data became available on a large number of language-related phenomena. We have massive matrices of voxel activation in the neural circuits involved in speech production and comprehension, several years of annotated conversations between young children and their caregivers, hundreds of hours of phonetic and anatomical measurements and multiple environmental, genetic, and demographic variables related to populations of speakers for a large number of the world’s languages.

The aim of this workshop is to address these two issues: how do we properly test causal relations in (eventually noisy, sparse or incomplete) data, and how can we infer or test the mechanisms underlying them?

Following a half a day school on cutting-edge methods for causal analysis, world class scientists will present their research on topics ranging from language history, writing systems, speech processing, typology, lexical semantics, and others.

We invite contributions from researchers facing specific problems in determining causality in language systems and also from researchers offering perspectives from the methodological and theoretical point of view of causal inference.


Culture, its evolution and anything inbetween