Bleg: Why CULTURAL Evolution?

That is to ask: Why has there been so much interest in cultural evolution in the last two decades or so? It seems to me that a lot of this thinking is just messing around, seeing if evolutionary ideas can somehow be attached to cultural phenomena in a coherent way. It seems more motivated by a desire to extend evolutionary thinking than by a desire to understand culture. And it’s not obvious to me that anyone has actually explained anything in this process, not so far.

In particular, has anyone used some theory of cultural evolution to explain some phenomenon of culture as well as, and ideally, better than competing non-evolutionary accounts? It’s not at all obvious to me that the answer to that question is “Yes.”

Note that I don’t exempt my own efforts from this criticism, which is why, on the whole, I’ve devoted more time to examining and analyzing cultural phenomenon than I have conceptualizing cultural evolution. In particular, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about popular music in America, and the interaction of African-derived and European-derived styles (see, e.g. this longish paper) and, more recently, I’ve been looking at graffiti, which I’ll address later on.


One caveat: A lot depends on just what one means by cultural evolution. If one is just using ‘evolution’ as a substitute for ‘change,’ then the question has little meaning. It seems to me that much of memetics is like this, with the added innovation of attributing agency to the memes, rather than to people.

And then there’s gene-cultural coevolution (GCCE). Those folks may well have succeeded in coming up with useful explanations, e.g. lactose tolerance. But it’s not at all clear to me that GCCE can work with the kinds of phenomena that most interest me and that do constitute a great deal of cultural activity. As I’ve explained here, it’s not clear to me that GCCE has anything to say, for example, about something like the growth of graffiti in the last 40 years.

Graffiti 1

By ‘graffiti’ I don’t mean any writing on walls, but the specific practice that originated on the East Coast of the USA in Philadelphia and New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The practice seems to have been pretty much confined to those cities by the early 1980s. But it had gone world-wide by the start of the current millennium. How did that happen? And why?

I don’t see that GCCE has any tools to answer that question. The spread is too fast for any biological changes to have been involved. Whatever’s going on has been going on purely within the cultural sphere. There are obvious things to point to concerning how it happened: 1) Press coverage of early graffiti made the activity more visible. 2) When graffiti became associated with hip-hop, it followed hip-hop in its spread through world pop culture. 3) Photography, books, and films (Style Wars, Wild Style) spread the word. 4) The emergence of the world-wide-web created a new means by which photos of graffiti could made instantly available around the world.

But none of that explains why the practice spread. What made graffiti so attractive to so many people in so many different places around the world? And why has it been, on the whole, so conservative, so that the themes and motifs that originated in the East Coast of the USA in the late 1970s and early 1980s are showing up in Japan in then 2000s? On one level that question answers itself. If the designs changed rapidly, so that putting any old design up on the walls counted as graffiti, then the activity would loose its identity, its genealogical connection with those first writers in New York City and Philadelphia. It would just be painting on walls, illegally. Big deal.

The genealogical connection IS important. Why? Note that, while stylistic conservatism maintains that identity, we also have to allow for the identity of individual writers within the tradtion. The tradition has to have enough internal variety to allow for that.

There are ways of talking about those questions, and you’ll find some of them in the literature, but the question I’m asking is this: Can a strong theory of cultural evolution do a better job of accounting for this spread than any other theory? If so, what would that theory look like?


One thought that keeps hitting me is this: While we tend to think of evolution, whether biological or cultural, as being about change, it is also about stability. In fact, it seems to me that stability is the first requirement. Change is just a side-effect of the mechanisms that maintain stability. The ability to inherent a learned behavioral from one generation to the next is, almost by definition, about stability. The behavior has to be stable.

So, what kind of model do we need to account for that? I’m inclined to think that we’re looking for a modestly detailed model that is within range of neural mechanisms as we currently understand them. Imitation is often invoked here and, sure, imitation is one process. But how does imitation work, at the level of the nervous system, sensory organs, and motor system?

Babbling and Imitation

You hear someone vocalize. Fine. You want to vocalize the same way. How do you derive motor signals from the auditory record of what you’ve heard? We pretty much know that we’re not born with an innate auditory-to-vocal transform generator. Rather, infants spend a great deal of time babbling in order to gain control of vocalization in a way that allows them to match adult vocalizations.

What’s the babbling infant doing? Perhaps it is generating random variations in its motor signals so as to produce various sounds. When it hears a sound that (more or less) matches a sound it picked up from some other humans, the infant is pleased, and attempts to repeat it. And so it has, in effect, selected a particular motor routine based, not on the motor impulses themselves, but on the subsequent sound.

That seems to me the right kind of story, though I haven’t got the foggiest idea if it will hold up upon more careful development. The point is that we’re now looking at the inner mechanisms of the process of imitation rather than simply taking imitative capacity for granted – as the memeticists do. And the first thing is simply to get more or less reliable imitation going. We can worry about change later, but we’ll be looking for it in the workings of this mechanism under as yet unspecified conditions.

And so it goes for other modalities. You see someone perform some action, such as thread a needle. How do you derive motor signals from the visual record of what you’ve seen? You see a design that someone’s painted. How do you derive motor signals from the visual account of what you seen? These things don’t seem at all obvious to me. But it seems to me that there has to be some motor fussing and fidgeting on a more or less random basis.

Graffiti 2

What, if anything, would such a model tell us about graffiti? I’m not sure. I’m not inclined, for example, think that spray-can technique is simple and obvious. I’ve seen noticeable differences in can control on the many walls I’ve photographed. But it’s not obvious to me that you need to apprentice under someone to get good can control. It helps to get tips on paints and spray-tips, but the tricky stuff you’re just going to have to figure out for yourself regardless of your access to other writers.

No, if we’re going to look for an account of the conservatism in design motifs, we’re going to have to look elsewhere, to the dynamics of the graffiti community. If Japanese writers use New York styles and techniques, that’s a matter of the social and psychological dynamics of graffiti culture, not can technique.

But that, I suspect, is where the deep action lies. That’s where we’re going to have to go if we want to gain substantial understanding of cultural evolution. Notice, however, that we’re dealing with the transmission of cultural practices across cultural boundaries. Is that where we get interesting change through a mechanism that is inherently conservative (imitation)?

Enough. I’m babbling.

Questions, questions.

Cross posted at New Savanna.

2 thoughts on “Bleg: Why CULTURAL Evolution?”

  1. The Japan example makes me wonder if the graffiti means the same thing in Japan that it does in the U.S. For example, it is stylish to wear clothing and carry objects that have English writing on them in Japan, even when the content is irrelevant or absurd. In the U.S., wearing language embossed clothing is about communicating that you’re a punk or that “your with stupid.” In Japan, it is about communicating that you are part of the cosmopolitan world culture and don’t have your head stuck in the sand of tradition.

    Similarly, in the U.S. graffiti had a strong territorial element to it, and also was a rebellion against neglected impersonal spaces. Does it mean that in Japan, or not?

  2. Most graffiti in Japan is, legally speaking, vandalism, as it is in the US. But that’s the case with graffiti everywhere. And everywhere there are stylistic traits that can be traced back to American graffiti.

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