Category Archives: Evolution

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Some Quick Thoughts on Cultural Evolution

Here are some thoughts I’ve been having on cultural evolution. All of them need fuller exposition, but I don’t have time for that now.

1. Cultural Evolution, so What?

I’ve got a fairly sophisticated narrative account of some varieties of popular music in 20th century America. The account centers on the interaction between African- and European-American populations and musical forms. When I was doing that work–in the late 1990s–I kept thinking that this is the kind of phenomenon that begs for an account in terms of cultural evolution. But I didn’t once use the term “memes” (my term of choice at the time) in the paper nor did I talk of cultural evolution (except in passing at the very end). It’s not at all obvious to me how any existing account of cultural evolution would lead to a deeper understanding of that history. It would just be an exercise in terminology mongering.

This is a very big deal for me, and I don’t yet know what to do about it.

On African American music and so forth, see Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues.

2. Information and Apple Pie

On information, sure, at the highest level of generality and abstraction cultural evolution involves information. But that doesn’t get us much in itself. Until we understand how that information is embodied in the brain and in various media and can measure it, the idea isn’t a very useful or deep one. It’s one of mere terminology, verbal packaging. But see comment seven, below.

3. Information, DNA, the Brain and the Rest

In biology we know that genetic information is embodied in DNA and we know a great deal about how that works. And we are rapidly increasing our ability to manipulate DNA.

We don’t know how information is encoded in the nervous system. But that’s not so much my point here. It belongs in #2 above.

My point here is that, in long-held view, the genetic information for culture isn’t in the brain. It’s in publicly accessible traits of physical objects and processes. That means that, whereas the genetic information of life forms is encoded in the same medium, DNA, that is not the case for cultural genetic information. The genetic information for culture has various embodiments.

From the standpoint of theoretical elegance/parsimony, this is not so good. But the fact is, no matter what kind of model you choose, if you want to deal with information, you are going to have to deal with multiple physical embodiments and the transformations between them.

4. Mutual Information for Culture

We’re interested in the ‘conservation’ of information in the social group. That requires shared access to common reference points. The meaning of those reference points is, in effect, negotiated through interaction. Those agreed reference points are the ‘genes’ of the cultural process.

Compare this with DNA replication. The double strand divides and then each half constructs the necessary complement. The result is two identical DNA molecules where there had been one.

Shared access to a common public reference plays the role in cultural informatics that DNA replication plays in biological informatics.

On mutual information in culture, see my Open Letter to Steven Pinker.

5. The mind as computer program

Programs have variables and variables require values. Where do mental programs get values for their variables? Some of them are generated internally.

And some of them come from the external world. Among those we have the cultural genetic material. They function as values for variables in mental programs.

See this post for further specification of this thought: Memes as Data: Targets, Couplers, and Designators. That is collected in my working paper, Cultural Evolution, Memes, and the Trouble with Dan Dennett. Continue reading

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Tone and Humidity: FAQ

Everett, Blasi & Roberts (2015) review literature on how inhaling dry air affects phonation, suggesting that lexical tone is harder to produce and perceive in dry environments.  This leads to a prediction that languages should adapt to this pressure, so that lexical tone should not be found in dry climates, and the paper presents statistical evidence in favour of this prediction.

Below are some frequently asked questions about the study (see also the previous blog post explaining the statistics).

Continue reading

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Cultural Evolution: Literary History, Popular Music, Cultural Beings, Temporality, and the Mesh

Another working paper (title above):

Abstract and introduction below.

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Abstract: Culture is implemented in a material and biological substrate but has a distinct ontology and its phenomena belong to a distinct order of temporality. The evolution of culture proceeds by random variation among coordinators, the cultural parallel to biological genes, and selective retention of phantasms, the cultural parallel to biological phenotypes. Taken together phantasms and a package or envelope of coordinators constitute a cultural being. In at least the case of 19th century American and British novels, cultural evolution has a direction, as demonstrated by the analytical work of Matthew Jockers (Macroanalysis 2013). While we can think of cultural evolution as a phenomenon that happens in history, it is at the same time a force that influences human life. It is thus a force IN history. This is illustrated by considering the history of the European novel from the 19th century and into the 20th century and in the evolution of popular musical styles in 20th century American music, in which interaction between African American and European American populations has been important. Ultimately, the evolution of culture can be thought of as the evolution of mind.

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0. Introduction: The Evolution of Culture is the Evolution of Mind

One of the themes that has been prominent in Western culture is that we humans have a “higher” nature and a “lower” nature. That lower nature is something we share with animals, even plants–I’m thinking here of Aristotle’s account of the soul. That higher nature is unique to us and we have tended to identify it with reason and rationality. We are rational and can reason, animals are not and cannot.

It was one thing to hold such a belief when we could believe that our nature was distinct from that of animals. Darwin made that belief much more difficult to entertain. If we are descended from apes, and so are but animals, then how can we have this higher nature? And yet, by any reasonable account, we are quite different from all the other animals.

For one thing, we have language. Yes, other animals communicate, and, with much painstaking effort, we’ve managed to teach some sign language to chimpanzees, but still, no other species has yet managed anything quite like human language. And the same goes for culture. Yes, other animals have culture in the sense that they pass behavioral traits from one individual to another through social learning rather than through reproduction. But the trait repertoire of animal culture is quite limited in comparison to that of human culture. Nor has any animal species managed to remake their environment in the way we have, for better or worse, not beavers and their dams, nor termites and their often astounding mounds.

In the process of working through the posts I’ve gathered into the this working paper, the original writing and the subsequent reviewing and revising, I’ve come to believe that it is culture, not reason, that is our higher nature. Reason is a product of culture, not the reverse.

That conclusion is not a direct result of the post’s I’ve gathered here. You won’t find it as a conclusion in any of them, nor will I provide more of an argument in this introduction than I’ve already done. It’s a way of framing my current view of culture and human nature. It’s a higher nature. It rules us even as it is utterly dependent upon us.

Conceptualizing Cultural Evolution

This working paper marks the fruition of a line of investigation I began in 1996 with the publication of “Culture as an Evolutionary Arena” (Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 19(4), 321-362). That was not my first work on cultural evolution; but my earlier work, going back to graduate school in the 1970s, was about stages conceived in terms of cognitive systems (called ranks). That work was descriptive in character, aimed at identifying the types of things possible with a given cognitive apparatus. The 1996 paper was my first attempt at characterizing the process of cultural evolution in evolutionary terms.

That paper originated in conversations I’d had with David Hays, who died in 1995, in which he suggested that the genetic material for cultural evolution was in the external world. Why? Because it is public, open for everyone to see. If the genetic material was out there in the world, I reasoned, then the selective environment must be social, something like a collective mind. That made sense because, after all, isn’t that how books and movies and records survive? Many are published, but only a few are taken up and kept in active circulation over the years.

That’s not much of a conception, but I stuck with it. It’s taken almost two decades for me to refine those initial intuitions into a technical conception that feels good. That’s what I managed to achieve in the process of writing the posts I’ve collected and edited into this working paper.

All of which is to say that I’ve been working on two levels. On the one hand I’ve been making specific proposals about specific phenomena. But those specific proposals are in service of a more abstract project: crafting a framework in which to conceptualize cultural evolution. By way of comparison, consider chapter eleven of Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. That’s where he proposes the concept of memes in thinking about cultural evolution: “Memes: the new replicators” (pp. 189-201). He gives a few examples, but mostly he’s focused on the concept of the meme itself. The examples are there to support the concept. None of them are developed very extensively or in detail; he says just enough to give some sense of what he has in mind.

THAT’s what I’m doing, though proportions and quantities are different. It is the concept of cultural evolution that most interests me: what’s it like, what kind of entities does it involve? The example from Matthew Jockers’ Macroanalysis in the first two posts is just that, an example. In subsequent posts I introduce further examples, but they are just that, examples. Continue reading


Issues in Cultural Evolution 2.2: ‘Cultural Genes’ are Out There in the World

I think the thing to do at this point is post a version of my own view of cultural evolution, but one that skips the terminology that I’ve recently adopted. In this version, which more or less centers on my 1996 article, Culture as an Evolutionary Arena, I adopt the term “meme” as the name of the genetic entities of culture. Though I’ve recently dropped the term, I’ll use it in this post.

Gavagai and Conduits

First, though, I want to think a bit about the problem of evolving a communication system.

Some years ago I was engaged in an email conversation with Valerius Geist, a naturalist, who pointed out that biological communication systems are very conservative because they have to evolve two sets of matched traits. They’ve got to evolve a system to emit signals – vocal calls, gestures, postures – and one that understands those signals. These two systems have to match. If they don’t, the communication will fail.

Culture has the same problem, which we can illustrate with a classic thought experiment in the philosophy of language. This is from Willard van Orman Quine, Word and Object (1960). He asks us to consider the problem of radical translation, “translation of the language of a hitherto untouched people” (Quine 1960, 25). Consider a “linguist who, unaided by an interpreter, is out to penetrate and translate a language hitherto unknown. All the objective data he has to go on are the forces that he sees impinging on the native’s surfaces and the observable behavior, focal and otherwise, of the native.” That is to say, he has no direct access to what is going on inside the native’s head, but utterances are available to him. Quine then asks us to imagine that “a rabbit scurries by, the native says ‘Gavagai’, and the linguist notes down the sentence ‘Rabbit’ (of ‘Lo, a rabbit’) as tentative translation, subject to testing in further cases” (p. 25).

Quine goes on to argue that, in thus proposing that initial translation, the linguist is making illegitimate assumptions. He begins his argument by nothing that the native might, in fact, mean “white” or “animal” and later on offers more exotic possibilities, the sort of things only a philosopher would think of–one of the possibilities was “mere stages, or brief temporal segments, of rabbits” (p. 46). Quine also notes that whatever gestures and utterances the native offers as the linguist attempts to clarify and verify will be subject to the same problem. Quine’s argument is thorough and convincing.

This situation, of course, is rather different from that of ordinary speech between people who share a common language. In the common situation both parties would know the meaning of “Gavagai.” Yet, however effective it is, ordinary speech sometimes fails to secure understanding between people and, when such understanding is achieved, that achievement has required back-and-forth speech. The mutual understanding is achieved through a process of negotiation. As William Croft reiterates in chapter 4 of Explaining Language Change, we cannot get inside one another’s heads and so must negotiate meanings in conversation.

That is to say, communication through language is not a matter of sending information through a pipeline. It does not happen according to what Michael Reddy (1993 in Ortony, Metaphor and Thought) has called the conduit metaphor. Reddy’s article is based on 53 example sentences. Here are the first three (p. 166, italics in the original):

1. Try to get your thoughts across better
2. None of Mary’s feelings came through to me with any clarity
3. You still haven’t given me any idea of what you mean

Reddy’s argument is that many of our statements about communication seemed to be based on the notion of sending something (the thought, idea, feeling) through a conduit, hence he calls it the conduit metaphor. He knows that communication doesn’t work that way, but that’s not his central issue. His central concern is to detail the way we use the conduit metaphor to structure our thinking about communication.

Of course, language is not the only medium of human communication and culture. One can craft a wheel that’s just like an existing wheel without having to know what the wheelwright was thinking. As long as your wheel is acceptably like existing wheels, it is OK. How you made it is secondary. Even there, of course, you can observe a master wheelwright at work and imitate his process. One can learn music through imitation as well.

That is, as long as there is a publicly visible physical model, of an object or a process, one can learn how to make the object or perform the process through imitation, hence the emphasis on imitation in the memetics literature. Imitation fails, however, when it comes to the meanings of words. You can learn to imitate sounds, but not meanings. The learning of meaning is different, and it is something that’s been all but ignored in the orthodox memetic literature. That literature assumes that we “transfer information” like sending oil or water through a pipeline. It uses a reified concept of information to dissolve the problem, rather than solve it. It is not well-informed about cognitive science and linguistics and so cannot be considered intellectually serious. Continue reading


Rhythm Changes: Notes on Some Genetic Elements in Musical Culture

That’s the title of another working paper. You may download it from (HERE) or from Social Science Research Network (HERE).

Here’s the abstract:

An entity known as Rhythm Changes is analyzed as a genetic entity in musical culture. Because it functions to coordinate the activities of musicians who are playing together it can be called a coordinator. It is a complex coordinator in that it is organized on five or six levels, each of which contains coordinators that function in other musical contexts. Musicians do not acquire (that is, learn) such a coordinator through “transfer” from one brain to another. Rather, they learn to construct it from publically available performance materials. This particular entity is derived from George Gershwin’s tune “I Got Rhythm” and is the harmonic trajectory of that tune. But it only attained independent musical status after about two decades of performances. Being a coordinator is thus not intrinsic to the entity itself, but is rather a function of how it comes to be used in the musical system. Recent argument suggests that biological genes are like this as well.

Here’s a key sequence of paragraphs:

In the case of music, let me suggest how different musicians understand Rhythm Changes is irrelevant as long as they can stay together while performing together. Charlie Parker’s neural patterns for Rhythm Changes may have been different from Dizzy Gillespie’s or Miles Davis’s or Thelonious Monk’s, but that doesn’t matter as long as they’re together on the bandstand. That is something they can judge perfectly well in performance, as can listeners. The question of how accurately patterns are “transferred” from one brain to another is mistaken.

I’ll go so far as to say that even when a neophyte is learning from a master, there is no transfer of patterns from the master’s brain to the neophyte’s. Rather, as they play together, the neophyte responds to what the master is doing and figures out, in his own (neural) terms, how to match or complement, as the case may be, what the master is playing. The student will make mistakes, the master will make comments, and they’ll try again.

There is no transfer of patterns in the sense that computers can transfer information from one machine to another. We have learning from public models, and we have interplay, negotiation, and mutual adjustment. How individual musicians achieve these results, what goes on in their brains, is a secondary matter. Whatever it is, it isn’t a matter or either sending or receiving information.

The introduction finishes out this post. Continue reading


Issues in Cultural Evolution 1: Cultural Stability in the Mesh

This is the first of a series of three posts – I hope it’s only three – in which I explore the relationships between my views on cultural evolution and the views of more orthodox thinkers. The number of thinkers is in fact quite large, but I don’t intended to be exhaustive, just indicative. For the most part I’ll be working with reference to two sources:

1.) Alex Mesoudi, Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture & Synthesize the Social Sciences, Chicago: 2011.

2.) An online report of a workshop that Daniel Dennett convened at the Santa Fe Institute that included the following evolutionary thinkers: Susan Blackmore, Robert Boyd, Nicolas Claidière, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Joseph Henrich, Olivier Morin, Peter Richerson, Dan Sperber, Kim Sterelny. Note that while most of these thinkers have special interests in cultural evolution, two of them are more generally interested in evolution, Godfrey-Smith and Sterelny.

In this first post I’m concerned with a general framework in which to think about culture and its evolution. In the second post I’ll examine the micro-scale mechanisms of cultural evolution, the cultural analogues to the biological gene and phenotype. In the third post I’ll look at the large-scale dynamics of cultural evolution. And, who knows, maybe there will be a fourth post to put things together. We’ll see.

Stability in the Mesh

Let me start out with a standard distinction, between culture and society. A society is a group of people and culture is the attitudes, ideas, customs, and practices through which they interact. Thus I will not be using the term “culture” to refer to a society, a common usage.

In the simplest societies people lived in relatively small bands of hunter-gatherers and had relatively few material possessions. Whatever they possessed they had to carry with them from one place to another. Everyone knew everyone else and they were, as well, acquainted with those living in neighboring bands. Those people were, after all, their friends and relatives.

When I talk of the mesh I mean those people and their relationships among one another, among and with their material goods, and with the features and creatures of their environment. That is where human culture arose, in that mesh. Culture provides a means of enriching those relationships, both by introducing new entities into the mesh – whether handcrafted objects, new activities, or various abstract entities, and so forth – and by establishing new kinds of relationships among entities in the mesh.

It is only to the extent that these entities and relationships are stable that the group can be said to have a coherent culture. Dawkins makes that point with respect to biology in the second chapter of The Selfish Gene (p. 12):

Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ is really a special case of a more general law of survival of the stable. The universe is populated by stable things. A stable thing is a collection of atoms that is permanent enough or common enough to deserve a name. It may be a unique collection of atoms, such as the Matterhorn, that lasts long enough to be worth naming. Or it may be a class of entities, such as rain drops, that come into existence at a sufficiently high rate to deserve a collective name, even if any one of them is short-lived. The things that we see around us, and which we think of as needing explanation–rocks, galaxies, ocean waves–are all, to a greater or lesser extent, stable patterns of atoms. Soap bubbles tend to be spherical because this is a stable configuration for thin films filled with gas. In a spacecraft, water is spherical globules, but on earth, where there is gravity, the stable surface for standing water is flat and horizontal. Salt crystals tend to be cubes because this is a stable way of packing sodium and chloride atoms together. In the sun the simplest atoms of all, hydrogen atoms, are fusing to form helium atoms, because in the conditions that prevail there the helium configuration is more stable. Other even more complex atoms are being formed in stars all over the universe, and were formed in the ‘big bang’ which, according to prevailing theory, initiated the universe. This is originally where the elements on our world came from.

Dawkins then goes on to argue that stability in the biological world depends on molecules he will call replicators (p. 15). At first these replicators were free-floaters in the primeval biomolecular soup. In time they became (p. 20) “genes, and we are their survival machines.” I understand that there is some controversy within biology as to whether or not Dawkinsian replicators are in fact the source of stability in the biosphere (see Peter Godfrey-Smith, The Replicator in Retrospect, Biology and Philosophy 15 (2000): 403-423), but that is secondary to my current purpose.

What’s important is Dawkins’s plea for stability as the necessary precursor to meaningful change. That is as important in culture as in biology. Without stability there is no chance of accumulation cultural innovations.

With this in mind, let’s go back in time. Here’s a passage from my review of Steven Mithen’s book on music (“Synch, Song, and Society”, Human Nature Review 5, 2005, pp. 66-85):

Obviously we have no record of these utterances, but the archeological record does have indications of cultural conservatism. The repertoire of stone tools was both limited and unchanged between 1.8 and 0.25 million years ago; Mithen gives particular emphasis to the constant form of hand-axes (164). Mithen suggests that, because their finely wrought form exceeds the practical demands of butchery, wood-working, and cutting plants, these hand-axes may have been fitness indicators in the sort of sexual selection regime Geoffrey Miller has advocated.

Beyond this, I note that Ralph Holloway (1969, 1981) long ago suggested that strongly conserved hand-axe form was an indicator of social norms. Those forms could not be conserved from one generation to the next unless there was a deliberate intention to do so. One has to note the significant features of an existing axe and discipline one’s knapping motions to produce that result. That is considerably more exacting than simply producing an axe with a sharp edge and appropriate heft. The motivation behind such exacting form, then, is not practical. Nor can it be merely aesthetic, which would allow for considerable individual variation. That leaves us with a desire to conform to social norms. Given the importance of such norms, that may in itself be a sufficient motivation for their form, to serve as a visible token of social solidarity. In any event, Holloway’s observation does not contradict Miller’s, and now Mithen’s hypothesis. Norms are norms, regardless of their specific purpose and norms that serve multiple ends are likely to be particularly strong.

My point is a simple one: the oldest evidence we have of specifically human cultural norms is of something that can be seen and therefor copied, those stone axes. Of course, we know little of the lifeways that those creatures lived. The oldest, of course, were not human. Since we cannot observe them we do not know exactly how they made those axes, but archaeologists have experimented and so we know something of the likely techniques.

Whatever those techniques were, exactly, those no particular mystery about how they were passed on from one person to another as the crafting would have been fully observable. As they saying goes, hominid, hominid do. What we don’t know is just what neuro-motor advances made this activity possible, nor why they did it. What we see in the fossil record, however, is stability, norms. That’s what we need to get started. Continue reading


Cultural Beings Evolving in the Mesh

This one wrestled me hard. In it I use new terminology and concepts–coordinators, phantasms, cultural beings–as though I know what they mean and am comfortable with them. But that’s not quite the case. It’s only recently that I’ve invented them. It’s one them to use terms in a document where you define them. It’s another thing to use them in an extended exposition. That’s where they come to define themselves. So this post, a long one, is something of a shake-down cruise. Sure, I’d like to have things all worked out nice and neat. But there’s no way to do that except to put the terms out there and see how they do. That’s what I’m doing.

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In this post I further explore the notion of a cultural being and I introduce a metaphor for culture, that of a hyperfluid (cf. Tim Morton’s concept of a hyperobject). A cultural being, if you recall, consists of an envelope or package or coordinators along with all the actions that have given it life. It is thus a rather strange notion, which is why I want to explore it.

And I want to explore it in tandem with another strange notion, that of culture as something we might call a hyperfluid, something that has multiple levels of viscosity and thus changes at different rates. I’ve long thought of the brain, as a functioning entity, as hyperfluid in this sense. At the deepest “thickest” layer we have the physical structure of the brain itself. At the most superficial “thinnest” layer we have the flickering of neural impulses from one millisecond to the next. But that flickering can lead to changes in synaptic structure and, over time, those changes can “rewire” the brain at a fairly “deep” level, so-called cortical plasticity.

So it is with culture, which is, after all, a collective product of the brains of all those individuals in a social group over the life of the group. The thickest cultural layers settle to the bottom. These are the features that endure over decades and centuries, if not millennia. It’s at culture’s thin surface that we see ordinary everyday behavior. Here is where people read books, and write them, where they listen to music, and make it. In this process each individual will participate in many cultural beings and will, in turn, be shaped by them. And some cultural beings will attract only a few individuals while others will attract more. Some of those cultural beings will outlive any and all of the individuals that have participated in them.

What we have, then, are collections of individual human beings, biological beings, on the one hand. Each of them participates in and is (partially) formed by many cultural beings. On the other hand, we a bunch of collection of cultural beings, each of which has attracted participation by at least some individual humans while some will attract participation by many humans. Some of the latter are able to attract participation over decades and even longer, so that they outlive any of the humans that have participated in them. It is the interaction of these two sets of beings that give us this hyperfluid culture that lives in the social mesh.

Notice that I talk of cultural beings as living. They are and they are not. Coordinators–targets, couplers, and designators–are not alive. The humans who read the books and listen to the music, of course, are alive and it is that vivacity, their phantasms, which I am, in effect, allocating to the books and musical performers they witness. Cultural beings as I have defined them do change. While they are utterly dependent on humans, they also have a degree of autonomy from any individual humans. They are neither alive nor inanimate in a strict sense. So I will refer to them as being alive, a provocation that seems warranted as a device to stimulate thought.

Being in the Mesh

What do I mean by the mesh? For the most part I’m using that term as more or less equivalent to what Latour has in mind when he talks of networks of social actors, where the actors are not just humans, but everything encompassed within society, the humans, animals, plants, and material objects, both natural and man-made. All of it is gathered into the causal nexus of the social: the mesh.

But let’s start with the humans, biological beings. Make no mistake, they’re the ones that hold the mesh together, and culture is the glue that they deploy. So far as we know, the most basic case is that of foraging bands of hunter-gatherers. That’s how humankind began on the African savannas. Let’s think about them for just a bit to refresh ourselves.

Such bands typically have a dozen to thirty or forty members, all of whom know one another, some better than others, but all of them face-to-face relations. A number of bands will occupy a given territory, and people in any given band will have friends and relatives in other bands. So maybe we have two hundred or a thousand or more people all speaking more or less the same language and having more or less the same culture.

Those people and their relations are the core of the mesh. But we must also include the environment in which they live and the artifacts they’ve manufactured. They too are part of the mesh. They mediate relations among the humans.

Those non-humans are ‘covered’ with coordinators through which the humans assimilate them into their cultural system. Humans often place markings in the environment, such as slash marks on trees, or paintings on rock faces of cliffs and in caves. Or they may place stones to mark boundaries, and so forth. But environmental features often enter into myths and stories without themselves being physically altered and so become assimilated to culture. All of these involve coordinators in the technical sense I’ve been using.

Those myths and stories are what I have come to call cultural beings, as you recall from the introduction, a term I use to encompass not only the string of linguistic signifiers used to convey the stories, that is, the envelopes of coordinators, but the various individual mental acts (the phantasms) giving them life. Some or many of those environmental features may also function as cultural beings if they figure centrally enough in mythology and in the group’s way of life, that is, if appropriate phantasms are consistently associated with them. But I don’t want to get into figuring out just what qualifies as a cultural being. The question is an important one, but I’m going to leave it for later. For my immediate purposes we can regard the term as something of a placeholder whose extension will be in a specified later more specialized discourse. We can make do with some rough and ready observations. Continue reading


What is Culture that it can Evolve? The Mesh, from Individuals to the Group

Things are complicated, and there’s a sense in which I’ve jumped the gun in some of my earlier posts in this current series, which I’ve provisionally titled “Cultural Evolution: Literary History, Popular Music, Ontology, and Temporality.” So I want to do a little catch-up in this post before a final – I hope – post in which I return to the idea that cultural evolution is driven by the need to assuage anxiety, an idea I have from David Hays and which I introduced into this series in the post, Culture as a Force in History: the United States of the Blues.

What I would like to do in this post is to be more explicit about how we get from a collection of individuals to a culturally coherent group, from individual minds to a “collective” mind in the meshwork of individuals held together by a common culture. From there I will give a more detailed account of the coordinators in the cultural evolutionary process, for it is the coordinators that make it possible. Then we’ll be ready for an explicit account of pleasure and anxiety. I’ll conclude with some remarks on the need for cultural stability before we can have cultural evolution.

Note: Most of the rest of this post is edited from materials I’ve published previously, either in Beethoven’s Anvil (chapters 3 and 4) or my working paper, Cultural Evolution, Memes, and the Trouble with Dan Dennett.

Coupling, Music and the Mesh

How then do we go about constructing a physically coherent account of a collective mind? What I did in the second and third chapters of Beethoven’s Anvil was to argue that when a group of people is engaged in making music together, and/or dancing together, that they are functioning as a collective mind. In this collective mind most of the signal pathways are inside brains and bodies and transmit signals electro-chemically. But some of the signal pathways exist between individuals, where the signals are transmitted as mechanical waves through the air. The nature of these two sets of signals – their speed, their content – must be such that the overall ensemble functions smoothly.

Note that when people are doing this, each gives up most of his or her individual freedom for the duration of the activity. If they are playing completely notated music, such as musicians in a symphony orchestra, then they agree to play what is written in the score. They also agree to follow the indications of the conductor and to coordinate their actions with their fellow musicians. If they are improvising jazz musicians, they aren’t committed to a specific score, though a given arrangement is likely to have some specified melodic lines and back up “riffs”, but they agree to the general conventions to be followed in each piece and they agree to be responsive to one another in the group.

This may seem obvious and self-evident, but it is this self-evident cooperation that allows us to treat the group as embodying a single coherent “mind.” There is only one source of “free” agency, and that is the group. Music is such a subtle business that, despite all this cooperation, the individuals still have quite a lot to keep them busy.

That’s the easy part of the argument. But I did something else, something more abstract and more subtle. I called on the neurobiology of Walter Freeman. Freeman uses the mathematics of complexity theory to study neural activity. That mathematics was originally developed by nineteenth century physicists to study thermodynamics. Continue reading

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Evolve an App Name

Edit: The results are out!

I’m working with the Language in Interaction project to create an App game about linguistic diversity.  It’s a game where you listen to several recordings of people talking and have to match the ones who are speaking the same language.  It’s quite a lot like the Great Language Game, but we’re using many lesser-known languages from the DOBES archive.

But first – we need a name.  Help us create one with the power of Iterated Learning!

Click to take part in our 1-minute experiment to evolve an app name.

We’ll throw some app names at you, you try to remember them, then we throw your names at someone else.

Here’s a screenshot of the App in development:


(P.S.: I’ve done this kind of thing before to evolve a band name)


Cultural Beings, the Ontology of Culture, and a Return to Books and Blues

I haven’t forgotten my on-going series of posts on the direction of cultural evolution; you know, the one that started with Matt Jockers’ Macroanalysis? But I’ve been busy with other things. Here’s another post to add to that pile. I’m not yet burned out on culture, but lordy lordy I’m gettin’ there. But there’s a few more ideas I’ve got to get out there before I can hang up these particular shoes. If only for awhile.

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What do I mean by cultural beings? To be honest, I’m not quite sure. Let’s start by being conservative about it – though just what “conservative” means amid this kind of intellectual craziness is a curious question – let’s say that novels, like those Jockers considered, are cultural beings. So are musical performances, like those driving American culture; they’re also cultural beings. Cultural beings are things like THAT, but note that THAT ranges over culture in general and not merely so-called high culture. After all, most of Jockers’ novels and most of those musical performances are not high cultural phenomena. Many are distinctly low and vulgar, while others are merely middlebrow.

I am using “cultural being” as a term of art. It designates not merely the cultural artifact, whether it is a long narrative imprinted in a codex, a musical composition inscribed on score paper, or even a performance merely floating in the air and then gone forever, except for memories of it. Those physical things are just packages or envelopes, other terms of art I’m hereby proposing. And those packages or envelopes “contain” coordinators, the cultural analog to biological genes.

When we read texts or listen to (even participate in) performances, the coordinator packages elicit phantasms in the mind/brain. It is the phantasm that gives pleasure, and so leads to a desire for repetition, or not, in which case the package that elicited it is forgotten. Those phantasms belong to cultural beings as well. If you will, the package of coordinators is the body of a cultural being while the phantasm is its soul.

The Ontology of Culture

When I talk about the ontology of culture, then, I mean these entities and the relations between them: cultural beings, packages or envelopes, coordinators, and phantasms. The relations between them are complex and subtle and I don’t pretend to grasp them, though I’ve been writing and thinking about the at least since my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, if not longer.

The overall relationship among them, however, is given by the evolutionary dynamic of blind variation and selective retention:

The evolution of cultural beings proceeds by blind variation among coordinators and selective retention of phantasms.

But what does it mean to retain a phantasm? Phantasms are (collective) mental events. They come and they go. How can they be retained?

They can’t. But they can be remembered and if the memory is compelling, one can re-create the phantasm. How do you do that? You re-experience the package of coordinators that gave rise to the phantasm in the first place. And so we have this modified formulation:

The evolution of cultural beings proceeds by blind variation among coordinators and selective retention of packages or envelopes.

Will that work? Will it do the job? I don’t know. I just thought it up.

Let us remember, however, that phantasms are the cultural analog to the biological phenotype. And what is retained in biological evolution is not the individual phenotypes. They all die and the matter of which they were composed rots. What’s retained is the phenotypic scheme, the Bauplan that emerges from a developmental process regulated by the genotype.

With that in mind, let’s move on. Continue reading