Category Archives: Evolution

20150523-_IGP3782

Underwood and Sellers 2015: Beyond Whig History to Evolutionary Thinking

In the middle of their most interesting and challenging paper, How Quickly Do Literary Standards Change?, Underwood and Sellers have two paragraphs in which they raise the specter of Whig history and banish it. In the process they take some gratuitous swipes at Darwin and Lamarck and, by implication, at the idea that evolutionary thinking can be of benefit to literary history. I find these two paragraphs confused and confusing and so feel a need to comment on them.

Here’s what I’m doing: First, I present those two paragraphs in full, without interruption. That’s so you can get a sense of how their thought hangs together. Second, and the bulk of this post, I repeat those two paragraphs, in full, but this time with inserted commentary. Finally, I conclude with some remarks on evolutionary thinking in the study of culture.

Beware of Whig History

By this point in their text Underwood and Sellers have presented their evidence and their basic, albeit unexpected finding, that change in English-language poetry from 1820-1919 is continuous and in the direction of standards implicit in the choices made by 14 selective periodicals. They’ve even offered a generalization that they think may well extend beyond the period they’ve examined (p. 19): “Diachronic change across any given period tends to recapitulate the period’s synchronic axis of distinction.” While I may get around to discussing that hypothesis – which I like – in another post, we can set it aside for the moment.

I’m interested in two paragraphs they write in the course of showing how difficult it will be to tease a causal model out of their evidence. Those paragraphs are about Whig history. Here they are in full and without interruption (pp. 20-21):

Nor do we actually need a causal explanation of this phenomenon to see that it could have far-reaching consequences for literary history. The model we’ve presented here already suggests that some things we’ve tended to describe as rejections of tradition — modernist insistence on the concrete image, for instance — might better be explained as continuations of a long-term trend, guided by established standards. Of course, stable long-term trends also raise the specter of Whig history. If it’s true that diachronic trends parallel synchronic principles of judgment, then literary historians are confronted with material that has already, so to speak, made a teleological argument about itself. It could become tempting to draw Lamarckian inferences — as if Keats’s sensuous precision and disillusionment had been trying to become Swinburne all along.

We hope readers will remain wary of metaphors that present historically contingent standards as an impersonal process of adaptation. We don’t see any evidence yet for analogies to either Darwin or Lamarck, and we’ve insisted on the difficulty of tracing causality exactly to forestall those analogies. On the other hand, literary history is not a blank canvas that acquires historical self-consciousness only when retrospective observers touch a brush to it. It’s already full of historical observers. Writing and reviewing are evaluative activities already informed by ideas about “where we’ve been” and “where we ought to be headed.” If individual writers are already historical agents, then perhaps the system of interaction between writers, readers, and reviewers also tends to establish a resonance between (implicit, collective) evaluative opinions and directions of change. If that turns out to be true, we would still be free to reject a Whiggish interpretation, by refusing to endorse the standards that happen to have guided a trend. We may even be able to use predictive models to show how the actual path of literary history swerved away from a straight line. (It’s possible to extrapolate a model of nineteenth-century reception into the twentieth, for instance, and then describe how actual twentieth-century reception diverged from those predictions.) But we can’t strike a blow against Whig history simply by averting our eyes from continuity. The evidence we’re seeing here suggests that literary- historical trends do turn out to be relatively coherent over long timelines.

I agree with those last two sentences. It’s how Underwood and Sellers get there that has me a bit puzzled. Continue reading

20150514-_IGP3710

Underwood and Sellers 2015: Cosmic Background Radiation, an Aesthetic Realm, and the Direction of 19thC Poetic Diction

I’ve read and been thinking about Underwood and Sellers 2015, How Quickly Do Literary Standards Change?, both the blog post and the working paper. I’ve got a good many thoughts about their work and its relation to the superficially quite different work that Matt Jockers did on influence in chapter nine of Macroanalysis. I am, however, somewhat reluctant to embark on what might become another series of long-form posts, which I’m likely to need in order to sort out the intuitions and half-thoughts that are buzzing about in my mind.

What to do?

I figure that at the least I can just get it out there, quick and crude, without a lot of explanation. Think of it as a mark in the sand. More detailed explanations and explorations can come later.

19th Century Literary Culture has a Direction

My central thought is this: Both Jockers on influence and Underwood and Sellers on literary standards are looking at the same thing: long-term change in 19th Century literary culture has a direction – where that culture is understood to include readers, writers, reviewers, publishers and the interactions among them. Underwood and Sellers weren’t looking for such a direction, but have (perhaps somewhat reluctantly) come to realize that that’s what they’ve stumbled upon. Jockers seems a bit puzzled by the model of influence he built (pp. 167-168); but in any event, he doesn’t recognize it as a model of directional change. That interpretation of his model is my own.

When I say “direction” what do I mean?

That’s a very tricky question. In their full paper Underwood and Sellers devote two long paragraphs (pp. 20-21) to warding off the spectre of Whig history – the horror! the horror! In the Whiggish view, history has a direction, and that direction is a progression from primitive barbarism to the wonders of (current Western) civilization. When they talk of direction, THAT’s not what Underwood and Sellers mean.

But just what DO they mean? Here’s a figure from their work:

19C Direction

Notice that we’re depicting time along the X-axis (horizontal), from roughly 1820 at the left to 1920 on the right. Each dot in the graph, regardless of color (red, gray) or shape (triangle, circle), represents a volume of poetry and its position on the X-axis is volume’s publication date.

But what about the Y-axis (vertical)? That’s tricky, so let us set that aside for a moment. The thing to pay attention to is the overall relation of these volumes of poetry to that axis. Notice that as we move from left to right, the volumes seem to drift upward along the Y-axis, a drift that’s easily seen in the trend line. That upward drift is the direction that Underwood and Sellers are talking about. That upward drift was not at all what they were expecting.

Drifting in Space

But what does the upward drift represent? What’s it about? It represents movement in some space, and that space represents poetic diction or language. What we see along the Y-axis is a one-dimensional reduction or projection of a space that in fact has 3200 dimensions. Now, that’s not how Underwood and Sellers characterize the Y-axis. That’s my reinterpretation of that axis. I may or may not get around to writing a post in which I explain why that’s a reasonable interpretation. Continue reading

20150425-_IGP3163

On the Direction of Cultural Evolution: Lessons from the 19th Century Anglophone Novel

I’ve got another working paper available (title above):

Most of the material in this document was in an earlier working paper, Cultural Evolution: Literary History, Popular Music, Cultural Beings, Temporality, and the Mesh, which also has a great deal of material that isn’t in this paper. I’ve created this version so that I can focus on the issue of directionality and so I’ve dropped all the material that didn’t related to that issue. The last section, The Universe and Time, is new, as is this introduction.

* * * * *

Abstract: Matthew Jockers has analyzed a corpus of 19th century American and British novels (Macroanalysis 2013). Using standard techniques from natural language processing (NLP) Jockers created a 600-dimensional design space for a corpus of 3300 novels. There is no temporal information in that space, but when the novels are grouped according to close similarity that grouping generates a diagonal through the space that, upon inspection, is aligned with the direction of time. That implies that the process that created those novels is a directional one. Certain (kinds of) novels are necessarily earlier than others because that is how the causal mechanism (whatever they are) work. This result has implications for our understanding of cultural evolution in general and of the relationship between cultural evolution and biological evolution.

1. Introduction: Direction in Design Space, Telos? 2
2. The Direction of Cultural Evolution: The Child is Father or the Man 6
3. Nineteenth Century English-Language Novels 9
4. Macroanalysis: Styles 10
5. Macroanalysis: Themes 13
6. Influence and Large Scale Direction 15
7. The 19th Century Anglophone Novel 18
8. Why Did Jockers Get That Result? 20
9. What Remains to be Done? 21
10. Literary History, Temporal Orders, and Many Worlds 22
11. The Universe and Time 30

Introduction: Evolving Along a Direction in Design Space

In 2013 Matthew Jockers published Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History (2013). I devoted considerable blogging effort to it 2014, including most, but not all, of the material in this working paper. In Jockers’ final study he operationalized the idea of influence by calculating the similarity between each pair of texts in his corpus of roughly 3300 19th century English-language novels. The rationale is obvious enough: If novelist K was influenced by novelist F, then you would expect her novels to resemble those of F more than those of C, who K had never even read.

Jockers examined this data by creating a directed graph in which each text was represented by a node and each text (node) was connected only to those texts to which it had a high degree of resemblance. This is the resulting graph:

9dot3

It is, alas, almost impossible to read this graph as represented here. But Jockers, of course, had interactive access to it and to all the data and calculations behind it. What is particularly interesting, though, is that the graph lays out the novels more or less in chronological order, from left to right (notice the coloring of the graph), though there was no temporal information in the underlying data. Much of the material in the rest of this working paper deals with that most interesting result (in particular, sections 2, 6, 7, 8, and 10).

What I want to do here is, first of all, reframe my treatment of Jockers’ analysis in terms of something we might call a design space (a phrase I take from Dan Dennett, though I believe it is a common one in certain intellectual circles). Then I emphasize the broader metaphysical implications of Jockers’ analysis. Continue reading

20150329-_IGP2804

Has Dennett Undercut His Own Position on Words as Memes?

Early in 2013 Dan Dennett had an interview posted at John Brockman’s Edge site, The Normal Well-Tempered Mind. He opened by announcing that he’d made a mistake early in his career, that he opted a conception of the brain-as-computer that was too simple. He’s now trying to revamp his sense of what the computational brain is like. He said a bit about that in that interview, and a bit more in a presentation he gave later in the year: If brains are computers, what kind of computers are they? He made some remarks in that presentation that undermine his position on words as memes, though he doesn’t seem to realize that.

Here’s the abstract of that talk:

Our default concepts of what computers are (and hence what a brain would be if it was a computer) include many clearly inapplicable properties (e.g., powered by electricity, silicon-based, coded in binary), but other properties are no less optional, but not often recognized: Our familiar computers are composed of millions of basic elements that are almost perfectly alike – flipflops, registers, or-gates – and hyper-reliable. Control is accomplished by top-down signals that dictate what happens next. All subassemblies can be designed with the presupposition that they will get the energy they need when they need it (to each according to its need, from each according to its ability). None of these is plausibly mirrored in cerebral computers, which are composed of billions of elements (neurons, astrocytes, …) that are no-two-alike, engaged in semi-autonomous, potentially anarchic or even subversive projects, and hence controllable only by something akin to bargaining and political coalition-forming. A computer composed of such enterprising elements must have an architecture quite unlike the architectures that have so far been devised for AI, which are too orderly, too bureaucratic, too efficient.

While there’s nothing in that abstract that seems to undercut his position on memes, and he affirmed that position toward the end of the talk, we need to look at some of the details.

The Material Mind is a Living Thing

The details concern Terrence Deacon’s recent book, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2013). Rather than quote from Dennett’s remarks in the talk, I’ll quote from his review, “Aching Voids and Making Voids” (The Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol. 88, No. 4, December 2013, pp. 321-324). The following passage may be a bit cryptic, but short of reading the relevant chapters in Deacon’s book (which I’ve not done) and providing summaries, there’s not much I can do, though Dennett says a bit more both in his review and in the video.

Here’s the passage:

But if we are going to have a proper account of information that matters, which has a role to play in getting work done at every level, we cannot just discard the sender and receiver, two homunculi whose agreement on the code defines what is to count as information for some purpose. Something has to play the roles of these missing signal-choosers and signal-interpreters. Many—myself included—have insisted that computers themselves can serve as adequate stand-ins. Just as a vending machine can fill in for a sales clerk in many simplified environments, so a computer can fill in for a general purpose message-interpreter. But one of the shortcomings of this computational perspective, according to Deacon, is that by divorcing information processing from thermodynamics, we restrict our theories to basically parasitical systems, artifacts that depend on a user for their energy, for their structure maintenance, for their interpretation, and for their raison d’être.

In the case of words the signal choosers and interpreters are human beings and the problem is precisely that they have to agree on “what is to count as information for some purpose.” By talking of words as memes, and of memes as agents, Dennett sweeps that problem under the conceptual rug. Continue reading

20150329-_IGP2835

Glossary of Terms for Cultural Evolution

This is a short list of terms that I have come to treat as terms of art in thinking about cultural evolution. I have no idea how stable these terms and definition will prove to be. I am posting them to a page at New Savanna so that they can be readily referenced. Most of these terms are relatively recent, but my thinking about cultural evolution is broadly scattered aross many posts and working papers and a handfull of formal articles).

Coordinator: The genetic element in cultural processes. Coordinators are physical traits of objects or processes. The emic/etic distinction in linguistics is a useful reference point. Phonetics is the study of language sounds. Phonemics is the study of those sound features, phonemes, that are active in a language.

The notion of a coordinator is, in effect, a generalization of the phoneme. A coordinator is a physical trait that is psychologically active/salient in cultural processes.

If you want to think in terms of computation, observe that computers, both abstract and real, operate on data. Some bits of data are special in that they directly influence processing by supplying the values of operating parameters. Coordinators are data of that type. Coordinators supply the values to parameters of mental “software.”

Note that coordinators are not, in this sense, Dawkinsian replicators. Nor is it obvious to me that they form lineages. Finally, where the genetic material of biology exists everywhere in the same substrate – DNA molecules – coordinators can exist on any publically accessible substrate, with most of them being either visible or audible.

Coupler: A kind of coordinator through which the temporal activities of two or more nervous systems are synchronized. When soldiers march in step the rate and length of their strides couple their motions together into a coherent ensemble. The conventions of the blues, or of a particular raga, are more complex couplers. Conversational turn taking is a coupling function too.

Cover (paint): Objects, artifacts, actions and processes, that is, actors in the mesh, are said to be covered or to be painted with coordinators.

Cultural Being: A package or envelope of coordinators along with its trajectory in the minds of all who use it. As such, cultural beings are the object on which cultural selection operates. They are thus the phenotypic entities of culture. If participating in a cultural being was pleasant, then one would be motivated to do so again. Otherwise not.

The consequences of this definition are not obvious and will require careful consideration. I’ll give an example from music to give a sense of what I’ve got in mind. Continue reading

20150404-_IGP2940

Dennett on the De-Darwinizing of Culture

This is Dennett at his best on cultural evolution, which, given the peculiar nature of his gifts, is also Dennett at his worst on cultural evolution.

This recent video (talk given 19 March 2015) gathers many of Dennett’s recent themes and examples. The central thread is worthwhile – Dennett’s only idea on culture that’s caught my interest – but it is festooned with his typical assembly of brilliant obfuscating rhetorical ornamentation. One has the impression that he’s thought more and more deeply about biology than about culture. And so he’s using biology as a vehicle for understanding culture. That’s not unreasonable providing, of course, that you have a robust understanding of culture than is not piggybacking on biology. Dennett seems rather poor in that sort of understanding of culture.

Dennett’s rhetoric in this video would reward a close analysis, but not by me, not at this time. I’ve already done some of that in my working paper, Cultural Evolution, Memes, and the Trouble with Dan Dennett; see the appendix. “Turtles All the Way Down: How Dennett Thinks: An Essay In Cognitive Rhetoric”.

As for De-Darwinizing, the idea seems to be something like this: There are things whose design is the result of what we might call a “full Darwinian” process, what Donald Campbell characterizes as blind variation and selective retention (BVSR). A lot of language seems rather like that, but in the cultural rather than the biological sphere. But there are also words that have been deliberately coined and introduced into the language, such as “meme”. So, not “full Darwinian”. It’s De-Dawinized. Continue reading

20140928-IMGP0801

Notes Toward a Natural Philosophy of Cultural Evolution in the Music Domain

The title of my book about music, Beethoven’s Anvil, was suggest by my agent, Richard Curtis. I made up the subtitle (I think): Music in Mind and Culture. I am now thinking that the subtitle could have been the phrase I’m using as the title of this post: Notes Toward a Natural Philosophy of Cultural Evolution in the Music Domain. To be sure, I didn’t conceive of it as a study of the cultural evolution of music (“cultural evolution” has only five entries in the index), but in the context of my current efforts to figure out what cultural evolution is about, that’s a good way to think about Beethoven’s Anvil.

For it places the evolutionary aspects of musical phenomena in the context of substantial discussions of psychology and neuroscience, of interpersonal interaction and group processes, of origins and history, and of social context and function broadly considered. In particular, when I discuss the musical equivalents of the biological gene and phenotype, those discussions are embedded in discussions of neuroscience and perceptual, cognitive, and motor psychology that are well-thought out. I’m not just hunting for analogues to the biological notions and attaching terminological handles to them, which is, alas, what all too much discussion of micro-scale cultural evolution has been doing.

In the rest of this post I do two things: 1) justify the talk of natural philosophy, and 2) say a bit more about Beethoven’s Anvil.

Natural Philosophy

The term is of course an old one. But I have a specific contemporary source in mind, Massimo Pigliucci’s recent review of The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal In Natural Philosophy by Lee Smolin (a scientist by trade) and Roberto Unger (a philosopher). Smolin and Unger explain their use of the term and Pigliucci discusses that use, approvingly, quoting this passage from their book:

Today, natural philosophy has not disappeared completely. It lives under disguise. Scientists write popular books, for the general educated public, professing to make their ideas about the science that they practice accessible to non-scientists. They use these books to speculate about the larger meaning of their discoveries for our understanding of the universe and of our place within it. They also have another audience, however: their colleagues in science, addressed under the disguise of popularization. (p. 82)

While I’m a humanist by training, not a scientist, I suppose that I’ve become something of a natural philosopher in the sense of that paragraph and more or less for the same purpose.

Beethoven’s Anvil assumes no particular specialized intellectual background and so is broadly accessible both to “civilians” if you will, but also to a broad range of intellectual specialists in a variety of human sciences (the phrase, “human sciences” is European and encompasses the humanities as well as the social and behavioral sciences). The book also assumes, and I hope rewards, a fair level of intellectual sophistication and adventurousness.

Some Propositions from Beethoven’s Anvil

How then to present the contents of a moderately dense 280 page book (plus notes and references) in a compact form?

In the course of writing the book I composed a handful of short paragraphs to which I gave specific names. These key propositions are not distributed uniformly throughout the book – half of them are in chapters 2 and 3 (out of 11), which I’ve put online HERE – and so don’t represent the full scope of the book. But they indicate enough of it to show why the book would be valuable for students of cultural evolution.

To be embarrassingly blunt, if you want to see cultural evolution discussed in a rich interdisciplinary intellectual context, I know of nothing else quite like Beethoven’s Anvil. If you are thinking of cultural evolution as a vehicle for consilience in the human sciences, Beethoven’s Anvil makes a good complement to e.g. Alex Mesoudi, Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory can Explain Human Cultural and Synthesize the Social Sciences but is itself free of broad claims about intellectual unification of that sort I am making in this post. To be sure, music is not the whole of human culture, not by a long shot. But it is a significant chunk of human culture. I would like to think that a detailed albeit speculative account of it has something to offer those with no particular interest in music, but with some interest in human culture and its evolution. Continue reading

20140928-IMGP0770

Time after Time: Music and Memory in the Group

Or, messing around in one another’s mind space for fun and funk

This is about a simple, but profound, matter: that we cannot always and reliably access the contents of our own minds. In some circumstances we need external prompts. For reasons that I’ll have to explain in a later post, this absolutely sinks the superficial notions of “information transfer” from one mind to another that seem to be the norm in discussions of cultural evolution. Certain activities seem to be irreducibly GROUP activities.

John Miller Chernoff has an interesting observation in his book, African Rhythm and African Sensibility. It’s about playing one’s part in a percussion choir. Each of three, four, five, etc. players has a specific, simple, repetitive pattern to play. These individually simple patterns interlock to create a rich sonic wall of rhythm.

Chernoff notes that even highly skilled percussionists often have a difficult time playing a specific part without also hearing the other accustomed parts. This suggests that what the percussionist has learned is not just a motor pattern, but an auditory-motor gestalt that includes the whole rhythmic soundscape and not just one specific part of it. In such a gestalt the motor and auditory components would so intertwined that one cannot simple ‘extract’ the sound of one’s own phrase, along with the motor pattern, in order to execute in isolation. Rather, proper execution requires the entire gestalt and that includes the sounds executed by other players, the group sound, not the individual sounds.

It is thus not just that individual parts only sound correct in the context of other parts, but that the motor schema for executing one part is interwoven with the auditory schema for hearing the entire complex of parts. The drummer needs to hear the sound that the others are playing in order properly to activate his own motor schemas. The performance is thus inextricably a collective one.

In order to be as explicit as possible I want to suggest a very strained analogy. I am imagining a scene in a certain kind of action movie where it is time to launch the nuclear missiles. The process requires that two people insert keys into locks and turn them simultaneously. In the case of our African drummer, his auditory-motor schema for a rhythm is analogous to the launch of the nuclear missles. The drummer has the key to one lock, but that isn’t sufficient. Think of the auditory gestalt of the entire pattern as being the other key. Both keys are necessary. The drummer cannot access motor patterns in his own brain and body without help from others. Again: The drummer cannot access motor patterns in his own brain and body without help from others. Both keys must be inserted into their respective locks and then turned in order for the drummer to play his component of the rhythm. Without the full sound the drummer can certainly play something, but it will not be just exactly the appropriate part.

What is so very peculiar about my argument is that it contravenes a deep an unquestioned assumption of almost all of our thinking about the human mind. That assumption is that we are masters of our own mind and body. To be sure, there is, for example, the Freudian unconscious, which I do not here deny. But that does not seem germane in this situation. Our drummer’s inability to drum alone is not a matter of neurotic repression. It is quite different.


Now set that aside and let’s think about a bunch of protohumans gathered together and stomping away to a highly synchronized beat. Let us then imagine that they begin to superimpose other things on this beat, vocal calls, imitations of animal movements, whatever. They can do this as individuals, people can imitate or respond to one another’s gestures, and so forth. All that interests me is that whatever they do, it is done to the beat – and, Hebbian learning is taking place while they’re doing this. They do it for awhile and then stop and go about their business.

The next day they gather together and start stomping at the same tempo as they had done the previous day. Again, they start superimposing other stuff on the basic beat. I would imagine, however, that these superimpositions would be biased by the superimpositions from the previous day. Following a seminal insight by Christopher Longuette-Higgins* – who, incidentally, coined the phrase “cognitive science” – I am imagining that an initial period of isochronous (single period) beating would evoke the prior day’s superimpositions, thus serving as a memory key. Insert the key, turn the lock, open the door, and out comes yesterdays sonic adventures. I don’t imagine that it would evoke the prior day’s superimpositions so strongly that they would be repeated in exactly the same way. But there would be a bias, and the bias would get stronger over time so that the collective activity would converge on a set of routine moves and gestures. We need not imagine that it would ever converge so tightly that two performances would be exactly alike.

What most interests me about this story is that, as a story about memory, that memory is collectively distributed throughout members of the group – recall our African drummers. No one person is in possession of the whole memory pattern. Whatever each one is doing, they all hear and more or less see everything. But each only as one component of the motor pattern necessary to execute the whole pattern.

Now, it seems to me that as long as the folks have only a single isochronous beat to which they dance, they’re only going to have one performance they can execute. But if they have, say, three distinct tempos, then they can have three performances. But there’s something else they can do. Instead of using just an ischronous beat in the groove stream, they can develop differentiated patterns. If they have five different periodic patterns they use at a given tempo, then that gives them five different performances for that tempo. I note in passing that the anthropological record indicates that, among tribal peoples, different deities are associated with different basic rhythms.

As I believe that protomusic precedes the emergence of language, I am imagining that all this is taking place in groups of people who lack language. Once language enters the picture we have the possiblity of superimosing specific lyrics on the musical stream as a further way of differentiating performances.

* See the papers on memory, pp. 369-414, Christopher Longuette-Higgins, Mental Processes, Studies in Cognitive Science, MIT Press, 1987. These papers are among the earliest explorations of the idea that the brain uses holographic processing.

See also: Busy Bee Brain, Music, the Brain, and the Group, and The Sound of Many Hands Clapping: Group Intentionality.

20150329-_IGP2826

Memetics is Dead but What’s the Study of Cultural Evolution Otherwise About?

In the waning years of the previous century an online journal for serious work in cultural evolution was established: Journal of Memetics – Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission. The first issue came out in 1997 and the last in 2005. The journal closed for lack of interest; it wasn’t getting enough high-quality submissions.

In the last issue one of the editors, Bruce Edmonds, published a short swansong, The revealed poverty of the gene-meme analogy – why memetics per se has failed to produce substantive results. Those remarks remain valid today, a decade later. Edmonds made a careful distinction

between what might be called the “broad” and the “narrow” approaches to memetics. The former, broad, approach involves modelling communication or other social phenomena using approaches which are evolutionary in structure. Work within this approach is often done without appealing to “memes” or “memetics” since it can be easily accommodated within other frameworks. In other words, it does not require an analogy with genetics. The later, narrow, sense involves a closer analogy between genes and memes – not necessarily 100% direct, but sufficiently direct so as to justify the epithet of “memetics”. What has failed is the narrow approach – that of memetics. Work continues within the broad approach, albeit under other names, and in other journals.

Work on culture that is broadly cultural in nature continues today and, with the proliferation of “big data” approaches to research in the social sciences and humanities will likely grow in the future. This work requires that we count and classify things but, as Edmonds has said, it doesn’t require that we conceptualize them as cultural genes. This work can in fact be empirical in nature with no particular theoretical commitments to specific causal models.

Edmonds goes on the point out that much of memetics is mere redescription: “The ability to think of some phenomena in a particular way (or describe it using a certain framework), does not mean that the phenomena has those properties in any significant sense.” He further notes that

The study of memetics has been characterised by theoretical discussion of extreme abstraction and over ambition. Thus for example, before any evidence is available or detailed causal models constructed, attempts have been made to “explain” some immensely complex phenomena such as religion in general or consciousness.

Frankly, memetics, both in its pop versions and more serious academic versions, has the feel of an intellectual get-rich quick scheme. Just get the definition right, stick to it, and untold intellectual riches will be ours.

I note, however, that the sense of breathless elation and wonderful revelation seemed refreshingly absent from the recent workshop that Daniel Dennett hosted at the Santa Fe Institute. I mention this because Dennett, who is a serious academic, has in the past been an enthusiastic booster of memetics, as has Susan Blackmore, who was also at the workshop. Dennett, after all, is one of those who saw memetics as an explanation for religion.

So What? Getting from There to Here

But why go over this territory once again? Mostly because I’m trying to figure out what, if anything, to do next. That in turn requires getting a sense of where we are now. Continue reading

20150305-_IGP2754bw

A Note on Dennett’s Curious Comparison of Words and Apps

I continue to think about Dan Dennett’s inadequate account of words-as-memes in his paper, The Cultural Evolution of Words and Other Thinking Tools (PDF), Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology, Volume LXXIV, pp. 1-7, 2009. You find the same account in, for example, this video of a talk he gave in 2011: “A Human Mind as an Upside Down Brain”. I feel it warrants (yet another) long-form post. But I just don’t want to wrangle my way through that now. So I’m just going to offer a remark that goes a bit beyond what I’ve already said in my working paper, Cultural Evolution, Memes, and the Trouble with Dan Dennett, particularly in the post, Watch Out, Dan Dennett, Your Mind’s Changing Up on You!.

In that article Dennett asserts that “Words are not just like software viruses; they are software viruses, a fact that emerges quite uncontroversially once we adjust our understanding of computation and software.” He then uses Java applets to illustrate this comparison. I believe the overstates the similarity between words and apps or viruses to the point where the comparison has little value. The adjustment of understanding that Dennett calls for is too extreme.

In particular, and here is my new point, it simply vitiates the use of computation as an idea in understanding the modeling mental processes. Dennett has spent much of his career arguing that the mind is fundamentally a computational process. Words are thus computational objects and our use of them is a computational process.

Real computational processes are precise in their nature and the requirements of their physical implementation – and there is always a physical implementation for real computation. Java is based on a certain kind of computational objects and processes, a certain style of computing. But not all computing is like that. What if natural language computing isn’t? What happens to the analogy then? Continue reading