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

Stone Age Minds (with Dr Kenny Smith and Dr Suilin Lavelle)

As part of the free online course, Philosophy and the Sciences, Dr Kenny Smith and Dr Suilin Lavelle have prepared a three-part video series on Evolutionary Psychology and Cultural Evolution called Stone Age Minds:

Clocking in at under 40 mins for the all three parts, the series provides a good primer on the basic principles underpinning modern evolutionary theory and how this relates to our minds, the environment and culture.

Languages adapt to their contextual niche (Winters, Kirby & Smith, 2014)

ResearchBlogging.orgLast week saw the publication of my latest paper, with co-authors Simon Kirby and Kenny Smith, looking at how languages adapt to their contextual niche (link to the OA version and here’s the original). Here’s the abstract:

It is well established that context plays a fundamental role in how we learn and use language. Here we explore how context links short-term language use with the long-term emergence of different types of language systems. Using an iterated learning model of cultural transmission, the current study experimentally investigates the role of the communicative situation in which an utterance is produced (situational context) and how it influences the emergence of three types of linguistic systems: underspecified languages (where only some dimensions of meaning are encoded linguistically), holistic systems (lacking systematic structure) and systematic languages (consisting of compound signals encoding both category-level and individuating dimensions of meaning). To do this, we set up a discrimination task in a communication game and manipulated whether the feature dimension shape was relevant or not in discriminating between two referents. The experimental languages gradually evolved to encode information relevant to the task of achieving communicative success, given the situational context in which they are learned and used, resulting in the emergence of different linguistic systems. These results suggest language systems adapt to their contextual niche over iterated learning.

Background

Context clearly plays an important role in how we learn and use language. Without this contextual scaffolding, and our inferential capacities, the use of language in everyday interactions would appear highly ambiguous. And even though ambiguous language can and does cause problems (as hilariously highlighted by the ‘What’s a chicken?’ case), it is also considered to be communicatively functional (see Piantadosi et al., 2012).  In short: context helps in reducing uncertainty about the intended meaning.

If context is used as a resource in reducing uncertainty, then it might also alter our conception of how an optimal communication system should be structured (e.g., Zipf, 1949). With this in mind, we wanted to investigate the following questions: (i) To what extent does the context influence the encoding of features in the linguistic system? (ii) How does the effect of context work its way into the structure of language?  To get at these questions we narrowed our focus to look at the situational context: the immediate communicative environment in which an utterance is situated and how it influences the distinctions a speaker needs to convey.

Of particular relevance here is Silvey, Kirby & Smith (2014): they show that the incorporation of a situational context can change the extent to which an evolving language encodes certain features of referents. Using a pseudo-communicative task, where participants needed to discriminate between a target and a distractor meaning, the authors were able to manipulate which meaning dimensions (shape, colour, and motion) were relevant and irrelevant in conveying the intended meaning. Over successive generations of participants, the languages converged on underspecified systems that encoded the feature dimension which was relevant for discriminating between meanings.

The current work extends upon these findings in two ways: (a) we added a communication element to the setup, and (b) we further explored the types of situational context we could manipulate.  Our general hypothesis, then, is that these artificial languages should adapt to the situational context in predictable ways based on whether or not a distinction is relevant in communication.

Continue reading “Languages adapt to their contextual niche (Winters, Kirby & Smith, 2014)”

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.

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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.

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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.

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 “Terminology for Cultural Evolution: Coordinators and Phantasms”

The Theory of Cultural Ranks at 3QD

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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 “The Theory of Cultural Ranks at 3QD”