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 “Cultural Beings Evolving in the Mesh”

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

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:

Drag2_demo

(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 “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”