Category Archives: Evolution


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


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


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


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.


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


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

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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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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