Cultural Evolution, So What?

I’d like this to be the last post in this series except, of course, for an introduction to the whole series, from Dan Dennett on Words in Cultural Evolution on through to this one. We’ll see.

I suppose the title question is a rhetorical one. Of course culture evolves and of course we need to a proper evolutionary theory in order to understand culture. But the existing body of work is not at all definitive.

In the first section of this post I have some remarks on genes and memes, observing that both concepts emerged as place-holders in a larger ongoing argument. The second section jumps right in with the assertion, building on Dawkins, that the study of evolution must start by accounting for stability before it can address evolutionary change. The third and final section takes a quick look at change by looking at two different verstions of “Tutti Frutti”. There’s an appendix with some bonus videos.

From Genes to Memes

I’ve been reading the introduction to Lenny Moss, What Genes Can’t Do (MIT 2003), on Google Books:

The concept of the gene, unlike that of other biochemical entities, did not emerge from the logos of chemistry. Unlike proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates, the gene did not come on the scene as a physical entity at all but rather as a kind of placeholder in biological theory… The concept of the gene began not with the intention to put a name on some piece of matter but rather with the intention of referring to an unknown something, whatever that something might turn out to be, which was deemed to be responsible for the transmission of biological form between generations.

Things changed, of course, in 1953 when Watson and Crick established the DNA molecule and the physical locus of genes.

The concept of the meme originated in a similar way. While the general notion of cultural evolution goes back to the 19th century, it was at best of secondary, if not tertiary, importance in the 1970s when Dawkins write The Selfish Gene. And while others had offered similar notions (e.g. Cloake), for all practical purposes, Dawkins invented the concept behind his neologism, though it didn’t began catching on until several years after he’d published it.

The concept still functions pretty much as a placeholder. People who use it, of course, offer examples of memes and arguments for those examples. But there is no widespread agreement on a substantial definition, one that has been employed in research programs that have increased our understanding of human culture.

While there has been no more vigorous proponent of memes and memetics than Dan Dennett, he still seems to regard the notion as somewhat provisional. That’s certainly the drift of this comment in his recent interview at The Edge:

My next major project will be trying to take another hard look at cultural evolution and look at the different views of it and see if I can achieve a sort of bird’s eye view and establish what role, if any, is there for memes or something like memes and what are the other forces that are operating.

He’s looking for a role for memes or “something like memes”—that’s pretty tentative.

And rightly so.

My own view, the one I’ve been pursuing in these notes, is that these memes, the physical things playing a certain role in cultural evolution, have already been more or less identified by previous thinkers, but have not been recognized as playing a genetic role in cultural processes. Memes are properties of physical objects, events, and processes, namely those properties that are culturally active. There is an existing name for such properties, etics, which is a generalization from phonetics (as opposed to phonemics). The physical substrate for memes is thus quite diverse, which others have recognized without, however, quite being able to focus on memes as properties of things, rather than the things themselves.

If I am correct in this, then there is no Big Revelation to Come comparable to the discovery of DNA. We’ve been looking at those genetic entities, those memes, all along, but have been unable to conceptualize them as such.

If we’ve already been examining these memes, then what’s the point of thinking about cultural evolution? THAT’s the point, cultural evolution. Evolutionary theory provides a framework in which to think about cultural processes, a framework that has heretofore been neglected. The fact is that the emic/etic distinction has not fared well in anthropology and I suspect that that is, in part, because it hasn’t been articulated within a theoretical framework that made vital use of it. It was just a loose distinction between the

intrinsic cultural distinctions that are meaningful to the members of a given society (e.g., whether the natural world is distinguished from the supernatural realm in the worldview of the culture) in the same way that phonemic analysis focuses on the intrinsic phonological distinctions that are meaningful to speakers of a given language (e.g., whether the phones /b/ and /v/ make a contrast in meaning in a minimal pair in the language)


extrinsic concepts and categories that have meaning for scientific observers (e.g., per capita energy consumption) in the same way that phonetic analysis relies upon the extrinsic concepts and categories that are meaningful to linguistic analysts (e.g., dental fricatives).

Well, yes. But that’s all that it is, a distinction that, in practice, has not proved terribly useful.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether or not my recasting of the distinction will prove useful, either in those terms or, more recently, as special kinds of input data (targets, couplers, and designators) for mental machinery. The past decade or so has seen a variety of empirical work (based on historical data, on laboratory experiments, or computer simulation) that is indifferent to just how one theorizes the objects under scrutiny. Can we do deeper work by theorizing them in the way I have been suggesting?

Stability as the Foundation for Evolutionary Change

By the time I had finished up with Beethoven’s Anvil I had concluded that, before we can think about evolutionary change, we must think about stability. Change only makes sense, is only possible, against a stable foundation.

I had no sense that this was a particularly novel idea, but I had no explicit source for it ideas of others. It now seems possible, even likely, that I got it from Richard Dawkins, who dwells on in the second chapter of The Selfish Gene. I was reminded of this in J. T. Burman’s article, The misunderstanding of memes (Perspectives on Science 2012, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 75-104).

Here’s the second paragraph of Dawkins’s second chapter (p. 12):

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

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

What’s important is Dawkins’s plea for stability as the necessary precursor to meaningful change. That is as important in culture as in biology. In the case of culture, I’m not inclined to invest replicators with primary responsibility for stability. The fact is, I’m not sure the notion of a replicator is terribly useful in studying culture. It may apply to memes functioning as targets–think of those hand axes that show up 1.5 million years ago and remain unchanged for 100s of thousands of years. Even there its use seems forced as it isn’t the objects that are memes, but only certain of their properties. The usage seems even more forced in the case of couplers and designators. At this time I’m inclined to see stability as inherent in the entire process rather than in some one role-player in the process, but I’m not prepared to argue the issue at the moment.

We should recognize, however, that it is only in the last several hundred years the culture seems to change on the scale of decades or so. Prior to that, change was slower.

So, our first job is to account for cultural stability from one generation to the next. Given that, how do we account for change? The post on the history of the meme concept (How Do We Account for the History of the Meme Concept?) suggests one general mechanism: the movement of cultural artifacts and practices between culturally different populations. In that particular case the populations differed in their general intellectual sophistication and in their knowledge of biology. When memes–in that case, strings of printed designators–moved from one popular to another, the meaning of the meme concept changed.

With that in mind, let’s take a brief look at one of the driving dynamics in 20th Century American popular music: the interaction between European and African American populations.

Tutti Frutti Memetic Movement

Late in 1955 Richard Wayne Penniman, aka Little Richard, started climbing the charts with “Tutti Frutti.” America had never heard anything like it. Well, not quite. White American maybe, but Black America often heard sounds like that in church. Here’s a live performance by Little Richard in 1956:

Here’s the original 1955 recording:

Here’s a 1995 version (63 years old, and still lookin’ pretty), with a bit more energy:

Soon after Little Richard hit the charts, Pat Boone did a cover version (as was the custom of the times) that passed Little Richard’s, rising to 12th over LR’s 17th:

Something is gone, most obviously in those falsetto yells, which have all but disappeared in Boone’s version.

This juxtaposition, and many like it in 20th Century America music, raises a number of questions. To begin with: Why didn’t Boone sing with the energy and passion that Richard did? It is possible that he simply didn’t want to. But even a cursory examination of American music makes it clear that, even in Pat Boone wanted to sing like that, he simply couldn’t. It wasn’t in him.

Why not? Culture is the obvious answer. Richard Penniman was raised in a culture where such expressive behavior was encouraged, particularly in the church. Pat Boone was raised in a different culture, one where that particular mode of expressive behavior was absent. For reasons that are not at all clear, that kind of expressive behavior cannot readily be learned as an adult. And so Boone’s performance is not as vigorous as Little Richard’s.

We know that Little Richard’s audience was both Black and White, while Boone’s audience was mostly White. What happens when those White people become a few years older and have children? Will they give their children greater expressive latitude so that the expressive vigor in Little Richard’s performance is more congenial to them, so that they are more comfortable and capable of acting that way themselves?

At this point the discussion threatens to become very complicated very fast. My general point is simple: Pay attention to what happens when cultural practices pass from one population to another one. My specific suggestion is that is what has been driving American music for well over the last century (and no doubt back through the 19th and 18th centuries). I’ve written a long article in which I review this interaction from the blues in the beginning of the 20th Century through to the emergence of hip hop in the last quarter of the Century: Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues.

The burden of that article–which avoids talking about memes–is that this interaction between Black and White music has had deep effects in the population, that it has indeed been a driving force in history.

And THAT’s why we need to get this right. If cultural change is, as I suspect, a major driving force in historical change, and not simply a reflex of other forces (economic forces being the major proposal on the conceptual table), we need to understand how the process operates. We’re not going to do with a theory organized around transcendental preformationist homuncular memes.

Bonus Listening: Tutti Frutti

Elvis Presley, 1956:

Queen, 1986:

Gunshot, 2003:

The Beatlmen, 2010:

  • http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/ Bill Benzon

    Here’s an example of cultural evolution before our very eyes: English words with Chinese Characteristics.

    Chinese netizens are making up new English words based on very Chinese cultural phenomenon, making the foreign language a unique part of China’s online popular culture. These words are widely used across different social media in China, and sometimes even adopted by mainstream mass media.

    Chinese pronunciation + English spell:


    • adj. Wow! Brilliant! Awesome! Cool! To the point!
    • Developed from Chinese word 给力 (gei li,), the No. 1 buzz word used to comment something.
    • Antonyms. ungeilivable (不给力, bu gei li )

    And so forth.