Dan Dennett on Words in Cultural Evolution

I’ve been reading around in Dan Dennett’s papers and found this one, The Cultural Evolution of Words and Other Thinking Tools (Cold Spring Harbor Symp Quant Biol, Vol. LXXIV, August, 2009). To be sure, I disagree with his use of the meme concept. To be sure, his use is pretty standard and Dennett, in the standard way, claims more for it than can be justified by the current state of our knowledge and theorizing, but this paper is excellent despite that problem.

As the title indicates, Dennett focuses his attention on words and does so in a way that usefully brings their mystery, if you will, though mystery is rather low on Dennett’s intellectual agenda.

What then are words? Do they even exist? This might seem to be a fatuous philosophical question, composed as it is of the very items it asks about, but it is, in fact, exactly as serious and contentious as the claim that genes do or do not really exist. Yes, of course, there are sequences of nucleotides on DNA molecules, but does the concept of a gene actually succeed (in any of its rival formulations) in finding a perspicuous rendering of the important patterns amidst all that molecular complexity? If so, there are genes; if not, then genes will in due course get thrown on the trash heap of science along with phlogiston and the ether, no matter how robust and obviously existing they seem to us today.

For what it’s worth, I have it on good authority that there are languages which lack a word corresponding to our concept of word, though they generally have a word roughly corresponding to our concept of utterance (you can find this observation in, e.g., Alfred Lord, The Singer of Tales). That doesn’t bear directly on the point Dennett is making in those words as lacking a word for this is that really existing phenomenon is common enough, but it does indicate that words do have a rather diffuse or abstract character that makes it difficult to understand what they are and how they operate.

A bit later Dennett continues:

A promise or a libel or a poem is identified by the words that compose it, not by the trails of ink or bursts of sound that secure the occurrence of those words. Words themselves have physical “tokens” (composed of uttered or heard phonemes, seen in trails of ink or glass tubes of excited neon or grooves carved in marble), and so do genes, but these tokens are a relatively superficial part or aspect of these remarkable information structures, capable of being replicated, combined into elaborate semantic complexes known as sentences, and capable in turn of provoking cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses of tremendous power and subtly.

I particularly like his phrase in that first sentence, “the trails of ink or bursts of sound that secure the occurrence of those words.” That secure the occurence, that’s nice. “Anchor” might also work, that anchor the occurence of those words in an utterance or a written text, as though the ink or sound were a tether holding the airy nothings of meaning and syntax to the ground.

Still later in the argument, now that he’s gotten us to think more deeply about words, he makes a point I’ve been making for years:

The “syntactocentric” (Jackendoff 2002) perspective on language that has dominated theoretical linguistics since the pioneering efforts of Chomsky (see, e.g., Chomsky 1957, 1980) tends to obscure the fact that words have an identity that is to a considerable extent language-independent. Like lateral or horizontal gene transfer, lateral word transfer is a ubiquitous feature, and it complicates the efforts of those who try to identify languages and place them unequivocally in glossogenetic trees. English and French, for instance, share no ancestor later than proto-Indo-European (see Fig. 2) but have many words in common that have migrated back and forth since their divergence (cul-de-sac and baton, le rosbif and le football, among thousands of others). Just as gene lineages prove to be more susceptible to analysis than organism lineages, especially when we try to extend the tree of life image back before the origin of eukaryotes (W.F. Doolittle, this volume), so word lineages are more tractable and nonarbitrary than language lineages.

Historical linguists arrange languages into trees, mostly though by no means entirely, on the basis of sounds. This obscures the fact words move rather freely horizontally from one branch of a tree to another and pretty much neglects the well-attested phenomenon of creolization in which, in a handful of generations, a new language can emerge from quite distinct and otherwise unrelated languages.

Nor is such horizontal transmission of hybridization confined to languages. Consider what happened in the Americas when musical traditions from West Africa met with musical traditions from Europe: ragtime, the blues, jazz, rock and roll, salsa, hip hop, tango, and so forth. The same historical movements crossed Catholicism with West African animism to yield voodoo, candomble, santaria and other syncretic belief systems.

More broadly, Dennett points out that thinking of culture as an evolutionary phenomenon makes as more alive to accident and happenstance than what he calls “the traditional wisdom”

according to which culture is composed of various valuable practices and artifacts, inherited treasures, in effect, that are recognized as such (for the most part) and transmitted deliberately (and for good reasons) from generation to generation. Cultural innovations that are intelligently designed are esteemed, protected, tinkered with, and passed on to the next generation, whereas accidental or inadvertent combinations of either action or material are discarded or ignored as junk. This is basically an economic model, where possessions, both individual and communal, are preserved, repaired, and handed down. This familiar perspective on culture is for the most part uncritically adopted by cultural historians, anthropologists, and other theorists, and it meshes nicely, it seems, with evolutionary biology. Cultural innovations, like genetic innovations, have to “pay for themselves” to survive, by providing a fitness boost to their possessors. A new way of catching fish, whether genetically transmitted as an innate instinct or cultural transmitted as a learned practice, will go to fixation only if it is better than the old ways of catching fish.

This is the common view, though I’m not so sure as Dennett that it is uncritically adopted by cultural historians and others, not these days.

Human history is made by people who specific intentions. Some of those intentions are realized, but many are not. The behaviors, ideas, and artifacts that one generation chooses to adopt from an earlier generation to not necessarily reflect the desires and intentions of that earlier generation.
reflect inadvertance and happenstance along with deliberate intention. Nor do we need to confine our view to a time scale measured in generations. In the domain of popular culture, for example, the songs, movies, books, games, etc. that survive from one year to the text cannot predicted or controlled, not even by corporate conglomerates spending 10s and 100s of millions to do just that, control the flow of cultural goods–Arthur Devany’s Hollywood Economics, for example, documents that story in considerable detail for America’s feature-film industry in the second half of 20th Century. But this intermixture of intention and accident is hardly confined to popular culture. It is, as Dennett asserts, ubiquitous, and can be seen in the plethora of “small” elements making up culture, the words, riffs, motifs, gestures, etc. and in the “large,” books and schools of thought, paintings and cathedrals, sporting events and factories.

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I’ve written quite a bit about cultural evolution. In this particular context, however, I recommend my working paper on the Xanadu meme, which uses the web to trace one word, “Xanadu”, through 200 years of recent history.

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