Issues in Cultural Evolution 1: Cultural Stability in the Mesh

This is the first of a series of three posts – I hope it’s only three – in which I explore the relationships between my views on cultural evolution and the views of more orthodox thinkers. The number of thinkers is in fact quite large, but I don’t intended to be exhaustive, just indicative. For the most part I’ll be working with reference to two sources:

1.) Alex Mesoudi, Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture & Synthesize the Social Sciences, Chicago: 2011.

2.) An online report of a workshop that Daniel Dennett convened at the Santa Fe Institute that included the following evolutionary thinkers: Susan Blackmore, Robert Boyd, Nicolas Claidière, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Joseph Henrich, Olivier Morin, Peter Richerson, Dan Sperber, Kim Sterelny. Note that while most of these thinkers have special interests in cultural evolution, two of them are more generally interested in evolution, Godfrey-Smith and Sterelny.

In this first post I’m concerned with a general framework in which to think about culture and its evolution. In the second post I’ll examine the micro-scale mechanisms of cultural evolution, the cultural analogues to the biological gene and phenotype. In the third post I’ll look at the large-scale dynamics of cultural evolution. And, who knows, maybe there will be a fourth post to put things together. We’ll see.

Stability in the Mesh

Let me start out with a standard distinction, between culture and society. A society is a group of people and culture is the attitudes, ideas, customs, and practices through which they interact. Thus I will not be using the term “culture” to refer to a society, a common usage.

In the simplest societies people lived in relatively small bands of hunter-gatherers and had relatively few material possessions. Whatever they possessed they had to carry with them from one place to another. Everyone knew everyone else and they were, as well, acquainted with those living in neighboring bands. Those people were, after all, their friends and relatives.

When I talk of the mesh I mean those people and their relationships among one another, among and with their material goods, and with the features and creatures of their environment. That is where human culture arose, in that mesh. Culture provides a means of enriching those relationships, both by introducing new entities into the mesh – whether handcrafted objects, new activities, or various abstract entities, and so forth – and by establishing new kinds of relationships among entities in the mesh.

It is only to the extent that these entities and relationships are stable that the group can be said to have a coherent culture. Dawkins makes that point with respect to biology in the second chapter of The Selfish Gene (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. Without stability there is no chance of accumulation cultural innovations.

With this in mind, let’s go back in time. Here’s a passage from my review of Steven Mithen’s book on music (“Synch, Song, and Society”, Human Nature Review 5, 2005, pp. 66-85):

Obviously we have no record of these utterances, but the archeological record does have indications of cultural conservatism. The repertoire of stone tools was both limited and unchanged between 1.8 and 0.25 million years ago; Mithen gives particular emphasis to the constant form of hand-axes (164). Mithen suggests that, because their finely wrought form exceeds the practical demands of butchery, wood-working, and cutting plants, these hand-axes may have been fitness indicators in the sort of sexual selection regime Geoffrey Miller has advocated.

Beyond this, I note that Ralph Holloway (1969, 1981) long ago suggested that strongly conserved hand-axe form was an indicator of social norms. Those forms could not be conserved from one generation to the next unless there was a deliberate intention to do so. One has to note the significant features of an existing axe and discipline one’s knapping motions to produce that result. That is considerably more exacting than simply producing an axe with a sharp edge and appropriate heft. The motivation behind such exacting form, then, is not practical. Nor can it be merely aesthetic, which would allow for considerable individual variation. That leaves us with a desire to conform to social norms. Given the importance of such norms, that may in itself be a sufficient motivation for their form, to serve as a visible token of social solidarity. In any event, Holloway’s observation does not contradict Miller’s, and now Mithen’s hypothesis. Norms are norms, regardless of their specific purpose and norms that serve multiple ends are likely to be particularly strong.

My point is a simple one: the oldest evidence we have of specifically human cultural norms is of something that can be seen and therefor copied, those stone axes. Of course, we know little of the lifeways that those creatures lived. The oldest, of course, were not human. Since we cannot observe them we do not know exactly how they made those axes, but archaeologists have experimented and so we know something of the likely techniques.

Whatever those techniques were, exactly, those no particular mystery about how they were passed on from one person to another as the crafting would have been fully observable. As they saying goes, hominid, hominid do. What we don’t know is just what neuro-motor advances made this activity possible, nor why they did it. What we see in the fossil record, however, is stability, norms. That’s what we need to get started.

Culture as “Information”

Let us now turn to Mesoudi’s Cultural Evolution. Here is how he defines culture (p. 2-3):

…culture is information that is acquired from other individuals via social transmission mechanisms such as imitation, teaching, or language. “Information” here is intended as a broad term to refer to what social scientists and lay people might call knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, norms, preferences, and skills, all of which may be acquired from other individuals via social transmission and consequently shared across social groups. Whereas genetic information is stored in sequences of DNA base pairs, culturally transmitted information is stored in the brain as patterns of neural connections (albeit in a way that neuroscientists are only beginning to understand), as well as in extrasomatic codes such as written language, binary computer code, and musical notation. And whereas genetic information is expressed as proteins and ultimately physical structures such as limbs and eyes, culturally acquired information is expressed in the form of behavior, speech, artifacts, and institutions.

For reasons I’ll explain more fully in my next post, I have problems with the notion of information has it is used in these discussions. Fortunately, however, it is easy to eliminate it from Mesoudi’s definition by substituting a phrase from his second sentence. This yields the following definition:

Culture is knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, norms, preferences, and skills that are acquired from other individuals via social transmission mechanisms such as imitation, teaching, or language.

This is basically an ostensive definition; it points out those things in the world that constitute culture. I have no problem with this definition.

It’s the rest of that paragraph that gives me pause, for I see no way to eliminate the concept of information from it. It’s not that I don’t think information is an important and useful idea – I do, but that it’s a tricky one, one that allows us to gloss over issues we should think about. In the first place, information is both an informal concept and a technical one, with the Shannon-Weaver conceptualization being the best-known technical account. All too often the informal concept is employed in the guise of technical usage, an ambiguity fostered by the ubiquity of computer technology.

What do computers do? Why, they process information. In that usage “information” is generally doing double duty, functioning both informally and technically. Whatever computers do, they operate on information in the technical sense, bits and bytes of information. Word process, for example, is ipso facto information processing in the technical sense. But it is not idea processing, it is not working with the information, in the informal sense, that is encoded in the alphanumerical characters that the computer works with.

When Mesoudi employs the concept of information he is, I fear, playing on this ambiguity in a way that is quite common. When he talks of “knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, norms, preferences, and skills” as being information, he is using information in the informal sense. Since we do not know how to give technical accounts of those phenomena, the informal sense is the only one available.

When he talks of “genetic information [being] stored in sequences of DNA base pairs” he has entered a technical domain, and with justification. For we have a fairly sophisticated, though by no means complete, understanding of how DNA functions. When Mesoudi then continues that sentence to talk of “culturally transmitted information” he is invoking a technical understanding that we do not have. He admits this when he says that “neuroscientists are only beginning to understand” how “information is stored in the brain as patterns of neural connections.”

The damage has been done. We are now talking about cultural information as though we had a technical understanding. In this context Mesoudi’s usage is no more than a promissory note.

Fortunately, little of what he says in the book depends on having a technical understanding of cultural information, so his use of the standard equivocation does no harm. Where it does harm is in theorizing about the microscopic mechanisms of culture, which I’ll be discussing in my next post. I bring the matter up now, though, both to get the issue out in the open, but also as a cautionary measure for myself, to ensure that I don’t lapse into that ambiguity in the next section of this post, which is about the relationship between microscopic and macroscopic phenomena of cultural evolution.

Micro-Macro and Implementation

As Mesoudi’s subtitle indicates, he sees evolutionary thinking as a way of uniting the social sciences, which encompass disciplines that operate on large-scale human phenomena and small scale. But those two families do not play well together (p. 52):

This unwillingness to reduce cultural evolution down to individual behavior persists to this day. While macrolevel disciplines such as cultural anthropology, historical linguistics, history, and macrosociology have documented patterns of cultural change, such as the rise and fall of the Roman empire or the diversification of Indo-European languages, and patterns of cross-cultural variation in, for example, supernatural and religious beliefs, marriage systems, or agricultural methods, they have generally failed to explain these patterns of change and variation in terms of the behavior and psychological processes of the people who are responsible for those patterns. This reluctance to reduce cultural phenomena to individual psychological processes may have its roots in the mind-body dualism inherent in many of the nonscientific approaches to culture such as social constructivism that were discussed in chapter 1. Yet reductionism is a key tool of the scientific method and is responsible for huge advances in the physical and natural sciences…The second problem is the opposite o the first: micro-level disciplines such as psychology have failed to acknowledge the extent to which macrolevel cultural processes shape individual behavior.

Yes. And I propose the mesh, as outlined above, as the key conceptualization to unit the two perspectives.

The mesh is a Latourian actor-network. It contains individual human beings, but it also contains a great variety of non-humans, including local and distal environments and manufactured implements. Culture, and the human mind, is implemented in the mesh, perhaps in a way roughly analogous to the way software is implemented in hardware.

One crucial difference, of course, is that software is created by designers who understand the properties of the implementing hardware. Such designers have a ‘transcendental’ relationship to both the hardware and the software. They exist outside and above them and can examine both. There are no such transcendental designers for human culture. To the extent that human culture is designed, it is designed by agents who exist in the mesh and who interact with other agents in the mesh. Another difference is that the mesh is physically heterogeneous and distributed in the way that computer hardware is not.

Those differences are considerable, but that notwithstanding, I believe the notion of implementation is a useful one even if we don’t quite know how it is that we can implement culture in the mesh from multiple positions within the mesh. Just as computer hardware is entirely physical, so is the mesh. Humans are physical beings, as are the rocks and trees and canyons of the environment, the deer and beetles, and the axes, diggings sticks, pots, and clothing of human manufacture. The system is entirely physical.

In this conception, information, as a term of technical art, is a physical trait that can exist on many substrates. Just as shape and color are physical properties, so is information. If it weren’t physical, then there would be no point to quantifying it, which is what Shannon and Weaver did. However, while and objects color and shape exist whether or not anyone notices them, information is a property that is only “active” when the it is read or taken up by some appropriate system. That is to say a substrate can be said to contain information only with respect to some device that can decode and use that information. To understand the information we have to understand the device that uses it. What makes this informatic property so peculiar and versatile is that the same information can be represented in many different ways in many different substrates so long as information-using device can recognize the different encodings.

In the case of human culture, the information-using device is the human brain and, as Mesoudi has noted, we don’t yet know how it words. How, then, can we proceed without knowing that?

We can do as Mesoudi himself has done and simply avoid those aspects of cultural evolution that depend strongly on the properties of the nervous system. I believe, however, that we can do better than that. I believe that we can say quite a bit about the microscale phenomena of cultural evolution without having to understand the nervous system in detail and depth. That’s what I want to discuss in the next post.

Be way of a preview, think about those hand axes I mentioned in the beginning. They are public objects. We don’t need to know much about the mind in order to have a useful understanding of how knowledge of their use and fabrication can be shared in a group. All we need to know is that there is some effective process.

The position I will be outlining in the next post, and contrasting with the positions taken by other thinkers, is that the genetic material of culture consists of physical properties of those social actors (in Latour’s usage) constituting the mesh. We don’t need to know how the mind works in any detail in order to identify and investigate those properties. In fact, we already know quite a bit about them, knowledge scattered about in both microscale and macroscale disciplines. Given those properties and the fact that humans are constantly in communication with one another, we are in a position to think about the microscale processes of human cultural evolution and we don’t need to fall back on “information” to do it.

More later.

1 thought on “Issues in Cultural Evolution 1: Cultural Stability in the Mesh”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.