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.

Memes and Traits

I first dealt with these issues in a long article, Culture as an Evolutionary Arena (Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems 19(4): 321-362, 1996). At that time I adopted the term “meme” to indicate the basic unit of genetic material for culture. I needed a term, that’s a good one, and I didn’t and don’t like coining neologisms. Though I knew the term was in circulation, I didn’t adequately appreciate just how much superficial ideation had accumulated around it. If I had, well, I probably still would have adopted it.

This is a passage from section 3.1 of the essay, where I first introduce the term:

To begin with we need a concept in the human sciences which is to culture and its evolution as the gene is to the biological world and its evolution. What is it that circulates through human society and history as the genes have circulated in biological evolution?

I don’t have a well-tried answer to this question, nor do I know of anyone who does. As a practical matter, Darwinian thought managed quite well for several decades without a usable model of genetic mechanisms. Thought in the human sciences has been, if anything, even more prolific in the absence of usable models. Thus I am willing to offer a speculation with some assurance that, whatever its vagueness and imprecision, it will not on that account be departing from established canons of conceptual development in the human sciences.

Following conversations with David Hays, I suggest that we regard the whole of physical culture as the genes: the pots and knives, the looms and cured hides, the utterances and written words, the ploughshares and transistors, the songs and painted images, the tents and stone fortifications, the dances and sculpted figures, all of it. For these are the things which people exchange with one another, through which they interact with one another. They can be counted and classified and variously studied.

What then of the ideas, desires, emotions, and attitudes behind these things? After all, as any college sophomore can point out, words on a page are just splotches unless apprehended by an appropriately prepared mind, one that knows the language. Pots and knives are not so ineffable as runes and ideograms, but they aren’t of much use to people who don’t know how to use them, that is, to people whose minds lack the appropriate neural “programs”. Surely, one might propose, these mental objects and processes are the stuff of culture.

What I in fact propose is that we think of these mental objects and processes as being analogous to the biologist’s phenotype just as the physical objects and processes are analogous to the genotype. Properly understood, these mental objects and processes are embodied in brain states (cf. Benzon and Hays 1988). Thus we have the whole of physical culture interacting with the inner cultural environment to produce the various mental objects and activities that are the substance of culture.

Richard Dawkins has proposed the term “meme” for the units of the cultural genotype, but proposes no special term for the cultural phenotype, though he recognizes the necessity of distinguishing the two (Dawkins 1982, pp. 109 ff., see also Dawkins 1989, pp. 189 ff.). Following more or less standard anthropological usage, I offer “psychological trait”, or just “trait”, as a term designating phenotypical units or features. Note, however, that Dawkins places memes in the brain and traits in the external world, which is just the opposite of what I am doing. He appears not to have considered the scheme I propose and so offers no arguments in favor of his scheme. This whole arena is so speculative that rigorous argument is elusive. However, I expect that my reasons for placing memes in the public world and traits in the inner will emerge in the following section of this essay.

That’s pretty much the position I’ve maintained ever since then. In my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, I conceptualized those psychological traits in neural terms in the case of music, but I think that will work in all cases. I’ve now got a considerably more sophisticated sense of what those physical “memes” are, something I began working out in the notes which I’ve recently revised into a working paper, Rhythm Changes: Notes on Some Genetic Elements in Musical Culture.

Returning to that 1996 paper, here’s an endnote that I hang off that last paragraph:

Dawkins does mention examples of animal culture in his discussion. In such cases his scheme of placing the genotypic items inside the brain and the phenotypic items, including such “skills such as opening milk bottles in tits, or panning wheat in Japanese macaques” (Dawkins 1982, p. 109), in their external behavior may well be just the thing. But even the most elaborate animal culture is far simpler than the simplest human culture. There is no reason to think that animal culture is subject to any fitness requirements other than those of biological survival. Human culture, as I argue, is a domain unto itself and has its own survival requirements above and those of biological survival. That difference is, I suspect, behind my decision to make the cultural phenotype internal and the genotype external. When we have a robust theory of evolutionary systems, one in which biological evolution and cultural evolution are but types, we may find a causal explanation of this difference.

I then continue with my main text:

This way of thinking leads to imagery which is quite different from biological imagery. While biologists talk of a gene pool, the genes never actually intermingle in a physical pool. The genes are strands of DNA in the interior of cells. A species’ gene pool exists as a logical fact, not a physical pool filled with genetic slime. It is the phenotypes of species that intermingle with one another in the physical “pool” of the environment. In culture, it is the phenotypic traits that are interior while the genetic memes are out there in the physical “pool” of the environment. When cultures meet, their memes intermingle freely.

This business of implicit theoretical imagery is quite important. The biological imagery is of little things, genes, inside big things, phenotypes (which Dawkins has termed vehicles). When you simply reuse that imagery for culture, you’re inevitably drawn to putting little things, memes, inside of big things, brains. That pretty much traps you in the conduit metaphor.

Let’s return to my 1996 text:

The fact that a meme moves from one culture to another does not mean that the corresponding psychological trait moves. Basic visual forms, such as crosses and triangles, have symbolic significance in many cultures, but that significance is not everywhere the same. The computer chip which is an information-processing device in the culture of the electronics engineer is but an intricately crafted bit of “stuff” in the jeweler’s culture. Musical motifs and ritual forms move easily between cultures, but the psychological traits may not move so readily. Thus middle-class Japanese weddings are often long elaborate affairs often including a traditional Christian ceremony as one of its components, though the Japanese couple is most-likely not Christian (Tanikawa 1995). Moving in the other cultural direction, the American jazz musician Roland Kirk (1965) has recorded a tune he calls “Ruined Castles” and on which he takes composer credits. The same tune, under the name “Japanese Folk Song,” has been recorded by Thelonius Monk (nd) with no attribution. As far as I can tell, the tune is Japanese, is called “Ancient Castle” (close to Kirk’s title), and was composed by Rentaro Taki (1879-1901). If we didn’t distinguish between meme and trait we would have to assume that non-Christian Japanese couples and Western Christian couples understand the “picture-book” wedding in the same way, on the one hand, and that Monk, Kirk, and Taki are evoking the same feelings when they perform “Ancient Castle Japanese Folk Song Ruined Castles.”

One can speculate that the “misinterpretation” of memes as they move from culture to culture may be a source of cultural innovation. Whether or not that is so, it is certain that such movement is very common.

That, more or less, is where I was almost 20 years ago.

* * * * *

In my next post I’ll take up the theorists Dan Dennett gathered for a workshop at the Santa Fe Institute in May of 2014: Susan Blackmore, Robert Boyd, Nicolas Claidière, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Joseph Henrich, Olivier Morin, Peter Richerson, Dan Sperber, Kim Sterelny.

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