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From Macroanalysis to Cultural Evolution

The purpose of this post is to recast the work reported in Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History in terms appropriate to cultural evolution. The idea is to propose a model of cultural evolution and assign objects from Jockerss analysis to play roles in that model. I will leave Jockers’ work untouched. All I’m doing is reframing it.

Before doing that, however, I should note that in the last quarter of a century or so there has been quite a lot of work on cultural evolution in a variety of discipline including linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, and biology. Though it must be done at some time, I have no intention of even attempting to review that work here and so to place the scheme I propose in relation to it. That’s a job for another time and another venue. I note, however, that I have done quite a bit of work on cultural evolution myself and that some of that discussion can be found in documents I list at the end of this post.

Why Evolution?

First of all, why bother to recast the processes of literary history in evolutionary terms at all? Jockers wrote an excellent book without creating an evolutionary model, though he mentioned evolution here and there. What’s to be gained by this recasting?

As far as I can tell, much of the work that has been done on cultural evolution has been undertaken simply to exercise and extend the range of evolutionary discourse. It has not, as yet, resulted in an understanding of cultural process that is deeper than more conventional forms of historical discourse. Much of my own work has been undertaken in this spirit. I believe that, yes, at some point, evolutionary explanation will prove more robust that other forms of explanation, but we’re not there yet.

This work in effect is looking to evolutionary accounts as exhibiting something like formal cause in Aristotle’s sense. Evolutionary accounts are about distribution of traits across populations. In biology such accounts have a characteristic formal appearance so that, e.g. phylogenetic analysis of a population of entities tends to “look” a certain way. So, in the cultural sphere, let’s conduct a similar analysis and see how things look even if we don’t have our entities embedded in the kind of causal framework that genetics and population biology, molecular biology, and developmental biology provide the biologist.

That’s fine, as long as we remind ourselves periodically that that’s what we’re doing. But we must keep looking for the terms in which to construct a causal model.

What I specifically want from an evolutionary approach to culture is

  • a way to think about Said’s autonomous aesthetic realm,
  • a way to prove out Shelley’s assertion that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,”
  • a way of restoring agency to writers and readers rather than casting them as puppets of various vast and impersonal forces, and
  • a way of thinking about the canon in relation to the whole of literary culture.

That’s what I want. Those requirements imply having a causal model. Whether or not I’ll get it, that’s another matter.

Current critical approaches, however, in which individual humans are but nodal points in the machinations of vast and impersonal hegemonic forces, have trouble on all these points. Individual human beings are deprived of agency thus turning readers into zombies watching the ghosts of dead authors flicker on the remaining walls of Plato’s cave. The canon is captive to those same hegemonic forces, which have promulgated Shelley’s defense as an opiate for the masses, which R’ us.

The critical machine is broken. It’s time to start over. Before we do that, however, I need to dispense with one objection to seeking an evolutionary account of cultural phenomena.

Isn’t culture deliberately created?

The explanatory point of evolutionary dynamics is that it gives us design without a designer, without intention. But isn’t culture consciously and deliberately designed and created?

That is the most common objection to recasting cultural process in evolutionary terms. Cultural artifacts (whether physical things, such as books or drawings, or events, such as rituals or musical performances) are deliberately designed and created by human agents and thus are not the result of a blind evolutionary process. That is true. But whether or not those artifacts are retained in a group’s repertoire is a matter beyond the will and design of individual creators. The process of cultural selection is independent from that of artifact creation.

This standard objection is based on a misconception of the roles that various cultural entities play in an evolutionary process. In the model I propose the artist’s mind becomes the arena in which the genetic entities of culture interact to produce a publically accessible work. It is the artist, of course, who is mixing and remixing these entities. Those entities aren’t the autonomous memes Daniel Dennett is so fond of, homuncular little busybodies chattering among themselves and flitting about from brain to brain.

Incidentally, Gary Taylor has an excellent informal account: Cultural Selection: Why Some Achievements Survive The Test Of Time And Others Don't (1996).

The Body and History Inform the Public Arena

Let’s start with this diagram, which flat-out asserts the autonomy of the aesthetic realm (expressive culture, there at the left):

2 spheres & square

The “village square” is the public arena. That’s where people chat about things and stuff, including the latest book. That’s where you find the landscape of public attention that I discussed in Reading Macroanalysis 6.1: Theme–Dogs, Gold, Slavery, and Awakening.

At the right we have the so-called external world, aka history. That’s the source of medium and large-scale events that may impact the village square, but aren’t initiated from it or controlled by it. The external world is the source of the Great Famine in Ireland that Jockers talked about in conjunction with the TENANTS AND LANDLORDS topic in Irish literature and that’s where you find differences between Irish Americans living in the East and those living in the West. That’s where you find the forces and events that moved GOLD AND TREASURE, AMERICAN SLAVERY, FACTORY AND WORKHOUSE LABOR and NATIVE AMERICANS into prominence in the village square (all discussed in my posts on theme, the 6.X series).

Expressive culture, there in the left, is where you find ritual, sacred spaces, liminality. It’s where you find the writer’s mind, when he or she is writing. And it’s where you find the reader’s mind.

Expressive culture is directly in touch with human biology, our innate needs, desires, and capabilities, with the body. And when society thwarts those desires too badly, it’s where you find what Freud called the return of the repressed. It is precisely because expressive culture is in touch with human biology, indeed, springs from it–though perhaps not so dramatically and Minerva from the forehead of Zeus–that the expressive sphere gains its autonomy and hence its ability to influence the public square (cf. Uncle Tom’s Cabin).

This autonomy is not complete, of course. Society shapes human biology in various ways. But it cannot eradicate it.

And so we have the following diagram, which I introduced in Reading Macroanalysis 5: An Interlude on Scale: Micro, Meso, and Macro.

writers mind brain

We see biology and society there at the left, both influencing the writer’s mind/brain in the middle. That influence then shows up as various features in the text, at the right. But just how those features are to be attributed to biology or society, that’s a difficult matter. Why? Because biology and society mingle in the writer’s mind. The autonomy of the aesthetic sphere thus depends on the computational capacities of that mind. But that–computational capacity–is a different discussion, for another time and place.

It’s time to consider specific roles in the evolutionary story and how to assign those roles to the entities Jockers discusses.

BVSR: Role Assignment

The evolutionary story I propose can begin with Donald Campbell’s well-known formulation, blind variation and selective retention (often reduced to an acronym, BVSR). So, we are looking at entities that are subject to selective retention in one domain and blind variation in another. Let’s begin with the selective retention clause, as it is more intuitive.

We are dealing with novels written roughly in the 19th century. Those novels are thus the objects subject to selection. They are the literary cultural entities that correspond to the phenotypes of biology. The environment in which those texts must survive or die is the human group; specifically, the 19th Century populations of England, Ireland, Scotland, and the United States of America.

Most of those novels have been selected out. That is, they are no longer read by any appreciable group of people. The texts sit on library shelves, but, with few exceptions, no one reads them. The exceptions, of course, are that handful of texts that survive in the literary canon. Jockers has 3346 of these texts in his database; most of them, of course, are non-canonical.

If novels are playing the phenotypic role, what entities are playing the role of genes? At one point late the book Jockers suggested that topics might play that role, but rejected the idea, noting that they seem too few (fn. p. 157). I concur. I propose that words play the role of genes.

Now, at this point you might be thinking: but words aren’t randomly typed into texts, they’re deliberately put there by writers. I know, I know. And genes aren’t randomly organized either. They exist on highly structured molecules of DNA called chromosomes. What’s random is the variation. But random isn’t the word Campbell used, is it? He talked of blind variation. What’s important is that the process be blind with respect to the process of selection. Just how that blindness is engineered is a secondary matter. Gamma rays smacking into DNA strands will fill the bill, but that’s not the only process. In the cultural sphere neither writers nor their publishers have the kind transcendental knowledge of their intended audience that would allow them to engineer texts to suit it. They may bend over backwards to play to public tastes and fail utterly; and an odd text might unexpectedly find an audience. One never knows.

So, we have novels as phenotypic entities and words as genetic entities. What about the topics and stylistic features that Jockers has identified? They’re made of words, no? That makes them into groups of functionally related genetic entities of some sort, and that’s how I’m going to treat them. To that end I further note that, roughly speaking, Jockers works with two classes of words and uses them for modeling different phenomena. He uses function words, of which there are a relatively small and fixed number, for modeling style and he uses content works, of which there are many, of modeling themes.

Finally we have the genre, which I propose is roughly comparable to the biological concept of a species. The biological concept of species is itself tricky–John Wilkins, a student of the subject, shows us that biologists use no less than 26 different, albeit related, concepts under that one name. But then the literary concept of genre is problematic too; see, for example, these old posts by Matt Greenfield at The Valve: Moretti and Other Genre Theorists (Jan. 12, 2006), Genre: a Collection of Provocations and Koans (Feb 6, 2006), and What We Talk About When We Talk About Genre (March 1, 2006).

Crudely put, a biological species is a population of individuals that are highly similar to one another and that share an evolutionary history. In a similar fashion, a literary genre (in the sense employed in Macroanalysis) is a group of texts that are highly similar to one another; they may even share a similar socio-cultural history, though that’s a tricky business. The key notion is that of similarity.

We have a large population of individuals, whether biological (organisms) or cultural (texts). Some individuals resemble other individuals more, and some less. The upshot is that the population differentiates into populations of similar individuals. What’s tricky is toting up the historical accounting for that similarity.

One of the most visible parts of the biological world, that of large animals, tends to breed in circumscribed lineages, leading to the familiar tree of life. Each individual animal has two and only two parents. Each species is a member of one and only one genus, with each genus having more than one member species. Similarly, each genus belongs to only one family, each family to only one order and on up through class, phylum, kingdom, domain and, finally, life itself.

But biology isn’t so neat. We’ve also got hybridization, more so among plants than among animals, where individuals of two different species mate and produce offspring. Things get worse when we consider bacteria, where genetic material can be transferred directly between different organisms. The point then is simply that inheritance of genetic material does not necessarily happen through tree-like lineages. There are other patterns of inheritance.

And that, I believe, is how culture works, a point I argued extensively in Culture as an Evolutionary Arena (Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, Vol. 19, No. 4, pp. 321-362, 1996). It is writers who create texts, and writers are subject to and seek out influences of all kinds. Thus genre distinctions tend to be fuzzy and attempts to organize genres into higher-level taxonomic categories produce vague results. The list of influences bearing on any one text is likely to be large and diffuse.

* * * * *

There we have it, roles have been assigned:

texts → phenotypes
words → genes
genre → species

Authors combine words to produce texts and texts circulate according to the whims of the public arena. The landscape of the public arena is affected by historical events, but–a crucial qualification–it can also be affected by particularly compelling texts.

What then of those vast hegemonic systems that have been so popular in literary theory over the past half-century or so? They haven’t gone anywhere; they’re still there. They’re a source of historical events, they structure the public arena and regulate access to it (but not completely, there are always leaks and holes), and they structure the sign systems operating in the mind and grounded ultimately in biological capacities.

But we’re using a different language for talking about and conceptualizing them. In particular, we have different toos for dealing with language. For all its vaunted canniness about the sign, Theory has been impoverished in conceptualizing language. It has paid little attention to post-structuralist linguistics and cognitive science and knows nothing of the corpus techniques Jockers has used in Macroanalysis. Its view of language is obsolete.

Time to move on.

Appendix: My Work on Cultural Evolution

Earlier in my career I did quite a bit of work on the notion of cultural complexity; much of that work was done in conjunction with David Hays. That work is not, for the most part, directly relevant to the current discussion, but you can find it at a website: Mind-Culture Coevolution: Major Transitions in the Development of Human Culture and Society.

I undertook a different line of investigation in my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (Basic Books 2001). In the second and third chapters I undertook to conceptualize the music-making group as a neural entity. The upshot is that, when members of a group are interacting under in a certain way, their nervous systems become coupled into a single dynamical system. You can download final drafts of those chapters HERE. I discuss gene-like and phenotype-like entities on pp. 191-194 and 219-221.

I’ve got two working papers in which I discuss gene-like entities, aka memes, in some considerable detail. The popular notion of memes as autonomous bots of some kind is intellectually empty. These two papers explain why and present a coherent alternative:

In the terms I develop in that second paper, the function words Jockers uses in stylistic work would be connectors and the contents words in thematic work would be designators.

Finally, we have Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction between the Sciences and the Humanities:

The study of cultural evolution requires a comprehensive approach to les sciences de l’homme using methods and insights from researchers trained in both the humanities and the sciences. Only humanists have the wide-ranging knowledge of cultural phenomena necessary for effective analytic and descriptive control of the primary phenomena; without such control model building and theory testing are pointless. Scientists, on the other hand, are beginning develop tools for thinking about population-wide maintenance, propagation, and incremental change of cultural codes. At the micro-scale we need to understand, not only perceptual and cognitive processes, but, most critically, the negotiation of meaning through interaction. At the macro-scale we need to see how changes in cultural codes supports the emergence of new mentalities. Taken in sum these efforts will show us how the design of cultural codes emerges from the collective efforts of populations where each individual negotiates his or her life transaction by transaction.

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Previously: