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Cultural Evolution: Literary History, Popular Music, Cultural Beings, Temporality, and the Mesh

Another working paper (title above):

Academia.edu: https://www.academia.edu/10263479/Cultural_Evolution_Literary_History_Popular_Music_Cultural_Beings_Temporality_and_the_Mesh
SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2553278

Abstract and introduction below.

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Abstract: Culture is implemented in a material and biological substrate but has a distinct ontology and its phenomena belong to a distinct order of temporality. The evolution of culture proceeds by random variation among coordinators, the cultural parallel to biological genes, and selective retention of phantasms, the cultural parallel to biological phenotypes. Taken together phantasms and a package or envelope of coordinators constitute a cultural being. In at least the case of 19th century American and British novels, cultural evolution has a direction, as demonstrated by the analytical work of Matthew Jockers (Macroanalysis 2013). While we can think of cultural evolution as a phenomenon that happens in history, it is at the same time a force that influences human life. It is thus a force IN history. This is illustrated by considering the history of the European novel from the 19th century and into the 20th century and in the evolution of popular musical styles in 20th century American music, in which interaction between African American and European American populations has been important. Ultimately, the evolution of culture can be thought of as the evolution of mind.

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0. Introduction: The Evolution of Culture is the Evolution of Mind

One of the themes that has been prominent in Western culture is that we humans have a “higher” nature and a “lower” nature. That lower nature is something we share with animals, even plants–I’m thinking here of Aristotle’s account of the soul. That higher nature is unique to us and we have tended to identify it with reason and rationality. We are rational and can reason, animals are not and cannot.

It was one thing to hold such a belief when we could believe that our nature was distinct from that of animals. Darwin made that belief much more difficult to entertain. If we are descended from apes, and so are but animals, then how can we have this higher nature? And yet, by any reasonable account, we are quite different from all the other animals.

For one thing, we have language. Yes, other animals communicate, and, with much painstaking effort, we’ve managed to teach some sign language to chimpanzees, but still, no other species has yet managed anything quite like human language. And the same goes for culture. Yes, other animals have culture in the sense that they pass behavioral traits from one individual to another through social learning rather than through reproduction. But the trait repertoire of animal culture is quite limited in comparison to that of human culture. Nor has any animal species managed to remake their environment in the way we have, for better or worse, not beavers and their dams, nor termites and their often astounding mounds.

In the process of working through the posts I’ve gathered into the this working paper, the original writing and the subsequent reviewing and revising, I’ve come to believe that it is culture, not reason, that is our higher nature. Reason is a product of culture, not the reverse.

That conclusion is not a direct result of the post’s I’ve gathered here. You won’t find it as a conclusion in any of them, nor will I provide more of an argument in this introduction than I’ve already done. It’s a way of framing my current view of culture and human nature. It’s a higher nature. It rules us even as it is utterly dependent upon us.

Conceptualizing Cultural Evolution

This working paper marks the fruition of a line of investigation I began in 1996 with the publication of “Culture as an Evolutionary Arena” (Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 19(4), 321-362). That was not my first work on cultural evolution; but my earlier work, going back to graduate school in the 1970s, was about stages conceived in terms of cognitive systems (called ranks). That work was descriptive in character, aimed at identifying the types of things possible with a given cognitive apparatus. The 1996 paper was my first attempt at characterizing the process of cultural evolution in evolutionary terms.

That paper originated in conversations I’d had with David Hays, who died in 1995, in which he suggested that the genetic material for cultural evolution was in the external world. Why? Because it is public, open for everyone to see. If the genetic material was out there in the world, I reasoned, then the selective environment must be social, something like a collective mind. That made sense because, after all, isn’t that how books and movies and records survive? Many are published, but only a few are taken up and kept in active circulation over the years.

That’s not much of a conception, but I stuck with it. It’s taken almost two decades for me to refine those initial intuitions into a technical conception that feels good. That’s what I managed to achieve in the process of writing the posts I’ve collected and edited into this working paper.

All of which is to say that I’ve been working on two levels. On the one hand I’ve been making specific proposals about specific phenomena. But those specific proposals are in service of a more abstract project: crafting a framework in which to conceptualize cultural evolution. By way of comparison, consider chapter eleven of Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. That’s where he proposes the concept of memes in thinking about cultural evolution: “Memes: the new replicators” (pp. 189-201). He gives a few examples, but mostly he’s focused on the concept of the meme itself. The examples are there to support the concept. None of them are developed very extensively or in detail; he says just enough to give some sense of what he has in mind.

THAT’s what I’m doing, though proportions and quantities are different. It is the concept of cultural evolution that most interests me: what’s it like, what kind of entities does it involve? The example from Matthew Jockers’ Macroanalysis in the first two posts is just that, an example. In subsequent posts I introduce further examples, but they are just that, examples. Continue reading

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Tone and humidity

Does the weather effect the languages we speak?

This week, Caleb Everett, Damian Blasi and I have a paper out in PNAS (also available here) on the effects of humidity on the production and perception of lexical tone, and the subsequent predictions about the distribution of tone across the world.

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Map of humidity (lighter = more humid) with complex tone languages in red and non-complex tone languages in blue.

The basic principle behind studies of cultural evolution is that a selective pressure on communication can transform the structures of a language over time.  What we explore is whether speaking in dry environments exerts a pressure to avoid using sounds that are more difficult to produce or comprehend, leading to those sounds being selected against.

Edit: See also this FAQ page

Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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Reminder for upcoming conferences

The deadline is approaching for several relevant call for papers:

At this year’s International Congress of Phonetic Sciences in Glasgow there will be a special interest group on the Evolution of our phonetic capabilities. It will focus on the interaction between biological and cultural evolution and encourages work from different modalities too. The deadline is 16th Feb. The call for papers is here.

There’s also a special discussant session on Sound change and speech evolution at ICPhS headed by Andy Wedel. The deadline for the actual conference is 1st Feb. Call for Papers here.

The next event in the ways to (proto)language conference is being held in Rome! The deadline is also 1st Feb. Call for Papers here.

This year’s CogSci is being organised by the guys at Cognitive and Information Sciences at the University of California in Merced, who do some great stuff related to language evolution. The deadline is 1st Feb as well, and the call for paper is here. 

Happy submitting!

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Issues in Cultural Evolution 2.1: Micro Evolution, Dawkins and Memes

It’s time I get back to my attempt to lay out a map of approaches to cultural evolution in a limited number of posts, say a half dozen or even less (in my first post I said three). This is the first of two or three posts in which I look at ideas of the microscale entities and processes. In this post I’ll take a close look at Dawkins’ concept of the meme as he laid it out in The Selfish Gene. In my next post or two I’ll lay out other positions while developing mine in the process.

Dawkins Defines the Meme

I’m going to take a close look at two paragraphs from the 30th Anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene (Oxford 2006). First I’ll quote the paragraphs without interruption and commentary. Then I’ll repeat them, this time inserting my own comments after passages from Dawkins.

The book, of course, is not primarily about culture. It is about biology and argues a gene-centric view of evolution. In the process Dawkins abstracts from the biology and extracts two roles, that of replicator and that of vehicle. Genes play the replicator role and phenotypes play vehicle role. From a gene-centric point of view, the function of phenotypes is to carry genes from one generation to the next.

Have set this out in ten chapters, Dawkins then turns to culture in the eleventh chapter, where he introduces the meme in the replicator role in cultural evolution. The paragraphs we’re examining are on pages 192-193:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N. K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter:’… memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking—the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.’

Consider the idea of God. We do not know how it arose in the meme pool. Probably it originated many times by independent ‘mutation’. In any case, it is very old indeed. How does it replicate itself? By the spoken and written word, aided by great music and great art. Why does it have such high survival value? Remember that ‘survival value’ here does not mean value for a gene in a gene pool, but value for a meme in a meme pool. The question really means: What is it about the idea of a god that gives it its stability and penetrance in the cultural environment? The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The ‘everlasting arms’ hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor’s placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary. These are some of the reasons why the idea of God is copied so readily by successive generations of individual brains. God exists, if only in the form of a meme with high survival value, or infective power, in the environment provided by human culture.

Dawkins says more about memes (the chapter runs from 189 to 201), but I’ll confine my commentary to those two chapters. Before I do that, however, I’d like to quote two short paragraphs from the end of the chapter (pp. 199-200):

However speculative my development of the theory of memes may be, there is one serious point which I would like to emphasize once again. This is that when we look at the evolution of cultural traits and at their survival value, we must be clear whose survival we are talking about. Biologists, as we have seen, are accustomed to looking for advantages at the gene level (or the individual, the group, or the species level according to taste). What we have not previously considered is that a cultural trait may have evolved in the way that it has, simply because it is advantageous to itself.

We do not have to look for conventional biological survival values of traits like religion, music, and ritual dancing, though these may also be present. Once the genes have provided their survival machines with brains that are capable of rapid imitation, the memes will automatically take over. We do not even have to posit a genetic advantage in imitation, though that would certainly help. All that is necessary is that the brain should be capable of imitation: memes will then evolve that exploit the capability to the full.

That I believe is the core of Dawkins’ contribution, that the entity that directly benefits from cultural evolution is some cultural entity, not any individual human being, though the cultural entity is necessarily dependent on individual humans for its existence. Continue reading

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Rhythm Changes: Notes on Some Genetic Elements in Musical Culture

That’s the title of another working paper. You may download it from Academia.edu (HERE) or from Social Science Research Network (HERE).

Here’s the abstract:

An entity known as Rhythm Changes is analyzed as a genetic entity in musical culture. Because it functions to coordinate the activities of musicians who are playing together it can be called a coordinator. It is a complex coordinator in that it is organized on five or six levels, each of which contains coordinators that function in other musical contexts. Musicians do not acquire (that is, learn) such a coordinator through “transfer” from one brain to another. Rather, they learn to construct it from publically available performance materials. This particular entity is derived from George Gershwin’s tune “I Got Rhythm” and is the harmonic trajectory of that tune. But it only attained independent musical status after about two decades of performances. Being a coordinator is thus not intrinsic to the entity itself, but is rather a function of how it comes to be used in the musical system. Recent argument suggests that biological genes are like this as well.

Here’s a key sequence of paragraphs:

In the case of music, let me suggest how different musicians understand Rhythm Changes is irrelevant as long as they can stay together while performing together. Charlie Parker’s neural patterns for Rhythm Changes may have been different from Dizzy Gillespie’s or Miles Davis’s or Thelonious Monk’s, but that doesn’t matter as long as they’re together on the bandstand. That is something they can judge perfectly well in performance, as can listeners. The question of how accurately patterns are “transferred” from one brain to another is mistaken.

I’ll go so far as to say that even when a neophyte is learning from a master, there is no transfer of patterns from the master’s brain to the neophyte’s. Rather, as they play together, the neophyte responds to what the master is doing and figures out, in his own (neural) terms, how to match or complement, as the case may be, what the master is playing. The student will make mistakes, the master will make comments, and they’ll try again.

There is no transfer of patterns in the sense that computers can transfer information from one machine to another. We have learning from public models, and we have interplay, negotiation, and mutual adjustment. How individual musicians achieve these results, what goes on in their brains, is a secondary matter. Whatever it is, it isn’t a matter or either sending or receiving information.

The introduction finishes out this post. Continue reading

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Tokyo Lectures in Language Evolution

This will certainly be of interest to rep typo readers. Info below:

We are pleased to announce that the Tokyo Lectures in Language Evolution will be held from the 2nd – 5th of April 2015 at the Komaba II Campus of the University of Tokyo. The event will bring together researchers from around the world to give an intensive series of courses and lectures introducing modern approaches to research on the origins and evolution of language.

Invited Speakers:

Registration Fees:

  • Faculty:        20,000JPY
  • Students:     Free

Please note, there are limited seats available so please register here to ensure your place.

Poster Session:

The event will host a poster session for participants to present their own work. Submission instructions are available here.

Key Points:

Dates:                         2-5 April 2015
Poster Call Deadline:  4 March 2015
Location:                     Tokyo, Japan
Any enquiries regarding the event should be directed to darwin@langev.tokyo.

We hope to see you in Tokyo!

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Serotonin and short-term/long-term orientation

This week I discovered that an analysis using Causal Graphs that James and I did in 2013 has been backed up by more recent data.  This demonstrates the power of Causal Graph analysis, which we’ll be discussing in our workshop on Causality in the Language Sciences (submission deadline extended!)

A recent paper demonstrates a correlation between various genetic factors and life history strategies (Minkov & Bond, 2015).  Minkov & Bond find that the prevalence of three gene polymorphisms (5-HTTLPR serotonin transporter gene, the androgen receptor gene AR and the dopamine receptor gene DRD4) correlate with measures of how willing people are to take risks, such as long-term/short-term orientation.

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We’re written before about 5-HTTLPR (here and here), which was previously associated with individualism/collectivism.  However, the paper above, and a previous one in 2014 by Minkov, Blagoev & Bond, find that the correlation is stronger for long-term/short-term orientation.

What’s interesting for us is that James and I predicted this in our 2013 paper on spurious correlations (the one with acacia trees and traffic accidents).  Here’s figure 4 from our paper, which was generated using a causal graph algoritm (explained in more detail in this post):

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The relevant part is here, which predicts that 5-HTTLPR prevalence is causally related to Long-term/short-term orientation, but is causally independent from collectivism:

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We suggested that the relationship between 5-HTTLPR and collectivism is mediated by the probability of migrating into harsher climates (a kind of risk-taking), and produced a computational model to demonstrate the principle (we also did some analyses which showed that measures of climate are correlated with 5-HTTLPR, but we haven’t reported these).

The more recent papers above also suggest that the genetic traits are linked with long-term/short-term orientation, but did so my greatly expanding the sample of genetic prevalence.  So how did we get our result?  In our analysis, we averaged 5-HTTLPR prevalence across countries, which is not realistic.  This makes me worried that the correlations are being inflated by non-independence of the samples.

The authors are confident of the robustness of the correlation:

“If all these associations were spurious, their association would be miraculous, especially at the national-regional level. If there is no real association between the LHSGF and the reported measures of LHS and TO, what then explains the extremely high correlations?”

However, as our paper argues, spurious correlations are more likely when datapoints are linked through historical descent or borrowing (Galton’s problem).  In the case of this paper, genetic traits are obviously historically related, and it’s likely that cultural values and life history strategies are also culturally transmitted.

I tried testing whether the correlation is robust to historical or contact relationships.  I used geographic proximity as a proxy for how closely related different cultures are.  For each country, I found the geographic coordinates of the capital city.  The graphs below demonstrate that there’s at least some geographic clustering (and a hit of a founder effect for the genetic data, as predicted by our migration model):

Geographic distribution of the genetic index

Geographic distribution of the genetic index

Geographic distribution of the life history strategy index

Geographic distribution of the life history strategy index

I then calculated the distance between each pair of countries in geographic terms (great circle distance), the National life history strategy genetic factor index and the genetic factors.  (for the genetic factors, I did a principal components analysis, as in Mikov & Bond, and used the first component, which had an eigen value of 2.62 and explained  65.5% of the variance, compared to Mikov & Bond’s 2.04, and 68%).

This gives us three distance matrices:  distance in miles, distance in life history strategy and distance in genetic traits.  I then used a Mantel test to compare these.

Genetic and life history measures are correlated (r = 0.88, p < 0.0001), as in the paper above (in the regression, r = 0.78-0.84).  Both the genetic and life history measures were correlated with geographic distance (r = 0.36, p < 0.0001; r = 0.27, p = 0.0003), which suggests that they are not independent (i.e. a country is likely to be more similar to its neighbour than a distant culture).

However, there is still a significant correlation between genetic and life history measures when controlling for geographic distance (r = 0.87, p = 0.0001).  In fact, the correlation is barely affected at all when partialling out the geographic distance.

So, it appears that the correlation is somewhat robust to controlling for non-independence.  But will it play out in the long-term?

Source data and analysis script: MikovBond_Mantel

Edit: Michael Minkov has been in touch, and argues that psychological phenomena, such as happiness, values, attitudes etc. can’t be borrowed across cultures.  They depend on particular economic conditions, which also can’t be borrowed in the same way that a word or an artefact can be borrowed.

Edit2: Above, I used raw distance, but log distance is probably a better measure.  Both genetic index and life history index are more strongly correlated with log geographic distance (r = 0.42, p < 0.0001; r = 0.35, p < 0.0001).  However, there’s not much difference in the correlation between genetic and life history measures when controlling for log geographic distance (r = 0.86, p < 0.0001).

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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. Continue reading

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Cultural Beings Evolving in the Mesh

This one wrestled me hard. In it I use new terminology and concepts–coordinators, phantasms, cultural beings–as though I know what they mean and am comfortable with them. But that’s not quite the case. It’s only recently that I’ve invented them. It’s one them to use terms in a document where you define them. It’s another thing to use them in an extended exposition. That’s where they come to define themselves. So this post, a long one, is something of a shake-down cruise. Sure, I’d like to have things all worked out nice and neat. But there’s no way to do that except to put the terms out there and see how they do. That’s what I’m doing.

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In this post I further explore the notion of a cultural being and I introduce a metaphor for culture, that of a hyperfluid (cf. Tim Morton’s concept of a hyperobject). A cultural being, if you recall, consists of an envelope or package or coordinators along with all the actions that have given it life. It is thus a rather strange notion, which is why I want to explore it.

And I want to explore it in tandem with another strange notion, that of culture as something we might call a hyperfluid, something that has multiple levels of viscosity and thus changes at different rates. I’ve long thought of the brain, as a functioning entity, as hyperfluid in this sense. At the deepest “thickest” layer we have the physical structure of the brain itself. At the most superficial “thinnest” layer we have the flickering of neural impulses from one millisecond to the next. But that flickering can lead to changes in synaptic structure and, over time, those changes can “rewire” the brain at a fairly “deep” level, so-called cortical plasticity.

So it is with culture, which is, after all, a collective product of the brains of all those individuals in a social group over the life of the group. The thickest cultural layers settle to the bottom. These are the features that endure over decades and centuries, if not millennia. It’s at culture’s thin surface that we see ordinary everyday behavior. Here is where people read books, and write them, where they listen to music, and make it. In this process each individual will participate in many cultural beings and will, in turn, be shaped by them. And some cultural beings will attract only a few individuals while others will attract more. Some of those cultural beings will outlive any and all of the individuals that have participated in them.

What we have, then, are collections of individual human beings, biological beings, on the one hand. Each of them participates in and is (partially) formed by many cultural beings. On the other hand, we a bunch of collection of cultural beings, each of which has attracted participation by at least some individual humans while some will attract participation by many humans. Some of the latter are able to attract participation over decades and even longer, so that they outlive any of the humans that have participated in them. It is the interaction of these two sets of beings that give us this hyperfluid culture that lives in the social mesh.

Notice that I talk of cultural beings as living. They are and they are not. Coordinators–targets, couplers, and designators–are not alive. The humans who read the books and listen to the music, of course, are alive and it is that vivacity, their phantasms, which I am, in effect, allocating to the books and musical performers they witness. Cultural beings as I have defined them do change. While they are utterly dependent on humans, they also have a degree of autonomy from any individual humans. They are neither alive nor inanimate in a strict sense. So I will refer to them as being alive, a provocation that seems warranted as a device to stimulate thought.

Being in the Mesh

What do I mean by the mesh? For the most part I’m using that term as more or less equivalent to what Latour has in mind when he talks of networks of social actors, where the actors are not just humans, but everything encompassed within society, the humans, animals, plants, and material objects, both natural and man-made. All of it is gathered into the causal nexus of the social: the mesh.

But let’s start with the humans, biological beings. Make no mistake, they’re the ones that hold the mesh together, and culture is the glue that they deploy. So far as we know, the most basic case is that of foraging bands of hunter-gatherers. That’s how humankind began on the African savannas. Let’s think about them for just a bit to refresh ourselves.

Such bands typically have a dozen to thirty or forty members, all of whom know one another, some better than others, but all of them face-to-face relations. A number of bands will occupy a given territory, and people in any given band will have friends and relatives in other bands. So maybe we have two hundred or a thousand or more people all speaking more or less the same language and having more or less the same culture.

Those people and their relations are the core of the mesh. But we must also include the environment in which they live and the artifacts they’ve manufactured. They too are part of the mesh. They mediate relations among the humans.

Those non-humans are ‘covered’ with coordinators through which the humans assimilate them into their cultural system. Humans often place markings in the environment, such as slash marks on trees, or paintings on rock faces of cliffs and in caves. Or they may place stones to mark boundaries, and so forth. But environmental features often enter into myths and stories without themselves being physically altered and so become assimilated to culture. All of these involve coordinators in the technical sense I’ve been using.

Those myths and stories are what I have come to call cultural beings, as you recall from the introduction, a term I use to encompass not only the string of linguistic signifiers used to convey the stories, that is, the envelopes of coordinators, but the various individual mental acts (the phantasms) giving them life. Some or many of those environmental features may also function as cultural beings if they figure centrally enough in mythology and in the group’s way of life, that is, if appropriate phantasms are consistently associated with them. But I don’t want to get into figuring out just what qualifies as a cultural being. The question is an important one, but I’m going to leave it for later. For my immediate purposes we can regard the term as something of a placeholder whose extension will be in a specified later more specialized discourse. We can make do with some rough and ready observations. Continue reading

Culture, its evolution and anything inbetween