Cultural Evolution, So What?

I’d like this to be the last post in this series except, of course, for an introduction to the whole series, from Dan Dennett on Words in Cultural Evolution on through to this one. We’ll see.

I suppose the title question is a rhetorical one. Of course culture evolves and of course we need to a proper evolutionary theory in order to understand culture. But the existing body of work is not at all definitive.

In the first section of this post I have some remarks on genes and memes, observing that both concepts emerged as place-holders in a larger ongoing argument. The second section jumps right in with the assertion, building on Dawkins, that the study of evolution must start by accounting for stability before it can address evolutionary change. The third and final section takes a quick look at change by looking at two different verstions of “Tutti Frutti”. There’s an appendix with some bonus videos.

From Genes to Memes

I’ve been reading the introduction to Lenny Moss, What Genes Can’t Do (MIT 2003), on Google Books:

The concept of the gene, unlike that of other biochemical entities, did not emerge from the logos of chemistry. Unlike proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates, the gene did not come on the scene as a physical entity at all but rather as a kind of placeholder in biological theory… The concept of the gene began not with the intention to put a name on some piece of matter but rather with the intention of referring to an unknown something, whatever that something might turn out to be, which was deemed to be responsible for the transmission of biological form between generations.

Things changed, of course, in 1953 when Watson and Crick established the DNA molecule and the physical locus of genes.

The concept of the meme originated in a similar way. While the general notion of cultural evolution goes back to the 19th century, it was at best of secondary, if not tertiary, importance in the 1970s when Dawkins write The Selfish Gene. And while others had offered similar notions (e.g. Cloake), for all practical purposes, Dawkins invented the concept behind his neologism, though it didn’t began catching on until several years after he’d published it.

The concept still functions pretty much as a placeholder. People who use it, of course, offer examples of memes and arguments for those examples. But there is no widespread agreement on a substantial definition, one that has been employed in research programs that have increased our understanding of human culture. Continue reading “Cultural Evolution, So What?”

How Do We Account for the History of the Meme Concept?

First, in asking THAT question I do not intend a bit of cutesy intellectual cleverness: Oh Wow! Let’s get the meme meme to examine it’s own history. My purpose would be just as well served by examining, say, the history of the term “algorithm” or the term “deconstruction,” both originally technical terms that have more or less entered the general realm. I’m looking at the history of the meme concept because I’ve just been reading Jeremy Burman’s most interesting 2012 article, “The misunderstanding of memes” (PDF).

Intentional Change

Second, as far as I can tell, no version of cultural evolution is ready to provide an account of that history that is appreciably better than the one Burman himself supplies, and that account is straight-up intellectual history. In Burman’s account (p. 75) Dawkins introduced the meme concept in 1976

as a metaphor intended to illuminate an evolutionary argument. By the late-1980s, however, we see from its use in major US newspapers that this original meaning had become obscured. The meme became a virus of the mind.

That’s a considerable change in meaning. To account for that change Burman examines several texts in which various people explicate the meme concept and attributes the changes in meaning to their intentions. Thus he says (p. 94):

To be clear: I am not suggesting that the making of the active meme was the result of a misunderstanding. No one individual made a copying mistake; there was no “mutation” following continued replication. Rather, the active meaning came as a result of the idea’s reconstruction: actions taken by individuals working in their own contexts. Thus: what was Dennett’s context?

And later (p. 98):

The brain is active, not the meme. What’s important in this conception is the function of structures, in context, not the structures themselves as innate essences. This even follows from the original argument of 1976: if there is such a thing as a meme, then it cannot exist as a replicator separately from its medium of replication.

Burman’s core argument this is a relatively simple one. Dawkins proposed the meme concept in 1976 in The Selfish Gene, but the concept didn’t take hold in the public mind. That didn’t happen until Douglas Hofsadter and Daniel Dennett recast the concept in their 1982 collection, The Mind’s I. They took a bunch of excerpts from The Selfish Gene, most of them from earlier sections of the book rather than the late chapter on memes, and edited them together and (pp. 81-82)

presented them as a coherent single work. Al- though a footnote at the start of the piece indicates that the text had been excerpted from the original, it doesn’t indicate that the essay had been wholly fabricated from those excerpts; reinvented by pulling text haphazardly, hither and thither, so as to assemble a new narrative from multiple sources.

It’s this re-presentation of the meme concept that began to catch-on with the public. Subsequently a variety of journalist accounts further spread the concept of the meme as a virus of the mind.

Why? On the face of it it would seem that the virus of the mind was a more attractive and intriguing concept whereas Dawkins’ original more metaphorical conception. Just why that should have been the case is beside the point. It was.

All I wish to do in this note is take that observation and push it a bit further. When people read written texts they do so with the word meanings existing in their minds, which aren’t necessarily the meanings that exist in the minds of the authors of those texts. In the case of the meme concept, the people reading The Selfish Gene didn’t even have a pre-existing meaning for the term, as Dawkins introduced and defined it in that book. The same would be true for the people who first encountered the term in The Mind’s I and subsequent journalistic accounts. Continue reading “How Do We Account for the History of the Meme Concept?”

Dennett Upside Down Cake: Thinking About Language Evolution in the 21st Century

About two years ago Wintz placed a comment on Replicated Typo’s About page in which he lists several papers that make good background reading for someone new to the study of linguistic and cultural evolution. I’ve just blitzed my way through one of them, Language is a Complex Adaptive System (PDF) by Beckner et al (2009)*, and have selected some excerpts for comment.

The point of this exercise is to contrast the way things look to a young scholar starting out now with the way they would have looked to a scholar starting out back in the ancient days of the 1960s, which is when both Dennett and I started out (though he’s a few years older than I am). The obvious difference is that, for all practical purposes, there was no evolutionary study of language at the time. Historical linguistics, yes; evolutionary, no. So what I’m really contrasting is the way language looks now in view of evolutionary considerations and the way it looked back then in the wake of the so-called Chomsky revolution—which, of course, is still reverberating.**

Dennett’s thinking about cultural evolution, and memetics, is still grounded in the way things looked back then, the era of top-down, rule-based, hand-coded AI systems, also known as Good Old-Fashioned AI (GOFAI). In a recent interview he’s admitted that something was fundamentally wrong with that approach. He’s realized that individual neurons really cannot be treated as simple logical switches, but rather must be treated as quasi-autonomous sources of agency with some internal complexity. Alas, he doesn’t quite know what to do about it (I discuss this interview in Watch Out, Dan Dennett, Your Mind’s Changing Up on You!). I’m certainly not going to claim that I’ve got it figured out, I don’t. Nor am I aware of anyone that makes such a claim. But a number of us have been operating from assumptions quite different from those embodied in GOFAI and Language is a Complex Adaptive System gives a good précis of how the world looks from those different assumptions. Continue reading “Dennett Upside Down Cake: Thinking About Language Evolution in the 21st Century”

Cultural Evolution: Some Terminology

Terminology is important, and pesky. I am in need of at least two terms, terms for which I have a technical use. I also dislike coining new terms. I would much prefer to use existing terms, even if it requires a bit of refitting here and there. Here are three proposals, the first of which is familiar to you, followed by brief discussions of each:

meme: the observable properties of objects, events, or processes that are culturally active; the cultural analog to the biological gene.

substrate: the physical object, event, or process in which culturally active properties (i.e. memes) are said to inhere.

ideotype: the cultural analog to the biological phenotype. Ideotypes are mental constructs arising in minds as brains engage with memes. Continue reading “Cultural Evolution: Some Terminology”

The Memetic Mind, Not: Where Dennett Goes Wrong

On the face of it, Dennett and I have very different views about cultural evolution. To be sure, we both believe that Dawkins’s initial insight is valid: that culture is an evolutionary regime unto itself in which the benefits of cultural success accrue to cultural entities, not human individuals or populations. Where Dennett talks only of memes, I make an explicit distinction between memes and a cultural correlate of the phenotype (for which I have yet to adopt a term of art).

While Dennett allows memes to exist both in the external world and in the mind, most of his discussion is about memes in the mind moving from one mind to another. Indeed, I’d be curious to know what Dennett thinks exists in the mind apart from memes; of what, for example, does the neonate’s mind consist of? By contrast, I insist that memes exist in the external world, as observable (and memorable) properties of objects, events, and processes. The cultural correlates of the biological phenotype emerge as mental processes in brains as those brains engage with memes.

We thus have rather, if not utterly, different views about cultural evolution. As I have been thinking these things through, however, I have begun to suspect that our difference is more in how we assign roles in the process of cultural evolution to the mechanisms of human thought and action than in our conception of those mechanisms (though we no doubt have our differences there as well). And that’s the line I wish to investigate in this post. I will concentrate that investigation on a single essay:

From Typo to Thinko: When Evolution Graduated to Semantic Norms [PDF], in Evolution and Culture. Stephen C. Levinson and Pierre Jaisson, eds. The MIT Press: 2006.

All quotations are from that paper. Continue reading “The Memetic Mind, Not: Where Dennett Goes Wrong”

Bleg: Do Memes Matter to You?

For those doing or training to do academic research on linguistic and/or cultural evolution: Do memes matter to you?

I’ve got the impression that the issue that I’ve been chewing on recently, the appropriate account of memes of, if you prefer, the cultural analog of the biological gene, is mostly a theoretical one and has, so far, little bearing on empirical issues. However, I’ve also got the impression that most of the work on cultural evolution in the past decade or so has been empirical, either analysis of real-world data of one kind or another, or running simulations, and that the appropriate definition of meme doesn’t matter. You count what you can count. What matters is the quality of the raw data and the quality of the analysis.

If that is so, who cares about memes?

How the Meme became a Pest

Since I’ve been posting a lot about memes recently, and from a POV in opposition to the most prevalent memetic doctrines, I thought I’d post a link to this article (full text is downloadable):

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman. The misunderstanding of memes: Biography of an unscientific object, 1976–1999. Perspectives on Science. Spring 2012, Vol. 20, No. 1, Pages 75-104
Posted Online January 19, 2012.
(doi:10.1162/POSC_a_00057)
© 2012 by The Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Abstract: When the “meme” was introduced in 1976, it was as a metaphor intended to illuminate an evolutionary argument. By the late-1980s, however, we see from its use in major US newspapers that this original meaning had become obscured. The meme became a virus of the mind. (In the UK, this occurred slightly later.) It is also now clear that this becoming involved complex sustained interactions between scholars, journalists, and the letter-writing public. We must therefore read the “meme” through lenses provided by its popularization. The results are in turn suggestive of the processes of meaning-construction in scholarly communication more generally.

We might, of course, see Burman’s argument as an illustration of how the intentional products of brilliant minds, in this particular case, Dawkins’ original 1976 conception, undergo chaotic if not random, variation and selection in the larger cultural arena. Burman lays the original variation and popularization at the feet of Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett and their 1981 edited collection, The Mind’s I, which was more popular in its time that Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.

In The Mind’s I, Hofstadter and Dennett presented a new version of the meme-metaphor. To construct it, they selected harmonious themes from across The Selfsh Gene and presented them as a coherent single work. Although a footnote at the start of the piece indicates that the text had been excerpted from the original, it doesn’t indicate that the essay had been wholly fabricated from those excerpts; reinvented by pulling text haphazardly, hither and thither, so as to assemble a new narrative from multiple sources.

This omission could perhaps be forgiven. The collection was “composed,” after all. But, in the case of the meme, there is more to its composition than a simple departure from the original. The new version provides no clear indication that changes had been made, such as to shift the spelling and punctuation from UK to US standard; or that, in several instances, material had been lifted mid-paragraph and re-presented out of context. Indeed, comments are included from the original—without any editorial remarks—that misrepresent the whole as a coherent unit.

Whoops!

And the rest, as they say, is history. You’ll have to read the full article to get the blow-by-bloody-blow.

What’s a meme? Where I got my conception

In the past few years I have settled into a conception of memes (that is, of the cultural analog to the biological gene) as properties of physical objects, events, and processes. If, for example, we’re talking of the spoked wheel, then certain of its discernible physical properties (such as its shape) have memetic function, but not the wheel itself. The wheel itself is simply a physical object, like a stone or a mountain. Similarly, the process of making a spoked wheel has memetic properties, and it is those properties to which apprentices attend as they learn the craft from a master wheelwright.

My immediate source of this concept is my friend, teacher, and colleague, the late David G. Hays. I don’t know where Hays himself got the idea. But I know he’d read Dawkins, so perhaps that’s where he got it.

We discussed the idea a bit in the 1990s, but only a bit. It didn’t loom large in our discussions. It was only after he’d died (in 1995) that I decided to work on the idea, though I forget just what prompted this.

Once I made that decision I started my reading in the one place Hays had written on the idea, a relatively short passage in the final chapter of The Evolution of Technology Through Four Cognitive Ranks (1993), which he’d developed while teaching an online course on the history of technology through The New School. I have reproduced that passage below.

The term “rank” is one we used over the years in talking about the ever-increasing complexity of culture. Roughly speaking, by rank 1 we mean the cultures pre-literate societies. Rank 2 emerges with the advent of literacy while Rank 3 is what first emerged in the West in the Early Modern period (aka the Renaissance). Rank 4 is where we are now. Our basic account can be found in The Evolution of Cognition (1990), though there’s a preliminary version in my dissertation, Cognitive Science and Literary Theory (1978). You can find a handful of papers, plus an overview, at Mind-Culture Coevolution: Major Transitions in the Development of Human Culture and Society. Continue reading “What’s a meme? Where I got my conception”

Stir-fry Memetics

Tyler Cowen has a post at Foreign Policy, The Cookbook Theory of Economics: Why Chinese and Mexican dominate the market. Here’s a paragraph Cowen high-lighted on his own blog, Marginal Revolution:
Consider how cooking evolves: It starts in the home and then eventually spreads to restaurants and on to cookbooks, along the way transforming a recipe from oral tradition to commercialized product. In the home, recipes are often transmitted from grandmother to mother, or from father to son, or simply by watching and participating. I’ve seen this in rural Mexico, for instance, when an older daughter teaches her younger sister how to pat tortillas the right way. When societies get richer, you start to see restaurants, a form of specialization like auto mechanics or tailors (see: Adam Smith on the division of labor). Restaurants require that strangers — other cooks — be taught the process. That means simplifying or standardizing ingredients so they’re easier to work with and, in many cases, available year-round. This, of course, means writing down the recipe. Once a dish reaches these commercial milestones, cookbooks will follow.
Yes. Why not? It’s a good paragraph. I like this passage as well, which precedes it:
I recall a trip a few years ago to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where I was surprised to find that virtually all restaurants were Chinese or Indian. They were excellent, but still I wanted some local food. In a fit of desperation, I paid the maid to make me a Tanzanian dish in the hotel kitchen, a kind of improvised room service, with a large tip attached. I ended up with a sort of porridge that looked quite simple but tasted delicious. As I was enjoying the meal, it occurred to me that writing down the recipe wouldn’t do much good, as I wouldn’t be able to reproduce it at home. The grain — perhaps a maize flour or millet — was unfamiliar, and the rest of the local ingredients were fresher and more delicious than anything I could easily get my hands on at home in Fairfax, Virginia. A recipe like “cook grain; add water and salt” wouldn’t get me far, not even with Whole Foods at my disposal.
Continue reading “Stir-fry Memetics”

The Memetic Changeover: When and Why?

This is going to be quick, I hope, and dirty, I’m sure. What I’m up to is taking the first crude steps toward an argument about why putting memes in the head makes culture unintelligible.

Dawkins’ central insight, and the only reason to think about memes at all, is that, properly understood, properly cultural evolution is a regime where the beneficiary of successful cultural change (see my post, Roles in Cultural Interaction) is some kind of cultural entity rather than the organism that exhibits, uses, creates, that cultural entity. Call this the memetic regime. In gene-culture coevolution, by contrast, it is the organism that benefits from successful cultural change.

That is, in the regime of gene-culture coevolution, cultural inheritance is simply mode of behavioral inheritance that is different from, and more rapid, than ‘ordinary’ gene-mediated behavioral inheritance. All of animal culture is inherited in this regime. And this regime remains active in human life as well, though it is swamped by the memetic regime.

The question I’m asking is when, and why, in human prehistory did the memetic regime emerge? Stone tools emerge in the archeological record roughly 2.5 million years ago. Finely crafted hand axes–if that, indeed, is what they are–show up 1.5 million years ago. The shapes of these hand axes are conserved over 100s of thousands of years. They don’t change.

On the one hand, these artifacts indicate a level of craftsmanship beyond that we see in any animal. But they don’t show evidence of rapid and directed change. Do they exist fully within the regime of gene-cultural co-evolution? The question is not, of course, simply about the tools and axes themselves, but about the entire way of life in which they are embedded.

I don’t, of course, know the answer to that question. But if they are pre-memetic, then when did the memetic regime emerge, and why?

One obvious inflection point would be the emergence of language as we know it, which seems to have happened between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago. If that’s when the change happened, why? What is it about language that facilitated that change? Continue reading “The Memetic Changeover: When and Why?”