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?”

Wild Replicator’s Got Funky Rhythm, Part 2

As its name indicates, this post builds on Wild Replicator’s Got Funky Rhythm, Part 1. I want to call your attention, in particular, to the next to the last section, Becoming Memetic. There I trace, albeit sketchily, the history of Rhythm Changes. The point is that Rhymthm Changes didn’t exist as a memetic entity in 1930, when George Gershwin wrote “I Got Rhythm.” Just when the chord changes had become differentiated from the song itself is not clear. But it had certainly happened, at least in the jazz world, by the mid 1940s. Thus, it is not as though certain patterns are essentially memetic while others are not. It’s a question of how the patterns function in the cultural system.

* * * * *

In the previous post I took a look at Rhythm Changes, a memetic entity that has played an important role in jazz and, in particular, in bebop. FWIW, Rhythm Changes has also been used in the theme song for well-known some well-known cartoons, Woody Woodpecker and The Flintstones. In this post I want to do several things:

  • consider all the elements of “I Got Rhythm,” rather than just the chord changes,
  • think briefly about how pools of memetic elements function in defining musical styles, and
  • look briefly at how the chord changes to Gershwin’s tune became memetically active.

Taken together those discussions flesh out the role of memetic elements in music systems in the large. I conclude by

  • examining this discussion of memes in music in the context of a recent article by Evelyn Fox Keller and David Harel, Beyond the Gene, and not some broad thematic similarities between their discussion and mine.

I Got Rhythm, Whole

As I’ve indicated, Rhythm Changes is derived from, abstracted from, George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” Now let’s think about the whole tune, not just its harmonic trajectory, i.e. Rhythm Changes. In addition to that trajectory we also have a specific melody, the lyrics, the rhythmic framework, and the arrangement. The lyrics are optional; the tune can be performed without them, and among jazz musicians that is the typical, if not universal, performance practice. Note, however, that any consideration of the lyrics brings a whole other memetic field into consideration, that of language. Continue reading “Wild Replicator’s Got Funky Rhythm, Part 2”

Wild Replicator’s Got Funky Rhythm, Part 1

Now that the replicator meme is out and about I’ve got more to say. I’m going to republish two more posts from my 2010 cultural evolution series. These posts are about music. I have various reasons for using music as my cultural evolution conceptual sandbox. For one thing, it means that I don’t have to contend with semantic meanings arbitrarily associated with bits of music. In music, all we’ve got is the physical signal.

In these two posts I choose, not a simple musical example but, rather, a complex one, something jazz musicians know as Rhythm Changes. While I could talk about the four-note motif Beethoven used to construct the first movement of his Fifth Symphony, which is a memetic favorite, that’s too easy. Thinking about it won’t stretch our intuitions about the memetic properties of mere physical things. That motif has four notes, with specific durations and specific note-to-note pitch relationships.

Rhythm Changes isn’t like that. It’s an abstract property of a sound stream. There is now specific number of notes, no specific durations, and no specific note-to-note pitch relationships. Thousands upon thousands of specific musical streams, many quite different from one another, have exemplified the properties of Rhythm Changes.

In the previous post (in this series) I argued memes, the cultural parallel to the biological gene, are those physical properties of objects, events, and processes that allow different individuals to coordinate their participation in those things. In this view, memes are not physical objects, like genes, that spread through a population. Rather, memes are about sharability; they are physical properties that can easily be identified by human nervous systems and thus be the basis for shared (cultural) activity.

In that post I considered a very basic case, people making noise at regular intervals. In that case we have two memes, period (the interval between “hits”) and phase (the relationship between streams of hits by different individuals). Now I want to consider a considerably more complex case, the entity jazz musicians know as Rhythm Changes. This entity assumes that, for a given performance, period length and phase value are agreed upon. In fact it assumes a lot more. We’re dealing with a whole lot of memes here.

But I don’t want to get hung up in those details. I just want to characterize Rhythm Changes in a reasonable way and explain just why I insist that we regard Rhythm Changes as a structured collection of physical properties that can be ascribed to a stream of sound. While it would be nice to characterize Rhythm Changes using the language of acoustics, it’s not at all clear to me that we’ve got the necessary concepts. In any event, if we do, I don’t know them. Instead, I’ll couch my description in the schematic terms jazz musicians tend to use when talking about their craft; these terms are derived, in part, from descriptive and analytic concepts developed for European art music (i.e. classical music).

I’m going do this in two posts, the first will be confined to Rhythm Changes itself. The second will consider how Rhythm Changes came into being and how it functions in the popular music system. Continue reading “Wild Replicator’s Got Funky Rhythm, Part 1”

Creative cultural transmission as chaotic sampling

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgLast week I attended a lecture by Liz Bradley on chaos.  Chaos has been used to create variations on musical and dance sequences (Dabby, 2008; Bradley & Stuart, 1998).  I was interested to see whether this technique could be iterated and applied to birdsong or other culturally transmitted systems.  I present a model of creative cultural transmission based on this.

Continue reading “Creative cultural transmission as chaotic sampling”

Some Links #19: The Reality of a Universal Language Faculty?

I noticed it’s almost been a month since I last posted some links. What this means is that many of the links I planned on posting are terribly out of date and these last few days I haven’t really had the time to keep abreast of the latest developments in the blogosphere (new course + presentation at Edinburgh + current cold = a lethargic Wintz). I’m hoping next week will be a bit nicer to me.

The reality of a universal language faculty? Melodye offers up a thorough post on the whole Universal Grammar hypothesis, mostly drawing from the BBS issue dedicated Evans & Levinson (2009)’s paper on the myth of language universals, and why it is a weak position to take. Key paragraph:

When we get to language, then, it need not be surprising that many human languages have evolved similar means of efficiently communicating information. From an evolutionary perspective, this would simply suggest that various languages have, over time, ‘converged’ on many of the same solutions.  This is made even more plausible by the fact that every competent human speaker, regardless of language spoken, shares roughly the same physical and cognitive machinery, which dictates a shared set of drives, instincts, and sensory faculties, and a certain range of temperaments, response-patterns, learning facilities and so on.  In large part, we also share fairly similar environments — indeed, the languages that linguists have found hardest to document are typically those of societies at the farthest remove from our own (take the Piraha as a case in point).

My own position on the matter is fairly straightforward enough: I don’t think the UG perspective is useful. One attempt by Pinker and Bloom (1990) argued that this language module, in all its apparent complexity, could not have arisen by any other means than via natural selection – as did the eye and many other complex biological systems. Whilst I agree with the sentiment that natural selection, and more broadly, evolution, is a vital tool in discerning the origins of language, I think Pinker & Bloom initially overlooked the significance of cultural evolutionary and developmental processes. If anything, I think the debate surrounding UG has held back the field in some instances, even if some of the more intellectually vibrant research emerged as a product of arguing against its existence. This is not to say I don’t think our capacity for language has been honed via natural selection. It was probably a very powerful pressure in shaping the evolutionary trajectory of our cognitive capacities. What you won’t find, however, is a strongly constrained language acquisition device dedicated to the processing of arbitrary, domain-specific linguistic properties, such as X-bar theory and case marking.

Babel’s Dawn Turns Four. In the two and half years I’ve been reading Babel’s Dawn it has served as a port for informative articles, some fascinating ideas and, lest we forget, some great writing on the evolution of language. Edmund Blair Bolles highlights the blog’s fourth anniversary by referring to another, very important, birthday:

This blog’s fourth anniversary has rolled around. More notably, the 20th anniversary of Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom‘s famous paper, “Natural Language and Natural Selection,” seems to be upon us. Like it or quarrel with it, Pinker-Bloom broke the dam that had barricaded serious inquiry since 1866 when the Paris Linguistic Society banned all papers on language’s beginnings. The Journal of Evolutionary Psychology is marking the Pinker-Bloom anniversary by devoting its December issue to the evolution of language. The introductory editorial, by Thomas Scott-Phillips, summarizes language origins in terms of interest to the evolutionary psychologist, making the editorial a handy guide to the differences between evolutionary psychology and evolutionary linguistics.

Hopefully I’ll have a post on Pinker and Bloom’s original paper, and how the field has developed over these last twenty years, at some point in the next couple of weeks. I think it’s historical importance will, to echo Bolles, be its value in opening up the field: with the questions of language origins and evolution turning into something worthy of serious intellectual investigation.

Other Links

Hypnosis reaches the parts brain scans and neurosurgery cannot.

Are Humans Still Evolving? (Part Two is here).

The Limits of Science.

On Language — Learning Language in Chunks.

Farmers, foragers, and us.

Tweet This.

On Music and The Brain.

Why I spoofed science journalism, and how to fix in.

The adaptive space of complexity.

The Problem With a Purely Adaptationist Theory of Language Evolution

According to the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller and his colleagues (e.g Miller 2000b), uniquely human cognitive behaviours such as musical and artistic ability and creativity, should be considered both deviant and special. This is because traditionally, evolutionary biologists have struggled to fathom exactly how such seemingly superfluous cerebral assets would have aided our survival. By the same token, they have observed that our linguistic powers are more advanced than seems necessary to merely get things done, our command of an expansive vocabulary and elaborate syntax allows us to express an almost limitless range of concepts and ideas above and beyond the immediate physical world. The question is: why bother to evolve something so complicated, if it wasn’t really all that useful?

Miller’s solution is that our most intriguing abilities, including language, have been shaped predominantly by sexual selection rather than natural selection, in the same way that large cumbersome ornaments, bright plumages and complex song have evolved in other animals. As one might expect then, Miller’s theory of language evolution has been hailed as a key alternative to the dominant view that language evolved because it conferred a distinct survival advantage to its users through improved communication (e.g. Pinker 2003). He believes that language evolved in response to strong sexual selection pressure for interesting and entertaining conversation because linguistic ability functioned as an honest indicator of general intelligence and underlying genetic quality; those who could demonstrate verbal competence enjoyed a high level of reproductive success and the subsequent perpetuation of their genes. Continue reading “The Problem With a Purely Adaptationist Theory of Language Evolution”

Some Links #14: Can Robots create their own language?

Can Robots create their own language? Sean already mentioned this in the comments for a previous post. But as I’m a big fan of Luc Steels‘ work this video may as well go on the front page:

Speaking in Tones: Music and Language Partner in the brain. The first of two really good articles in Scientific American. As you can guess by the title, this article is looking at current research into the links between music and language, such as the overlap in brain circuitry, how prosodic qualities of speech are vital in language development, and the way in which a person hears a set of musical notes may be affected by their native language. Sadly, the article is behind a paywall, so unless you have a subscription you’ll only get to read the first few paragraphs, plus the one I’m about to quote:

In a 2007 investigation neuroscientists Patrick Wong and Nina Kraus, along with their colleagues at Northwestern University, exposed English speakers to Mandarin speech sounds and measured the electrical responses in the auditory brain stem using electrodes placed on the scalp. The responses to Mandarin were stronger among participants who had received musical training — and the earlier they had begun training and the longer they had continued training, the stronger the activity in these brain areas.

Carried to extremes: How quirks of perception drive the evolution of species. In the second good article, which by the way is free to view, Ramachandran and Ramachandran propose another mechanism of evolution in regards to perception:

Our hypothesis involves the unintended consequences of aesthetic and perceptual laws that evolved to help creatures quickly identify what in their surroundings is useful (food and potential mates) and what constitutes a threat (environment dangers and predators). We believe that these laws indirectly drive many aspects of the evolution of animals’ shape, size and coloration.

It’s important to note that they are not arguing against natural selection; rather, they are simply offering an addition force that guides the evolution of a species. It’s quite interesting, even if I’m not completely convinced by their hypothesis — but my criticisms can wait until they publish an actual academic paper on the subject.

A robotic model of the human vocal tract? Talking Brains links to the Anthropomorphic Talking Robot developed at Waseda University. Apparently it can produce some vowels. Here is a picture of the device (which looks like some sort of battle drone):

Battle Drone or Model Vocal Tract?

Y Chromosome II: What is its structure? Be sure to check out the new contributor over at GNXP, Kele Cable, and her article on the structure of the Y Chromosome. I found this sentence particularly amusing:

As you can see in Figure 1, the Y chromosome (on the right) is puny and diminutive. It really is kind of pathetic once you look at it.

Scientopia. A cool collection of bloggers have banded together to form Scientopia. With plenty of articles having already appeared it all looks very promising. In truth, it’s probably not going to be as successful as ScienceBlogs, largely because it doesn’t pay contributors and, well, nothing is ever going to be as big as ScienceBlogs was at its peak. This new ecology of the science blogosphere is well articulated in a long post by Bora over at A Blog Around the Clock.

Broca's area and the processing of hierarchically organised sequences pt.2

ResearchBlogging.org3. Neurological processing of hierarchically organised sequences in non-linguistic domains

A broader perspective sees grammar as just one of many hierarchically organised behaviours being processed in similar, prefrontal neurological regions (Greenfield, 1991; Givon, 1998). As Broca’s area is found to be functionally salient in grammatical processing, it is logical to assume that this is the place to search for activity in analogous hierarchical sequences. Such is the basis for studies into music (Maess et al., 2001), action planning (Koechlin and Jubault, 2006) and tool-production (Stout et al., 2008).

Continue reading “Broca's area and the processing of hierarchically organised sequences pt.2”