What is Culture that it can Evolve? The Mesh, from Individuals to the Group

Things are complicated, and there’s a sense in which I’ve jumped the gun in some of my earlier posts in this current series, which I’ve provisionally titled “Cultural Evolution: Literary History, Popular Music, Ontology, and Temporality.” So I want to do a little catch-up in this post before a final – I hope – post in which I return to the idea that cultural evolution is driven by the need to assuage anxiety, an idea I have from David Hays and which I introduced into this series in the post, Culture as a Force in History: the United States of the Blues.

What I would like to do in this post is to be more explicit about how we get from a collection of individuals to a culturally coherent group, from individual minds to a “collective” mind in the meshwork of individuals held together by a common culture. From there I will give a more detailed account of the coordinators in the cultural evolutionary process, for it is the coordinators that make it possible. Then we’ll be ready for an explicit account of pleasure and anxiety. I’ll conclude with some remarks on the need for cultural stability before we can have cultural evolution.

Note: Most of the rest of this post is edited from materials I’ve published previously, either in Beethoven’s Anvil (chapters 3 and 4) or my working paper, Cultural Evolution, Memes, and the Trouble with Dan Dennett.

Coupling, Music and the Mesh

How then do we go about constructing a physically coherent account of a collective mind? What I did in the second and third chapters of Beethoven’s Anvil was to argue that when a group of people is engaged in making music together, and/or dancing together, that they are functioning as a collective mind. In this collective mind most of the signal pathways are inside brains and bodies and transmit signals electro-chemically. But some of the signal pathways exist between individuals, where the signals are transmitted as mechanical waves through the air. The nature of these two sets of signals – their speed, their content – must be such that the overall ensemble functions smoothly.

Note that when people are doing this, each gives up most of his or her individual freedom for the duration of the activity. If they are playing completely notated music, such as musicians in a symphony orchestra, then they agree to play what is written in the score. They also agree to follow the indications of the conductor and to coordinate their actions with their fellow musicians. If they are improvising jazz musicians, they aren’t committed to a specific score, though a given arrangement is likely to have some specified melodic lines and back up “riffs”, but they agree to the general conventions to be followed in each piece and they agree to be responsive to one another in the group.

This may seem obvious and self-evident, but it is this self-evident cooperation that allows us to treat the group as embodying a single coherent “mind.” There is only one source of “free” agency, and that is the group. Music is such a subtle business that, despite all this cooperation, the individuals still have quite a lot to keep them busy.

That’s the easy part of the argument. But I did something else, something more abstract and more subtle. I called on the neurobiology of Walter Freeman. Freeman uses the mathematics of complexity theory to study neural activity. That mathematics was originally developed by nineteenth century physicists to study thermodynamics.

This is a mathematics that talks about the states of a system: how many possible states are there, what’s the likelihood of each? To do this we need to know how many unit elements constitute the system, how many states each unit may assume, and whether or not the units are coupled so as to constrain one another. Absent any constraints, a system with 10 units where each unit can be in any one 4 different states, can have 4^10 states. If the units are connected, then the number of possible states will be smaller.

Classically, physicists were interested in gasses, where the individual units are molecules and the state of a molecule is determined by its position and velocity at any moment. Neuroscientists, of course, are interested in brains. It’s not clear what the relevant unit is – the individual neuron, the synapse, individual molecules – nor how many states each unit may have. But none of that matters for the conception I propose.

What matters is that, whatever the units are, they are linked together in ways that impose severe mutual constraints. Individual neurons in a nervous system are not free to do what each one “wishes” to do. Each neuron is connected to 10,000 other neurons on average and thus the state of a neuron at any given moment is closely coupled with the states of 10,000 other neurons.

When people agree to make music together that agreement has the effect of imposing massive constraints on the activities of neurons in their nervous systems. Functionally, those constraints are no different from those that are physically imposed within a nervous system. Phenomenologically, however, they are quite different. Phenomenologically, that agreement takes the subjective form of an act of will. And the physical result of those coordinated acts of will is that the number of states available to the ensemble is no larger than the number of states available to any one individual in the ensemble.

What does that mean? A group of, say, 70 people has seventy times as many neural units as a single individual. If those individuals are acting independently of one another, the number of neural states available to the group will be vastly larger than the number of states available to any one individual. Since these individuals have agreed to act together, however, the ensemble has no more states available to it than the number of states available to any one individual.

If this were not the case, then music performed by groups would routinely be unintelligible to members of the group, not to mention members of an audience. The fact is, however, that a Beethoven symphony performed by a single pianist from a piano reduction is pretty much the same piece of music as that performed by a full orchestra. The range of tonal colors is limited, of course, but the themes, harmonies, and developments are the same.

What has this to do with cultural evolution? Well, just how do musicians keep together? That they agree to do so is all well and good, but what must they be doing in order for that agreement to have practical effect?

They must be attending to the same aspects of musical sound. The most fundamental of these are the beat and the tempo. These things that they are attending to, they are coordinators that I talked about in an earlier post (Terminology for Cultural Evolution: Coordinators and Phantasms) They are the genetic elements of culture. That is to say, for culture the genetic entities are those entities that set the sensorimotor terms through which individual minds are coupled into an interactive meshwork that can be said to “host” a collective mind.

My major point is that by treating nervous systems as physical systems, we can craft a coherent account of collective minds, of minds living in a meshwork of relations among individuals. Because the music-making group operates in real time, I take that as the paradigm case of the group mind. Other cases will have to be constructed through suitable means.

Coordinators: Targets, Couplers, and Designators

Since it is the coordinators the set the terms of interaction between individuals, they are obviously crucial. As I’ve said, they are the genetic elements of culture. Rather than thinking of them as little bits of information the pass from one brain to another – as in the various conceptions of memetics – think of them as specifying the structure of a virtual brain-to-brain interface through which individuals communicate in complex and sophisticated ways.

I believe there are at least three classes of coordinators: targets, couplers, and designators (see Memes as Data: Targets, Couplers, and Designators). Couplers are the type of coordinators most important to musical performance. I’ve already said a bit about them in the previous section. For a more extended discussion of musical couplers, see the discussion of rhythm changes in The Evolution of Human Culture: Some Notes Prepared for the National Humanities Center (Version 2). I’ll devote the rest of this section to designators and targets.

Words are designators. More precisely, it is the signifier that is a designator. The signified belongs to the mental apparatus whereby designation is achieved. As such it is a component of a phantasm, where phantasms are the phenotypic entities in cultural evolution. It is because they are physical objects that signifieds can exist in the public domain where all can hear and see them. In contrast, signifiers are mental objects and so exist in individual minds. As the linguist William Croft points out, “getting speaker and hearer to converge on the same meaning is a problem, precisely because our thoughts cannot leave out heads” (Explaining Language Change, 2000, p. 111).

We know, however, that groups exert considerable pressure on individuals to ensure that word usage conforms to shared norms. And for the most part groups succeed in this task. If they didn’t then neither the spoken nor the written word would be effective means of communication. Where there are differences, those differences can and are negotiated in face-to-face interaction. It is only when face-to-face interaction isn’t available that such matters become problematic.

In the case of writing it is worth noting, moreover, that the written signifiers do place constraints on what happens in one’s nervous system while reading them. Regardless of just when and where different people read a given text, say Wuthering Heights, they’re subjecting their minds to the same set of constraints, namely those imposed by ink-lines on the page.

Semantic slippage is an issue, and I suspect that it is one of the factors involved in cultural evolution. The issue isn’t one that we must resolve before this enterprise can leave the starting gate. On the contrary, it’s one of the issues that need to be investigated in this enterprise.

That leaves us with one last category of coordinators: targets. For example, assume that you want to make a stone ax head of the standard sort. Using an existing ax head as a model, you can treat its size and shape as targets against which you can judge progress in fabricating a new ax head. In this case targets are parameters in a fabrication procedure that defines some aspect of the fabricated object.

If you want to think about targets in more detail you should read Ted Cloak’s classic account of how to make a wooden wheel, Cultural Darwinism: Natural Selection of The Spoked Wood Wheel (1968). The wheels themselves are visible in public space. Anyone can see them and touch them and manipulate them. Furthermore the process of their manufacture is visible as well. If you are apprenticed to a wheelwright, what are all the targets you must attend to in order to craft a wheel? Some of them are properties of the wheel itself. Others will be properties of the actions used in making the wheel.

The built environment is replete with such targets. Everything we make is subject to culturally specified shape, size, texture, and color. All are targets through which we coordinate our actions.

And so we find ourselves facing a meshwork of Latourian actor-networks ‘covered’ in coordinators: targets, couplers, and designators. It is through these coordinators that individual human actors ‘take in’ the world and act together in it. Human society is a meshwork of material actors bound together by coordinators and the phantasms they engender in individual minds. The coordinators are physical properties of objects, process, and actions that are publically accessible while the phantasms are the mental operations the direct action in this world.

It is the phantasms that are pleasurable, or not. And it is anxiety that motivates us to change. But what are pleasure and anxiety?

Pleasure and Anxiety in the Mesh

Pleasure and anxiety in the mesh are the same kind of phenomenon as they are in the individual mind. Except that the mesh is NOT simply the individual mind writ large. Individual minds are in more or less continuous existence as long as the individual is alive, for I assume the mind doesn’t disappear during sleep. It just enters a different mode of operation.

But the mesh is not like that. Even in small foraging bands, people are not always all present to one another. And even when all individuals in the band are physically together, they are not necessarily tightly coupled through music and dance. Interaction between individuals in the mesh is itself a source of pleasure or anxiety.

But that’s a complexity I’m not yet prepared to deal with. My major task in this section is simply to explain pleasure and anxiety as I developed the concepts for the individual mind. The discussion comes Beethoven’s Anvil, where I define pleasure and anxiety as properties of overall neural flow. Thus I reject the idea that there are pleasure centers in the brain (I provide explicit arguments in the book).

The following section is edited from Chapter 4 of Beethoven’s Anvil (pp. 84-88). You will find full references in the book.

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Let us start with physical pleasure. John Jerome was interested in the pleasures of athletic excellence and proposed an informal theory about what he calls the “Sweet Spot Theory of Performance” (The Sweet Spot in Time 1980). By “sweet spot” he means that spot on a baseball bat, tennis racket, or golf club that affords the squarest contact with the ball, transfers energy to it most efficiently, and thus minimizes jarring transmitted back to the hands. That spot, he assures us, is not myth but a mechanical fact. Generalizing from that, he argues that the superior athlete “is the one who in effect reaches the sweet spot of the arc for each segment of his or her skeleton as he or she goes through the athletic motion.” The pleasure of sport—at any rate, the pleasure that derives from the activity itself, rather than from beating someone else in competition—is simply the feeling one gets when the body is working at its best.

The pleasure of music, I submit, is like that. Musicians certainly know the kind of physical pleasure that Jerome talks about, as do dancers. But so do people who only listen.

Jerome is focused on the smoothly functioning athletic body. But muscles cannot contract and flex in just the right way unless the nervous system controls them just so. The smooth motion is in the body, but the pleasure is in the nervous system. Even if a listener does not move his body, his nervous system does have to follow the sound. I am suggesting that a great deal of the pleasure we take from music lies in overall dynamic character of the activity itself—it is a property of the neural weather. Some weather feels better than other weather. This is not a matter of some brain center detecting some property in the neural weather and signaling good or bad. Rather, we are talking about the overall state of the brain. You don’t need to detect this state because this state is you; it is your mind.

We are now in familiar territory. The idea that music is linked to motion is an old one, one explored by Charles Keil in his essay “Motion and Feeling through Music” and validated by studies that show activity in motor areas of the brain when people are listening to music (Music Grooves, 1994, pp. 53-76). Musical pleasure is an example of flow, a term coined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow: The psychology of optimal experience 1990). Flow is not special either to music or athletic performance, but is a capacity inherent in the nervous system and can happen during a wide range of activities. In Csikszentmihalyi’s model, flow is a function of the conditions of task performance. Where one’s skill exceeds the demands of a task by a considerable margin, the task is boring. Where task demands exceed one’s skill by a considerable margin, the task provokes anxiety—which we’ll examine in more detail in the next section. One feels flow only when the task demands are just a little beyond one’s current skill. In that situation one must be fully alert and attentive in order to perform the task and, if one is so, then it is possible to perform the task well. Thus flow represents a style of action, not some specific set of activities.

The idea of musical pleasure as flow does not preclude the possibility that music stimulates specific “pleasure centers.” Any such centers that are activated through music will contribute to that music’s pleasure. But musical pleasure does not depend on such centers. In general I would expect that music is pleasurable in proportion to its capacity for exercising the inherent properties of the brain, especially the rhythmic properties. Thus:

Pleasure as Coherence: Musical pleasure is the subjective awareness of overall neural flow where that flow is well-timed and coherent.

Further, this musical flow is not under the control of any particular brain system but reflects the joint interaction of all active neural systems, at all levels of interaction. The pleasure-center view would have us believe that musical flow is regulated by those specific pleasure centers. If musical pleasure is not localized in a few centers, it follows that musical flow is not regulated by those centers. We have mutual adjustment and interaction here and there, indeed everywhere, but no omniscient master dictating the terms of the neural dance. Music’s pleasures have no master.

Pleasure, of course, has its opposite in pain. As we have already seen, the nervous system doesn’t have neural centers specifically for pleasure, nor does it have anything that can be called a pleasure system. By contrast, the nervous system certainly does have pain receptors, a pain system, and pain centers, though the exact workings of this system are mysterious. The basic purpose of the pain system is to warn the organism about (possible) physical damage, which is detected by receptors in the skin (Melzack, The Puzzle of Pain 1973). The neurology of pain is thus quite different from that of pleasure, its nominal opposite.

I believe that, in fact, the functional opposite of pleasure is not pain but anxiety. Just as pleasure is the subjective experience of neural weather that functions coherently, so anxiety is the subjective experience of incoherent neural weather. In Csikszentmihalyi’s formulation of flow, anxiety is the neural weather that occurs when you try to perform a task that is far too difficult. You simply have not mastered the necessary mental or physical routines. You fumble and fidget, lose track of where you are, and can’t think of what to do next. This is all quite uncomfortable; you feel anxious.

Thus, in parallel to our concept of musical pleasure, we have:

Anxiety as Incoherence: Anxiety is the subjective awareness of overall neural flow where that flow is poorly timed and incoherent.

What, does this really mean? Let me offer an analogy that Norbert Wiener used in some speculations on psychopathology in Cybernetics (1948, pp. 150 ff.): traffic jams. Wiener wasn’t so much interested in the flow of cars over roads as he was in the flow of electrical signals through complex communications networks. But in both cases, an overload of traffic leads to breakdowns.

One thing that both anxiety and traffic jams have in common is that they are symptoms. Traffic jams can have various causes—construction, an accident, a sobriety check point, outflow from a sporting event, and so on. Similarly, anxiety has many causes. Some anxieties may reflect inner conflict of the sort best worked out in psychotherapy; others may reflect phobias that can be handled through some kind of behavioral therapy. Csikzenmihalyi talks of task difficulty as a cause of anxiety. And some anxiety results from rational assements of genuinely threatening situations.

* * * * *

Pleasure and anxiety in the mesh, then, are a function of pleasure and anxiety among the many individuals linked together in the mesh. If my neighbors feel pleasure, then so do I. If they are anxious, that will make me anxious as well.

Note that our ability to communicate with one another can, in itself, be a source of pleasure when communication goes well and a source of anxiety when it does not. This is independent of just what it is that is being communicated. This is what makes pleasure and anxiety in the mesh rather different from pleasure and anxiety in the individual. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, for example, tells of a person who is deeply disturbed and confused by lust. But the final couplet affirms that we are all so disturbed and confused:

All this the world well knows; that none knows well
To shun the heaven the leads men to this hell.

That communal affirmation transforms distress, if not into pleasure, into something that eases our pain.

Cultural Evolution Presupposes Stability

One the one hand we have a group of individual humans. On the other, we have a collection of coordinators, of targets, couplers, and designators, through which they are bound to a common culture. It is only to the extent that these coordinators support stable interaction between individuals 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. So, our first job is to account for cultural stability from one generation to the next. Given that, how do we account for change? That will be the topic of the last post in this series.

Addendum: Extended Cognition and the Collective Mind

I was cruising the web this morning (23 December 2014) came came across a post about extended cognition (Carl Pierer, Extended Cognition (Part 1) in 3 Quarks Daily). Extended cognition is the notion that, to quote the post, “the tools and instruments used in cognitive processes are part of the cognitive process.” Hence cognition isn’t confined to brain within one’s skull.

I’ve been aware of this notion for some time. I take it as self-evident that, for example, written language is, in some useful sense, a tool of cognition and that that is therefore an example of a cognitive process that is in some sense extended outside the skull. There are a lot of things we use in a way similar to written language. Obviously, we have numbers and the system of calculations and we have diagrams and drawings of all sorts. Just how far we can extend this process, I don’t know. To computers? Sure, why not?

But it’s never been immediately obvious to me that anything deep depends on getting the matter right, whatever it is. The issue seems to me to be one of boundary drawing, but it seems to me that the important question about cognition has always been: What happens inside the skull? When we use computers to simulate cognitive processes, that’s what we’re doing, trying to figure out what happens inside a person’s skull. I see no reason to change this view.

What happens to this conversation, however, in the context of cultural evolution as I have been discussing it? In that context I’ve been talking about a “collective mind” that is implemented in “the mesh” of individual communicating humans. How does that conception intersect with the thesis of extended cognition? Consider this passage from Pierer’s 3QD post:

On Clark and Chalmers' view, Wolfram and the computer create a “coupled system”:

"All the components in the system play an active causal role, and hey jointly govern behaviour in the same sort of way that cognition usually does. If we remove the external component the system's behavioural competence will drop, just as it would if we removed part of its brain. Our thesis is that this sort of coupled process counts equally well as a cognitive process, whether or not it is wholly in the head. (Clark & Chalmers 1998, p. 8)"

Coupled systems are thus ubiquitous: the person using their smartphone to find the nearest bus stop, the pianist playing the piano to test their new piece of music as well as the writer jotting down ideas and modifying them in the process all constitute coupled systems.

The argument for extended heavily relies on an assumption known as the parity principle:

"If, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it done in the head, we would have no hesitation in recognizing as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is (so we claim) part of the cognitive process."

This principle derives from the idea that it should not matter how exactly a cognitive or mental process is instantiated for it to count as cognitive or mental.

Their notion of a coupled system is tantalizing given that I talk of couplers as one class of coordinators. Couplers, in my sense, however, only link one human mind to another. Targets, however, link human minds to external objects. The targets that “cover” a spoked wheel in Ted Cloak’s classic example, however, don’t make that wheel a cognitive instrument for either the wheelwright on the wagon driver.

And then there is the case of language itself, with all those designators. The speech stream is of course external to both the speaker and the listener; that’s what allows it to link them in communication. The same is true of the written text, which can serve as a vehicle of asynchronous communication between a writer and any number of readers. The designators, that is, the content words, link writer and reader together and direct their attention jointly to, well, whatever it being designated, whether it be the apple tree under which Isaac Newton sat, or the theory of gravity that was evoked from him by an apple falling from that tree.

But the interesting processes are the ones taking place in the heads of the speaker and the listening, the writer and the reader, no? The process that conveys the signal from one to the other is not so interesting. It may be an instrument of cognition, it isn’t doing any active cognizing, is it?

* * * * *

I don’t know where this line of thought would lead and I don’t have time to follow it up now. That is to say, it’s not obvious to me at this point that the notion of extended cognition bears on cultural evolution in any deep way. It seems clear to me that they’re playing with some of the same conceptual building blocks. But what they’re building from them – the extended mind – doesn’t interest me as much as the notion of a collective mind implemented in a mesh of humans and their artifacts and interactions through the mediation of cultural coordinators: targets, couplers, and designators.