n the first post in this series I showed that, while Peter Richerson and Joseph Carroll apparently differ on the importance of cultural evolution in relation to biological, their common acceptance of gene-cultural evolution gives them no “sharp” way of defining their difference – a problem that’s worse for Richerson than Carroll, as his is the more subtle position. My second post expressed dissatisfaction with Richerson’s position on informal intuitive grounds – I called it a phenomenological gut-check – similar to those Carroll used to dismiss Miller and Pinker on the adaptiveness of the arts, and Dawkins used to dismiss a purely biological approach to human behavior. Now I’m ready to begin laying out my own views on cultural evolution, views which are very much in flux.
But first, some preliminary throat-clearing.
Thoughts on where Dawkins went wrong
While I don’t by any means dismiss biology as being relevant to the study of human behavior – I’ve got too heavy an investment in brain-based approaches – I do think that the evolution of culture needs to be approached as a phenomenon more or less “within” culture itself, much as Martindale or Dawkins approach it. Though on the whole he seems a bit muddled on this point, Dawkins’ key insight is that, in the cultural evolutionary process, selection operates on cultural entities and not on human phenotypes. That is to say, the evolutionary costs and benefits accrue directly to cultural entities, not to the human beings who create and consume them. There are cases where cultural entities seem to thrive at the expense of humans, but this is a secondary matter and, in the large scope, not worth the attention that’s been lavished on them in popular discussions.
In the biological realm, of course, it is phenotypes, bodies, that are the object of selection. But Dawkins says otherwise with respect to culture (The Selfish Gene, p. 199, using his standard anthropomorphic language): “Selection favours memes that exploit their cultural environment to their own advantage. This cultural environment consists of other memes which are also being selected.” Some confusion arises because Dawkins thinks of memes as the cultural analog to genes, and genes are not the direct target of biological selection. Selection works directly on phenotypes, and only indirectly on genes. It is the phenotypes that thrive or die through interaction with the environment. Dawkins has no clear conception of what the cultural analogy to the phenotype might be – nor do his followers. Better, perhaps, they have no clear conception of how to draw a distinction between a cultural phenotype and cultural gene and so tend to use memes in both roles as seems locally expeditious. In fact, Dawkins often abandons the meme-gene analogy and thinks of the meme as a virus, thus obviating the need for a phenotype analog.
I suspect one thing that’s throwing Dawkins off is his (and everyone else’s it would seem) implicit theoretical imagery. Considered as physical entities, phenotypes are relatively large while genes are relatively small. Further, genes are physically contained within phenotypes, not vice versa. When we transfer this implicit imagery into the cultural realm we are led to think of memes as relatively little things that must be enclosed in some relatively large thing, such as the human brain. Hence, we have the common notion of memes as quasi-autonomous agents hopping around from brain to brain, taking over mental real estate, and often driving their “hosts” to irrational acts, like believe in God, psychoanalysis, or Marxism.
This kind of thinking has led nowhere. It’s time to hit the resent button. We need cultural analogs for both the gene and the phenotype, and individual human phenotypes are not going to play either role. How can we do this?
Musical performance as a cultural analog to the phenotype
What’s important are the causal relations among our theoretical entities. As reconceived in the 20th century, the basic Darwinian process is one of random variation among gene entities and selective retention of phenotype entities. Thus it is the phenotypical entity that interacts with the environment. The gene entity plays a different role.
On this point Martindale (1990) has it right. People like certain cultural things and not others. Those they prefer get passed around while the others are forgotten. So the cultural entities (practices or objects) must be our phenotypical entities and the social group is the environment in which they must survive. Why do I say this? Because this seems to me the most obvious fit between cultural process as we observe it and the causal roles available in the Darwinian paradigm. That doesn’t make it correct, however, but why not start there and see where it leads?
If that is the case, then where do we look for the meme entities? The meme entities are somehow constitutive of the phenotype entities. Genes do something like “catalyze” the process of organismic development. What entities do that for cultural entities? Since culture is shared among individuals in the group, we might ask: what allows for the sharability of cultural processes and artifacts? Where do we find the lynchpins of intersubjective agreement?
At this point I’m going start talking of a specific set of cases rather than talking at the most general level. I’m going to talk about music, which I’ve investigated more intensively – at least in these terms – than any other set of cultural objects and processes. Let me start by recasting the basic account of the musical phenotype I gave in Beethoven’s Anvil. There I assert (p. 192): “The phenotypic role in music’s evolution is played by performance level attractors.” For the purposes of my discussion here I’m going to drop talk of attractors – a mathematical notion – and talk of performances. It is performances that thrive or die.
There is one qualification, however. The entity which actually plays the phenotype role is the perceived and experienced performance (in the langauge of attractors, it is a trajectory in neural state space), the performance as it unfolds in the mind and brain. It’s a neural (and hormonal) event. For the most part, that’s what I mean when I talk of a performance, the inner event. Performances thus conceived are properties of brains-in-process, whether a single music-making brain or a group of brains coupled (see my post on the busy bee brain) through music-making.
While musical performances are not solid compact physical objects like biological organisms (phenotypes), they are certainly bounded in space and time, as are organisms. They come into being at a certain time and in a certain place and continue on for a finite period of time. Their constituents, however we may choose to characterize them, can persist (be reconstructed) from one performance to another just as genes survive from one generation to the next. Further, individual constituents can be used in distinctly different performances just as individual genes can be in the genotypes for different organisms. Thus the analogy seems to work in certain basic ways.
Most importantly, a performance can be successful or not, just as organisms can. Success is the subjective experience of pleasure while the lack of pleasure is failure. People will be motivated to repeat pleasurable performances, but not lack-luster ones, much less performances engendering anxiety — excluding, of course, the case of performances considered to be practice or rehearsal for “real” performances. Any constituent contributing to a pleasurable performance is likely to be repeated in other performances while constituents contributing only to unpleasant performances will drop out of the repertoire.
Performances live in the ebb and flow of human groups, two by two, ten or twenty people at once, a hundred or three hundred, for a minute, 10 minutes, or an hour, three hours, a day, and so forth. Varying numbers of people, varying periods of time, couplings of all kinds, some happening on a regular basis while others happen opportunistically, these are the stuff of musical culture.
At least some of the constituents I’ve referred to must be memes. But what, specifically, do I mean by a musical meme? What would be examples of musical memes?
Phase and period as musical memes
The argument I develop in Beethoven’s Anvil posits rhythm as the fundamental property of music. So let’s consider the simplest possible example of a rhythmic performance: people making noises simultaneously on a regular repeating basis. Imagine that some people are clapping their hands, others are stomping their feet, while still others are banging on cans or logs, ringing bells, shaking rattles, some may be yelling, whatever. It doesn’t matter how they make the noise; all that matters is that they make their noises together. What’re the memes?
We’re talking about very simple periodic behavior, like the ticking of a clock. Physicists describe such behaviors using two parameters, phase and period. Period is the length of time between “ticks” while phase is the relative position of two or more streams of repeated “ticks” with respect to one another. If, for example, we have two people clapping, they could be making hits at exactly the same time (in phase) or one could be lagged with respect to the other (out of phase). If we have 30 people, they might all be hitting at the same time, or we might have various lags, making for a ragged sound.
Note that, while period and phase are not chunks of physical stuff, like genes, they are physically real entities. We can measure them, and people can copy them. What role do they play in the performance? They constrain people’s noise-making by dictating when to make the constituent noises. These parameters define what it means for people to be doing the same thing. If you make your noise at the same time (phase) and repeat at the same interval (period) as the others, then you are participating in the performance. Otherwise, you aren’t.
It doesn’t matter just how you make your noise, or how loud you make it. All that matters is when you make it, and that is defined by period and phase. Those are the memes that define this particular performance. Memes set the terms by which people share in the music-making.
Now, you might be thinking something like, “but you’re not talking about real music, that’s just some toy example. What about real music?” Be patient.
In the first place I’ll consider a more complex example in a later post – the chord progression to “I Got Rhythm,” known informally as “rhythm changes.” For now I want to stick with this very simple example. If we can’t make this simple example work, there’s no point in considering more complex cases.
In the second place, simple repeatable rhythm is a real phenomenon, whether or not you want to think of it as music in some robust sense. It’s a feature of marching, for example, which William McNeil (1995) has found to be an important factor in social cohesion at various times and places in human history. Beyond that, physicists have studied periodic clapping and analyzed it as a case of coupled oscillation (Néda and Ravasz, et. al. 2000; cf. Benzon 2001, pp. 67-68), so we know something about how it works at the physical level. That’s important.
It’s clear to me that one reason that memetics hasn’t gone anywhere is that no one has taken the time to look at simple cases in some detail. That’s what I’m doing now, and that’s what I did at considerably more length in Beethoven’s Anvil. In this particular case, I’m arguing that memes are psychologically salient physical properties of cultural objects. It’s important that we understand what those properties are. We know quite a bit about these two properties, period and phase, and how they influence dynamical systems.
Which brings me to my third point. Period and phase aren’t the only properties of the sound we’re considering in this basic example. That’s why I asked you to imagine people making sounds in various ways, so you’d imagine a rich and complex sound. Most of that richness and complexity, however, is irrelevant to the question of how people coordinate their motions – at least in the simiple terms of this example. On that one issue, all that matters are period and phase, those are the memes.
One could imagine, however, that other properties are important in some other particular case. Perhaps we’ve got a case where only metallic sounds are allowed. Then the property “metallic” would become memetic, giving this performance three memes: 1) a specific period, say, half a second; 2) in-phase, and 3) metallic timbre. My general point is that a given “wash” of sound can have many properties, perhaps even an unbounded number, but only some of them are memetically active. Those properties have to be detectable by the human sensory system and they have to be producible by the motor system (with suitable supporting apparatus). When I discuss rhythm changes we’ll consider other sound properties as being memetically active.
Where are we?
We’ve now got tentative accounts of cultural phenotypes and genes for one class of phenomena, music, and illustrated with a single simple example, making a periodic noise. The phenotype is a performance. Performances, of course, are physical events. But whether they succeed or not as cultural events, that depends on whether or not they are pleasurable. The arena for musical performance is a sort-of collective brain (a notion which I investigated with some care in chapters two and three of Beethoven’s Anvil). In my view, then, it is the cultural phenotypes that are in the head, not the pesky brain-hopping memes of pop science.
Memes then are conceived of as those physical properties of the musical performance around which the performers coordinate their actions. Some physical properties are mimetically active, some are not. It follows from this conception that memes are not some exotic new theoretical entity. Rather, “memetic thinking” is a way of reconceiving entities we already know quite about through the study of physics, psychophysics, and perceptual and cognitive psychology. It follows from this that any study of cultural evolution must entail a fairly detailed consideration of perceptual and cognitive psychology – matters which have largely been ignored in popular accounts.
It also follows that we need to think about pleasure. If success or failure depends on whether or not a performance is pleasurable, we ought to know what pleasure is. That’s tricky business and, to be honest, I don’t know whether or not I’ll tackle it in this series of posts, though I discuss it in chapter 4 of Beethoven’s Anvil. I note, however, that, in Martindale’s model, novelty is the source of aesthetic pleasure. This is a common conception – make it new, and all that.
The larger point, of course, is that, whatever artistic pleasure is, it’s something that happens in the mind. It’s not about feeding the body, at least not directly. While cultural evolution ultimately depends on the existence of populations of human bodies, the basic dynamics of cultural evolution are not those of the life and death of human populations. They are the dynamics of the life and death of cultural entities.
Bonus Points: Those familiar with anthropology may notice that I’ve define “meme” is a way that’s similar to the notion of “emic,” in contrast to “etic.” Is there a decent brief account of this distinction, or is it a hopeless mess?
William Benzon (2001). Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. Basic Books.
Richard Dawkins (1989). The Selfish Gene, New Edition. Oxford University Press.
William McNeil (1995). Keeping Together in Time. Harvard University Press.
Colin Martindale (1990). The Clockwork Muse: The Predictability of Artistic Change. Basic Books, Inc.