I have long thought of cultural evolution as a driving force in human history, perhaps even as THE most important driving force, but making an argument on the issue is difficult do in an intellectual environment where cultural evolution is hardly even recognized as an important historical process. At least one problem has to do with our conception of historical actors. There is, of course, the Great Man or Great Woman – gender makes no different though the historical record is biased toward men – who discovers things, leads armies and states, and so forth. We’ve got city-states, nation states, and empires, large commercial concerns, and social classes, all historical actors we know how to conceptualize. But culture? Other than the Great Culture Makers, male and female, where are the actors and what do they do?
The actors in cultural evolution are, of course, people, all of us. And what we do is that we try to live as good a life as possible. Collectively, we constitute the culture, and our actions, in the large and over the long term, constitute cultural evolution.
American Popular Music in the 20th Century
Back in the previous millennium, near the end, I did make one explicit argument about culture as a historical force. The argument was not a general one but rather was about a specific set of cultural formations, American popular music in the 20th century. And I didn’t frame it as an argument about cultural evolution, but simply as an argument about music: Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues (in Leading Issues in Afro-American Studies, Nikongo Ba'Nikongo, ed., Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, pp. 189-233, 1997).
I‘m not going to try to summarize the whole argument, but I’d like to look at enough to give a sense of the terms of the argument. Here’s the abstract:
European-American racism has used African America as a screen on which to project repressed emotion, particularly sex and aggression. One aspect of this projection is that whites are attracted to black music as a means of expressing aspects of themselves they cannot adequately express through music from European roots. Thus twentieth century expressive culture in the United States has been dominated by an evolving socio-cultural system in which blacks create musical forms and whites imitate them. It happened first with jazz, and then with rock and roll. The sexual revolution and the recent florescence of blacks in television and movies suggests that white America has had some success in using black American expressive forms to cure its affective ills. The emergence of rap, from African America, and minimalism, from European America, indicates that this system is at a point where it is ready to leave Western expressive culture behind as history moves to the next millennium.
The fundamental dynamic is thus psycho-social We’re dealing with psychology at the individual level–for that’s where psychology takes place, in individuals–but where certain characteristics are typical of whole groups. In a section on the cultural psychodynamics of racism I sketch that out in some detail:
Freud argued that, in general, much behavior is driven by unconscious desires. Moving beyond the individual psyche, he argued, perhaps most explicitly in Civilization and Its Discontents (1962), that Western civilization is built on a foundation of emotional repression. Racism is a society-wide manifestation of that repression. The basic point is simple: many of the characteristics racists have attributed to blacks are simply the repressed contents of their own hearts and minds which they have projected onto African Americans (Baldwin, 1963, p. 95 ff.; Gay, 1993. pp. 69 ff.; Morrison, 1992, pp. 37 ff., 51-52; Young-Bruehl 1996). In particular, the heightened sexual desire and potency, and the greater emotionality, which whites have insisted on seeing in blacks has more to do with unconscious white desire than it does with black behavior.In an essay originally published in 1947, Talcott Parsons (1964, pp. 298-322) explored the dynamics of aggression, arguing that Western society is so structured that aggressive impulses are often generated in situations where they cannot be directly expressed, creating a need for ethnic and national "Others" who can be scapegoated. Calvin Hernton explored the sexual dynamics of racism in a study originally published in 1965 (and reprinted in 1988). Erik Erikson made a general theoretical statement in the final chapter of his Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968, pp. 295-320). He argued that no culture has been able to adapt the full biological range of human desire and feeling to its patterns. Each culture cultivates some characteristics at the expense of others. The neglected characteristics may then coalesce into a negative identity which members of a given society will often project or displace onto members of some other society or culture. Joel Kovel (1984) has undertaken an investigation of American racism in which he argues for different psychological processes in the North and the South. Most recently, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl (1996) has undertaken a psycho-social analysis of prejudice–including anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia in addition to racism–in which she identifies various kinds of racism and attempts to identify the historical conditions which give rise to them...However, if the lynching is the prototypical scene of racist violence, there is a contrasting prototypical scene of racism, one which is not dominated by physical violence. Consider those nightclubs, such as the Cotton Club, where the performers were black but the clientele was exclusively white. Why did all those white people seek black entertainment? No doubt most of them came for the erotic floorshow, but some of them were interested in the music. Why? The question is not a new one, and the answer is obvious--in the same way that the applicability of Freud to racism is so obvious that it has been little discussed. European Americans have liked African-American music because it has expressive powers which are lacking in European and European-American music (Crouch, 1990b, p 83; Keil, 1966, p. 49; Small, 1987, p. 154; Williams, 1983, p. 254). In particular, as we've seen above, African-American music is comfortable with sexuality, while European music is not. People may have come to the Cotton Club to see black bodies enact jungle pseudo-rituals on stage; but they left with the expressive sound of African American music boring into their brains….Unfortunately the psychodynamics of racism doesn't end here. The need for projective psychological relief is an equal opportunity affirmative action agent of social destruction. Black Americans have demonized whites even as they have been demonized. The Black Muslims provide the most obvious example, with Elijah Muhammad's story of the evil Mr. Yacub who created a race of “blond, pale-skinned, cold-blue-eyed devils--savages, nude and shameless; hairy, like animals, they walked on all fours and they lived in trees.” These white devils then turned a black “heaven on earth into a hell torn by quarreling and fighting” (Haley, 1965, p. 167; for different examples, see e.g. Crouch, 1990c, pp. 200-202, 231-244; Early, 1989, pp. 199-207; Young-Bruehl, 1996, 481 ff.). Considering that African Americans have legitimate grievances against European Americans, the problem of sorting out the justified anger from the projective demonization seems hopeless. From that hopeless confusion Dr. Martin Luther King, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz–aka Malcolm X, Detroit Red, Malcolm Little–struggled to discriminate right from wrong and thereby exercised moral and political leadership which gave hope to millions.
Given that as a fundamental psycho-cultural dynamic of American culture and society, the logic of the cultural argument becomes obvious. But listening to and then imitating black music, with its obvious sensuality, white America becomes more comfortable with its sexuality and therefor has less need of projection as a mechanism of psychic relief. The largest part of the article then traces out the back and forth dynamic in which popular music gave expression to sexuality and then, with hip-hop, anger.
Toward the end of the article, which is a long one, I assert:
Beyond the music, what has been so far achieved? Is there any evidence that European America is being cured of its psychosocial ills? Racism is still strong, and the projective psychodynamic which drives it still functions. However, that dynamic may be weakening; at least some whites have learned their lessons well and racist attitudes seem to be on the wane (Sniderman and Piazza, p. 1993). There is reason to believe that the sexual revolution has not been mere hype (Efron, 1985, pp. 7 ff.). For example, unmarried couples can now cohabitate openly and freely, something unthinkable in the Father Knows Best era and before. Attitudes have changed as well. In an interview with Peter Whitmer (1987, p. 127), the avant-garde novelist William S. Burroughs remarked:[Skeptics about the 60s] don't seem to realize that forty years ago, four-letter words did not appear on printed pages; that when I was in my twenties and thirties [he was born in 1914], the idea that a Mexican or a black or a queer was anything but a second-class citizen was simply absurd. These were tremendous changes. Then, of course, the end of censorship.Certainly there is much more writing and talk about sexuality. Much of it is superficial, such as that on television talk shows. But the talk exists, and that in itself is progress. In particular there is a great deal of talk about the ugly consequences of misguided sexuality--e.g. child abuse. Such talk, which deeply questions the integrity of family dynamics, would have been impossible fifty or a hundred years ago. Before we can change our behavior and our hearts, we must be able to talk, from the heart, about that behavior. These changes in behavior and attitude have such strenuous opposition that we cannot confidently predict the future. Yet, if the talk continues, behavior may continue changing as well and the inheritors of the Western cultural legacy may create a more emotionally satisfying culture, one which need no longer need to use racism as a way of dealing with emotional conflict.
This dynamic has not, of course, yet reached equilibrium. Racial injustice persists. The interesting thing, though, is that the last time around the wheel, as it were, produced a musical form, hip-hop, that is centered on anger, rather than the sensuality of jazz, swing, and rock, and that has produced relatively few white imitators. White performers quickly assimilated the earlier idioms, but not hip-hop. While hip-hop has produced white performers, the numbers are not comparable to those in the earlier idioms. In the case of rock-and-roll in particular, white performers pretty much came to dominate the idiom (and black performers of the time gravitated to soul and funk).
This dynamic, of course, spread outside the United States early in the 20th Century and has also become, arguably, the single strongest force in world-wide musical culture.
Culture in the Mesh
How then could we transform that argument into a proper argument about cultural evolution? We need to do two things. The argument I made is about cultural history and is stated in fairly conventional terms. I could add more detail and expand it to book length, but the basic nature of the argument and the evidence would not change.
Turning it into an argument about cultural evolution – which is, after all, what I had in mind when I made it – would take quite a bit of work, more than a mere change of terminology. First we need to reformulate the argument in terms of a model of cultural evolution. That’s one thing. The other, of course, is that we need to present evidence commensurate with that model. Neither of these is a simple task, nor am I prepared to undertake a full discussion of them. I will, however, say a bit more about the model than about gathering evidence.
As I’ve asserted before here and there, the fabric of culture is a meshwork of interactions between people, either directly in face-to-face situations or indirectly, mediated by artifacts of some kind. Social relations structure this meshwork of interactions. The argument I presented in that article is one about American society and how it is structured by racism, how it structures the propagation of music, and more generally how people treat one another. That, obviously, is a lot. We know a lot about all these things and about how they have changed over time.
Let’s consider music in face-to-face situations. Churches, nightclubs, dance halls, concert halls and various other venues have all played roles in this story. Is the audience black, white, or mixed? What about the performers? What kind of music is being performed? How many people are involved in each setting, how many performances and transaction, and so forth. It’s not a matter of actually getting records of all this, that’s impossible, but of realizing that this is what is involved. The transactions were there; that’s how cultural operates.
New York’s Cotton Club, for example, was one of many nightclubs in the 1920s and 1930s the featured black performers for an exclusively white, and fairly well-to-do (and sometimes criminal) audience. But the performances would often be broadcast, as well as recorded. Anyone with a radio could listen to the broadcasts and anyone with a record player could buy the recordings. By the 1920s these things became widely available and affordable, making high quality black music broadly available. Segregated venues persisted well past the middle of the century and the availability of recordings and broadcasts (of recordings as well as live performances) increased.
The black church has been enormously important for it has been arguably the institutional heart of black music and even black civic life. The ecstatic style of black music has been nurture in the black church and many, though not all, important black performers have roots in the church. But then we also have stories of Elvis Presley listening to music at a local black church. The black church was also central to the Civil Rights movement, where music played a role as well.
Thus we have millions of people performing, listening to, and dancing to music over the course of decades. During that time, of course, the music changed. We need to describe this music and track the changes. This is where we need to identify the genetic elements of musical culture (memes?) and track them in the recorded record. There is no end of discussion about these things, and some of that discussion is quite sophisticated. But it’s one thing to assert that black music is sexy and sensuous in a way that white music was not, at least not until it began molding itself on black models, but how do we describe that? And how do we track it in recordings? As an example, consider Little Richard’s “Tuttie Frutti,” which was performed and recorded not only by Little Richard, but also by Pat Boone and by The Beatles, among others (I’ve got several different versions in this post, though not one by The Beatles). The version by The Beatles is clearly ‘blacker’ than the one by Pat Boone, but not as ‘black’ as the one by Little Richard. How do we make such judgments more precise and how do we track such changes through the cultural meshwork?
The argument is ultimately about how people behave toward one another. That means that we’ve to correlate changes in attitudes and behavior with changes not simply in the music, but in how performs, dances to, and listens to what music. We can track attitudes, for example, by looking at what appears in newspapers and magazines and we can track behavior by looking at crime statistics, marriage statistics (inter-racial marriage), demographic information about where people live and work, and so forth.
Pleasure, Anxiety, and Historical Change
But what’s driving this process? The final common pathway of all human action, collective as well as individual, is the human brain. Are societies affected by access to natural resources? Sure they are. When resources are plentiful, people are warm and comfortable; when resources are scarce, people go hungry, lack for clothing and shelter, and are miserable. Does class conflict affect history? Sure it does. When some are fat and sassy while others are cold and hungry, those others want change while the sassies resist it. Even when all are fed, gross inequities are offensive.
Offense and discomfort are felt in individual brains, as are pride and ease. Socio-cultural change, of course, requires collective action. But the collectivity is still a collectivity of brains. In Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture I devoted considerable effort to understanding collective activity at the neural level, especially in Chapters 2 and 3. In the next chapter, “Musical Consciousness and Pleasure,” I argued that pleasure was a function of the entire nervous system, of neural flow, rather than the activities of a few misidentified ‘pleasure centers.’ I also argued that anxiety is the converse of pleasure. I suggest, therefore, that anxiety is the driving force behind cultural evolution.
In this I am following my teacher and colleague, the late David Hays. Here’s a passage from “Politics, Cognition, and Personality,” which is the fifth chapter of The Evolution of Technology Through Four Cognitive Ranks (1993):
Life is hard. Life is hard because it is lived in brains that strive always to understand, and often fail to understand, both the world and themselves. Our brains are the most complex devices known. The workings of cognition, emotion, and volition are scarcely understood at all even now. We do not know enough to guide parents and teachers, eliminate crime and the use of drugs, or achieve universal and lasting peace.The psychobiological consequence of failure to understand is often fear, anxiety, anger, hostility, and hatred. These states are unpleasant and disruptive. They disrupt thought, and they disrupt society.The fundamental significance of cultural evolution, in my opinion, is that the human capacity for understanding has grown. The striving was there from the beginning; gradually, over some 50,000 years, the striving has come to be satisfied more fully:Kroeber, who is by no means an evolutionist, suggests three criteria for measuring progress: “the atrophy of magic based on psychopathology; the decline of infantile obsession with the outstanding physiological events of human life; and the persistent tendency of technology and science to grow accumulatively.” (Steward, Theory of Cultural Change, 1955, p. 14).... In reading to prepare to write this book, I have learned that the wheel was used for ritual over many years before it was put to use in war and, still later, work. The motivation for improvement of astronomical instruments in the late Middle Ages was to obtain measurements accurate enough for astrology. Critics wrote that even if the dubious doctrines of astrology were valid, the measurements were not close enough for their predictions to be meaningful. So they set out to make their instruments better, and all kinds of instrumentation followed from this beginning. Metals were used for ornaments very early – before any practical use?...In fact, someone in the future may look back on psychoanal sis and remark that its origin was in parapsychology – dreams were interpreted first for divination, second for diagnosis of pathology.Here is my first point: The driving force behind progress in social organization, government, technology, science, and art is the need to control anxiety, to satisfy the brain's striving for understanding.
Notice that final phase, “the brain's striving for understanding.” While we are certainly motivated by the need for material well being, we are also motivated by the need for a coherent sense of the world and of our place in it. If the world doesn’t make sense, then we are uncomfortable and motivated to find or create order.
That, all of it, is what drove the music-mediated interaction between European Americans and African Americans, from the nineteenth century camp meetings through the dance halls, nightclubs, and concert halls of the Twentieth Century. The music itself provided immediate pleasure, but the inter-racial social contact it fostered had side effects that led to a demand for social justice. It is that demand, channeled through a variety of institutions, that has led to changes in American society.