Saturday, November 8, 2014

Terminology for Cultural Evolution: Coordinators and Phantasms

I’ve decided that it is time for some new terms. I’ve been using “meme” as the cultural analog for the biological “gene”, which is more or less the use that Dawkins had in mind when he coined the term. But I’ve decided to scrap it. I also need a term for the cultural analog to the biological phenotype.

From “meme” to “coordinator”

The problem with “meme” as a term is that it has accumulated quite a bit of conceptual baggage. None of that baggage is compatible with my sense of how the cultural analogue to genes function, and much of it is harmful nonsense. Oh, as a popular term as in “internet meme” it’s fine and, in any event, it would be foolish of me to try to interfere with that. The trouble comes when you try to use more or less that meaning in a serious investigation into culture. No one has yet made it work.

I’ve expressed my views in a long series article, book chapters, posts and working papers going back almost two decades. Here’s my most recent thinking:
If I jettison “meme”, however, what’s the alternative?

I don’t like coining new words so I’d like to use an existing word. I’ve decided up “coordinator,” which expresses nicely the function that these entities have to performer. The cultural analog to the gene coordinates the minds of people during interaction, whether face-to-face or through various media. This is not the place to explain that – you can find plenty of explanatory material in the above-linked documents, and others as well. I note only that the term sidesteps the notion of bits of “information” that get passed from person to person, brain to brain. On the contrary, it helps explain how we can, in effect, walk about in one another’s minds (cf. Peter Gärdenfors, The Geometry of Meaning, 2014 chapters four and five).

From “ideotype” to “phantasm”

What about the analogue to the biological phenotype, the individual organism in its environment? Ever since I first thought about cultural evolution as a process of “blind variation and selective retention” (in Donald Campbell’s formulation) I figured that the selecting was being done by groups of human beings and therefore that the environment of cultural evolutionary adaptedness had to be something like a “group mind.” In some way, what was being selected had to be public. I first articulated that position in an article I published in 1996, Culture as an Evolutionary Arena (Journal of Social and Biological Structures). But it took several years before I arrived at a satisfactory, albeit still provisional, formulation.

I did that in my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil (2001), and there it rested upon quite a bit of preliminary work devoted to composing a physically plausible account of interacting brains constituting that group mind (you can download drafts of those chapters HERE). Given that foundation, here is what I said later in the book (pp. 192):
[The question of the cultural phenotype] is as difficult, obscure, and contentious as the nature of memes. Some theorists, Susan Blackmore among them, deny the need for a phenotypic entity at all. In contrast, David Hull has cast scientists themselves into the phenotype role in his treatment of science as an evolutionary process. Influenced by Hull, William Croft assigns the speaker and her grammar to the phenotypic slot in language evolution. Given the both the difficulty and the preliminary nature of this theorizing, these are reasonable choices.

In the case of musicking I take a more abstract view:
Performance-as-Phenotype: The phenotypic role in music’s evolution is played by performance level attractors.
Note that in identifying musicking’s phenotypes in this way I have not introduced a new entity into the theory; I have simply assigned an existing theoretical entity to a role in a different theory, that of cultural evolution. For we have already discussed performance level attractors in the previous chapter. A performance level attractor is simply a trajectory in a group’s collective neural state space that specifies a whole performance. As such, it is a different object from the groove stream attractors we discussed in Chapter 6, though a performance’s groove stream attractor would be a component of the overall performance attractor. Performance attractors are thus properties of brains-in-process, whether a single musicking brain or a group of brains coupled through musicking. They cannot be thought of as being inside brains in the way viruses are inside their hosts. They are self-organizing emergent phenomena arising when people make music.
The word “attractor” in the definition tells you that this conception is grounded in complex dynamics, which is more than I can explain here, but the chapter drafts I linked above should give you a good start.

The general idea is that cultural selection is operating on the set of states, a trajectory, a brain takes while it is perceiving or enacting some appropriate cultural phenomenon, such as a musical performance. In the case of a group making music, or even just listening to a performance, the trajectory unfolds in real time with the piece of music. The same with viewing a painting or a work of sculpture or even reading a book. If the trajectory gives pleasure, one recommends the work to others and seeks to re-experience it oneself. If, on the contrary, it creates anxiety, one avoids it.

But what do we call this thing? Last year I called it an ideotype. The “type” morpheme follows the “phenotype” word structure and “ideo” puts it in the head. And yet “ideo” also has connotations of idea, which is not quite right.

What to do?

After trying another term or two – including ethnotype – I decided to abandon the “type” notion altogether and go for something different: phantasm. The word is an existing one meaning “ghost or spirit”, “delusion or illusion.” While those aren’t quite right, upon further thought, they’re not bad either. Until vetted and solidified by the group, these things ARE will-o-the-wisps and, as neurodynamic objects, they’re pretty abstract and strange.

The word itself is not particularly common, which is, I feel an advantage. People may have heard or seen it, and may even know more or less what it means. But few will have any strong investment in its particular use. So my proposed use won’t be derailed by deeply ingrained habits of thought.

* * * * *

Here we have it:
Cultural evolution proceeds by blind variation among coordinators and selective retention of phantasms.
I like it, at least for now.

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