Friday, January 23, 2015

Culture, the Humanities, and the Evolution of Geist

Alex Mesoudi’s 2011 book, Cultural Evolution, says little or nothing about the humanities, about music, art, and literature, though it purports to be synthetic in nature (its subtitle: “How Darwinian Theory can Explain Human Culture & Synthesize the Social Sciences”). There is a simple reason for that: humanists have shown little or no interest in evolutionary studies of culture. There is no humanistic work for him to include in his synthesis.

There are obvious things one could say about this, but the most important thing to say at this point is simple: the neglect of evolutionary thinking by humanists is stupid and shortsighted. It must stop. At the same time I note that Mesoudi doesn’t seem dismayed by this situation; he doesn’t even note it. He’s not dismayed by the lack of literary studies (other than work on the phylogeny of manuscripts), musicology, and art history. It’s as though such things are not important aspects of culture. Likewise: stupid and shortsighted.

I don’t know if and when this will stop. While it seems obvious to me that digital humanists should be investigating evolutionary thought, they are skittish about it. To some extent that is probably a side effect of their odd disciplinary situation: high-visibility, even funding, but skepticism from more traditional humanists. It’s bad enough that they’ve gone over to the dark side and are using computers, but to think in evolutionary terms…the horror! the horror!

Again: stupid and shortsighted.

Meanwhile, I’m thinking about the work I’ve done with Matthew Jockers’ Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History. While Jockers has explicitly rejected evolutionary thinking I’ve reinterpreted it in evolutionary terms. If I am right in this, then it is one of the most impressive bodies of empirical work that has been done on cultural evolution. In particular, the work he did under the rubric of investigating literary evolution may qualify as a contribution to evolutionary thinking in general and not just to cultural evolution.

For that work demonstrates the evolution of the 19th century novel is directional. The directionality of evolution is an important general topic and, within biology is, of course, highly problematic–for reasons I find obscure and insufficient (see a paper David Hays and I wrote, A Note on Why Natural Selection Leads to Complexity). Jockers' convincing demonstration that for at least a century the English language novel evolved in a direction is thus striking. Of course, that’s my interpretation of what Jockers demonstrated, not his. But he did the study, so the demonstration is his.

That reinterpretation led me to a series of blog posts over the last quarter of 2014 in which I rethought my work on cultural evolution and, once and for all I hope, adopted some new terms and settled on an ontology for cultural evolution. As is my habit, I gathered those posts into a working paper and put it on the web. My introduction to those papers is introductory in that it tells you what’s there in a general way but doesn’t presuppose much prior knowledge.

But it also contains some of my most sophisticated observations on the subject. “The Evolution of Culture is the Evolution of Mind” – that’s the title of the introduction, and I mean it. On the mind, I’m quite comfortable thinking that animals have minds. Nor do I see any good reason to believe that the nature of human minds is fixed by human biology. Up to the emergence of modern humans the evolution of mind proceeded in parallel with the evolution of nervous systems. With us mind is able to evolve beyond the ambit of biology.

Here’s a passage from the end of that introduction:
What I’m arguing is that culture evolves because we find anxiety uncomfortable and we seek pleasure. Anxiety has many causes and pleasure has many sources, but I see no choice but to treat both as a property of overall neural flow. That’s what drives us. That’s what mind is.

To say that it is mind that drives cultural evolution sounds a lot like nineteenth century ideas of Geist, of Spirit. The difference, though, is that I can explicate the idea in terms of material brains interacting with one another in social groups.

Those cultural beings that I’ve come to talk about, beings anchored in texts and extended through the minds of people participating in those texts, they are utterly dependent upon us. Without us Moby Dick is a bunch of ink splotches on paper and “Take the A Train” is grooves on wax, both of which have become bits in some electronic medium. At the same time we are utterly dependent on these cultural beings as vehicles for our common values, attitudes, and ideas. It looks rather like the master-slave dialectic, though I hesitate to say which is the master, which the slave.
Now, in invoking Geist and the master-slave dialectic I don’t mean to signal a return to Hegel. If you wish to read or to reread Hegel that is fine of course, but that’s not what I’m up to. My gesture toward Hegel is rhetorical in kind, to underscore a common concern with Mind, even if my concern is ultimately grounded in very different terms.

My construction of mind is materialist, materialist in a way unavailable in Hegel's time, or Marx's, or even Freud's, whom I also invoked in the contrast between pleasure and anxiety. What is worse, the materialism I espouse is a foe to reductionism. Yes, there is a sense in which the mind is what the brain does, but it is not a reductionist sense. You cannot divide the brain into parts such that you have also divided the mind into parts. It’s not even clear to me that the mind has parts, but that’s another issue.

Mind, as I have come to understand it, is a function of global neurodynamics. As the nervous system evolved to function in a world, its dynamics are sensitive to objects and events in that world. Other people are the most important of those objects and interactions with those people are the most important events. Through the mediation of cultural conventions those objects and events are coupled into a single computational network, one that is constantly shifting and reconfiguring itself.

Why do we do this, to evolve? Because we seek to know, to understand. Nothing more, nothing less. We are creatures of mind, of Spirit, of Geist. And we are made of clay.

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