Friday, January 13, 2017

“Anchor” – Another term in the study of cultural evolution

Some time ago I decided to drop “meme” as a term for the genetic element in cultural evolutionary processes. 1) It has too much baggage attached to it. 2) The connotations are misleading. Instead, I choose “coordinator” and have defined three kinds of coordinators: targets, couplers, and designators. I’ve decided I need to recognize a fourth kind of coordinator, anchors.

I came to this conclusion after reading:
Dan Everett. Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious. University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Everett tells us of two incidents:
In the rainy season, jungle paths flood. Snakes exit their holes. Caimans come further inland. Sting rays, electric eels, and all manner of creatures can then be found on what in the dry season are wide, dry paths. It is hard to walk down these paths in daylight during the rainy season, covered as they are by knee-deep, even chest-high water (though I have had to walk for hours in such conditions). At night, these paths become intimidating to some of us. As I walk with the Pirahãs, I am usually wearing shoes, whereas they go barefoot. Two memories stand out here. The first was me almost stepping on a small (three feet long) caiman. The second was me almost stepping on a bushmaster (there are many other memories as dangerous). In both cases, my life or at least a limb was saved by Pirahãs who, shocked that I did not or could not see these obvious dangers, pulled me back at the last moment, exhorting me to pay more attention to where I stepped. Such examples were frequent in my decades with Amazonian and Mesoamerican peoples. And each time, they were astonished at my apparent blindness. (141-142)
The Pirahãs live in the Amazon and can see its creatures clearly. But Everett, though he spent years in the Amazon among the Pirahãs, had not been raised there. His visual system had matured long before he entered the Amazon. He could not see its creatures so well as those who’d been raised among them.

By anchor I mean those features of the physical world to which one becomes acclimated by virtue of having become “at home” in that world. The Pirahãs had developed a rich set of anchors in the Amazon but Everett had not, though he lived there for many years. The Pirahãs were born and raised in the Amazon; Everett was not.

Though I have not thought this through, it seems to me that some anchors might well be targets as well. It’s not clear to me whether or not I want to extend the usage to couplers and designators, all of which, of course, are physical features on some substrate.

Note that we could talk of animals as having anchors as well.