Cultural Evolution Terms

This is a short list of terms that I have come to treat as terms of art in thinking about cultural evolution. I have no idea how stable these terms and definition will prove to be.  Most of these terms are relatively recent, but my thinking about cultural evolution is broadly scattered across many posts and working papers and a handful of formal articles. Note also that this is not intended as anything approaching a complete list of terms for discussing cultural evolution. Rather, these are terms more or less specific to my usage.

Anchor: A kind of coordinator. Anchors are features of the physical world to which one becomes especially acclimated by virtue of living in a particular environment. Someone entering a strange environment may not have the anchors developed by those raised in that environment. Some anchors may also be targets.

Coordinator: The genetic element in cultural processes. Coordinators are physical traits of objects or processes in the public world. Everyone can see them. That is very important, as culture is shared and public. And thus its 'causal' basis must be public. As the name suggests, coordinators are the means by which people coordinate their minds: their thoughts and ideas, desires, intentions, and ultimately their actions.

The emic/etic distinction in linguistics and anthropology is a useful reference point. Phonetics is the study of language sounds. Phonemics is the study of those sound features, phonemes, that are active in a language.

The notion of a coordinator is, in effect, a generalization of the phoneme. A coordinator is a physical trait that is psychologically active/salient in cultural processes. [As an aside: I don't know just when this realization came to me – perhaps in the summer of 2010, when I was working on a piece for the National Humanities Center, but it does represent a turning point in my thinking about these issues.]

If you want to think in terms of computation, observe that computers, both abstract and real, operate on data. Some bits of data are special in that they directly influence processing by supplying the values of operating parameters. Coordinators are data of that type. Coordinators supply the values to parameters of mental “software.”

Note that coordinators are not, in this sense, Dawkinsian replicators. Nor is it obvious to me that they form lineages. Finally, where the genetic material of biology exists everywhere in the same substrate – DNA molecules – coordinators can exist on any publicly accessible substrate, with most of them being either visible or audible.

There are four kinds of coordinators: anchors, couplers, designators, and targets.

Coupler: A kind of coordinator through which the temporal activities of two or more nervous systems are synchronized. When soldiers march in step the rate and length of their strides couple their motions together into a coherent ensemble. The conventions of the blues, or of a particular raga, are more complex couplers. Conversational turn taking is a coupling function too.

Cover (paint), a verb : Objects, artifacts, actions and processes, that is, actors in the mesh, are said to be covered or to be painted with coordinators.

Cultural Being: A package or envelope of coordinators along with its trajectory in the minds of all who use it. As such, cultural beings are the object on which cultural selection operates. They are thus the phenotypic entities of culture. If participating in a cultural being was pleasant, then one would be motivated to do so again. Otherwise not.

The consequences of this definition are not obvious and will require careful consideration. I’ll give an example from music, my paradigm case, to give a sense of what I’ve got in mind.

In the case of a live music performance the cultural being would consist of the envelope of the sonic coordinators (that everyone hears) along with the neural trajectory in the mind of everyone who hears the performance, whether through direct performance or as members of an audience or perhaps even as not-particularly-attentive bystanders. This cultural being is thus limited in time, but somewhat physically dispersed (in the brains of all auditors).

If the performance is broadcast, those who hear the broadcast would be participating in the cultural being along with those directly present. I’ve not given it much thought, but in the case of a recorded performance, all those who hear the recording would also be participants. Thus the scope of the cultural being could grow over time.

In the case of a piece of music that as been notated, I am inclined to treat each performance of the score as a separate cultural being.

Designator: A kind of coordinator that is linked to a neural characterization of some phenomenon. To a first approximation, the content words of language (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs) are designators in this sense. More accurately it is the Saussurean signifier – the sound, gesture, or visual symbol – that is the designator. The Saussurean signified is the neural characterization.

Signifiers exist in the public domain where all can hear and see them; that is what allows them to function as designators. In contrast, signifieds exist in individual minds and, as the linguist William Croft points out, “getting speaker and hearer to converge on the same meaning is a problem, precisely because our thoughts cannot leave out heads” (Explaining Language Change, 2000, p. 111).

Envelope: A collection of coordinators that functions as a single cultural unit and serves as the material anchor for a cultural being. At the moment I’m using package as an alternative term for the same function.

Package: A collection of coordinators that functions as a single cultural unit and serves as the material anchor for a cultural being. At the moment I’m using envelope as an alternative term for the same function.

Phantasm: A phantasm is the mental act occasioned by a package or envelope of coordinators. Whether or not a package becomes active in a group depends on whether or not its phantasm is pleasant or not. A phantasm corresponds to the trajectory of a person’s brain considered as a dynamic system.

Paint, a verb: See Cover.

Reticulum or cultural reticulum: A network of persons and other cultural actors, whether animate or inanimate, that are linked together in a social group at the neural level. A reticulum in this sense is a Latourian actor-network. It is the environment in which cultural beings evolve and to which they must adapt. The actors in a reticulum are covered or painted with coordinators. Formerly mesh, which I may still use informally.

Substrate: the physical object, event, or process in which culturally active properties (i.e. coordinators) are said to inhere.

Target: A kind of coordinator that can serve as the point of comparison for imitation, whether the creation of an artifact that imitates some model, or the imitation an actor’s behavior in a process of whatever kind. The imitation of an artifact or an activity will typically involve an ordered package or envelope of targets.

For example, assume that you want to make a stone ax head of the standard sort. Using an existing ax head as a model, you can treat its size and shape as targets against which one can judge progress in fabricating a new ax head. In this case a target is a parameter in a fabrication procedure that defines some aspect of the fabricated object.

In cybernetic terms, a target is a reference level for a control system. As such, perceptual targets are ubiquitous in animal behavior. But those targets are not specified by and given meaning by a matrix of cultural practices. They are not coordinators. But the target function is the psychological function on which evolution “bootstraps” complex culture into humans.

Trajectory: I’m using the term is it is used in dynamical systems theory, where it refers to the succession of states a system takes on in some interval. In this context, that system of interest is, of course, a human brain.

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[1] Take a look at this post, Cultural Evolution 3: Performances and Memes, from May 26, 2010, at the note at the very end:
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?
I suspect that it was during the writing of that post the realization took hold and I tacked that note on at the end to acknowledge and mark that. The discussion on that post is worth reading. John Wilkins, philosopher of biology, offered this interesting remark:
The emic/etic distinction is rather like the extensional/intensional distinction in philosophy, basically the meaning (emic/intensional) of some cultural item, versus the external observation of its dynamics. Likewise the functional/morphological distinction in biology. I wonder if we can make a general categorical claim here?
That post is bundled together with nine other posts in a working paper: The Evolution of Human Culture: Some Notes Prepared for the National Humanities Center, Version 2. You can download at PDF:

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Revised January 13, 2017. 
Revised August 11, 2017.
Revised November 19, 2019.

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