Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Cultural Evolution 6: The Problem of Design

To this point I have been taking it as obvious that a theory of cultural evolution would be a good thing to have. The only thing at issue is just what that theory would be like. Now, let’s step back for a minute and ask: Do we really need a theory of cultural evolution? Historians have been doing fine without such a theory, so why go to the trouble of creating one just because we can?

That is to say, what’s a theory of cultural evolution supposed to do? Saying that, well, it’s supposed to explain how culture evolves is no answer, because it simply assumes that culture does evolve. That’s what I want to question, if only rhetorically.

In comparison, when Darwin elaborated his account of biological evolution, he was trying to solve a particular problem. Living things appeared to be designed. Unless we’re going to posit the existence of a Divine Designer, how can we account for that appearance?

So, specifically, what are we trying to account for with a theory of cultural evolution? As near as I can tell, the gene-culture coevolution folks are trying to account for the rate of cultural change in human history. It’s too fast for biological inheritance mechanisms, so the mechanism must be cultural. It’s not at all clear to just what, specifically, Dawkins was up to. He wasn’t happy with other accounts of human culture, but he seems to have mostly been interested in memes as an example of another kind of replicator (a term he coined I believe). He wasn’t trying to solve any particular problem about human culture.

And for the most part, much of my own thinking about cultural evolution has proceeded without any specific problem in view. But I’m no longer willing to proceed with this enterprise simply because it is intrinsically interesting. We need a fairly specific problem that needs solved. What problem could that be?

I note that I’ve worked rather hard to produce an account of human cultural evolution that meets two criteria:
  1. it’s consistent with what we know about human psychology and neuropsychology and with some body of thinking about at least one major aspect of human culture (music), and
  2. it has the same logical and causal form as biological evolution, selection on phenotype elements and variation among genotype elements.
Since, in biology, the purpose of that logical and causal form is to account for design, I propose that it play the same role in the study of culture: to account for the design of human culture.

The Paradox of Human Design

The most obvious objection to this proposal is one that John Lawler raised to the third post in this series and that others have raised as well: “. . . whatever else may be true about it, any real evolution in language (and this goes pretty much for any other cultural phenomena as well), is that evolution of language (and culture) does not follow Mendelian rules, but rather Lamarckian.” Everything about human culture is designed, by human beings, not by some Divine Designer. So the idea that we need an account of human cultural evolution to account for culture’s design, that would appear to be a non-starter.

Not so fast. Let me repeat the response I made to Lawler:
Lots of folks seem to think that cultural “evolution” is Lamarckian, John (Lawler). What I think is that the appropriate conceptualization of the process is still pretty much up in the air, including the question of whether or not an evolutionary model is useful. Still, if we’re going to think about evolutionary models, I don’t find Lamarckian evolution at all compelling.

Consider such things as books, movies, and sound recordings. Buy and large the people who make such things and (attempt to) sell them, intend to make a profit on each and every title. At the same time, they know that they won’t; they know, in fact, that they’ll loose money on the majority of titles and they hope that the money they make on a minority of titles will cover their losses. (Art De Vany’s book, Hollywood Economics, is the best study I know of this, though it’s rather technical). Why do they loose money? Because their intentions are rather useless when it comes to predicting what audiences will respond to. On this or that occasion, they’ll really go for something by an unknown while, on some other occasion, ignoring the latest offering from some superstar. The audiences decide. That seems best modeled by some kind of selection model. That’s what Colin Martindale’s got.

Consider the music that evolved in the US over the last four centuries or so. The single most important dynamic has been the mixing of African sources and European sources – which I discuss in the final chapter of Beethoven’s Anvil, and in this paper. I find it easy to think about this, informally at least, as a mixing of memes from Africa-derived and Europe-derived populations. Certainly, whatever individuals intended on this or that occasion, what has survived over the long haul is not something anyone planned or designed. I just happened – Ishmael Reed calls it Jes Grew.

Or consider the English language. The Norman French invaded England in the middle of the 11th century CE and four centuries later we’ve got Shakespeare’s English. Over that period we’ve got millions of people having billions of conversations – and some writing in there as well. At the level of the individual interaction, they’re just trying to communicate with one another. And whatever works in one conversation, well, maybe it’ll work in another. Multiply that by a billion and spread it over centuries and you’ve got a new language emerging. That’s the sort of thing I’m after in talking about cultural evolution.
All of which is to say that we face a seeming paradox: The individuals who consume and create human culture – us – do so with intent and design, and yet we do not fully control the designs of the cultural objects and processes which we create and in which we participate. As individual creators and consumers we face constraints to which we must adhere if our designs are to be accepted by our peers.

But it’s not even that simple. It’s not as though the constraints are OUT THERE coming at us and that we can accept them, and thereby play the cultural game, or refuse them, and thus opt out of the game. No, the constraints are already there, in us. We are the constraints, we have become them and they us.

Now, if that’s beginning to sound a bit like the crazy language used by those wacky demodern postconstructionist humanists, well – aside from the fact that I was trained by some of the best of them – that’s because they’ve been attempting to deal with those problems for the past three or four decades, and have met with, at most, modest success.

Why is everything a “text”? Because there’s no way we can step outside of language so as to explicitly negotiate the meanings of terms in full transcendental awareness of the world in all its complexity. So it appears as though it’s all a text and we’re always already caught up in it doing the best we can to “get over.”

The death of the author? It’s an attempt to account for the collective nature of those works that come to us with a single author’s name on it, an author who determined everything in the work but was, in turn, determined by forces beyond his will. So, the author becomes a nameless well from which cultural works spew forth.

And so forth and so on. I don’t think this problem is intractable. But I don’t think those humanistic methods have any more life in them either. It’s time to hit the reset button.

Muddling Through

Rather than get absorbed in methodological navel-gazing – the strategy that sank the neo-traditional humanists (from my POV the postmodernists, deconstructionists and so forth aren’t the intellectual revolutionaries they believe themselves to have been) – let’s think about our ancestors, the one’s who were more than clever apes but less that modern humans. They had more sophisticated culture than apes have, but hadn’t arrived at modern language.

The problem they face in creating language is that they cannot “step outside the world” and “convene a meeting” in some “other place” where they negotiate the terms of this language they’re in the process of creating. It’s the old cyberneticist’s problem of rebuilding the ship, stem to stern, keel to topsail, while underway at sea. There’s no where to hove to and do the work.

All our ancestors could do is muddle through. If a conversation worked in the sense that individuals come out of it with a sense of satisfaction and proceed with the lives in a mutually beneficial way, if a conversation works in that sense, why then, do it, or something like it, again. If a conversation doesn’t work in that sense, then don’t repeat it.

I’m reminded of a remark made to my by the naturalist, Val Geist, that adaptations for communication are very conservative because they involve not one, but two, behavioral traits, one to produce the signal, and another to interpret. These traits, of course, must be linked in just the right way or the signal will fail to communicate. Geist was talking about biological evolution, but the same thing is true of cultural evolution. Cultural traits involved in communication present the same problem. And, as I’ve been saying, the only way to solve the problem is to try things and see what works. That can be more readily done in a cultural regime than a biological, but it is still the only way to approach the problem.

And memes are, in effect, the residue of successful solutions. For they are, as I’ve defined them, the “terms” though which individuals share in cultural traits.

Note, however, that not all cultural traits are about communication. Stone tools, for example, are not used in communication between individuals – with a possible exception I’ll get to in a minute. Their making and their use are both out in the open. Anyone can observe and learn. They are fully public.

The possible exception is the use of tools to communicate the tool-maker’s skill, or perhaps status. This requires mutual agreement on what tool traits are indicators of skill or status. But that, it seems to me, is a relatively easy matter, as the message is only a one-dimensional one.

Music, my main source of examples so far, doesn’t present us with this problem either, or at least instrumental music doesn’t. For it doesn’t convey meanings in the way language does. Whatever is going on in music is fully public. And that’s one reason it is a useful arena in which to develop a basic conception of cultural evolution.

Natural language, however, is a different matter. Here we must deal with the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign – a notion which has loomed large in poststructuralist thinking. There is no inherent linkage between the meanings of words and their sounds (or written signs). To speak a language one must learn a relatively large number of arbitrary associations between sound patterns and meanings. And those meanings vary along many dimensions – if indeed, dimensionality is a useful metaphor to use. And, of course, we must deal not only with the meaning of individual words, but the meaning of words in combination.

I have no intention of taking on language in this post, or even in this series of posts, at least not in any full way. But I do want to say something about it in the next or a later post. For, as far as I can tell, in the terms I’ve been developing, the memetic component of language would seem to be confined to speech sounds (and, later, written signs). What about the meanings of words?

Indeed, what about them? This, I fear, is where the various kinds of conventional memetics miss the boat entirely. For memetics treats memes as things in the brain and so there is no problem about the meanings of words. They’re just another kind of meme that hops around from brain to brain propagating meaning and, occasionally, forcing their hosts to do things that contradict their biological interest. That’s no solution to the problem of linguistic meaning. That’s just a way of putting a fancy label on the problem and pretending it no longer exists.

We’ve got to do better. And that’s a major job, one that’s well under way, but also that still has far to go. But not in this post, or this series of posts.

Previous Posts in This Series

Cultural Evolution 1: How “Thick” is Culture?

Cultural Evolution 2: A Phenomenological Gut Check on Gene-Culture Coevolution

Cultural Evolution 3: Performances and Memes

Cultural Evolution 4: Rhythm Changes 1

Cultural Evolution 5: Rhythm Changes 2

See also The Sound of Many Hands Clapping: Group Intentionality, which considers a very simple case of group behavior and thus is relevant to the issue of culture's collective nature. Consider this post an elaboration of my discussion of music in CE3: Performances and Memes.


  1. I have a paper on Lamarckism here: The Appearance of Lamarckism in the evolution of culture, from John Laurent and John Nightingale (eds.), Darwinism and evolutionary economics (Cheltenham UK: Edward Elgar, 2001), 160-83.

  2. Thanks for the link, John. I'll check it out.