Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Cultural Evolution 7: Where Are We At?

I’ve got three more posts planned before I write the post that’ll go up at the Forum of the “On the Human” project of National Humanities Center. But this isn’t one of those three. Rather, I want to step back and take a look around. That’s first. Then I’m going to describe what I’m planning for the last three posts. And I’ll conclude with a note on design.

What’s Up? Two cultures, again

The general website for “On the Human” describes the project thus:
On the Human (OTH) is an online community of humanists and scientists dedicated to improving our understanding of persons and the quasi-persons who surround us. As persons are biological, psychological, historical, moral, and autobiographical beings, we employ modes of inquiry from the sciences and humanities. Contributors explore issues in metaphysics and biology, ethics and neuroscience, experimental philosophy and evolutionary psychology.
Thus it is one of those “hands across the two cultures divide” enterprises, of which I tend to be skeptical despite the fact that I’ve been crossing that pseudo-divide my whole career. But enough of my skepticism.

Let’s take the divide at face value. In those terms, what’ve we got?

Scientists and cultural evolution

We have a great deal of work on human cultural evolution over the past two decades or so, and most of it has been done by people who are trained as or think of themselves as scientists. For the most part these thinkers have cultural evolution without reference to 1) human psychology, including perceptual and cognitive, and 2) without out detailed descriptions of cultural objects and artifacts. On one, Colin Martindale is an exception. On two, linguistics is an exception.

Thus studied, human cultural evolution is a bit like the study of biological evolution without molecular biology and without plant and animal physiology and anatomy. Without those things, how could you study biological evolution at all? Where would Darwin have been if he didn’t have three or four centuries worth of natural history on which to build his thinking? How can one understand comparative morphology in ecological context if you don’t have detailed accounts of morphologies and lifeways? And yet that’s how the study of cultural evolution is proceeding.

Well, it’s not that bad. But as a first approximation, that will do.

As I’ve said, Martindale is an exception. His account of cultural evolution, unlike other accounts, is grounded in perceptual, cognitive, and affective psychology. His empirical work, of course, rests on characterizations of cultural artifacts – poems, musical compositions, tombstones, and the like – though they are not detailed descriptions comparable to standard descriptive work on flora and fauna. For what he wants to do, such detailed descriptions aren’t necessary.

By contrast, memetics, especially at its popularizing extremes, seems like an attempt to replace psychology entirely. Just dump the entire set of disciplines and think deep thought about the mind by talking of memes.

This won’t do, not at all. My own thinking makes perceptual and cognitive psychology essential (see Cultural Evolution 3: Performances and Memes). Memes, as I have defined them, are perceptual entities and so one must call on perceptual and cognitive psychology to understand them. Similarly, the cultural analog to a phenotype is a performance, understand as the mental events through which one apprehends cultural products. The trick is to understand these things as collective phenomena, not just individual ones.

Correlatively, one also needs detailed descriptive control of cultural artifacts. My two posts on Rhythm Changes give an indication of what’s entailed. Studies of language evolution entail that level of descriptive detail, but most work doesn’t seem to be aware of that level of description – which is, by the way, only a crude indicator of whats necessary and possible.

Thus, the contemporary study of cultural evolution, on the whole, does not seem like it arose as an attempt to solve problems that have arisen through close analysis and description of human culture. Rather, it is something that has been imported from biology and applied to human culture in ways that, for the most part, don’t require detailed understanding of cultural morphologies and processes. In some cases, the thinking is mostly theoretical speculation. While I am in no position to object to speculation on point of principle, I am a bit skeptical about the possible success of a speculative enterprise that betrays so little interest in the properties of the objects and processes which are the objects of speculation. Where would biology have gotten if those naturalists had been indifferent as to whether or not the creature had three legs or four, or, indeed, whether or not it had any legs at all?

Humanists on Cultural Evolution

That, in crude caricature, is the scientific side of the ledger. What about the humanists?

Humanists, with few exceptions, seem to have little interest in or use for cultural evolution. To the extent that “evolution” implies biology or progress (as it did in the 19th century), the word is immediately suspect. Biology id dangerous and progress is gone. What we have is a succession mentalities, each construing the world after its fashion, but leading nowhere in particular. Of course, biological evolution doesn’t lead anywhere in particular either so those who study culture on analogy to biology have no problem with that.

The question to ask, it seems to me, is whether or not humanists can supply some of the descriptive detail that’s missing from science-like thinking about cultural evolution. The answer to that seems to me to be something like this: Yes, if they have a mind to do so.

My description of Rhythm Changes, for example, is standard issue stuff, and rather crude at that. My impression is that musicologists have fairly rich descriptive tools at hand. I don’t know much about the state of things in art history, nor in such fields as the history technology or of science, but I do know something about literary disciplines.

And the news is not good. Literary studies has mostly been concerned with finding the meanings of its texts and that has, as a matter of practice, meant that descriptive work has been neglected. As I’ve already written quite a bit about this, I won’t attempt to summarize that work here. Rather, I refer you to a long article on literary morphology (Benzon 2006), a recent blog post on naturalist criticism (Benzon 2010), and to David Bordwell, Making Meaning (which is about film studies, but the argument applies rather directly to literary studies). The upshot is that, by and large I don’t think literary studies can supply the desired detail immediately. That is to say, there is no handbook level of descriptive knowledge about literary texts that has the necessary level of detail. But, I also believe that literary scholars could supply such knowledge if they thought it important and necessary.

If we are to conceptualize the history of human culture as an evolutionary one, and if that evolutionary conception is about random variation (in one domain) and selective retention (in another), then detailed descriptive knowledge of cultural artifacts and processes is essential. Essential. Without that knowledge evolutionary thinking has little to think about. It’s mostly wheels and gears spinning in empty air. A lot of sound and fury signifying bupkus.
So: How does one convince humanists that culture is most deeply understood as an evolutionary phenomenon?
As far as I can tell, the only way to do is to convince them that that is the best way to solve problems that have arisen in their own studies. I believe, for example, that the much ballyhooed death of the author is one such problem (see remarks in my previous post, on design), and I suspect “the arbitrariness of the sign” opens up a similar opportunity. But I’m getting head of myself.


And Where are we Going?

I’m planning three more posts, one on language, one on black and white music in America, and a final post in which I use Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues as a way of blitzing through the whole mess One More Time.

The language post will center on the fact that the meanings of words are not displayed in the sounds (or visual signs) of words. The relationship between meanings and the physical signs is an arbitrary one. This implies that, while aspects of the signs can be memetic, meanings cannot. At the moment that seems fine to me. But it presents issues. I believe that game theory may give us tools to deal with some of those issues and will discuss some of Steven Pinker’s recent work on indirect speech.

In the music post I will attempt to explain why I think an evolutionary approach is necessary if we are to understanding the evolution of musical forms in the United States over the past two or three centuries (as a practical matter, I’ll concentrate on the 20th century). It’s one thing to describe that history, another thing to talk about the cultural psychodynamics of it (as I’ve done in the final chapter of Beethoven’s Anvil). But explaining it, that’s another matter. I can’t explain it, and I’m not even sure I can explain why I believe that an evolutionary approach might work. But I’ll take a crack at it.

As for Sita Sings the Blues . . . let’s wait and see.

On Design, with a note on memes and imitation

Writing in American Scientist (“Designing Minds”), Edward A. Wasserman and Mark S. Blumberg argue that, as an explanation for behavioral innovation, design & insight are over-rated. Thus:
It is all too easy to forget that the first attempts at flight featured impossible aircraft with flappable wings, man-of-war sails, and box-kite frames. Do we see the origins of today’s jumbo jets in those early, comical failures? Similarly, do we appreciate the knowledge gained by bridge builders from studying the undulating destruction of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington or, more recently, the wobbling of the Millennium Bridge in London? Do we understand that even the most tragic failures—such as the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse in Kansas City or the Challenger space shuttle explosion—are the consequences of human tinkering on a grand scale? Beginning with the very first glimpse of a problem or an opportunity, such failures—whether large or small, tragic or comic—prompt the fine-tuning and retrofitting that, over time, have shaped even our greatest engineering achievements, from Egyptian pyramids to medieval cathedrals to suspension bridges to spacecraft.

It is through this plodding process that today’s designs—typically instantiated in the form of a detailed blueprint—embody all of the hard, painful, but often unacknowledged lessons of the past. Most of us are ignorant of that history, yet we glibly proclaim that the final products were intelligently designed, thereby perpetuating the myth of the creative moment. We then carry that myth forward and attribute each new artifact to individual insight, creativity and genius. But this myth cannot cheat reality; the failures just keep coming, as most recently illustrated by the massive worldwide recall of Toyota automobiles. As Petroski notes in To Engineer Is Human (1985), despite their mathematically precise understanding of structural materials, engineers still cannot “calculate to obviate the failure of the mind.”
Wasserman and Blumberg conclude:
Inventive behaviors are commonly attributed to creativity, insight or genius, but a far simpler explanation may do. For the Fosbury Flop and the monkey crouch, an elegant and plausible way to understand the origins of novel behaviors can be found in the law of effect, which emerged a century ago from the animal-behavior studies of psychologist Edward Thorndike. The law of effect states that successful behavioral variations are retained and unsuccessful variations are not. Importantly, this positively Darwinian process exists entirely outside the realm of purpose or foresight.
Now, Wasserman and Blumberg are talking about individual invention: the work of Dick Fosbury in the case of his eponymous flog, and Harding Cox, an 18th century Englishman, in the case of the monkey crouch. At that level we’re not talking about culture. These particular behaviors, however, have became widely adopted; they have changed athletic culture. Presumably those behaviors spread by a process of imitation, mimesis, which is where Dawkins got his “meme” coinage, upon which Susan Blackmore elaborated in The Meme Machine, and which figures inn Merlin Donald’s Origins of the Modern Mind as mimetic culture, which he regards as intermediary between ape culture and fully human culture.

What’s the relationship between memes, as I have been using the term, and imitation? Memes set the terms in which an imitation can be said to be culturally acceptable. The fact of imitation isn’t important. What’s important are the terms by which imitation is deemed successful. Recent work on over-imitation seems relevant here (Nielsen and Tomaselli 2009).


William Benzon (2006). Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form. PSYARTS: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. URL: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2006_benzon01.shtml
Downloadable PDF: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1503087)

William Benzon (2010). “NATURALIST” criticism, NOT “cognitive,” NOT “Darwinian” – A Quasi-Manifesto. The Valve. March 31, 2010. URL: http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/naturalist_criticism_not_cognitive_not_darwinian_a_quasi_manifesto/

David Bordwell (1989). Making Meaning. Harvard UP.

Colin Martindale (1990). The Clockwork Muse: The Predictability of Artistic Change. Basic Books, Inc.

Edward A. Wasserman, Mark S. Blumberg (2010). Designing Minds, American Scientist. Volume 98, Number 3, Page: 183
DOI: 10.1511/2010.84.183

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

Cultural Evolution 6: The Problem of Design

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.

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