I’ve got two quickish thoughts on cultural evolution, once concerning the concept of cultural beings and the other in my ongoing ‘war’ against the concept of cultural information.
Cultural Beings and Intertextuality
I’ve recently introduced the term “cultural being” to indicate a package or envelope of coordinators (aka a ‘text’) plus the ‘trajectories’ of that package in the minds of all who encountered it. Such misgivings as I still have stem from the fact that it is in fact an odd notion, though it’s not so different from how the concept of ‘the text’ is in fact used in literary criticism. Literary critics also talk about intertextuality, how texts are related to one another.
The fact that Greene’s Pandosto was reworked into Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is thus a fact about the intertextuality of both texts. Shakespeare may have written his text, but he did so after having read Greene’s text and using is as a model for his. The Winter’s Tale is thus, in a sense, a daughter of Pandosto. And most of Shakespeare’s plays are daughters of multiple sources.
The cultural being that is associated with Pandosto would thus extend into Shakespeare’s mind (and into mine as well). That is the ‘route’ through which it ‘influenced’ Shakespeare’s play. More generally, later cultural beings are the result of the intermixing of earlier cultural beings in the minds of authors.
Information in Cultural Evolution
I have two objections to standard memetic talk of memes as cultural information. One is simply that the concept is not very clear (see the addendum). The other is that it is used to paper over the very tricky and interesting question of how one mind influences another. “Oh, one mind just transfers information to the other mind.”
Not only is this a mistaken account of what physically happens during communication (which Michael Reddy critiqued with is account of the conduit metaphor) but it also glosses over the fact that communication is often imperfect. That very imperfection is one potential source of cultural variation. The mind that reads a signal, any signal, is not identical to the mind that sends it, and so it may misread the signal. Where the two minds are in face-to-face interaction it may be possible to negotiate a satisfactory understanding. Where negotiation is impossible, misunderstanding may be inevitable and hard to eradicate.
One case that I find particularly interesting is that of the musical interaction between European-Americans and African-Americans in 20th century musical styles. Instrumental styles pass from black music to white music more easily than do vocal styles, but even there we can see differences. The basic harmonic and melodic practices transfer easily enough, but the rhythmic nuances do not. The neuromuscular systems that reconstruct the music are different from those that produce it. Thus Pat Boone’s versions of Little Richard’s tunes are anemic in comparison to the originals. The “information” didn’t quite “transfer.”
Addendum: John Wilkins on Information
This is from John Wilkins’ entry, Replication and Reproduction, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
The literature dealing with information is both extensive and factious. Several different formal analyses of information can be found and very little agreement about which analysis is best for which subjects. On one point these scholars tend to agree—cybernetic information and communication-theoretic information will not do for replication in biological contexts. The best bet is semantic information (Sterelny 2000a; Godfrey-Smith 2000; Sarkar 2000). The trouble is that no widely accepted version of semantic information exists. Winnie (2000) distinguishes between Classical and Algorithmic Information Theory and opts for a revised version of the Algorithmic Theory. But once again, the problem is that no such formal analysis currently exists. In the face of all this disagreement and unfinished business, biologists such as Maynard Smith (2000) maintain either that informal analyses of “information” are good enough or that some future formal version of information theory will justify the sorts of inferences that they make. The sense of “information” as used in the Central Dogma of molecular biology, which states that information cannot flow from protein to DNA, is more like a fit of template, or the primary structure of the protein sequence compared to the sequence of the DNA base pairs. Attempts have been made in what is now known as bioinformatics to use Classical Information Theory (Shannon's theory of communication) to extract functional and phylogenetic information (Gatlin 1972; Maclaurin 1998; Wallace and Wallace 1998; Brooks and Wiley 1988), but it appears to have been unsuccessful in the main. While the most likely conclusion is that no version of information theory as currently formulated can handle “information” as it functions in biology (see Griffiths 2001 for further discussion), attempts have been made to formulate just such a version (Sternberg 2008; Bergstrom and Rosvall 2011). However, this undercuts the motivation for appealing to information theory to elucidate genes in the first instance.