From three years ago. More timely than ever.
– Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defense of Poetry
I started working on this post a month or two ago. I’ve written a number of long and complicated posts in the last year or so where I’ve ended up asserting that humanists really need to think about cultural evolution because it provides us with a way to think about that (quasi)autonomous realm that Ed Said believed in, but couldn’t justify on the basis of the literary theory that had developed during his career. I figured some scholars probably never read those arguments because they didn’t want to plough through longs posts making strange arguments.
I figured that the thing to do, then, was to make the assertion, with perhaps a bit of argumentation, in a relatively short post where THAT’s the whole point. So I started drafted that post, and it started growing, and I kept on thinking and before I knew it I’d decided I needed to gather a bunch of stuff together and write a book. So I’ve started on that project – Mind-Culture Co-Evolution is my provisional title – and abandoned that post.
Well, this is that post, resurrected, and relatively short. Why do humanists need to think about cultural evolution? Because
1) it is a way to think about how expressive culture plays a causal role in history, and
2) it is way to put macroscale and microscale work within the same conceptual framework.
Note that when I say cultural evolution I mean just that, cultural evolution, not biological evolution, not evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology is neither here nor there with respect to cultural evolution. Biological evolution, of course, is the ground from which cultural evolution springs, but it operates in a different realm. Culture does exist in the pre-human world, but it’s thin stuff.
There’s been a fair amount of work on cultural evolution in the past two or three decades or so, but it’s rather scattered. There’s no off-the-shelf model that’s ready to go for students of literature, or the arts in general, and there’s a fair amount of nonsense. So we’re going to have to make it up ourselves, and that’s not easy.
The remarks in the rest of this post do not constitute an argument on those points. Such an argument is way beyond the scope of a blog post. That’s why I’ve decided to write a book. The purpose of these remarks is to indicate what I regard as the intellectual scope of a robust approach to cultural evolution.
Expressive culture is a causal force in history
That, I take it, is what Shelley had in mind when he asserted, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” And you can’t legislate unless you’ve got a place to stand, unless you aren’t merely a puppet of historical forces.
But what, pray tell, are historical forces? I’d hoped that a trip to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy would have a helpful article on the philosophy of history. It didn’t. What the article said is that inferring historical causes is difficult. Well, yes, I know that. But are there distinct kinds of causes that have been investigated? No luck there.
So, off the top of my head, biological evolution exerts causal force in history. If it didn’t we wouldn’t be here. And, while it operates on a long time scale relative to human events, it’s still operating. That’s why some peoples are lactose intolerant and others are not. And that’s why antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria have evolved in the last few decades.
The thing about biological evolution is that, while the actual process involves a blither of micro-historical events ¬– all the hourly, daily, monthly and yearly events of individual lives ¬– we don’t need to track all those individual events in order to think about biological evolution. The same is true of cultural evolution. When, for example, we examine a corpus of 19th century novels, we’re looking at what is, in effect, a distilled and compacted record of millions upon millions of actions taken by millions of people over the course of a century. But we don’t need to know about each of those actions in order to draw conclusions about the net effect of that activity.
OK, so biological evolution is one force acting in history (though not necessarily one of direct interest to us, though this is in part where we find the plagues that so interested William McNeil). Jared Diamond has made a big deal out of geography and climate. That’s another force or set of forces. We’ve got economic forces: class conflict, the need for raw materials, for markets, and so forth. And we’ve got war and peace.
I don’t know how the most sophisticated historians think about these things and I have no proposal on how to sort them into orthogonal causal forces. But I don’t have any reason to think they all sum up to an impenetrable HISTORICAL FORCE. There are separable streams of causation in there.
I’m arguing that expressive culture ¬– literature, music, the plastic arts, dance, theatre, and whatever else ¬– is one of those separable causal streams. It is affected by all the others, but not exhausted by them. In turn, it exerts force on the others.
Just how this happens, well, that’s what the study of cultural evolution is about. We must reject any formulation that blocks insight into these interactions.
Multiple Scales of Investigation
Think of biological evolution. At the smallest scale we’ve got single cells and molecules of DNA, RNA, proteins, and so forth. At the largest scale we’ve got the entire biosphere. And everything in between.
So it is with cultural evolution. At the smallest scale we’ve got individual texts, songs, drawings and so forth, even individual words, riffs, and visual tropes. At the largest scale we have all of human history.
Constructing an intellectual framework that is articulated at each of those scales, that is not going to be a straightforward business. It will take generations of scholarship and investigation to do it. But the means are now coming within reach.
Some Relevant Documents
These are some of the documents I’ll be calling on as I hack and refine my book. I’ve got lots of posts on cultural evolution, and some of these documents have been assembled from these posts.
Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues. In Nikongo Ba'Nikongo, ed., Leading Issues in Afro-American Studies. Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 1997, pp. 189-233. Note: While I don't talk of cultural evolution in this article, that's what I was thinking. And I do make an explicit argument that it exerted causal force in 20th century American society.
Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form. PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, August 2005, Article 060608. This covers a wide range of scales, from individual texts thorugh long-term literary history.
Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction between the Sciences and the Humanities, Revised (2011, revised 2014) 18 pp.
The Evolution of Human Culture: Some Notes Prepared for the National Humanities Center, Version 2 (2011) 64 pp.
Reading Macroanalysis: Notes on the Evolution of Nineteenth Century Anglo-American Literary Culture (2014) 100 pp.
Cultural Evolution: Literary History, Popular Music, Cultural Beings, Temporality, and the Mesh (2015) 79 pp.
On the Direction of Cultural Evolution: Lessons from the 19th Century Anglophone Novel (2015) 31 pp.
On the Direction of 19th Century Poetic Style, Underwood and Sellers 2015 (2015) 33 pp.