I must have read two hundred tweets about how dysfunctional the British government is, or what a bad leader Teresa May has been. Really? That has yet to be demonstrated. I’ve all along been “vote Remain,” but I also recognize Remain works only if British membership in the EU has a certain amount of internal legitimacy.
What might a process of testing that legitimacy look like? Long, extended confusion, lots of back and forth, indecisiveness, and inability to form a durable majority for any other option, perhaps?
Right now the chances of Remain seem to be rising, or perhaps some version of Norway plus, and those are among the better options. I am hardly distraught, noting that I genuinely do not have a strong sense of what will happen next. I am pleased to see that not one of the eight (was it eight?) versions of Brexit could command a majority.
Is it really so tragic and terrible to have all this — whatever comes to pass — revealed only at the last moment? Isn’t that often how optimal search looks? Isn’t it how the “to Remainers all-holy EU” so often does its business? Alternatively, how smooth, open, and transparent did the American constitutional convention actually run?
I’m not predicting triumph or victory here, only that I don’t yet see that anything has fallen off the rails. Nor is the British pound being hammered in the markets. Nor do I know many (any?) people who could have done much better than Teresa May.
But now is the time to pay more attention again, these are the proverbial last five minutes of the basketball game…
Saturday, March 30, 2019
Tyler Cowen is not in despair over Brexit – "I don’t yet see that anything has fallen off the rails."
Thursday, March 28, 2019
This is kind of incredible. A proof that all dynamical systems (within a large class of such systems) are a blend of randomness and nearly pure determinism. My story in @QuantaMagazine on the weak Pinsker theorem. https://t.co/37km62olWk— Kevin Hartnett (@KSHartnett) March 27, 2019
Friday, March 22, 2019
Steve Provizer reviews Vic Hobson, Creating the Jazz Solo: Louis Armstrong and Barbershop Harmony, University Press of Mississippi.
Armstrong and several of the other musicians explicitly say that this was the technique that instrumental bands would also use to learn new material. The part being taken by a given instrument was dictated by the range in which it played: tuba or string bass doing the bass, the baritone part being carried by trombone and the two tenor parts by trumpet and clarinet.
[...] When I listen to early Armstrong music, or read transcriptions, I tend to filter my reactions through received wisdom about why particular notes were played. That is, I accept the primacy of the blues scale and the traditional presupposition that a “European” system of harmony was, in some way, guiding the musician through a solo. [...]
As simply as I can put it: There were techniques of what is called voice-leading that are applied in barbershop harmony. These are the rules that determine what the next note can be, bearing in mind all the other notes in the chord that have to be taken into consideration. I assume that these techniques were predicated on some combination of what sounded good in that era and what was feasible for someone to sing. In a number of cases, this meant choosing notes that would not be correct in a standard harmonic sense. Such notes might be “out of” the chord as then understood and/or create dissonances that were supposed to be avoided. “Snakes,” “swipes,” “funnel harmony” are some of the terms used to denote the moves that a voice could or would make.
Hobson does close analyses of Armstrong solos in “Copenhagen,” “Heebie Jeebies,” “Potato Head Blues” and other tunes in order to show the reader that many of the choices Armstrong makes are rooted in his considerable background in barbershop singing. He comes up with ample quotes from Armstrong to back up the idea that he was not playing the chord, per se, but how the chord sounded to him and what that sound led him to play, as filtered through his long experience with close harmony singing. I had, in fact, often wondered about certain note choices that Armstrong made in his solos and this explanation helped clarify some of these choices for me.
Wednesday, March 20, 2019
In @nature today, Harvey Whitehouse, @pieterwfrancois, @Peter_Turchin, 9 other coauthors and I analyze 414 societies across 10,000 years of world history to show that religion has coevolved with society to stabilize large-scale societies after they arise. https://t.co/mfbEr2gDtl pic.twitter.com/xdrAhGeVqt— Pat Savage (@PatrickESavage) March 20, 2019
From a summary article at The Conversation:
We analysed data on 414 societies from 30 world regions, using 51 measures of social complexity and four measures of supernatural enforcement of moral norms to get to the bottom of the matter. New research we’ve just published in the journal Nature reveals that moralising gods come later than many people thought, well after the sharpest rises in social complexity in world history. In other words, gods who care about whether we are good or bad did not drive the initial rise of civilisations – but came later. [...]
Our statistical analysis showed that beliefs in supernatural punishment tend to appear only when societies make the transition from simple to complex, around the time when the overall population exceed about a million individuals.
We are now looking to other factors that may have driven the rise of the first large civilisation. For example, Seshat data suggests that daily or weekly collective rituals – the equivalent of today’s Sunday services or Friday prayers – appear early in the rise of social complexity and we’re looking further at their impact.
Addendum, May 3, 2019:
. . . misrepresentation of experts, changing online data coding in @nature— David Wengrow (@davidwengrow) May 2, 2019
article after (!!) publication, and placing inappropriate expectations on Research Assistants . . . 2/3https://t.co/p9UIL83sib
Tuesday, March 19, 2019
Monday, March 18, 2019
Mohamed Kashkoush, Slow Down, Space X, The Scientist, Mar. 15, 2019.
For starters, NASA does not know why or to what extent spaceflight increases the incidence and complicates the management of disease, including bacterial infections, osteoporosis, renal stone formation, psychiatric disorders, ocular and vestibular disturbances, immunosuppression, muscular degeneration, and radiation carcinogenesis. Importantly, the HRR predicts that these questions will largely remain pending through 2030.Addendum: Weightlessness causes problems for vision.
Another limitation is NASA’s lack of experience and clinical-grade data concerning the effects of prolonged spaceflight on human health, leaving astronauts perilously susceptible to unknown unknowns. For example, the longest consecutive time spent in outer space by an American is only 342 days. Even under the best-case travel scenario, which occurs every 26 months on orbital alignment, expected travel times to Mars approach one year. Not only can SpaceX make no safety guarantees beyond the 342-day mark, it also cannot empirically draw any conclusions beyond 248,655 miles from Earth (the distance record set when Apollo 13 travelled to the far side of the moon).
Compared to founder and CEO Elon Musk’s statements declaring that living on Mars is “the relatively easier part” of the endeavor, it appears that NASA and SpaceX are not on the same page when it comes to the dangers of long-term spaceflight. Given these dangers, SpaceX’s apparent lack of attention to these matters seems strange to say the least. How can we send people to Mars with such an unknown medical prognosis? In my opinion, the silence signals that all talk from SpaceX about interplanetary colonization in the near future is merely marketing hype.
Saturday, March 16, 2019
Friday, March 15, 2019
Christine MacDonald, Street Art Used To Be the Voice of the People. Now It’s the Voice of Advertisers. In These Times. March 11, 2019.
H/t Tyler Cowen.Increasingly, however, corporations have laid claim to public art in ways critics say make muralists accomplices to gentrification and consumerism. Wynwood, an upscale development in a downtrodden neighborhood of Miami, is perhaps the most infamous case of developers using murals to “artwash” a community, as art in service of gentrification is called. Goldman Properties bought up blocks of abandoned warehouses and dilapidated homes, then commissioned graffiti artists to create large-scale murals to beautify the neighborhood.The resulting outdoor mural park, Wynwood Walls, became the centerpiece of the new upscale neighborhood that Goldman Properties carved out of the Puerto Rican enclave locals once called Little San JuanTo tourists, art lovers and those moving into the expensive new homes, the late Tony Goldman, Wynwood’s developer, was a public art visionary. But sociologist Marcos Feldman labels him “a professional neighborhood gentrifier” in the short documentary “Right to Wynwood,” which looks at how the development displaced longtime residents. Filmmakers Camila Álvarez and Natalie Edgar told WLRN public radio that, as artists, they like the vibrancy of the new Wynwood. But, Álvarez said, the murals felt “kind of artificial because a business model was brought and gentrification was planned. It was developer-led, instead of being artist-led.”Commercial interests have funded the rise of internationally known street artists like Shepard Fairey, author of the Obama Hope posters, along with a Levi’s clothing collection and wall art built around Fairey’s “Obey” trademark. Sometimes the murals don’t include overt commercial messages but help a brand “get their name out there in the subculture,” Man One, a graffiti artist in Los Angeles, told the TV station KCET. His mural, “Elephunktl,” a stylized elephant wearing a feathered headdress on a storefront in Lincoln Heights, Calif., was paid for by Red Bull, for instance. While the mural does not include a direct Red Bull reference, the brand has received plenty of publicity for its video showing Man One’s artistic process.The ads work because they don’t look like ads, says Francesca Romana Puggelli, who teaches a course on advertising psychology at the University of Southern California. Consumers, particularly younger people resistant to traditional advertising, “don’t think ‘what does this mural want from me?’” she says. “They just see art.”
Monday, March 11, 2019
This is an old post, from December 2012, but the subject's been on my mind recently, so I'm boosting it to the top of the queue. (3.11.19)
I believe it was Richard Rorty who remarked that post-structuralist and post-modern etc. literary theory has assumed the synthesizing role in the American academy that had traditionally been taken by philosophy. The literary critics are the ones who discourse on all of life and society, especially those speaking in the name of Theory, informing us on matters of justice and injustice and pointing the way to emancipation.
In the course of so-doing it sometimes seems to me that critics are flirting with Plato’s mistake. As Plato himself did not make that mistake the name has a bit of irony about it. Rather, Plato warned against this mistake.
The mistake is to discourse on the world through a copy, the literary text, of a copy, the phenomenal world, of reality, the Ideal Forms. Except, alas, in the world of contemporary literary criticism, there are and were no Forms to prop the whole thing up.
As for Theory, there was a time when literary critics called on philosophy to theorize about literature itself (aesthetics, even poetics) and about literary criticism. On the latter, think of Murray Krieger, Theory of Criticism (1976), E.D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (1967), or John Ellis, The Theory of Literary Criticism (1974). During my student years, undergraduate and graduate (1965-1978) I watched the meaning of the phrase “literary theory” shift from designating theory of literature or of criticism to designating a theory of the world employed in determining the meaning of literary texts. It is though the conceptual apparatus of the time couldn’t simultaneously sustain distinctions between the world, a theory of the world, the literary text, and a theory about the text. So theory about the text was simply dropped.
The result: Plato’s problem. The text was taken, by default, as a mirror of the world, albeit a distorting mirror with a dirtied surface. The mirror didn’t work very well, but it’s all we’ve got. And the critic took it on himself, or herself, to limn the truth about the world by reading the signs appearing in the mirror.
Sunday, March 10, 2019
Brad Hawley, The Osamu Tezuka Story: A Must-Read for Manga Fans, Fantasy Literature, March 9, 2019. A review of:
The Osamu Tezuka Story: A Life in Manga and Anime by Toshio Ban and Tezuka Productions and translated into English by Frederik L. Schodt. Stone Bridge Press, 2016.
Tezuka was a workaholic:
He was such a workaholic that he rarely left his office, where he often slept and usually ate his meals. Towards the end of his life, he even had multiple desks set up in his office with different ongoing projects on each desk: He would move from desk to desk throughout the day keeping multiple projects going simultaneously, often sleeping as little as three hours a night. He lived 60 years, and in this time period, his complete works became the largest publication of a single author’s output of all time.
And was known as "the god of manga":
Tezuka is Walt Disney, Stan Lee, Will Eisner, and Alan Moore rolled into one plus more. He artistically had impact greater than even what they accomplished all together. Like Walt Disney, Tezuka created loveable characters and cutting-edge animated films and T.V. shows that were for all-ages. Like Stan Lee, he created a universe of characters for all ages, many of them aimed at young men. Like Will Eisner, he paved the way for what sequential art could do and be, and like Eisner, he wrote intelligently about the art form. Like Alan Moore, but unlike Stan Lee and Walt Disney, Tezuka was far more mature, experimental, intellectual, and philosophical in many of his works, much of them coming from later in his life. When Tezuka is referred to as the “God of Manga” in Japan, they are calling him the God of animation and sequential art worldwide. And it is a fact that there is no other single creator of sequential art and animation worldwide who has had a bigger impact than he has. When people talk about the influence of anime on art and culture in the United States, they are talking about Tezuka’s influence. And that’s just a small example of his impact, years after he died.I hope I have emphasized enough how important to the world Tezuka is as an artist, and therefore, how much a biography worthy of him is needed. The Osamu Tezuka Story is that biography, and most appropriately, it is told in manga format by a man who worked with Tezuka for many years. Therefore, the style is very much in the Tezuka tradition. Toshio Ban has captured visually the fast-paced life of an artist, an artist who was followed around by editors waiting for their pages. In his younger years, Tezuka would hide out in different hotels trying to get work done without interruption from the many editors waiting for work from him, but he took on so many assignments, he could barely keep up with his deadlines. This biography captures the frantic life of a young artist who matured without giving up on his commitments right up until the end of his life, when he left multiple works incomplete, most sadly his life-long work The Phoenix, though multiple stand-alone volumes of this series were completed.
Friday, March 8, 2019
A quickie, just to get it out there so I can see it (from January 2015).
I have long believed that a need for order, coherence, patterns, is intrinsic to being human. I suppose I can date this belief to the mid-1970s when I read William Powers, Behavior: The Control of Perception (1973). Under the topic of reorganization (more conventionally, learning) Powers talked of intrinsic reference levels for the (proper) construction of control systems (which I’ve recently recounted in Cultural Beings, the Ontology of Culture, and a Return to Books and Blues). Hays and I included Powers’ notion in our paper, Principles and Structures of Natural Intelligence (1988), and I associated it with Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of flow in Culture as an Evolutionary Arena (1996).
That’s what’s behind ‘beauty’ or whatever it is that works of art are said to have, and for elegance in scientific theory and mathematical proof. And it is, I believe, behind cultural evolution. We must make order of the world; that is the ‘other side’ of anxiety.
But where’d it come from? In our paper on natural intelligence Hays and I associated the need for coherence with the process of reorganization (following Powers) and we linked that to the emergence of vertebrates. That makes it very old indeed. What seems to have happened with humankind is that this rage for order has been set free from merely biological imperatives, has been set from from the tyranny of the present, so that it now ranges over the whole of space and time.
How’d that happen? And when? There is the emergence of human language. That sets cognition free of the present by allowing us to index the past, and thus recall it, and allows us to index the cognitive system itself, thus creating a need to order that index (ontology).
But there is also death (see Cultural Beings Evolving in the Mesh). It is one thing to mourn one’s fellows, as animals do. It is another think to know that you will, at some point, die. How is it that we came to know that? What are the cognitive presuppositions of such knowledge?
Explicit grave sites along with grave goods appear in the human record about 100,000 years ago. I take that as evidence that people have come to know that they will die. It may be the dead that are buried, but it is done for the benefit of the living. It is a way of keeping the living whole.
Somewhere in the nexus of language and death, that is where we’ll find our rage for order. That is what drives us.
Addendum: The order, to be meaningful, must be collective. Language can exist only in a group. Burial rites are meaningful only to a group. This sets up a peculiar dialectic in which “cultural beings” are utterly dependent on the people who participate in them even as the participants are dependent on those same cultural beings. It is through those cultural beings that the individuals experience the order and coherence that is so important to them.
And the sharing of experience is itself a source of pleasure. When experience alone grief, for example, is merely grief. Sharing it transforms it, not into pleasure in any direct sense of the world, but into something that is fulfilling. It’s the sharing that works the transformation. That’s why sad music can make us feel good; that’s why tragedy can be so powerful, so cathartic.
* * * * *
Photographs are of the Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetary and were taken in March 2009.
From March 2015, a glimpse at a different world.Daniel Davies, blogger at Crooked Timber, is going around the world with his family for a year (he made a bit of money in investment banking). They've just spent a couple of months in New Zealand.
Part of the whole purpose of bringing the children round the world – god knows, it wasn’t the sheer joy of home-schooling – was to let them see that different ways of doing things are possible, and the way that children live in New Zealand really contrasted with how things were in London.The kids have much more independence, and a much more outdoor lifestyle. When there isn’t so much traffic on the roads and there’s more empty space, they can play in it. My ten-year-old nephew was able to go out alone into the bush to look after his father’s possum traps (it’s considered civically responsible to take care of a few traps in the local bush, because possums and rats eat kiwi eggs). After school, kids would arrange to meet up, parent’s absent, and “jump off the wharf”. (Jumping off things is actually the national sport, as far as I can tell – it doesn’t get as much TV coverage as rugby, but has many more participants. In the course of a fifteen minute lift I gave to a hitch-hiker who had missed his bus back home from one of the higher local wharves, I was given a pretty comprehensive run down of all the tall objects with bodies of water beneath them in the surrounding district. There’s a sign on the bridge over the Whakatane River saying “Do not jump off this bridge”, but I don’t know why they bothered).On enrolling our five-year old at her infants’ school we were pretty much immediately handed a piece of paper with details of the two-day camp that the tots would be going on. It’s a totally different world.
He also has some observations about the Māori:
How does a basically tribal society adapt to a modern industrial lifestyle? That, in my view, is a really important question for the world at the moment, as it’s the key to the Afghanistan conflict, among other things. The Pashtun tribes who make life so difficult for any and all occupiers of that territory are not stupid, and they are aware of what happened to the Khoi-San, the Native Americans, the Aborigines, and more or less any tribal society that has ever adopted any position other than one of strictly “no compromise, no retreat, nothing except trade in firearms and textiles” with respect to the modern world. Economic development in that region is more or less impossible if it has to be attempted in the context of a society which is basically the largest surviving tribal society in existence and wants to stay that way. For that reason, if no other, I think it’s a good idea for the rest of us to look at New Zealand and see if there’s anything to learn.
Wednesday, March 6, 2019
Carl Zimmer, These Mice sing to One Another – Politely, NYTimes, Feb 28, 2019.
It was once believed that monkeys and apes were not able to exert voluntary cortical control over their vocalizations; that was the case when I published my book on music, Beethoven's Anvil, in 2001. We've since learned that's not true. Now, it seems, (some) mice also have cortical control over vocalization.
Alston’s singing mice sometimes belt out a song when they’re alone, but they’re especially vocal when other mice are around. Males sing as a way to fight over territory with other males, and both males and females sing to one another during courtship.
Working with Steven M. Phelps, a biologist at the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Long set up a home for the mice in his lab to study their brains.
“They’re kind of divas,” he said. “They need exercise equipment in their cages and specialized diets. But they thrive here.”
One day, Andrew M. Matheson, one of Dr. Long’s graduate students, noticed something odd about two male mice in neighboring cages. Instead of singing over each other, they sounded like they were having a conversation.
Dr. Long and his colleagues eventually discovered that Mr. Matheson’s hunch was correct. The singing mice never overlapped: Each mouse would wait for the other to stop, and then start up within a fraction of a second. [...]
So the researchers began probing the brains of the mice, searching for the neurons that led them to be “polite” raconteurs.
In one experiment, the researchers cooled down patches of mouse brain by a few degrees, slowing the neurons. One patch in the mouse cortex is essential for controlling their singing, the scientists found. If this section is cooled, the mouse sings extended songs, adding on extra notes.
The researchers also injected nerve-blocking drugs into this brain patch and then played a recording of another male. Drugged males often failed to sing back. And when they did, they were slow to begin, taking seconds to start their own song.
Dr. Long thinks this region of the mouse cortex is crucial to the mice’s special communication. “We think of it as a conductor,” he said. “It allows the animals to sing in this turn-taking way.”
How long is that fraction of a second?
It's this turn-taking that's interesting. Human turn-taking is precisely timed and implies that the interlocutors are synchronized to a common pulse. Is that the case for these Alston’s singing mice?
I once emailed the late Walter Freeman about human turn-taking. I was interested in how quickly one turn followed upon another, on the order of 10s of milliseconds. I was curious about the conduction speed in the nervous system, which is much slower than electrical signals in wires. Was it slow enough that instant turn-taking was possible only if one's vocalization was initiated before the interlocutor had stopped talking? That is, you can't take the cessation of speech as a cue for initiating your reply. The reply has to be initiated a fraction earlier. Freeman replied that, yes, that's how it would have to be.
Human brains and vocal apparatus are larger than those of mice (think, e.g., of breath control) and so conduction times are longer. But perhaps those mice are still subject to the same limitation.
Christobel Hastings, How Onna-Bugeisha, Feudal Japan's Women Samurai, Were Erased From History, Broadly, Sept. 24, 2018.
Throughout history, most Japanese women were subject to rigid social expectations of marriage, domesticity, and motherhood, but there also existed women warriors like Takeko who were known to be to be every bit as strong, capable, and courageous as their male counterparts. They belonged to the bushi class, a noble class of feudal Japanese warriors, and helped settle new lands, defend their territory, and even had a legal right to supervise lands as jito (stewards). They were exceptionally skilled in combat; trained in the use of the Kaiken dagger, the naginata, the polearm sword, and the art of tantōjutsu knife fighting. Centuries before the rise of the samurai class in the 12th century, these women would fight in times of war to protect their homes, families, and deep sense of honor.
After the Meiji Restoration in 1868—a new era of imperial rule that stood for modernization, industrialization, and Westernization—the Samurai class who had once bravely protected the nation fell from power, and the legacy of the equally fearsome onna-bugeisha faded from view. Meanwhile, Westerners rewrote the history of Japanese warring culture, overlooking the heroic quests of the onna-bugeisha and elevating, instead, exaggerated representations of swaggering male Samurai and subservient Japanese women, clad in kimono and tightly-bound obi. Indeed, historian Stephen Turnbull regards “the exploits of female warriors as the greatest untold story in samurai history.” [...]
Particularly interesting about Gozen: She was one of the few women warriors who engaged in offensive battle, known as onna-musha, rather than the defensive fighting more common among traditional onna-bugeisha. In 1184, she led 300 samurai into a fierce battle against 2,000 opposing Tiara clan warriors, and during the Battle of Awazu later that same year, she slayed several adversaries before decapitating the Musashi clan’s leader and presenting his head to her master, General Kiso Yoshinaka. Gozen’s reputation was so high, it’s said Yoshinaka considered her the first true general of Japan.
Despite minimal written historical record, recent archeological evidence suggests that Gozen may not have been a rarity. The excavation of three head-mounds has uncovered a significant female involvement in battle, throwing the exclusion of onna-bugeisha from the history books into greater relief. For instance, DNA tests on 105 bodies excavated from the Battle of Senbon Matsubaru between Takeda Katsuyori and Hojo Ujinao in 1580 revealed that 35 of them were women. According to Turnbull, the details on the excavation confirm that women warriors were almost certainly present on the battlefield.
Could this be part of the deep background for the strong women and girls who are so important in contemporary manga and anime?
Saturday, March 2, 2019
Natalie Wolchover, A World Without Clouds, Quanta Magazine, February 25, 2019. Until quite recently the weather models used to predict the climate evolution were unable to take proper account of cloud cover (because they didn't have sufficient resolution):
Clouds currently cover about two-thirds of the planet at any moment. But computer simulations of clouds have begun to suggest that as the Earth warms, clouds become scarcer. With fewer white surfaces reflecting sunlight back to space, the Earth gets even warmer, leading to more cloud loss. This feedback loop causes warming to spiral out of control.
For decades, rough calculations have suggested that cloud loss could significantly impact climate, but this concern remained speculative until the last few years, when observations and simulations of clouds improved to the point where researchers could amass convincing evidence.
Now, new findings reported today in the journal Nature Geoscience make the case that the effects of cloud loss are dramatic enough to explain ancient warming episodes like the PETM [Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum] — and to precipitate future disaster. Climate physicists at the California Institute of Technology performed a state-of-the-art simulation of stratocumulus clouds, the low-lying, blankety kind that have by far the largest cooling effect on the planet. The simulation revealed a tipping point: a level of warming at which stratocumulus clouds break up altogether. The disappearance occurs when the concentration of CO2 in the simulated atmosphere reaches 1,200 parts per million — a level that fossil fuel burning could push us past in about a century, under “business-as-usual” emissions scenarios. In the simulation, when the tipping point is breached, Earth’s temperature soars 8 degrees Celsius, in addition to the 4 degrees of warming or more caused by the CO2 directly.
Once clouds go away, the simulated climate “goes over a cliff,” said Kerry Emanuel, a climate scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A leading authority on atmospheric physics, Emanuel called the new findings “very plausible,” though, as he noted, scientists must now make an effort to independently replicate the work.
To imagine 12 degrees of warming, think of crocodiles swimming in the Arctic and of the scorched, mostly lifeless equatorial regions during the PETM. If carbon emissions aren’t curbed quickly enough and the tipping point is breached, “that would be truly devastating climate change,” said Caltech’s Tapio Schneider, who performed the new simulation with Colleen Kaul and Kyle Pressel.
Oleg Sobchuk, The (slow) dying of cultural forms, Medium, Feb 26, 2019.
Several years ago, sipping coffee at the sunny campus of Stanford, J.D. Porter, from the Literary Lab, and I were discussing cultural evolution. I tried to persuade J.D. that thinking of cultural items as “species”, which evolve, mutate, and get extinct, is a useful metaphor — or even more than just a metaphor. But J.D. was skeptical. Cultural items, he said — for example, poems — rarely die. Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet around 1591, and yet, this play is still alive and kicking: maybe even more alive than during the times of Shakespeare. So how can we speak of “cultural selection” and “evolution” if cultural “species” — at least some of them — refuse to die?
Then we have some evidence and discussion leading to a distinction:
In biology, death is a qualitative change: there is a huge difference between a living and a dead organism. But in culture… death is quantitative. So: cultural death isn’t like crossing a border, it rather resembles a slow process of collapsing. And some cultural forms (or, according to Kelly, most of them) never fully collapse: they simply become infinitely closer to death, without ever reaching that final destination point. Shakespeare, as a cultural character, having reached his peak popularity almost a century ago, is slowly decaying from our cultural memory (Figure 3). Yes, his plays aren’t dead, but they are in the process of dying — for sure.
The slow dying of cultural forms… It may be worth studying further.