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Originally published in Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems 19(4): 321-362, 1996
Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 1996 JAI Press, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Culture as an Evolutionary Arena

William Benzon

708 Jersey Avenue
Jersey City, NJ 07302

Abstract: Culture is an evolutionary domain in which paradigms evolve through the replication and variation of memes and psychological traits. In biology genes flow in such a restricted way that there is a relatively transparent relationship between genealogy and taxonomy. In culture memes are borrowed freely between lineages so that a given paradigm may have contributions from many cultures. Further, under certain conditions cultures come into such intimate contact that the process of creolization produces new paradigms within a relatively few generations. Consequently cultural taxonomy is inherently more complex than biological taxonomy. Dynamically, over the long term culture exhibits an S-shaped growth curve which reflects the proliferation of memes within cultures. Perhaps the deepest issue in cultural evolution is the Gestalt switch which happens between the highest level of one cultural rank and the beginning of the next rank.


  1. Introduction: Just What is Culture?
  2. Random Variation and Selective Retention
  3. Culture: Paradigm, Meme, Trait
  4. Biological Evolution: Taxonomy Recapitulates Phylogeny, Almost
  5. Cultural Evolution: Mongrels at the Tower of Babel
  6. Cultural Complexity
  7. Culture: Beyond Taxonomy and Genealogy
  8. Notes

1. Introduction: Just What is Culture?

Sometime early in my college career I learned that, for students of les sciences de l'homme , culture is the "totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought" (The American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition). Culture is thus not the exclusive property of an elite whose members have learned to appreciate "the finer things"--symphony orchestra concerts, great master paintings, literary classics, gardens in artful disarray, French transmutations of grapes and goose liver and the like. In this conceptually more useful and appropriate sense, all people have a culture.

Since then I have devoted a great deal of intellectual energy to studying the artifacts and processes of culture, most intensively, literature, language, and music, but other things as well. However much I have wondered just what literature, language, and music are, how they are constructed and how they evolve, I have managed to function without much wondering just what culture itself is. That undergraduate understanding of culture as the "totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns" and so forth has been all I need.

That situation is changing. My conceptual troubles trouble began indirectly, when I wondered how one decides whether or not a given piece of music is an example of Western music. From there I became curious about what "Western-ness" is and how you recognize it when you see it. Once I had gotten that far I had no choice but to bite the conceptual bullet and begin wondering about culture itself. For how can you think about the characteristics of Western culture unless you know what kind of characteristics a culture can have? And how can you know that unless you know what culture is? Thus what had begun as a taxonomic problem became an ontological one.

Interesting and compelling though it is, I must leave the problem of Western culture to another essay. This essay is about what I've learned about the nature of culture itself, about what it means to assert that culture is an evolutionary domain, for that is what I have come to believe it is. As life is an evolutionary domain and is studied by biologists and biophysicists so culture is an evolutionary domain and is studied by anthropologists, historians, sociologists and a variety of other folks, few of whom think of culture as evolving in a way similar to the evolution of biological species.

2. Random Variation and Selective Retention

Biological evolution is a process of random variation among individuals and selective retention of those traits which confer survival benefits on those varied individuals. From a metaphysical point of view, random variation is desirable because it eliminates the need for a design agent which is external to the biological world. Whatever the variation mechanism is, it operates without knowledge of the adaptive value of its variations. It is blind.

Given the output of the variation mechanism, we need to retain the successful variations and reject the unsuccessful ones. Reproduction passes traits from one generation to the next; that accounts for retention. However, an organism must survive to reproductive age before the retention mechanism can start. Maladaptive traits make that less likely. Thus adaptive traits are more likely to remain in a population than maladaptive traits.

The theory of biological evolution makes extensive use of the concepts having to do with genes, which are the units of biological information containing "instructions" on how to construct an organism. It is the pool of genes for a species which provides the organismic variations that are subjected to selective pressures in the evolutionary arena. A lineage diagram shows us, in effect, how gene pools flow and differentiate in evolutionary time while a taxonomic tree tells us about the distribution of the capacity to construct organisms, with the most basic capacities being at the top of the tree while more specialized capacities exist toward the bottom.

The genetic complement of an individual organism is its genotype. By contrast, its observable characteristics are known as the phenotype. It is the phenotype which adapts (or fails to adapt) to the environment. A successful phenotype gets to contribute its genes to the gene pool; a failed phenotype does not. Phenotypes are the result of developmental interaction between the genotype and the developmental environment. Note that there is, in general, no one-to-one correlation between particular genes and particular phenotypic features. Most observable features result from the interaction between various genes and the developmental environment.

While there is certainly no reason to believe that all evolutionary processes operate on the biological model, it is the most extensive example we currently have. Thus, I take it that the first requirement for understanding culture as an evolutionary domain is to find suitable parallels to the biological concepts of gene, phenotype, environment, and species. We need something like the genes to vary, be replicated, and passed on from generation to generation. We need something like the phenotype to adapt to the cultural environment. And we need something like the species to bear the collection of genes which creates the adapting phenotype.

3. Culture: Paradigm, Meme, Trait

In The Selfish Gene , Richard Dawkins (1989 [1976]) argues that, in effect, an organism is best thought of as a gene's way of making another gene, to paraphrase Norbert Wiener's remark that a chicken is just an egg's way of making another egg. I don't know enough biology to have a worthwhile opinion on whether or not that is a reasonable view to take of biological evolution. Nor do I understand cultural evolution well enough to pass judgment on whether or not culture evolves in that way.

Yet, as a way of beginning to think about cultural evolution, such a perspective is not bad. However much we talk about cultures, we don't really know what they are. The "genes" of culture seem a bit more tractable. I intend to take them on in the next section (3.1). After that we can move on to a consideration of cultural fitness (3.2) and then look at the "organisms" of culture, those things we tend to call "cultures" (3.3).

3.1 Memes and Traits

To begin with we need a concept in the human sciences which is to culture and its evolution as the gene is to the biological world and its evolution. What is it that circulates through human society and history as the genes have circulated in biological evolution?

I don't have a well-tried answer to this question, nor do I know of anyone who does. As a practical matter, Darwinian thought managed quite well for several decades without a usable model of genetic mechanisms. Thought in the human sciences has been, if anything, even more prolific in the absence of usable models. Thus I am willing to offer a speculation with some assurance that, whatever its vagueness and imprecision, it will not on that account be departing from established canons of conceptual development in the human sciences.

Following conversations with David Hays, I suggest that we regard the whole of physical culture as the genes: the pots and knives, the looms and cured hides, the utterances and written words, the ploughshares and transistors, the songs and painted images, the tents and stone fortifications, the dances and sculpted figures, all of it. For these are the things which people exchange with one another, through which they interact with one another. They can be counted and classified and variously studied.

What then of the ideas, desires, emotions, and attitudes behind these things? After all, as any college sophomore can point out, words on a page are just splotches unless apprehended by an appropriately prepared mind, one that knows the language. Pots and knives are not so ineffable as runes and ideograms, but they aren't of much use to people who don't know how to use them, that is, to people whose minds lack the appropriate neural "programs". Surely, one might propose, these mental objects and processes are the stuff of culture.

What I in fact propose is that we think of these mental objects and processes as being analogous to the biologist's phenotype just as the physical objects and processes are analogous to the genotype. Properly understood, these mental objects and processes are embodied in brain states (cf. Benzon and Hays 1988). Thus we have the whole of physical culture interacting with the inner cultural environment to produce the various mental objects and activities which are the substance of culture.

Richard Dawkins has proposed the term "meme" for the units of the cultural genotype, but proposes no special term for the cultural phenotype, though he recognizes the necessity of distinguishing the two (Dawkins 1982, pp. 109 ff., see also Dawkins 1989, pp. 189 ff.). Following more or less standard anthropological usage, I offer "psychological trait", or just "trait", as a term designating phenotypical units or features. Note, however, that Dawkins places memes in the brain and traits in the external world, which is just the opposite of what I am doing. He appears not to have considered the scheme I propose and so offers no arguments in favor of his scheme. This whole arena is so speculative that rigorous argument is elusive. However, I expect that my reasons for placing memes in the public world and traits in the inner will emerge in the following section of this essay [1].

This way of thinking leads to imagery which is quite different from biological imagery. While biologists talk of a gene pool, the genes never actually intermingle in a physical pool. The genes are strands of DNA in the interior of cells. A species' gene pool exists as a logical fact, not a physical pool filled with genetic slime. It is the phenotypes of species which intermingle with one another in the physical "pool" of the environment. In culture, it is the phenotypic traits which are interior while the genetic memes are out there in the physical "pool" of the environment. When cultures meet, their memes intermingle freely.

The fact that a meme moves from one culture to another does not mean that the corresponding psychological trait moves. Basic visual forms, such as crosses and triangles, have symbolic significance in many cultures, but that significance is not everywhere the same. The computer chip which is an information processing device in the culture of the electronics engineer is but an intricately crafted bit of "stuff" in the jeweler's culture. Musical motifs and ritual forms move easily between cultures, but the psychological traits may not move so readily. Thus middle-class Japanese weddings are often long elaborate affairs often including a traditional Christian ceremony as one of its components, though the Japanese couple is most-likely not Christian (Tanikawa 1995). Moving in the other cultural direction, the American jazz musician Roland Kirk (1965) has recorded a tune he calls "Ruined Castles" and on which he takes composer credits. The same tune, under the name "Japanese Folk Song," has been recorded by Thelonius Monk (nd) with no attribution. As far as I can tell, the tune is Japanese, is called "Ancient Castle" (close to Kirk's title), and was composed by Rentaro Taki (1879-1901) [2]. If we didn't distinguish between meme and trait we would have to assume that non-Christian Japanese couples and Western Christian couples understand the "picture-book" wedding in the same way, on the one hand, and that Monk, Kirk, and Taki are evoking the same feelings when they perform "Ancient Castle Japanese Folk Song Ruined Castles."

One can speculate that the "misinterpretation" of memes as they move from culture to culture may be a source of cultural innovation. Whether or not that is so, it is certain that such movement is very common. This is a fact of deep significance and gives cultural evolution a very different texture from biological evolution (see section 5 below).

3.2 Survival of the Culturally Fit

But what is this mysterious "cultural environment"? That is, what is it that these mental entities are "interacting with" which determines whether they rise or fall? For example, epistemologists and intellectual historians ask why one idea succeeds while another fails. One idea may be accepted because it agrees with the evidence better than its competitors while another idea is adopted because it is more pleasing. "Agreement with evidence" is one type of fitness while "elegance" is another. Ideas which are fit in either, or even both, of these ways are better equipped to survive in the cultural environment than ideas lacking either of these qualities.

As a further example, consider the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow (1990, 1993). He defines flow in relationship between task difficulty and skill level (see Figure 1 below). If a task exceeds one's abilities by a large degree, one will be anxious. If one's abilities exceed task demands by a large degree, one will be bored. However, when task demands and abilities are well-matched, the task is interesting, and one performs it in a state of pleasant and absorbed flow.

Figure 1: Flow

Figure 1: Flow

Given this relationship between demand and ability, it is obvious that, as we set about adding a skill to our repertoire, performing the ever-more familiar task will cease to engender flow and instead engender boredom. To regain that pleasing sense of flow we must set ourselves a more difficult task, one which challenges our ever-enlarging skill set.

Given then, that we like complexity, that we thrive on it, Csikszentmihalyi (1990, pp. 225-240, 1993) argues that culture evolves as a consequence for our collective quest for greater complexity. That is to say, those traits which enhance the quest for complex experience will survive, while those which do not will wither. The memes which most effectively embody those traits will be passed on, while others will be forgotten. We continue to perform Beethoven's scores and the Shakespeare's texts while many scores and texts, more popular at the time than Beethoven and Shakespeare, are no longer performed.

The concept of flow is fairly general, one readily operative in various domains. That is a desirable property for something which is intrinsic to the inner workings of cultural "space." For cultural space engenders new domains as culture evolves. Family and state become differentiated, cognition becomes differentiated from expression, theories about the physical world become differentiated from theories about the mental world, the world of the mechanical engineer becomes differentiated from that of the agricultural biologist, and so forth. With all this cultural differentiation, the brain remains much the same. I imagine that the basic dynamics of flow reflect the physiological properties of the central nervous system. The long-term effect of generations of flow-seeking humans is the creation of a wide range of cultural memes whose creation, use, and/or contemplation have engendered flow in those generations.

To get just a little more specific about the nature of this inner cultural "space" I propose that it is a very abstract space whose dimensions and structure are given by what William Powers (1973, pp. 177-204) has called the intrinsic reference levels of the brain. The most concrete of these reference levels concern physiological variables on which the organism's survival depends, things like the presence of various kinds of chemicals indicating whether or not the organism is getting enough to eat, drink, breath, and reproduce. If the detected values of these quantities stray away from genetically specified levels, then the organism reorganizes its neural programming until the values return to specified limits. The effect of such reorganization is that the organism behaves in new ways. An effective reorganization will bring the organism closer to an environmental source of satisfaction. An ineffective reorganization will simply waste time.

Powers also admits the possibility of reference levels concerned, not with the physical and reproductive state of the organism, but with the more abstract matter of the intrinsic properties of the neural processing system (e.g. the brain) itself (Powers 1973, pp. 195-97): are its procedures internally consistent, elegant, beautiful? A reference level regulating the body's water content can be kept in-bounds by any set of programs that gets the organism to drink enough to balance water use and loss. A reference level for behavioral or perceptual elegance will be kept in-bounds by reorganizing current behavioral or perceptual schemata. That is, it will be kept in-bounds by learning. Now, as David Hays has pointed out to me in personal conversation, the conditions which are most favorable to flow are exactly those conditions which are most favorable to learning. Flow would thus seem to be the general experiential mode for the various reference levels concerned with reorganizing our neural machinery [3]. Thus flow would seem to be a general property of the system which regulates learning regardless of just what is learned.

Thus flow itself has nothing to do with whether or not one's skills contribute directly to physical survival. The skills of the hunt make such a contribution, while the skills of song do not. In either case, flow is a matter of challenge and mastery, not of biological utility. I do not, of course, intend to deny the value of skills which enhance physical survival. Obviously, without physical survival, there can be no society and no culture. The point, however, is that a society's physical survival is decided in a biological arena while its cultural survival is decided in a more abstract arena. Given physical survival, people do things which satisfy the higher reference levels, whatever they are.

Figure 2: Society, Biology and Culture

Figure 2: Flow

There are a great many skills which function in both arenas. For example, one needs a hut to survive cold winters; that hut thus serves to keep physical reference levels for temperature and security in bounds. That the hut should have a square door facing North does little if anything to increase its capacity to provide protection from the cold, the rain, the snow (and, predators too). But such a door may well bring the hut's structure into correspondence with a host of other practices; and that overall correspondence may thus satisfy an intrinsic need for beauty. Human cultures are replete with such correspondences. In fact, Claude Levi-Strauss (1966) has, in effect, argued that much of the work of culture is to inscribe the perceptual and motoric skills of physical survival in the mental realm of culture. As an example, Edmund Leach (1972) has argued that our sense of what food is edible is not simply a matter of nutrition; it is also a matter of cultural fitness. Dog meat is perfectly edible, but not in Western cultures. That inediblity has to do with the position dogs occupy is the cultural system, not with their biochemical composition.

In this view, a healthy society is one where the biological and cultural needs are both being met (see Figure 2). In order more fully to appreciate the force of cultural need, consider the phenomena of "voodoo" and "hex" death and of crisis cults. In voodoo death (Cannon 1972 [1942]) a person violates a taboo, such as talking on sacred ground, eating a forbidden fruit, and, shortly after discovering that a taboo has been violated, the person is dead. The closely related phenomenon of "hex" death (Seligman 1975, p. 1977) occurs when a person learns that they have been cursed by someone with the appropriate technical knowledge and supernatural authority. As in the case of voodoo death, hex death kills within hours or days. While such deaths exhibit a fairly standard set of physical symptoms, they cannot be attributed to external agents such as poisons or bacteria nor to externally induced physical trauma. The death is psychosomatic.

A person who violates a taboo has broken the deepest rules of their culture and thereby is thrust outside the protective web of memes and traits which give meaning and structure to the world. The person who is cursed believes that someone else has severed the link between their soul and the cultural forms and practices in which that soul lives its life. Such people are in a situation where, in effect, they see no hope of ever again satisfying their higher reference levels. They are cut off from their culture. That kills them as surely as being cut off from food or water.

Crisis cults are a bit different. Crisis cults arise, perhaps most frequently in preliterate peoples, when the culture itself is all but destroyed (Labarre 1972). The example that comes most quickly to mind is the Ghost Dance cults of the Native Americans in the late nineteenth century. By that time it was crushingly obvious that the white people were not going away and could not be militarily defeated. That left Native Americans two alternatives: 1) live the life of farmers on reservations, which amounts to cultural destruction for many, or 2) be physically destroyed, and not even in the brave manner befitting warriors (which bravery in battle, in any event, was not so available to women, children, and old men). Some chose a third way. They adopted a set of beliefs according to which, if they danced the right dances, sang the right songs, and wore shirts decorated with the appropriate symbols, they would be safe from disease and from white soldier's bullets, the earth would open up and swallow all the white people, and both the buffalo and their friends and loved ones would be restored to life. Things did not, of course, work out that way [4].

For many, such beliefs seemed to be the only way to imagine a way of living into the next year or three without abandoning their culture. From a biological point of view such beliefs are pointless and irrational. They do nothing to secure the food, water, and shelter necessary for survival. Worse than that, they lead people to act in ways which hasten their physical destruction. However, if one grants that culture makes its own deep claims on human life, and that those claims are independent of biology's claims, then one can understand and sympathize with those facing the certain destruction of their way of life.

Culture is a domain unto itself, separate from biology, but interdependent with it. Culture has allowed human beings to create artifacts and processes allowing them to live beyond the warm tropics, to cover the earth, and even to make tentative steps beyond the earth. Less tangibly, culture can give life through the simple fact of giving hope for a future, a point Leonard Sagan (1987, p. 184) makes in the following passage:

The history of rapid health gains in the United States is not unique; the rate at which death rates have fallen is even more rapid in more recently modernizing countries. The usual explanations for this dramatic improvement--better medical care, nutrition, or clean water--provide only partial answers. More important in explaining the decline in death worldwide is the rise of hope ... [through] the introduction of the transistor radio and television, bringing into the huts and shanties of the world the message that progress is possible, that each individual is unique and of value, and that science and technology can provide the opportunity for fulfillment of these hopes.

To the extent that hope is engendered within a specific cultural framework, that hope weakens when that framework begins to deteriorate. Those memes and traits which engender hope will be more likely to survive in the long run than those which do not.

3.3 Paradigm is to Culture as Species is to Biology

I propose to use the term "paradigm" as the cultural correlate to the biological species [5]. I would expect to make statements about paradigms such as:

  • Traditional Iroquois culture consists of a single paradigm which has memes and traits from a variety of North American lineages.
  • African-American music consists of various paradigms having multiple links to one another and to paradigms originating in Europe and Africa.
  • When we say that American society is a melting pot we imply that its culture incorporates paradigms and elements of paradigms from around the world.
  • Santeria is a Cuban religious paradigm with elements of the Catholic Christian paradigm and various West African paradigms (cf. Brandon 1990).
  • The novel is a literary paradigm that originated in Western Europe in the 18th century.
  • According to Peter Drucker (1994), a business is organized around a paradigm which he calls the theory of the business.
  • Newtonian physics is a scientific paradigm which would have been impossible without the mathematical paradigm called calculus (which was independently discovered by Newton and Leibniz).

While I think that each of these statements is more or less true, I am not at the moment concerned with that truth (though in later sections of this essay I will have something to say about 2, 5, 6, and 7). Rather, I want to indicate a sense of what cultural paradigms are by giving examples of how I think the concept should be used.

Thomas Kuhn (1970) invented the concept of a paradigm in the context of thinking about scientific revolutions. Since the processes Kuhn analyzed in the history of science seemed like those in many other arenas, students of other aspects of human culture and society have adopted and adapted the concept for their own purposes (cf. Hollinger 1973). As Kuhn uses it the concept is rich, subtle, and not altogether clear (cf. Masterman 1970). The subsequent migration of the concept from thought about science to thought about nearly everything has done little for the concept's clarity, though it is a testament to the concept's richness. I suppose that it is precisely because the concept is so rich that it also unclear.

Two aspects of Kuhn's concept seem particularly salient: paradigms are largely unconscious and they are incommensurable. Paradigms exist in the mind and are shared by some group of people. They are largely unconscious, not in the Freudian sense of being shoved into the mental cellar by a censor, but in the sense that most of our mental machinery does its work behind the scenes, as it were. Mental mechanisms are inherently unconscious. Thus, when members of the group explain what they are doing, those explanations, more often than not, do not adequately articulate the paradigm. That paradigms are incommensurable means, for example, that the world doesn't look the same to a Newtonian physicist as it does to a relativistic physicist; they don't use the same nouns, verbs, and adjectives. This incommensurability seems comparable to the reproductive or genetic isolation which separates biological species from one another (Stebbins 1982, pp. 90-98).

The joint consequence of these two characteristics is that when a group abandons one paradigm in favor of another, the process is not one of explicit rational decision. What seems to happen is that the adherents of the old paradigms die off and the new paradigm is adopted by youngsters coming up. This was a shocking conception when Kuhn threw it up to historians and philosophers of science, for it seemed to imply that science is not entirely rational--and, I have always suspected that that was part of the concept's appeal to humanists and social scientists, who seem to suffer from perpetual science envy. Whatever that case may be, it does make the history of science seem a bit more like an evolutionary process. In older views, scientists choose among competing conceptions on the basis of explicit rational decisions about which best fit the observed facts. Kuhn offers us a world in which paradigms arise willy nilly, most often in times of intellectual crisis--just how and from where is a bit puzzling, though we can often track their histories. Paradigms win and loose the allegiance of this or that intellectual community--again, the how and the why are a bit puzzling, but we can trace the course of such shifting allegiances (cf. Ghiselin 1982). I don't find these puzzles particularly bothersome, and the overall "feel" of the process seems right to me [6].

3.4 One Culture, One Paradigm: Preliterate Societies

Given then, that the paradigm is the basic unit of cultural evolution, I want to think about the culture of the relatively unsophisticated societies of preliterate humans. Note that such societies must organize activities in several domains, such as:

  • language
  • social organization, dominated by kinship and family
  • obtaining and preparing food and water
  • creating clothing and shelter
  • intergroup relations, such as trade and warfare
  • expressive matters, dance, ritual, song, myth, etc.

The exact delineation and enumeration of these domains isn't crucial to the argument, and it may well vary between societies. Action in each of these domains involves a myriad of sensations, perceptions, actions, ideas, procedures, and so forth.

Now, how many paradigms make up the culture of such a society? One proposal is that such societies have a small number of paradigms, one for each "domain" in which they are active. Another proposal would be that the entire culture consists of a single paradigm coordinating the perceptions and activities in all these domains. I am inclined to favor the second proposal, though I have no strong argument to make on this point. At this point in the game the discussion is so speculative that it is not unreasonable to treat various issues as matters of definition. You decide how something will be defined and agree to live with the consequences of the definition. In this case I find the consequences of the second proposal more livable than those of the first.

In living with the consequences of regarding preliterate societies as having but a single paradigm each it is important to distinguish between episodic and gnomonic mentation, which are the fourth and fifth levels (of five) of human mentation according to the account of human psychology which David Hays and I have been developing [7]. Episodic organization situates objects, actors, and events in time and space while gnomonic organization is concerned with such ultimate and ineffable matters as the truth or falsity of utterances and the difference between dreams, visions, and mundane reality. Thus a particular "chunk" of episodic structure will represent certain actors doing certain things in a particular place at a particular time, but it is only at the gnomonic level that the system notes whether this episode occurred in mundane reality or is the content of a lie, or perhaps a dream or a myth.

In asserting that preliterate societies have but a single paradigm I am also asserting that paradigms are organized at the gnomonic level. That's the level where we get conceptual systems which are incommensurable and stubbornly unconscious. Using these gnomonic patterns we can reason explicitly about episodic matters (and matters at lower levels as well), comparing arguments and evidence through "inner speech" and through conversation with others. But there is no level of mentation higher than gnomonic, hence there is no way to subject its workings to reasoning and evidence.

In this view we can think of the internal structure and processes of the various domains listed above, the psychological traits operating on and with the external and physical memes, as being organized at the episodic level. Coordination between domains is gnomonic and that coordination is not so much about practical matters, such as how to snare a rabbit, erect a lodge pole, or appease one's in-laws, but about symbolic matters, such as the appropriate way to carve and color the image of the totemic rabbit on the lodge pole of a dwelling for one's in-laws (see Benzon and Hays 1990, pp. 305-306, Benzon 1993a, pp. 133-136). That is the function which Levi-Strauss, for example, has proposed for myth (1969, 1976) and it accords well the results of the ethnographic "thick description" Clifford Geertz has advocated (1973, see especially his superb analysis of the Balinese cockfight, pp. 412-53). It is the gnomonic level which generates the symbolic and expressive life of a people. Without this gnomonic level a band of humans is just a band of extraordinarily clever apes. It is the gnomonic system which organizes the rest of the mental system into a more or less coherent paradigm.

Metaphor is a powerful conceptual tool which the gnomonic system has for coordinating episodic domains into an overall paradigm (Benzon and Hays 1988, 1990). The coherence which Levi-Strauss, Edmund Leach, Clifford Geertz, and a host of others find in such cultures is essentially metaphorical; something in one domain is like, analogous to, something in another domain, and so forth. To say that a culture consists of only one paradigm is thus to say that it employs only one set of metaphors for establishing and maintaining its coherence.

4. Biological Evolution: Taxonomy Recapitulates Phylogeny, Almost

Now it is time to imitate Tristram Shandy and progress by means of digression. I want to consider the relationship between taxonomy and phylogeny in biology. For one thing, much of our thinking about culture and ethnicity rides piggy-back on biological metaphor. Nineteenth-century thinkers who talked about the evolution of cultures (and of languages) were deeply impressed with the explanatory power of evolutionary thinking in biology (cf. Breck 1972, White 1972, Todorov 1986, Ruhlen 1991). As species adapt and evolve, so do cultures and languages. Unfortunately, in smuggling biological metaphor into discussions of culture we have converted notions of a "pure" species into notions of "pure" cultures in a way which does deep disservice to the actual ways of culture, though it provides good material for racist political rhetoric.

More directly, biological systematics is certainly one of the most sophisticated--perhaps the most sophisticated--classification systems in science. Thousands of thinkers over hundreds of years have devoted hundreds of thousands of hours to classifying living organisms. A somewhat smaller number of thinkers, years, and hours has been devoted to figuring out just what this classification activity is about and how it should proceed. For all that, biological systematics is by no means a closed issue (see e.g. Ghiselin 1981). However, as far as I know, the problematic issues don't affect what, in the context of this discussion, is the central point: In biology, taxonomy mirrors phylogeny. That means that a biologist can use taxonomic evidence to reason back to phylogenetic lineage. As we will see in the section 5, that is not at all the case with culture.

4.1 Phylogeny and Taxonomy

As I understand it, the basic story of biological evolution goes like this (cf. Ayala 1978, Stebbins 1982): Pick some particular species existing at some point in time. As time ticks away that species will reproduce and spread as its "ingenuity" and environmental "opportunities" permit. In time several groups of individuals will come to exist in rather different environments. These groups will become adapted to those different environments and so come to be different species, all descendants of the same ancestral species. As more time passes these descendent species may well differentiate into further species. And so on. (Of course, reproductive success is not guaranteed and any one of these species might well become extinct, as has so often happened.) These differing species will become reproductively isolated, that is, they will not interbreed.

Figure 3: Speciation

Figure 3: Speciation

If we diagram the evolutionary paths taken from our ancestral species to its various descendants, the diagram will have the form of a tree (see Figure 3).

In asserting that taxonomy mirrors phylogeny, I am merely asserting that the classification scheme a taxonomist would impose on these species would be closely related to this diagram of evolutionary descent (for some of the subtleties involved in the relationship between genealogy and classification see Mayr 1972, pp. 441 ff.). Consider Figure 4.

Figure 4

Figure 4: Speciation and Classification

In the lower part of the diagram we see one species evolving into two different species over the course of time. In the upper part of the diagram we see the taxonomic relationship between these three species. Note that the two later populations of organisms are not classified as the subordinates of the parental population. Rather, all three are classified as species of the same superordinate genus . If we were tracking phylogenetic descent in two different genera, we would see the descendants remain within the genus (see Figure 5). We would never see a situation where a lineages of species in two different genera would cross from one genus to the other (Figure 6, where a descendent of the white genus ends up in the black genus, and a descendent of the black genus ends up in the white genus)--though, as we shall see in the next section, something similar to this does occur among plant species.

Figure 5

Figure 6

Figure 5: Two Genera

Figure 6: Crossed Up

We could depict a structurally identical process one level up in the biological taxonomic hierarchy. In this diagram we would see all the species in one genus evolving over time into species in two (or more) genera, with all the genera being in the same family. We could keep moving up in the hierarchy through order, class, phylum, and kingdom. At every pair of taxonomic levels descendants of a common ancestor would all be subclasses in the same category while descendants of different ancestors would be subclasses in different categories. The net effect is that we can, at least in principle, pick any taxonomic category at any level in the system and find a lineage such that all the species ultimately subsumed by that category are the descendants of a common ancestral species. The higher the category we pick, the longer the lineage.

In biological thinking, taxonomic evidence is thus taken as evidence of phylogenetic relationships (cf. Mayr 1976, pp. 425 ff. Thagard 1992, pp. 137-139). Lines of descent are inferred from similarities observed among living species and among the fossil remains of extinct species. In practice, taxonomy is not an obvious and straightforward business (cf. Beckner 1967, pp. 312 ff; Gould 1977, pp. 69 ff.), especially with respect to extinct species, for the fossil record is spotty and fossils, no matter how complete, do not represent all the anatomical features of an organism. But evidentiary difficulties don't lessen the force of the basic principle, that taxonomy mirrors phylogeny.

4.2 Gene Pools in Evolution

We can further explore the relationship between phylogeny and taxonomy by considering the gene pool. From this point of view a species is not set of individuals, of phenotypes, but a collection of genes (which will, under the appropriate developmental circumstances, "construct" the individuals). Thus, when a species differentiates into two or more daughter species, we can think of that as differentiation of the gene pool. In Figure 7 we see such differentiation. At time 1 we have one species and one gene pool, consisting of genes Q, P, Z, and A among others. At time 2 we have two species and two gene pools. Both gene pools contain Q and A, among many others. But the pool for one species contains P' and Z, while the pool for the other species contains P and Z' [8].

Figure 7

Figure 7: Differentiation of Gene Pools

Figure 8

Figure 8: Taxonomy & the Gene Pool

Figure 8 expresses this relationship taxonomically. At the genus level we have only the genes Q and A because those are the only ones which exist in all three species. At the species level, the three species each have Q and A and, as appropriate, two of the following: P, P', Z, or Z'. Note that the species-level gene pools actually exist in the biological world as autonomous functioning entities. The genus-level gene pool, however, is an abstraction; it doesn't actually exist in the biological world as an autonomous functioning entity. That is to say, the genus-level gene pool would not itself be capable of producing viable organisms or of interacting directly with other genus-level gene pools. Genus-level pools, and higher, operate only indirectly, through the gene pools of the various species they subsume.

Note that we could easily interpret Figures 7 and 8 as representing phenotypes. On this interpretation Q, A, P, P', Z, and Z' would represent morphological features of plants or animals rather than individual genes. The logical relationships remain the same. On either interpretation, Figures 7 and 8, when taken together, give a more detailed representation of the relationship between phylogeny and taxonomy that we had already depicted in Figure 4.

4.3 Informatic Inheritance and Conceptual Satisfaction

We are now in a position to consider the significance of this transparent relationship between phylogeny and taxonomy. No doubt there are people who find the problems of biological classification interesting in and of themselves. But the activity gains its intellectual importance from the fact that the structure of those classes gives us strong clues about the workings of the deepest mechanisms of biology, those of evolution. Those who enjoy classification for its own sake might well be unmoved by the deeper significance of their intellectual acts, but the community of biologists would be less likely to support and reward that activity if it didn't reflect deep biological mechanisms. Classification for the sake of classification does not have deep intellectual significance, but classification in tandem with theory does [9].

This happy coincidence between biological mechanism and the mind's delight in classification allows for the parsimonious representation of biological information. If everything which is true of birds is also true of robins, and eagles, and wrens, and gulls, etc. then it seems wasteful to store copies of that information with the separate representation for each species. Rather, store the information once, with bird, and then have a conceptual link from each individual species to bird (see Figure 9).

Figure 9

Figure 9: Inheritance

Cognitive scientists thus talk of inheritance (Barr and Feigenbaum 1981, pp. 181-189; Hays 1981, pp. 19-24) and have studied it in conjunction with information processing models of human thought. The representation for each species inherits common information from the description of the general bird. In some cases, it may be necessary to block the inheritance of all the general information. Thus, while birds generally fly, the ostrich does not. The representation for ostrich would thus have to block the inheritance of that particular piece of information.

Inheritance is clearly an important property of biological taxonomy. Chimpanzees exhibit the properties of the genus Pan, which in turn exhibits the properties of the family Pongidae, through Primates (order), mammalia (class), Chordata (phylum), to the kingdom Animalia. The taxonomic system provides biologists with a way of organizing a vast collection of generalizations and abstractions of varying scope. Without this system cellular and molecular biology would have to begin anew with each individual species. This would mean that, for example, the helical structure of the DNA molecule would have to be independently established for each and every species. Instead, the structure of biological theory is so organized that biologists can establish at least some properties which are true of cells in general and know that those properties will then be true for (practically) all types of cell in all species.

That biological evolution should have a formal structure which parallels the information processing structure of the human mind is surely just happenstance. We need not make mystical appeals to some notion that the universe and the human mind have been designed so that one is well-suited to understanding the other. However, this happenstance may explain why the theory of evolution is so satisfying. Unfortunately, such happiness has its limits.

4.4 Trouble in Paradise: Hybrids

Not all species evolve through a process of specialization and differentiation within a gene pool. In hybridization a species arises from the mixing of gene pools for two parent species (see Figure 10).

Figure 10

Figure 10: Hybrid

In this case, X is descended from both J and L; such a convergent species is called a hybrid. Hybrids do occur frequently among plants (Avise 1994, pp. 280 ff.; Mayr 1982, pp. 284-285),Stebbins 1982, pp. 91-95, 210-213: Weiner 1995, p. 32) and, for this reason, some biologists have proposed that we talk of reticulate phylogeny (see Figure 11) in these cases rather than the standard tree-like phylogeny (Avise, pp. 295-297). The effect of reticulate phylogeny is that many plant populations do not become differentiated into sharply defined species. Species are more sharply defined in the animal world, with hybrids being less frequent (although there is recent experimental evidence hybridization might be more significant than we had thought, see Weiner, pp. 30 -33).

Figure 11

Figure 12

Figure 11: Reticulate Phylogeny

Figure 12: Taxonomic Doubt

As long as hybridization remains confined to species of the same genus the transparent relationship between phylogeny and taxonomy remains intact. However, should hybridization occur between species of different genera--as appears to be the case among plants--then the situation becomes more complex. In Figure 11, for example, species X is in one lineage descending from A and another descending from C. If A is in one genus and C in another, which genus will X be in? Maybe in one, maybe, the other, maybe in some third genus, it all depends (see Figure 12). For classification is based on resemblance (however, see Ghiselin 1981, pp. 275-76). Individuals of species X might resemble those of A, and thus be in the same genus. But individuals of species X might be more like those of C, or even so unlike individuals of A and B as to warrant classification in a completely different genus.

Thus, biology is not so tidy as it seemed initially. The relationship between taxonomy and phylogeny is not transparent in all regions of evolutionary "space."

5. Cultural Evolution: Mongrels at the Tower of Babel

Culture is not tidy at all. Cultures interbreed readily (cf. Roeder 1972, p. 260) and cultural taxonomy has never been well-behaved or deeply developed.

The genealogical relationships between cultures are quite different from those between biological species. Biological species interact by competing or cooperating in the same environment, but, except for hybrids, genetic material doesn't pass between separate genealogical lines. Even in the case of hybrids, the exchange is between closely related species. Societies compete and cooperate as well, and in these processes they (that is, their cultures) exchange memes and even whole paradigms quite readily. Whether the cultures are closely related or related only through Adam and Eve (or any other culture-specific prime progenitors of the human race one might choose) they give up and pick up memes quite readily. Trading partners exchange various kinds of goods, bits and pieces of language, an attractive ritual action, perhaps a song or two, some decorative symbols, and so forth; conquerors not only impose their culture on those they conquer, but assimilate cultural artifacts and practices of subject peoples into their own culture. Memes circulate between paradigms and cultures much more freely than genes circulate among species.

5.1 They Started Walking

Human culture and language as we know it today probably appeared between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago. It is clear that, for some time before that emergence, bands of "proto-humans" had some kind of "proto-culture" about which we know little (cf. Benzon and Hays 1988, p. 314, Donald, 1991). Given this proto-cultural matrix, did full-blown human culture emerge only once, and spread from that time and place, or did it emerge in more than one place? For our purposes it makes no real difference. But the monogenetic story is a little easier to tell. I leave the polygenetic story as an exercise to the reader.

Human culture started in East Africa and then began walking until it covered the globe (see Hays 1994). The times and distances of this walk are, of course, measured in generations and thousands of miles. There is no particular reason to believe that, as lineages radiated out from the starting region (see Figure 13), the original human culture (and language) was strongly preserved in these various lineages. Certainly as people encountered different geography and climate they adopted artifacts and practices suited to those physical conditions. For that matter, there is no a priori reason to believe that the original culture was maintained unchanged in the originating region. As people learned more about their surroundings and about themselves the culture would change. Even without learning, surely there must be some totally random drift, changes bringing neither benefit nor harm, but only change itself.

Figure 13
Figure 13: Cultures Radiating

So, from the very start, culture evolves. However, it is reasonable to speculate that, as long as there is room to walk so that people in one group do not have significant interactions with those from other groups, lineages may well be tree-like. Sooner or later, however, people will start to encounter others from different cultures (see Figure 14), and when that happens there will be borrowing. The tree-like structure of lineages will now become "reticulate", to borrow a term from the biologists.

Figure 14: Cultures Crossing

Figure 14

What do we do for cultural taxonomy at this level? In a pioneering piece of cross-cultural analysis George Peter Murdock (1949) was interested in social structure and so employed a system which is dominated by the structure of kinship system, for that is the major determinant of social structure at this level. There is no reason to believe that there is any strong relationship between lineage and social structure of this type. That is to say, you cannot assume that descendants of a particular culture will have the same kinship structure as the parent culture. Beyond this particular example, it is my impression that when anthropologists and historians (cf. Roeder 1972) classify cultures and societies, the classification does not reflect lineage in any detailed way, for cultures and societies generally have complex lineages.

Having said this, I now need to make a major qualification. For there is one cultural arena in which considerable effort has been expended toward working out a taxonomy which reflects genealogy in the transparent way that the two are connected in biology. That arena is language and the discipline is comparative linguistics.

5.2 Charting the Ways of Language: Borrowing and Creolization

The basic problem of comparative linguistics has been to establish the genealogical relationships between languages by creating a taxonomic tree. In general, one compares various aspects of languages and attempts to infer genealogical relationships between them. Consider the fragment in Figure 15, which is based on Merritt Ruhlen's (1991) classification of the world's languages.

Figure 15: Language Taxonomy

Figure 15

Only four of the nodes in this tree represent individual languages: Frisian, English, Franco-Provençal, French. All of the other nodes represent taxonomic categories with one or more alternatives at each level except, of course, the root of the tree. As a point of information, linguists often refer to the first level branches as phyla. Note also that Indo-Hittite is overwhelmingly Indo-European, consisting of a small handful of extinct Anatolian languages plus all the living and extinct Indo-European languages, East and West.

This tree tells us that both English and French are Indo-European languages. Now, let us read this taxonomy the way an evolutionary biologist would read a biological taxonomy and reach some conclusion about the phylogeny of English and French. We would conclude that, at some time in the past, there was a population speaking some language which is the common ancestor of all Indo-European languages, call it Proto-Indo-European. We don't really know what this language was and have no direct evidence about it, but we infer that it must have existed. This population split into at least two sub populations, one of which spoke Proto-Germanic and the other of which spoke Proto-Italic. After that split these two populations went their separate ways, differentiating further and eventually producing French and English, among other languages.

On the basis of this tree we would expect to find some words in both French and English which those languages hold in common by virtue of their common ancestor, Proto-Indo-European. For example, the French " il" corresponds to the English "eye" while "nez" corresponds to "nose". However, English contains many words borrowed directly from French long after Proto-Germanic and Proto-Italic differentiated from Proto-Indo-European. The taxonomic tree doesn't even hint that such borrowing happens, nor was it intended to provide such hints. Borrowing between languages is common and much studied (cf. Bynon 1977, pp. 215-256), but taxonomy would be impossible if it had to take such borrowing into account. English, instead of having one taxonomic superordinate, North Sea West Germanic Indo-European, would have to have multiple superordinates, including, among various others:

  • French, to accommodate recent borrowings,
  • Medieval Latin, to accommodate a few millenium-old borrowings such as "algorithm" and "algebra", both of which entered Medieval Latin from Arabic, and
  • Angolan, to accommodate "goober", which is derived from "nguba".

Linguistic taxonomies can ignore such borrowing because linguists make a distinction between a basic linguistic core and a miscellaneous assortment of extensions to that core. The genetic relationships which interest them concern the core of the language, which includes such basic vocabulary as that for body parts (eye and nose), and not the extensions. Thus borrowing presents a methodological problem--how do we distinguish the genetic cognates from mere borrowings? (Ruhlen 12-13)--and doesn't threaten basic intuitions and preconceptions about the nature of linguistic evolution.

That is to say, borrowed terms are treated as "noise" which interferes with the true linguistic "signal." The methodological issue, then, is to get rid of the noise--a standard issue in all kinds of empirical research. As long as one uses biological evolution as a model for linguistic evolution, this is a reasonable way to proceed. However, the moment one suspects that biological evolution is not an appropriate model for cultural evolution, and therefore not appropriate for linguistic evolution, then the practice of treating borrowing as a source of "noise" becomes problematic. Perhaps the circulation of memes through linguistic borrowing is as important as the conservation of memes through the process of maintaining the linguistic core. If this is so, than comparative linguistics has fundamental problems.

Those problems get even worse when one considers creolization, a process which brings about a much more intimate relationship between different languages than does borrowing. Creolization has most obviously occurred in the tropics, where European colonial powers used cheap agricultural labor brought in from African, India, and the Orient (Bickerton 1983, 1984). These creoles emerged from the interaction between Indo-European languages and a variety of languages from various non-Western peoples. Creoles emerge quickly (a few generations at most) and do so without ever having generated a language which could be considered a dialect of one of the source languages. Yet creoles having very different sources turn out to have many similarities with one another. Since these various creoles have arisen independently of one another, these similarities cannot reflect the putative common ancestor so important to comparative linguists; there simply is no common ancestor. Derek Bickerton argues that the similarities reflect the basic processes of the human neurolinguistic endowment. That is to say, these creoles get their core, not from any of their parent languages, but from human biology. It is as though that original moment when language first precipitated out of the prelinguistic matrix of human communication is, in a limited way, recreated in the emergence of a creole. The parental languages crash into one another so violently that they are shattered and the basic neuropsychological mechanisms of language create a new language incorporating fragments of the parental tongues into a new pattern.

Thus it is not surprising that creoles occupy a peculiar place in Rhulen's taxonomy. Since he can't really assign a creole to a place based on the parental source of its linguistic core he places them all in phylum of their own, putting the group on the same level as the other phyla, such as Indo-Hittite, Afro-Asiatic (which includes Hebrew and Arabic), Altaic (which includes Turkish and Japanese), Amerind (the native languages of most of the Americas south of Canada), and about a dozen others. Given the complexity of the problem of classifying languages, this is not an unreasonable thing to do. But, even more than the fact that taxonomy doesn't reflect the rather considerable borrowing that is common between languages, this particular fix obscures a very deep difference between cultural evolution and biological evolution. There is enough hybridization in biology to complicate matters a little, but it always occurs between closely related species. In language, borrowings and creolization are possible between any pair of languages, no matter how remote they are from one another. Distant borrowings, such as those English has from Arabic and Angolan, seem comparable to such biological oddities as a gnat with a gnu liver, a maple with ox limbs, or an eagle with the wings of a dragon fly. Biological creolization would beget snarks from the mating of pigs and sea urchins, and an egress from the coupling of a wildebeest and swamp grass. Such things are not possible in biology.

What is true of words and syntactic constructions is certainly true of culture in general. Cultural memes cross freely between lineages in a way that biological genes do not. Where the flow of memes is relatively small in relation to the entire meme complement of a culture we have borrowing . Where the flow of memes between parent cultures is so extensive that the resulting child culture owes significant debts to all parents we have creolization . Because culture is rich with borrowing and creolization we should not expect nor attempt to impose the neat genealogies (with some relatively restricted regions of reticulate interaction between lines) and orderly taxonomic trees we find in biology.

5.3 Creolization , African-America, and the Black Atlantic

With that we examine a case which interests me a great deal, that of the mixing of African and European cultures on North American soil (Benzon 1993c). With respect to music, the historical record prior to this century is so spotty that exact genealogy is not possible. However, the thrust of most contemporary discussion is that there is extensive input from both European and European-derived musical cultures, on the one hand, and African musical cultures on the other (Schuller 1968, Collier 1978, 1983). African American music is a creole. It is not African, nor is it European or Western. It is sui generis , African-American, or, as some would have it (cf. Ellison 1972, 253 ff., Murray 1976, Douglas 1995), simply American. While we can trace memes and even traits to European and African sources, the central originating cultural "energy" is American and thoroughly subsumes and supplants the far-flung sources of those memes and traits.

This is certainly not the place to enter into a detailed discussion of the relationship of African-American music to its various sources. That is a complex discussion which is severely crippled by the lack of direct musical evidence, for we have only verbal accounts to cover the three centuries prior to our own. Still, a few remarks are in order simply to reinforce the point that the music is a cultural creole.

African-American music certainly gets its rhythmic thrust and complexity from Africa. But relatively few African rhythm patterns, i. e. memes, have survived. Such patterns are common in the Caribbean and in Latin America (especially Brazil), but only the attitudes and general preference for rhythmic complexity survived in North America. That is to say, it is the psychological traits underlying African rhythm which have been preserved in North America, or at least a variation on those underlying traits. The case of harmony is quite different. There the memes have come from Europe and, in the small scale, measure by measure, African-American harmony is the same as European harmony. But when we consider larger units of time, then African-American harmonic practice bows to the exigencies of African American melody and architectonics, which are different from European (cf. Benzon 1993b). Melodic practice has debts to both African and European sources, while overall architecture, the overall shape of a performance, seems most purely American.

We find other African/European creole musics in other New World countries, such as Cuba, Jamaica, and Brazil. Such musics have even come to exist in modern Europe as the result of hearing performers and music of various New World African creoles and through the migration of musicians from the New World to Europe--where they often meet migrants directly from Africa (who bring with them both "pure" African music and African music under the influence of New World hybrids, e.g. Waterman 1990). This circulation of African music is but one aspect, a pivotal one, of a general circulation of African culture throughout the nations bordering on the north Atlantic. This general circulation has led Paul Gilroy to talk of The Black Atlantic (1993) as a culture existing among black peoples throughout the region. The worldwide circulation of Jewish peoples is a similar hybridizing process, one that has been shaping the world's cultures for two millennia.

In general, culture exhibits a polymorphic perversity which resists our efforts to impose biological metaphors on it. The search for ethnic purity which is such a destructive and deadly facet of national and international politics flies in the face of the reality of cultural processes. There are no pure cultures. We are all mongrels [10].

6. Cultural Complexity

The most interesting kind of evolution is that which produces organisms and cultures which are more complex and sophisticated than earlier ones (Benzon and Hays 1990). Such evolution is not absolutely required of an evolutionary process, and some would doubt its significance (cf. Gould 1994). However, permit me to observe, in the fashion of sophomores the world over, that if biological evolution did not yield more complex and sophisticated organisms, there would be no human beings to think about, among many other things, the nature of the universe. And if culture did not evolve, there would be no cultural relativists, among others, to doubt (or at least to refuse to think about the fact) that culture evolves.

There is, in fact, a considerable literature on cultural complexity and evolution, though it is not my intention to attempt to summarize it here (for a recent analysis of that literature see Hays 1994). Rather, I wish to touch on two issues. One concerns the overall dynamics of cultural evolution and is about the familiar S-shaped growth curve. The other issue is that of multi-paradigm societies, which is another way of talking about cultural rank, an issue David Hays and I have explored in various papers in this journal.

6.1 The Growth Curve

Preliterate societies range widely in complexity (Hays 1994, Levinson and Malone 1980). The simplest live in small nomadic bands which subsist by hunting and gathering. At this level there is little or no specialized knowledge; that is, the repertoire of psychological traits is not specialized and distributed among different individuals. For all practical purposes, each adult knows everything there is to know. The most sophisticated preliterate societies, such as the ancient Aztecs, have large permanent settlements and cultivate a variety of crops. Here we see specialized knowledge; now the psychological traits of the culture are distributed among different sets of individuals. A priesthood specializes in symbolic matters and various craftsmen know the ways of wood, leather, cloth, stone, and metal. No longer can we say that each adult knows everything there is to know. In keeping with my suggestion in section 3.4 (One Culture, One Paradigm), however, I suggest that the specialized knowledge is confined to the episodic system (and the lower level systems on which it depends). Every adult has essentially the same gnomonic system, the same system of traits for verifying the overall integrity of the world, but they will have various specializations at the episodic level. Thus only potters will have the full complement of plans and procedures needed to turn mud into fired pots. And only priests will have mastered the complexities of various rituals and know the sacred stories in full detail. But all will possess the basic high-level metaphors which bond the entire system into a psychological Lebensraum.

A society doesn't move from living in small nomadic bands to living in large quasi-states within a generation or three. That is a process which has taken thousands of years. As a way of beginning to think about this process let us consider the S-shaped curve in Figure 16, which is familiar from population biology.

Figure 16: Growth Curve

Figure 16

The curve begins at the lower left as a population is first introduced into an environment in numbers which are relatively small in relation to the capacity of the environment to support that species (this is called the carrying capacity). The population growth will be low initially but will start to pick up and after awhile will accelerate rapidly. However, as the population approaches the carrying capacity growth will slow down and reach a steady state where the population is in equilibrium with the carrying capacity.

In many discussions of cultural evolution David Hays and I have assumed that such a growth curve would also characterize that evolution (cf. Hays 1993). In this case we aren't interested in the overall population of a society but rather the cultural complexity of that society. A society starts off at a low level of complexity and moves to a relatively high level in accord with the growth curve. Hays (1994) has recently found some empirical evidence in favor of that assumption. He took a handful of Near Eastern sites which have been analyzed by Robert Carniero and normalized their scores so that they have quantitative value and not merely ordinal value. When he plotted the normalized scores against the dates for each site, he got an S-shaped growth curve.

The question we have to face is: What is it that is growing? A materialist such as Marvin Harris (1977) would probably argue that it is simply population, thus suggesting that the dynamics driving this curve are essentially the same as those driving animal and plant populations. It is perhaps not unreasonable to think that this curve does in fact represent population growth, for populations of relatively complex societies are generally larger than those of simpler societies. But, even if we assume that the curve does represent population, we cannot assume that the overall dynamic system determining human population growth is essentially the same as that driving plant and animal populations.

In fact, it seems pretty obvious that human population growth is quite different. For a given plant or animal population, the "means of production" is pretty much the same at every point on the growth curve. The same nutrients are obtained from the same sources, and the same protections are secured in the same ways. This is certainly not the situation which obtains in the Near Eastern example. The means of production are not the same at each point on the growth curve. New techniques for obtaining food, water, and shelter appear as one moves from the low to the high end of the curve. But such invention is not an "automatic" process in the way that reproduction is. A plant or animal population will inevitably expand to fill its niche (unless it is blocked by competition), but a society will not inevitably borrow or create enough new memes to become more complex. The vast majority of societies which have been studied are at a relatively low level of cultural complexity. For whatever reasons, they haven't invented, encountered, imitated, retained, and accumulated the memes necessary to extract more sustenance and security from the environment and thus the means to support a larger population. In order for the population to undergo substantial growth, the culture itself must evolve.

Thus, by assuming that the Near Eastern curve represents population growth we are are led inevitably to the conclusion that it must also represent growth in the number of memes in the society's culture. This leaves us with a problem of the familiar chicken and egg kind, which comes first? In the absence of any serious model I don't see how the question is a meaningful one. Population pressure itself does not create memes and psychological traits. It is not even clear to me that population pressure creates social conditions in which new memes are likely to be adopted. Population pressure does create a situation where the adoption of certain types of memes, those providing nutrition and or security, will result in immediate population growth. But one can imagine that, in many societies, social tension resulting from population pressure would make the people more rigid and resistant to innovation. Thus in such societies population pressure would work against the evolution needed to relieve the pressure without resort to such practices as infanticide or war on neighboring societies for the purpose of securing more resources.

The materialist argument thus yields nothing interesting. Population pressure is real, and it is unpleasant for individuals in stressed societies. But it isn't a source of memes nor a mechanism for their retention. What we need to know are the social mechanisms by which a society adopts new memes and traits. We would also want to know where new memes and traits originate; however, for the purposes of understanding the dynamics of evolution, we can treat that mechanism as a black box. New memes and traits come from somewhere somehow, but that is a matter of how the mind and its brain work. Our problem is to understand how and why societies adopt new practices.

Given this argument, what is it which determines the upper limit of the growth curve in Figure 16, which is simply a specific case of the upper limit on growth for preliterate societies? That is to say, what is the cultural equivalent of carrying capacity in population biology? That would seem to be the capacity of a single metaphor-based paradigm to bring coherence to a pool of memes and psychological traits. There is a limit to what the human mind can achieve with only a single paradigm. As a side effect, there is a limit to the maximum population which a society can sustain given a fully developed single paradigm culture. That limit is set by the joint interaction of the culture and the biological environment.

Thus the shape of the curve for cultural growth reflects the emergence of cultural memes. At the bottom of the curve the number of memes is small, just the minimum necessary to have a full human culture. Initially the growth rate of the meme pool is slow, perhaps because opportunities for stimulating contact with other cultures are relatively scarce. As that growth rate picks up, for whatever reason, the meme population grows rapidly and we see the growth curve make an increasingly steep ascent. However, the meme pool will eventually approach the limit of the number of memes which can be coordinated by the mechanisms of preliterate culture. As that happens growth will begin to slow down and eventually will level off. The culture has become as complex as is informatically possible.

This entire curve describes growth within the compass of preliterate cultures and societies. The cultures at the bottom, middle, and top of the curve are all preliterate, though of varying complexity. If a society is to grow beyond the size and complexity possible to such cultures, then it must somehow use more than one paradigm to structure its culture. What is required to construct and manage more than one paradigm within a single culture and society?

6.2 Multi-Paradigm Societies

The obvious, and not very helpful, answer to the problem of managing a multi-paradigm society is that the culture requires more sophisticated information processing mechanisms, such as writing. That writing has profound effects on culture and society is widely acknowledged and not, in my view, problematic. But just how it is that rearing people on writing allows a society to juggle multiple paradigms is not at all clear to me, nor do I intend to speculate on that issue here and now. Beyond that, there is the matter of the scope of each of these several paradigms. However, one point does seem clear within the general theory Hays and I have outlined. Each paradigm will govern how reality is ultimately constructed in its particular domain.

Some clues on these matters might be available in the theory of cultural rank that David Hays and I have been elaborating (Benzon and Hays 1990, Hays 1992, 1993, Benzon 1993a, 1993b). That account is too complex to be summarized in the context of this essay, but I want to invoke it to suggest one aspect of how to think about the relationship between cultures and paradigms.

Hays and I call preliterate cultures Rank 1 cultures. The paradigm which brings coherence to the various domains of a Rank 1 culture is thus a Rank 1 paradigm. In our view, human culture has so far produced paradigms at four different ranks. Rank 2 paradigms arise in cultures whose information processing activities have been enriched by writing. A society is said to be a Rank 2 society if its ruling elite governs with a Rank 2 paradigm . However, most of the people in a Rank 2 society live by Rank 1 paradigms. In such a culture the distinction between high and low culture is essentially one between Rank 1 and Rank 2 paradigms. Similarly, Rank 3 paradigms arise in cultures where algorithmic arithmetic engenders modes of information processing which are more sophisticated than those engendered by writing. A society is said to be Rank 3 if its elites organize their activities according to Rank 3 paradigms. Citizens of Rank 3 societies employ a wide variety of paradigms at all three ranks. Rank 4 is a puzzle. It is clear that Rank 4 paradigms exist in several scientific, technical, and expressive realms (Benzon and Hays 1990, pp. 311 ff., Hays 1992, pp. 206 ff., Benzon 1993a, pp. 146 ff., Benzon 1993b, pp. 290 ff.) but it is not at all clear that there are any societies whose political, social, and economic leaders operate according Rank 4 paradigms (Hays 1993, Chapter 5).

Let us briefly consider Rank 2 culture. Here we see the emergence of the ancient high civilizations, the Chinese, the Indians, the Greeks, the Hebrews, the Egyptians, and various others. All of these cultures existed in societies with extensive agriculture and large cities. All had writing. Writing gave them a way to create and manipulate abstract terms which is more powerful than Rank 1 cultures could achieve with metaphor. The new cognitive mechanism is metalingual definition and it supports the process of rationalization (Benzon and Hays 1990, pp. 301-302, 307-308).

Metalingual definition allows you to define one term by reference to other terms. Thus we can define the term "charity" by reference to a statement such as "someone does something nice for someone without thought of reward." The mechanism of metalingual definition simply links a term, such as "charity" to a statement or set of statements which defines the term. Such defining statements can be exceedingly long and complex. For example, Plato's famous dialog on The Republic is an attempt to define the concept of justice. To do so Plato had to create and justify a theory of the state. That theory is a network of metalingual definitions rationalizing Plato's concept of justice. In the view Hays and I espouse, the whole of ancient thought, in China, India, the Mediterranean Basin, and so forth, was created by the Rank 2 process of rationalization working in consort with the Rank 1 process abstraction based on metaphor alone.

If we now consider Rank 2 culture, it seems unlikely that Rank 2 cultures would have very many separate paradigms. The most obvious organizational difference between Rank 1 and Rank 2 societies is that the church and state are now differentiated from one another (cf. Hays 1993). That is to say, we must now have one cultural paradigm to govern the operations of the religious system, which ensures that the society is properly linked to things spiritual and eternal, and a different paradigm to govern the operations of the state, which is concerned with mundane matters. Many of the belief systems studied under the rubric of comparative religion--Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism, and so forth--are all Rank 2 religious paradigms. Most have, at one time or another, been the official belief system of some particular state, and most have existed in several states. Beyond the state and the church I can imagine an intellectual paradigm governing thinking about the whole of what was once called "natural philosophy" (e.g. Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece), and an expressive paradigm holding sway over the visual, aural, plastic, and kinetic arts. That gives us four paradigms at Rank 2. Perhaps there are a few more, but not, I would venture, many more.

We might then ask whether or not these four paradigms are somehow coordinated by the processes of a fifth higher-level paradigm. I simply don't know, but I am inclined to be skeptical. These various paradigms all exist within a single society and culture. While no individual is likely to be deeply learned in more than one of them, those who have mastered one are likely to have learned significant portions of the others as well. Those who have mastered the full depth of one of these paradigms will constitute the ruling elite of the society and will, no doubt, spend a reasonable amount of time in one another's company. Thus the overall coherence of a Rank 2 culture and society can be left up to social process. People interact and adapt to one another. We need not posit some higher level paradigm to take care of this.

The nature of Rank 3 and Rank 4 culture is even more obscure than that of Rank 2, which is not to imply that the nature of Rank 1 culture is much clearer than the the bottom of a tidewater pool after a torrential rain. Rank 3 is, no doubt, still more complex than Rank 2, and Rank 4, which is still emerging, will probably outstrip Rank 3 by a considerable margin. Rather than attempt Rank 3 and Rank 4 thumbnail sketches comparable to the one I just did for Rank 2 (and previously for Rank 1), I would like briefly to discuss four specialized types of Rank 3 paradigm and then conclude this section with some remarks about evolution from rank to rank.

6.3 Paradigms in Four Domains: Science, Business, the Novel, and the Family

With the emergence of Rank 3 culture from the European Renaissance we surely get a relatively large number of types of paradigm. If the number of Rank 2 paradigms in a given culture approaches ten, then the number of Rank 3 paradigms in a given culture may approach, shall we say, one hundred. I would like briefly to discuss four specialized types of Rank 3 paradigm.

Perhaps the most obvious special type is the scientific paradigm; this is the type of belief system which led Kuhn (1970) to create the paradigm concept. In Kuhn's view a scientific paradigm consists, not only of explicit theoretical propositions, such as Newton's laws of motion, but also of experimental and observational apparatus and procedures, all of the theory, lore, and equipment necessary for carrying out work within the paradigm. Science, however, does not consist of one paradigm. There are several, through just how many is not obvious. Newtonian or classical mechanics is one paradigm. The atomic theory of matter at the center of physical chemistry is surely another Rank 3 scientific paradigm. Thermodynamics and statistical mechanics might be yet another paradigm. What is at issue in attempting to enumerate the paradigms of Rank 3 science is just which of the traditionally recognized disciplines are "root" paradigms and which are specializations of more general paradigms.

We cannot attempt to answer that question here. For us, the important point is simply that a belief system such as Newtonian mechanics has an internal complexity and "heft" which is comparable to the entire culture of a Rank 1 society. Both belief systems are paradigms; both require and reward the full attention and capability of an adult. But Rank 1 paradigm can sustain an autonomous society while the Rank 3 scientific paradigm can exist only in a society where various other paradigms are devoted to other arenas of cultural and social activity.

The business firm, as analyzed by Peter Drucker (1994), depends on a rather different kind of paradigm. Drucker calls this the theory of the business. It is comprised of assumptions concerning:

  • the business environment
  • the business mission
  • the core competencies required by the business

Drucker makes the point that these assumptions often are not explicitly known within a business. That is a clue that he is talking about a paradigm. Paradigms in any domain govern perceptions, thoughts, and actions, but are not themselves explicitly known or subject to explicit conceptual tests and regulation.

The business paradigm is not specialized in the same way a scientific paradigm is specialized. The business paradigm governs a particular type of social organization while the scientific paradigm governs only a conceptual system. To be sure, the adherents of a particular scientific paradigm can be said to form a community, but the nature of that community is given, not by the scientific paradigm, but by the various organizations which govern intellectual activities such as universities, professional societies, and publishing houses. These organizations are, in fact, much like the business which interest Drucker. Publishing houses generally are businesses, while universities and professional societies differ from businesses primarily in that they do not earn profits.

The question of the typology of business paradigms is as obscure as that of the typology of scientific paradigms. A retail business is obviously different from a manufacturing business or a real estate business. A manufacturing business which creates bulk materials--refining oil, smelting ore, pulping wood into paper, etc.--is very different from one which mass produces home appliances. Book publishing requires still a different type of paradigm, as does periodical publishing. Each type of business paradigm governs a social organization designed to organize certain types of information (cf. Stinchcombe 1990) and possibly certain flows of material in the larger society.

As a third example of a specialized paradigm I offer the novel. The novel is a particular kind of narrative which arose in Europe during the eighteenth century (cf. Watt 1957). Novels aren't types of social organization, nor are they theories about the natural world. Novels are expressive in nature; they are about our inner lives. As I have argued in more detail elsewhere (Benzon 1993a) the novel is a form of narrative in which genuine inner growth and change can be depicted. Earlier narrative forms, such as the Rank 2 epic or the Rank 1 myth, cannot do that. A few formal devices are necessary to achieve this effect (cf. Benzon 1978) of which manipulation of narrative point of view is perhaps the most important and subtle (cf. Booth 1961).

While all novels share these general formal devices, there is a great deal of variety within the novel paradigm. The epistolary novel, such as Pamela or The Color Purple , masquerades as a series of letters. The picaresque novel, such as Lazarillo de Tormes or Felix Krull , generally has a loose episodic plot centered about a shiftless protagonist. The gothic novel, with its incestuous blood amid medieval trappings has generally been considered a secondary and somewhat disreputable kind of novel, though Wuthering Heights, managed to infuse the form with profound artistry. Stream of consciousness novels, from Tristram Shandy in the eighteenth century to the works of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce in our own century are generally regarded as virtuoso achievements and as being particularly "novelistic" by virtue of the way they emphasize the role of consciousness in organizing personal experience. No doubt literary critics have identified a dozen or two or three other types of novel, all of them employing the same set of paradigmatic devices in the same way that vast fields of physics follow from Newton's three laws. If one thinks of the novel as a cultural species, then these types of novels would be cultural subspecies.

Finally, I want to take up the family. Of course, people have been living in families ever since clever apes became human. There is no social organization other than the family at Rank 1. However, it is quite clear that the family has undergone major changes since the Renaissance (cf. Aries 1962, Gay 1986, Laslett 1965, Shorter 1977, Stone 1977, Young and Wilmott 1973). The basic change is that the nuclear family has become differentiated from the extended family. This parallels the demise of hereditary aristocracies as the ruling political elite, for a ruling aristocracy is a network of extended families functioning as the state. The nuclear family is cut free of such entangling political alliances.

As it freed itself from the larger social structure, the nuclear family changed in emotional emphasis. It became important that the couple love and even like one another as a prior condition for marriage, which came to be seen as an arena for personal growth and fulfillment. More and more emphasis was placed on proper child rearing and women were exhorted to make the house into a comfortable and secure home; for the very idea of comfort in the home was new, and much effort was expended in creating it (Rybczynski 1986). The idea that home and family are a special women's sphere reflects the paradigmatic status of the nuclear family. The nuclear family was becoming a world unto itself, a world in which the former King of the Manor was but a citizen, ambivalently subject to and beneficiary of the nurturing powers of the Queen Mother.

This is a very important point, for it marks perhaps the first situation in human history where women and primarily women have been ultimately responsible for maintaining some facet of reality. Despite much earnest hoping on behalf of matriarchies and The Goddess, there is little evidence that women have ever had such cultural power in the ancient world (cf. Lefkowitz 1992b). Rank 1 societies have only one governing paradigm and all adults, male and female, have responsibility for maintaining it. Rank 2 civilizations, such as the Greeks and Romans, the Chinese and Japanese, the Indians, have been dominated by men. And so, for that matter, has Rank 3 civilization. Men have dominated the cognitive sphere (e. g. science), the world of the state and of business, and the world of the arts. But women clearly have ultimate responsibility for home and family. Thus the much-maligned West, home of dead white European males, is in fact responsible for creating a sphere in which female genius has developed more or less on its own terms. It thus seems inevitable that women would have begun demanding still further determining force in society and culture, as indeed happened during the nineteenth century. Rank 4, one would hope, would see the further expansion of women's roles and culturally formative responsibility.

To conclude this discussion, just as a scientific paradigm has the same psychological heft as the Rank 1 paradigm for an entire society, so does the novel, the business, and the family. The complex and sophisticated cognitive (Benzon and Hays 1990) and expressive (Hays 1992) mechanisms of Rank 3 culture allow societies to focus the full force of human mentation on fairly specialized domains of experience and action [11].

6.4 The Growth Curve and the Gestalt Switch

Given the Rank 1 growth curve which David Hays found in a succession of sites in the Near East, it would be nice to display such curves for growth for Rank 2 and Rank 3. Unfortunately, I cannot offer even that much evidence. The best I can offer is my sense that the dynamics of growth should be similar from one rank to the next.

There is, however, something else we need to think about. How does a society start moving from the top of Rank 1 and onto the Rank 2 curve which will take it to the top of Rank 2? A culture, such as the Aztecs, which is at the top of Rank 1 is still a Rank 1 culture. It is a culture where cognition is organized by metaphor. Once such a society develops writing and begins to employ the Rank 2 mechanisms of metalingual definition and rationalization, then it can begin to moving up the Rank 2 growth curve by developing richer and richer rationalizations to regulate its affairs. Similar developments would have to take place in expressive culture (cf. Hays 1993, Benzon 1993a, 1993b). Much the same story obtains with respect to the plateau existing between the top of Rank 2 and the bottom of Rank 3. The historical period we know as the European Renaissance is when Rank 3 modes of thought, feeling, and social organization began to emerge from the background of high Rank 2 Europe, that is to say, medieval Europe.

As Hays (1993, Chapter 5) has noted with respect to the switch from the top of Rank 1 to the bottom of Rank 2 "The new rank has to start over; no large rank 1 polity is transformed to rank 2. Instead, small units create the new forms and begin to grow." He goes on to observe of the Rank 2 city-state:

The difference between a small city such as Athens, with a population of about 50,000, and an overgrown town of the same size, is best indicated by the diversity of crafts in the city. But the difference in governance between the city-state and the earlier [Rank 1] church-state is simple: The rank 1 king is god or god's representative, and the people live to serve him. The rank 2 head of state holds his power for the benefit of the

This suggests to me that it is not very useful to think of a culture evolving from one rank to the next. Rather, a new paradigm or paradigms of Rank (N + 1) begin to emerge in a society which is organized and governed by fully developed, and probably overextended, Rank N paradigms.

The critical issue in cultural evolution is just what transforms a "top of the rank" plateau into a spawning ground for the emergence of a new rank. Societies in the New World and in Sub-Saharan Africa reached the top of Rank 1 and stayed there until other societies, mostly, but not exclusively European, intervened in their affairs. Other societies in the Near and Far East reached the top of Rank 2 and stayed there until Europe decided to explore, trade, convert to Christianity, and to conquer. What happened in Europe and Asia which brought about the emergence of Rank 2 paradigms? Why did Rank 3 paradigms emerge primarily in Europe?

Whatever happened, it has the characteristics of what Kuhn (1970, cf. Thagard 1992, pp. 47-61) called a Gestalt switch, the mysterious reorganization of memes and traits organized under one paradigm into memes and traits organized under a new one. The Copernican revolution in astronomy is a standard example. The geocentric model of the solar system required an overextended system having many circular orbits within circular orbits to account for astronomical observations. By regestalting the observations around a different model, the heliocentric one, astronomers were able to account for the data in a more economical way. Further, once they decided to use elliptical orbits (Kepler) instead of circular orbits, not only was further economy possible, but it was now possible to derive the model from basic propositions about gravity and motion (Newton). Not only does this new model have a different and more elegant mathematical form, but it has causal and predictive powers which the purely formal Copernican model did not have. Perturbations in observed orbits allowed astronomers to postulate the existence of other planets and then to make the observations needed to confirm the model.

The emergence of Rank 3 astronomy is only one of the paradigms which emerged to create Rank 3 science. And science is only one arena of Rank 3 culture. Similar Gestalt shifts had to occur in other spheres. The general argument is that such a transformation must happen in every case between the top of one rank and the bottom of the next. Just how regestalting happens is, I believe, the deepest puzzle in the study of cultural evolution.

7. Culture: Beyond Taxonomy and Genealogy

What then are we to make of the relationship between taxonomy and genealogy in culture? The situation appears to be quite different from that in biology. The widespread diffusion of memes from one culture to another by borrowing means than any given culture has genetic relationships to many others. Creolization is surely widespread and that confounds genealogy even more deeply. Given the complexity of cultural genealogy there seems to be little hope of devising a taxonomic system which has a transparent relationship to genealogy.

That does not, of course, mean that taxonomy is impossible. Rather, it implies that cultural taxonomy is going to be a rather different kind of activity. However, the first thing to recognize is that what we generally have in mind when we talk of "X culture," as in "French culture" or "Japanese culture" or "Western culture," is not necessarily the evolutionary unit.

The usual concept of "X culture" seems to me centered on some concept of an autonomous society, which suggests that the concept is a descendant of nationalist ideologies. Such ideologies typically ground the urge to nationhood in the essence of a people, its language, lore, art, music, customs, that is to say, the people's culture (cf. Gay 1993, pp. 520 ff.; Hobsbawm 1994, pp. 121 ff.). We've been considering a conception of culture grounded in the notion that it is an evolutionary domain where the paradigm is the unit of evolution. The paradigm is a different kind of beast and should not be casually identified with a society.

To be sure, Rank 1 societies are governed by a single paradigm each. At this level the social unit of the functioning polity coincides with the evolutionary unit of the paradigm. Thus in these cases the ordinary sense of "X culture" agrees with the more technical discussion of this paper.

Societies of Rank 2 and above are more complex. Here we have societies which require several paradigms to regulate their activities and at least some individuals in these polities will be deeply versed in the lore of several paradigms. In these cases we no longer have a simple coincidence of the larger group and some one all-encompassing paradigm. "Cultures" such as Roman, Indian, Chinese, French, Egyptian, Japanese, Polish, Scandinavian, or even such a behemoth as Western culture, these are all multi-paradigm cultures. That is to say, the associated societies use more than one paradigm in ordering their activities. Further, various of these "cultures" share paradigms. Some variety of Christianity has been important in, for example, French, Slavic, and Scandinavian societies, among others. Islam has played a significant role in Egyptian and Indian societies while Buddhism has been active in Indian, Chinese and Japanese societies. Rank 3 sciences are practiced around the globe and the novel has been adapted to non-European subjects. Japanese novels are as much Japanese as they are novels.

It seems clear that the paradigm should be the initial focus for cultural taxonomy. Paradigms are, by definition, unitary objects. As we have seen, "cultures" as ordinarily understood, are generally not unitary. While there may be merit in classifying the cultural systems of national units, it seems to me that, at the very least, such a program would benefit from a coherent classification of the cultural paradigms which compose the cultural systems of nations [12]. We do not yet have such a taxonomy.

Given that the paradigm is the natural unit of cultural taxonomy, it is clear that there is much to classify. We aren't going to end up with a single taxonomic tree. On that matter culture and biology are quite different.

There are many ways to classify paradigms. One can classify them according to their cultural Rank, a classification which is based on cognitive and expressive mechanisms. Given Rank 1 paradigms, one might follow George Murdock (1949) and classify them according to the type of kinship structure at the heart of their social system. One might follow Ruth Benedict (1934) and classify them according to psychocultural styles, such as Apollonian, Dionysian, and Paranoid. The possibilities grow when we consider the differentiated cultural worlds at Rank 2 and higher. Coming up with classification schemes is not a problem. Coming up with good and useful classification schemes is a different matter.

Good and useful classification schemes are linked to significant theories. To the extent that social and cultural dynamics are linked to kinship systems, a classification by kinship systems will be useful and illuminating. To the extent that economic affairs are determined by business organization, a classification of business types will be a good thing to have. To the extent that emotional life is important in human affairs, a classification of types of expressive paradigms--literary, visual, music, dance, theatrical, and so forth--is essential. In this general respect the situation with respect to culture is the same as it is with respect to biology. Biological taxonomy is illuminating precisely because it does have a strong relationship to a significant theory, that of evolution. If cultural taxonomy is more complex and various in structure than biological taxonomy that is surely because culture is a more complex phenomenon than life. Memes and traits flow between paradigms more freely than genes and phenotypes flow between species. Abstract cultural space is richer than abstract biological space. The universe itself is richer than either, for it gave birth to both.

Whatever the next evolutionary domain, it is surely far beyond the imagination of any science fiction writer, futurologist, chaos theorist, literary critic, or shaman. We have plenty of good work yet ahead, and a measure of pleasure as well.


1. Dawkins does mention examples of animal culture in his discussion. In such cases his scheme of placing the genotypic items inside the brain and the phenotypic items, including such "skills such as opening milk bottles in tits, or panning wheat in Japanese macaques" (Dawkins 1982, p. 109), in their external behavior may well be just the thing. But even the most elaborate animal culture is far simpler than the simplest human culture. There is no reason to think that animal culture is subject to any fitness requirements other than those of biological survival. Human culture, as I argue, is a domain unto itself and has its own survival requirements above and those of biological survival. That difference is, I suspect, behind my decision to make the cultural phenotype internal and the genotype external. When we have a robust theory of evolutionary systems, one in which biological evolution and cultural evolution are but types, we may find a causal explanation of this difference. [Back]

2. I would like to thank Lars Sjosten for identifying this tune. Mr. Sjosten is a Swedish jazz pianist (Feather and Gitler, 1976, p. 309) who answered a query I placed in a jazz forum on CompuServe. [Back]

3. In his discussion of "The Evolution of Expressive Culture" David Hays suggests that the highest level cortical reference levels are for truth, love, beauty, and justice (1992, pp. 209-210). While Csikszentmihalyi is not aware of this work, his popular account of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990) contains four chapters which discusses categories of flow experience which are consistent with Hays's scheme. Thus chapter 5, " The Body in Flow" is concerned with beauty, chapter 6, "The Flow of Thought" is about truth, chapter 7 "Work as Flow" deals with matters Hays and I have discussed under the aegis of justice, while chapter 8 "Enjoying Solitude and Other People" is about love.

Hays and I imagine that truth, love, beauty, and justice are, in this technical sense, distinctly different modes of brain activity (Benzon and Hays 1988). A mode is a particular pattern of brain activation suited to a particular task. If one is reading, for example, certain areas of the brain must be active and communicating with one another in order to comprehend the written text. If one is performing a musical composition, a different pattern of brain activation is required while doing sums in one's head requires still a different activation and organization of neural resources.

So it would be with the pursuit of truth, love, beauty, or justice. In our view each of these is the reference level of a particular quadrant of tertiary cortical tissue. While in one of these modes all other neural activation is subordinate to satisfying the cortical reference level. Obviously, the pursuit of beauty through music is going to involve different sensorimotor channels from the pursuit of beauty through painting, thus the overall pattern of neural activity will be different in these two cases. But, in both cases, the organization of the activity in those different channels will be subject to requirements set by the "beauty quadrant" (which seems to be right-rear).

In some sense our notion is a refinement of the right-brain left-brain discussions which were popular in the sixties and seventies (see, for example, Ornstein, 1973, pp. 61-147). Those discussions posited that the two cortical quadrants were responsible for distinctly different kinds of experience and activity and set out to characterize what they were. In talking about cortical quadrants instead of hemispheres, Hays and I are simply recognizing the well-known difference between the front and rear cortex (cf. Luria 1973, pp. 63-99, Pribram 1969, pp. 357 ff.) and according it equal status with the left-hemisphere, right-hemisphere distinction. If we must then recognize both a front-rear distinction and a right-left distinction, that gives us four quadrants, each mediating a different kind of experience and activity. Beyond that, the older literature often reads as though right-brain activity was strictly right brain and left-brain activity was strictly left brain, implying that each hemisphere functioned as a self-contained processing unit. Our conception is a bit more flexible in that we are concerned about the overall pattern of neural activation. When we talk of a quadrant mode, we do not mean to imply that only a particular cortical quadrant is active. In general, we would expect high levels of activity to be situated in several cortical quadrants. But the overall regulation of this extended and distributed system of brain regions lies within a particular quadrant, with each quadrant regulating that distributed system to meet its particular informatic goal. [Back]

4. I find it impossible to discuss crisis cults without mentioning the current state of politics in the United States. I have the eerie sense that the world has moved so far from the conditions which existed when the basic categories of American political discourse were established that those categories are no longer particularly useful. However, those are the categories still in play. That means that voters must choose between those who promise to bring the buffalo back by dancing to the left and those who promise to bring the buffalo back by dancing to the right. Those of us who realize that the buffalo are gone forever seem to be without choices and therefore without influence, or is it the other way around? [Back]

5. Hays uses the term "paradigm" in this way in his The Evolution of Technology Through Four Cognitive Ranks (1993) but does not make the connection with the biological concept of a species. [Back]

6. We should note that Kuhn makes a distinction between "pre-paradigmatic" disciplines, which are not scientific, and those which have achieved paradigmatic consensus, and therefore are sciences. In the view I am advancing, all thought occurs under the aegis of some paradigm. The question of whether or not a discipline is scientific then becomes one of the properties of its governing paradigm. Do all recognized sciences share certain conceptual structures and processes which distinguish them from non-scientific realms of knowledge? For some preliminary work relevant to this question, see Benzon and Hays 1990,pp. 309-311. [Back]

7. Until we decided to think about the brain, our system had four levels, sensorimotor, systemic, episodic and gnomonic, with the sensorimotor system being perceptual and motoric while the other three are cognitive (Hays 1981, Benzon 1978). This distinction between sensorimotor systems and cognitive systems is the standard, if often obscure and muddled, distinction between low level processes having to do with perception and motion and high level systems having to do with thought. An examination of neurophysiology forced us to add a fifth level, at the bottom. We called this the limbic level, naming it after the well-recognized neural circuitry which dominates it (Benzon and Hays 1988). [Back]

8. It makes little difference whether the two species at time 2 have more genetic information than the species at time 1, so that P' and Z' represent new locations on the chromosome, or whether they are simply different alleles for positions which also exist in the chromosomes of the species at time 1. But, for convenience I've chosen an example where they represent different alleles. That, presumably, is the more common situation. [Back]

9. This point seems related to a rather arcane discussion which biologists and philosophers have been having on the question of whether or not biological taxa are classes or individuals (Ghiselin 1981, Hull 1981, Gould 1982). The argument that we are to treat species as individuals seems to be that, while a species does consist of many different organisms of the same kind, it is the species as a whole which figures in evolution, not any one or several of the individual members of that species. The species is thus itself an individual actor and not a class of individual actors.

Though I have no way of proving it, my sense is that this way of thinking about "classes" and "individuals" is a strange, but apparently common, side-effect of introductory courses in logic and set theory. In such courses one is introduced to the notion of a set and asked to contemplate various sets: the set of all automobiles, the set of all orange things, the set of all things weighing more than 58.35 kilograms, the set of all things in this room, the set of all things having either three appendages or a purple blinking light (but not both), the set of all things more than ten centimeters in extent in any direction on June 28, 1835 between 3:05:37 and 3:05:47 Greenwich Mean Time and located within three light years of Alpha Centauri. The point is that the concept of a set is perfectly general and absolutely indifferent as to what the sets might contain. That, of course, makes perfectly good sense. But, as a side effect, lots of people seem to think that classes are essentially arbitrary constructions which the human mind willfully imposes on a reluctant world. The biologists and philosophers are quite right in arguing that biological species are not classes of this arbitrary kind. But I must admit to feeling it a bit odd that the alternative seems to be to think of a species as an individual. In any event, I certainly do think of a species as being an individual in that sense. [Back]

10. Martin Bernal has recently managed to stir up a fuss by arguing that ancient Greece isn't so Aryan as classicists have led themselves to believe, arguing that Greek culture is deeply creolized with African and Asian elements figuring prominently in the mix (Bernal 1987). I am certainly in no position to evaluate the merit of his claims (on that, see, for example, Lefkowitz 1992a), but I am obviously sympathetic to arguments for creolization. This particular intellectual discussion might proceed more smoothly if the participants had a more flexible set of concepts through which to examine the spotty evidence which does exist. That is to say, much of the heat generated by this matter may be more the side-effect of an inadequate conceptual base than the ire kicked up by folks stubbornly defending the "myths" by which they work their manipulative ways on various cultural victims. [Back]

11. The four examples I used in this section have been chosen with a particular scheme in mind. In discussions about Rank 3 culture Hays and I have speculated that, at this cultural level, it becomes possible to have institutions and practices which are governed by a single one of the four gnomonic reference levels, truth, love, beauty, and justice (discussed in note 3 above). Each of these examples belongs in one of these spheres, at least in the sense Hays and I give them in our theorizing. Thus science is in the sphere of truth, the novel in the sphere of beauty, the family requires love, while business is governed by the need for justice. To be sure, it is a bit strange to think of business as a matter of justice and to say nothing of the law and of courts. I say nothing of the law and of courts because I have nothing to say about them, but they surely also come under the heading of justice as we understand it. As for putting business there, consider how very many laws and how very much court traffic is about business matters. More deeply, if you think about the world of business as aspiring to the equitable distribution of goods and services, as paying a just wage for work completed, then you enter into the sense in which we think of it as a sphere governed by the cortical need for justice. [Back]

12. It has long made sense to think of such cultures as Norwegian, English, Italian, and Czech as varieties of European culture. The accidents of history and geography are such that these peoples live by the much the same paradigms. The differences can be readily attributed to local variations in the shared paradigms rather than to different paradigms. But what do we do with the fact that jazz is played in each one of these countries? No doubt the jazz played in these places reflects local influences, but the basic procedures of the music originated elsewhere. Jazz is not a European expressive paradigm, but it does exist in European nations. A classification of "cultures" based on national units cannot handle jazz. Nor, for that matter, can it handle science, which grew to maturity in Europe and is now studied the world over. Cultural paradigms do not heed national boundaries. Perhaps it would be better to think of nations, or groupings of nations such as Europe, or the Third World, as the cultural equivalent of ecosystems. An ecosystem is composed of interacting biological species. Nations and allied groupings of nations are arenas in which paradigms, the species of culture, interact with one another. Dealing with that issue, however, is beyond the scope of this paper. [Back]


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Acknowledgement: As always, conversation with David Hays as been invaluable.

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