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Introduction: Mind-Culture Coevolution

William L. Benzon

12 February 2003

  • Mind and Culture
  • Major Transitions
  • Contrasts: Waves and Memes
  • A Brief Guide to the Papers
  • About Beethoven's Anvil
  • About The Measurement of Cultural Evolution in the Non-Literate World

  • Mind and Culture

    A central phenomenon of the human presence on earth is that, over the long term, we have gained ever more capacity to understand and manipulate the physical world and, though some would debate this, the human worlds of psyche and society. The major purpose of the theory which the late David Hays and I have developed (and which I continue to develop) is to understand the mental structures and processes underlying that increased capacity. While more conventional students of history and of cultural evolution have much to say about what happened and when and what was influenced by what else, few have much to say about the conceptual and affective mechanisms in which these increased capacities are embedded. That is the story we have been endeavoring to tell.

    Our theory is thus about processes in the human mind. Those processes evolve in tandem with culture. They require culture for their support while they enable culture through their capacities. In particular, we believe that the genetic elements of culture are to be found in the external world, in the properties of artifacts and behaviors, not inside human heads. Hays first articulated this idea in his book on the evolution of technology and I have developed it in my papers "Culture as an Evolutionary Arena," "Culture's Evolutionary Landscape" and, most recently, in my book on music, Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. This puts our work at odds with some students of cultural evolution, especially those who identify with memetics, who tend to think of culture's genetic elements as residing in nervous systems.

    We have aspired to a system of thought in which the mechanisms of mind and feeling have discernible form and specificity rather than being the airy nothings of philosophical wish and theological hope. We would be happy to see computer simulations of the mechanisms we've been proposing. Unfortunately neither the computational art nor our thinking is up to this task. But that, together with the neuropsychologist's workbench, is the arena in which these matters must eventually find representation investigation, and a long way down the line, resolution. The point is that, however vague our ideas about mechanisms currently may be, it is our conviction that the phenomenon under investigation, culture and its implementation in the human brain, is not vague and formless, nor is it, any more, beyond our ken.

    Major Transitions

    The story we tell is one of cultural paradigms existing at four levels of sophistication, which we call ranks. In the terminology of current evolutionary biology, these ranks represent major transitions in cultural life. Rank 1 paradigms emerged when the first humans appeared on the savannas of Africa speaking language as we currently know it. Those paradigms structured the lives of primitive which societies emerged perhaps 50,000 to 100,000 years ago. Around 5,000 to 10,000 years ago Rank 2 paradigms emerged in relatively large stable human societies with people living in walled cities and written texts being used by various elites. Rank 3 paradigms first emerged in Europe during the Renaissance and gave European cultures the capacity to dominate, in a sense, to create, world history over the last 500 years. This century has begun to see the emergence of Rank 4 paradigms.

    Nothing in our theory limits the number of cultural ranks. Each rank is built on the previous ranks, operating on those cognitive and affective processes and using them as its agents. We see no inherent reason why ever more sophisticated paradigms cannot evolve and come to operate on the paradigms just now emerging. From our point of view, the future event that some, such as Raymond Kurzweil, are calling The Singularity, is but another major transition in cultural evolution, another rank.

    Thus we preach neither that history is at an end nor that we are at the top of the peak. But, if further evolution is possible, it is not inevitable. Thus we provide scant comfort to those who want to believe that human destiny guarantees a certain, and a certain type of, future for the nephews and nieces of their great grandchildren. Our aim has been to look at the past so that we may more deeply understand and act in the present. Our aim is not and has not been to predict the future. Rather, we could help create the concepts which our our children and their children can use in order effectively to realize their hopes and quell their fears as they venture forth on the New Savanna of cultural possibility now emerging here and there. We have examined past in order that we may help others to build the future.

    Contrasts: Waves and Memes

    Within the academic world the study of cultural evolution is, at best, a secondary matter, one pursued by scattered bands of anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, philosophers, psychologists, and a biologist or two. Cultural evolution is more prominent in the less specialized world of journalists, seers, and pop-culture savants where it shows up in the waves theory of Alvin Toffler, in memetics, an intellectual stew which began simmering when biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" to designate the cultural parallel to the biologist's gene, and most recently in Robert Wright's Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, which takes its inspiration from game theory.

    Toffler's sequence of cultural waves corresponds neatly with the sequence of ranks which Hays and I postulate. His first wave, agricultural society, corresponds to our Rank 2 culture and his second wave, industrial society, corresponds to Rank 3 culture. Toffler's third wave of computational, electronic, and biological demassifying technology is about Rank 4. He takes hunting and gathering society, which we designate as Rank 1 culture, as his baseline and doesn't give it any wave designation. Thus you can read Toffler's basic account, in The Third Wave, take the phenomena he groups into waves, and place them into ranks. What Toffler lacks is any way of accounting for these waves. He sees clearly that societies and cultures are organized into such levels, and that that organization is global in nature, affecting everything. But he has no explanation for these global waves other than the metaphor itself. Rank theory attempts to account for this stratification in terms of psychological mechanisms, structures and processes for thinking about, feeling, and acting in the world.

    Wright takes his cue from a slightly older literature on cultural complexity. This literature is concerned about types of social organization--from the hunting-gathering band up through the empire (Hays discusses some of this literature here)--and with the measurement of cultural complexity (reviewed in David Hays, The Measurement of Cultural Evolution in the Non-Literate World, 1997). Wright argues that, over the long term, human societies evolve so that more and more "win-win" interactions among people and groups are possible. In the language of game theory, such intereactions involve non-zero sum games. Interactions where one party gains and the other parties lose are zero-sum games; the wins and losses balance out. A non-zero sum game is one where all parties can come out ahead, hence the title of Wright's book. Wright's thesis is thus fundamentally an economic one.

    Neither wave theory, Wright's economics, nor rank theory--at least as it is currently developed--has a great deal to say about the process by which culture changes and evolves. That is the bailiwick occupied by various selectionist theories, which are modeled on the Darwinian biological process of evolution through random variation and selective retention. Selectionists see culture as an enormous collection of interlinked units, which may or may not be discrete. There are various schools of selectionist thought:

    • the evolutionary epistemology of Donald Campbell and David Hull
    • gene-culture coevolution theory: Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, Boyd and Richerson
    • the psychological aesthetics of Colin Martindale
    • Dan Sperber's epidemiology of representations
    • memetics as variously propounded by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Susan Blackmore
    The differences among these thinkers are considerable, and none of them devote as much attention to psychological structure and mental process as Hays and I have done, though our views seem compatible with those of Martindale and the gene-culture coevolutionists. These investigations are all in their early stages and so it would be premature to pass judgment on them. What is important is the commitment to a dynamics modeled on Darwinian mechanisms.

    In particular, Hays and I would like to understand culture's major transitions--from rank to rank, or wave to wave--in terms of cultural fitness. In the biological world, for example, the transition from single-celled to multi-celled organisms required and produced a wide range of evolutionary changes. That kind of biological transition seems comparable to the cultural transition from agricultural life (Rank 2) to industrial life (Rank 3). There are obvious material differences from rank to rank--which Hays has discussed in his account of technological evolution (in particular, chapters three and six)--but what drove peoples' preferences for modes of thinking and feeling? Colin Martindale has perhaps come closer to the empirical investigation of such questions than anyone else. One might also consider Paul Thagard's work on Coherence in Thought and Action in this context. Coherence is certainly the kind of thing that mind's "care" about (cf. the fourth chapter of my Beethoven's Anvil). While Thagard's theory is not evolutionary, it does have a historical side (e.g. Conceptual Revolutions).

    A Brief Guide to the Papers

    "The Evolution of Cognition" is the foundation paper for the theory of cultural rank. Hays and I distinguish cultural from biological evolution and define the concept of cognitive rank in terms of mechanisms for handling abstract concepts: metaphor, metalingual definition, algorithm, control. These mechanisms are routinized through a specific cognitive medium--respectively, speech, writing, calculation, and computing. Hays lays the foundations for considering the evolution of affective life in "The Evolution of Expressive Culture". He restates the classic conflict between reason and emotion in neurological terms as a conflict between cortical and subcortical goals. Expressive culture evolves as people develop ever more sophisticated was of mediating that conflict and perversion (evil) is defined and examined. Note that in defining evil as perversion Hays defines it in terms of abstract system properties, not in terms of moral precepts as normally understood by laypersons and philosophers.

    In The Evolution of Technology Through Four Cognitive Ranks Hays undertakes a book-length examination of technology, including estimates of material and energetic requirements and investment strategies at each cultural rank and a chapter on modes of governance. Hays concludes by considering the problem of using technology which will allow us to sustain life on earth over the long term and contemplates the rise and fall of civilizations. [Note: While this work is rank theory's most sustained examination of a (more or less) single topic, it may also be the most approachable version of the theory. It was written as a text from which Hays taught a course and includes an extensive bibliography.]

    My papers on "Stages in the Evolution of Music" and "The Evolution of Narrative and the Self", extend the theory further into affective life. The music paper returns rank theory to one of its catalyzing sources, Walter Wiora's book on The Four Ages of Music. The successive elaboration of rhythm, melody, and harmony reflects ever more differentiated control over the aesthetic medium; this material forms the basis of the tenth chapter of Beethoven's Anvil. My treatment of jazz shows how rank theory can deal with diverse levels of cultural sophistication within a society. I start the narrative/self paper with an account of how Shakespeare's sonned on "Lust in action" uses verbal beauty to allay the anxiety aroused by its subject. Then I discuss how story-telling moves from tales, to epic, and to the novel and thereby subserves the cultural organization of id, superego, and ego structures of the personality.

    With "Culture as an Evolutionary Arena" the theory moves in a different direction. Most of our theoretical work has been devoted to delineating the different cultural ranks: What phenomena exist at each rank? What are the mental mechanisms underlying those phenomena? With this paper I begin thinking about evolutionary dynamics by considering the analogy with biological evolution. The paradigm is the cultural analog to the biological species, Richard Dawkins's meme is analogous to the gene, and (psychological) traits are analogous to the phenotypic features of organisms. This means that, while biological fitness is determined in the external world, cultural fitness is determined in the inter-subjective world of human society. Here we begin thinking about the Why? of cultural evolution. Hans-Cees Speel raises some questions in "A short comment from a biologist" and I reply in "Culture's Evolutionary Landscape: A Reply to Hans-Cees Speel."

    * * * * *

    "Principles and Development of Natural Intelligence" is, if anything, even more basic than "The Evolution of Cognition." But it is not about culture; it is about how the mind is implemented in the brain. Hays and I argue that the human brain realizes five information processing principles which developed over the course of vertebrate evolution. The phylogenetic emergence of this prinsiples is reprised in the ontogenetic development of individual humans. Our conviction is that a brain which operates according to these principles would be a suitable vehicle for the cultural arena described in the cultural evolution papers. (Think of this paper as an outline for an evolutionary psychology that is somewhat different from the more recent Cosmides-Tooby-Pinker school.)

    "Metaphor, Recognition, and Neural Process" makes our strongest connection between the conception of the brain in "Natural Intelligence" and the theory of cognitive ranks. Cognitive ranks theory says that metaphor is the key neural strategy for creating abstract ideas. This paper outlines how a brain like that in "Natural Intelligence" constructs complex metaphors.

    "Why Natural Selection Leads to Complexity" asserts that, contrary to a philosophical tradition which goes back to ancient Greece, the universe is essentially complex, not simple. In a complex universe complex organisms pay the energetic costs of that complexity with more sophisticated (and low energy) information processing.

    While not written in explicitly evolutionary terms, "Music Making History" treats 20th century American culture as an evolutionary landscape in which musical memes and paradigms originate in African America and flow to European America. The cultural gradient which channels this flow arises from the same psychocultural mechanism which, in a perverse form, yields racism. These ideas subsequently found their way into the final chapter of Beethoven's Anvil.

    When John Horgan argued that science is all but over, I decided that he was wrong and used rank theory to point out the limitations of his book, The End of Science, in an essay review: "Pursued by Knowledge in a Fecund Universe."

    Robert Aunger attempted to put memetics on a neural footing in The Electric Meme. His neuroscience was so inept that I was moved to write a negative review: Colorless Green Homunculi.

    About Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture

    In Beethoven's Anvil I provide an account of music that goes from neural and psychological mechanisms (chapters five, six, and seven) to music's origins (chapter eight) and subsequent cultural development (chapters nine, ten, and eleven). The most important material, however, concerns the nature of music as an inherently collective activity of people in groups (chapters two, three, and four). Thus I am interested in how music provides a medium through which people can coordinate their intereactions in a very precise way.

    Of course, there is nothing novel in observing that music does require close interaction between musicians. But that is generally treated simply as the nature of musical performance whereas I treat it as being the social function of music. In the conventional view, musicians interact closely so that they can make music. In my view, we make music so that we can interact very closely. The upshot of my argument is that music makes such demands on us that we can validly think of a music-making group as having a single group-mind, but only for the duration of their performance.

    This is not the place to present those arguments, or event to attempt a summary of them. But I do want to point out that our modern experience of music as something we can listen to in private through recordings, or even as something we hear at concerts, is not the fundamental way in which humans have made music. The ethnological evidence is that the basic form of human music-making involves the entire group--men, women, children, and even infants (strapped to mother's back)--actively singing, playing and instrument, or dancing. The formal concert, with its strict division between active musicians and passive audience, is a secondary development.

    Thus my discussion of music becomes a discussion of social groups, a subject that interested Hays a great deal. While he and I discussed groups often, we never found our way to saying anything that was not already covered in the literature. I would like to think that he would be pleased with my discussion of these matters in Beethoven's Anvil.

    About The Measurement of Cultural Evolution in the Non-Literate World

    This is the last work that David Hays did. Though it is about cultural evolution, it is different in character from the work directly available at this site. The arguments on this site are theoretical and speculative. Hays' work in The Measurement of Cultural Evolution in the Non-Literate World: Homage to Raoul Naroll (Metagram Press, 1997) is largely empirical and methodological.

    In this book Hays surveys a large body of work devoted to measuring cultural complexity; this work has, for the most part, concentrated on non-literate cultures and Hays keeps that focus. He concludes (p. 77):

    Others have already drawn the conclusion that all of the scales and indices examined here are measures of cultural evolution. However, it seems to me that the scales prove weak on the whole; the spread around the regression line is large, and nonlinearities abound. Would it be possible to make a single scale, taking advantage of all the available data, that would serve better?
    When Hays set out to create that new scale he decided that it was impossible to do so in the standard way; that is, it was impossible to summarize a culture's nature in a single number that would establish it as more or less evolved than some other culture. Instead, he found it necessary to rate each culture unit on eleven different aspects: Population, Polity, Class, Legal, Commerce, Craft, Religion, Settlement, Subsistence, Cognition, War. Much of the book is devoted to explaining how he did this and to providing individual profiles for each of the 379 culture units encompassed in the work.

    Though Hays himself did not do so, one way of interpreting this situation is that cultural complexity is inherently multidimensional. Hence, global comparisons between cultures cannot be made by comparing values on a single dimension. Rather, one must compare patterns of values along several dimensions.

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