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Reprinted, with permission, from Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems 20(3): 314-322, 1996.
Copyright © 1996 JAI Press, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Culture's Evolutionary Landscape:
A Reply to Hans-Cees Speel

William L. Benzon

  1. Introduction
  2. Cultural Success and Failure
  3. No Memes in Mind
  4. Intrinsic Variables and Traits
  5. Feeling in Society: Culture's Evolutionary Landscape
  6. Notes
  7. References

1. Introduction

I welcome Hans-Cees Speel's "A short comment from a biologist" and wish I had been in contact with him before I wrote "Culture as an Evolutionary Arena" rather than after, for I would have written a better paper had I been able do exchange views with him. Alas, both of us must cope with the paper I wrote, not the one I now wish I had written. To that end, I will discuss his first, second, third, and fifth points in this introduction and devote the rest of my reply to his fourth point, which is the most substantive difference between us.

On Speel's first two criticisms, having to do with the relationship between classification and phylogeny and with the status of species in evolutionary theory, as a non-biologist I have no reason to dispute what he says. Speel's' points weaken the contrast I have made between biological and cultural evolution, but they do not affect the substance of my views on cultural evolution. Beyond that, his points may even strengthen my suspicion that comparative and historical linguistics has been pursuing an inappropriate biological analogy in seeking to arrange the world's languages into a genealogical tree, for it seems that most of the biological world cannot be placed in such an arrangement either.

Speel's third point, about replication, interaction and selective retention, involves his rewriting a passage from my article. I wasn't happy with my original formulation; I prefer his rewrite and thank him for it. Of course, I reserve the right to adopt still a different formulation in the future.

On this fifth point, concerning the relative complexity of biological and cultural evolution, I note that, in the absence of any agreed-upon measurements, his belief that the biological world is as complex as the cultural is as empirically empty as my assertion to the contrary. Neither of us has anything serious to say on this matter.

This leaves us with Speel's fourth issue, they way I constructed the cultural parallels to the biological genotype and phenotype. These waters are deep and murky. And they are at the heart of the project to provide a Darwinian account of cultural evolution. I would guess that some of our differences are mere semantics while others are substantive. Unfortunately, there is no easy to distinguish between these two classes of disagreement so that we can agree on definitions which resolve the semantic differences and only then go on to explore the substantive differences with our newly minted common language.

2. Cultural Success and Failure

From my point of view the major contribution of memetics, the term Speel uses for his discipline, is to recognize and insist that cultural artifacts and processes be treated as agents in an evolutionary process and not simply as the creatures of human will and action. The major weakness of memetics, e.g. Dawkins (1982, 1993), Dennett (1990), or Speel (in press), is that it has little to say about why cultural interactors are retained in a society. Memeticists are thus in the position evolutionary biologists would have been in if they had no ideas about the nutritional requirements of organisms, about health and disease, physical disturbances, predation, etc. In that situation one can describe patterns of growth and change, but one is powerless to explain those patterns. To explain those patterns you need to think about what causes success and what causes failure. You need some rich notion of the adaptive environment.

In making the distinction between cultural replicator (meme) and cultural interactor (trait) as I did, I was, and am, concerned about working out a substantive approach to understanding cultural success and failure. I am interested in exploring the hypothesis that cultural adaptation is not primarily about adaption to the physical environment (as is the case with biological adaptation), but about adaptation to a rather more abstract environment, one physically located inside the brains of members in a social group. Cultural adaptation obviously presupposes adaption of the human group to the physical environment, but it is not primarily about that adaption. If I were a religious man I would say that cultural adaptation is about spiritual matters. As I am not religious, I must work harder for my truths, and with far less certainty of success. As I will argue below, I think cultural evolution is about affective and conceptual coherence.

3. No Memes in Mind

Following David Hays (1993, section 8.2.1), I place memes, that is, cultural replicators, in the external physical environment, and only there. Speel would have memes in the brain. This seems to me doubtful, though it seems to be the standard assumption of memeticists; certainly, it is the assumption Dawkins himself has made [1]. In his reply Speel asserts:
In my view it is clear that ideas, songs and norms reside in the brain somehow, and are copied from human to human. They can also be copied from a brain to a book, or to physical air-waves.
I agree that the things he names, and others of similar kind, do somehow "reside in the brain." But I deny that they can be said to "be copied from a brain to a book" or that they are "copied from human to human" in any sense of "copy" that is useful in a technical discussion of evolution. His assertion presupposes that when two people sing the same song, read the same book, dance the same steps, etc., that their mental processes are identical or at least highly similar. That presupposition is, at best, dubious.

Let us use the term "schema" to designate mental representations and processes, whether perceptual or motoric, cognitive or affective, atomic or complex. My position is that what is copied (replicated) in cultural adaptation and change is the external physical thing, whatever it may be, text on a page, soup in a pot, dance steps, physical vibrations in ear, colored markings on a wooden poles, etc. Whether or not one person uses the same (or highly similar) schemas in making the copy is another issue entirely. If the schemas are not the same, then we do not have replication from one brain to another. But we do have replication from one physical object or process to another. In my paper (section 3.1) I give the example of a middle-class Japanese marriage ceremony where, in one segment, the groom dresses in a tuxedo and the bride in a white dress wearing a veil in the manner of the Christian ceremony. In these two situations, the Christian marriage ceremony and the Japanese, the memes are quite similar, but the accompanying schemas are different in crucial ways. I think that, in general, memes move relatively freely from one culture to another, but the corresponding schemas do not necessarily accompany them.

In a different vein, the discipline of literary criticism has been wracked with disputes over just "where" the "text" is: Is it on the page, in the author's mind, or in the minds of each of its various readers? Many, perhaps even most, contemporary critics take the view that, while the ink splotches on the page have objective existence and are fundamentally the same for all readers, those readers have rather different experiences of the literary work according to differences in age, gender, social class, national background, ethnicity, and personality. A few critics have even attempted to gather empirical evidence on this matter (e.g. Holland, 1975). Similar considerations would apply to other artifacts of expressive culture, paintings, statues, works of music, and dance, etc. Thus it doesn't seem reasonable to think of writing a book, or singing a song, as simply copying something from inside the brain onto some physical medium, nor the acts of reading and listening as simply copying from a physical medium into the brain. These are complex psychological acts and are not, as yet, well-understood. A memetics which is constructed on such shaky foundations seems unnecessarily risky.

Beyond this, coherence across the schemas of members in a group surely plays a role in group dynamics. If group members have widely varying schemas for their cultural products and processes, then effective communication and cooperation would be difficult and conflict would be prevalent. In this context one particular line of thinking about expressive culture commands attention. Such thinkers as Gregory Bateson (1972, pp. 128-152), Eric Havelock (1982, pp. 89-149), and Robert Rogers (1985) have argued that well-constructed effective expressive objects (paintings, poems, rituals, etc.) encode their messages with a high level of redundancy. Some of my work in literary analysis shows that subtle aspects of semantic structure can be strongly cued through sound structure (Benzon, 1977, 1985); these cues might well place constraints on the schemas constructed in understanding literary texts so that people are more likely to share a common understanding and experience of such texts. Sharing such objects will thus facilitate constructing a common reality and thereby contribute to group cohesion (at what Linnda Caporael calls the deme and macrodeme levels, 1995, paragraphs 24 ff.).

I am thus suggesting that certain kinds of cultural artifacts and processes, including expressive works but by no means limited to them, are more likely than others to elicit similar schemas among different people. The resulting social cohesion means that such cultural products would be more likely to be retained though successive generations than objects lacking these properties. These and only these products would be memes.

At this point I would seem that I have all but agreed with Speel on the point I have been contesting. He wants to allow memes in the mind/brain while I do not. The memes with which I ended the previous paragraph, however, are defined in such a way that they elicit/support similar schemas among different people. So why not call those schemas memes as well? The issue is now whether one thinks of the external physical "thing" as a tool for replicating the internal mental "thing" (which is, of course, some physical process in the brain), or thinks of the internal mental "thing" as a tool for replicating the external physical "thing." I come down firmly in favor of the latter while Speel would seem to admit both possibilities. While I intend to stick to my guns on this one, at least for awhile, I want to move on to other matters. For this argument now seems to be one about the relationship between the chicken and the egg. Such arguments tend to be about global system dynamics, and that is a matter which I am not prepared to address, and certainly not in the limited context of this reply. I only note that I suspect my preference on this matter is related my belief that the selective environment for culture is to be found in the interior of the brain.

4. Intrinsic Variables and Traits

However vague the concept of meme is, my concept of the inner (phenotypic) trait is, if anything, even more vague. Speel has forced me to think more deeply about just what these mysterious traits are and I'd like to sketch out my current thinking.

Let me begin by asserting that I have decided that (at least some of) the schemas I have been talking about in the previous section are the interactors in cultural evolution. The traits I discussed in my paper are properties of these interactors. To understand these traits we need to understand what William Powers (1973, pp. 177-204) has to say about reorganization, that is to say, learning.

Reorganization is triggered by neural structures monitoring what Powers calls intrinsic variables. Consider some physical variable like the level of glucose in the blood. If that level goes below a certain "comfort zone," the animal will seek nutrients which will bring the glucose level back into that comfort zone. What happens, however, if the animal runs though its complete repertoire of food-finding and -eating schemas and fails to raise its glucose level? Of course, if this goes on for a long enough time the animal will die. But, before that happens, the animal will start doing things it never did before, perhaps on a haphazard basis. It will learn new schemas. If the environment is cooperative and the animal sufficiently lucky, one of the new schemas will have the desired result, the animal will get some appropriate food and the glucose level will rise back into the comfort zone. The point at which the animal ceases to deploy its present repertoire of glucose acquisition schemas and begins to learn new schemas, that is its intrinsic reference level for glucose.

In Powers' view the intrinsic reference levels are genetically set. There will be a number of them, many related to some physical variable important for the animal's survival--temperature, oxygen, nutrients of various sorts, physical security, sexual satisfaction (which is important for the survival of the species as a whole, not for that of the individual animal), etc. Whenever any of these intrinsic variables strays outside its comfort zone, reorganization begins.

Reorganization, that is to say learning, is the basis for the retention system of cultural evolution. What I have been calling the "phenotypic" traits of cultural evolution are the capacities which schemas have for keeping one or more intrinsic variables within the comfort zone. Imagine a person trying out any number of new patterns in order to find one that will bring the intrinsic variable back to its reference level; it will retain only the schema(s) which have the needed result. The others will simply be lost. Schemas are interactors competing in a cultural environment which is somehow implemented deep in the interiors of the brains of people in a social group.

In discussing intrinsic variables and their reference levels, Powers also admitted the logical possibility, and practical desirability, of intrinsic variables governing the quality of control in the system (Powers, 1973, pp. 195-196). David Hays and I have followed Powers on this and have suggested that each (more or less) distinct functional area of the neocortex is regulating an intrinsic variable governing some kind of informatic coherence (Benzon & Hays, 1988, pp. 298-304, 313). The goal of each cortical area is to account for its input. Following Karl Pribram (1971; see also Abu-Mostafa & Psaltis, 1987; Psaltis & Mok, 1995) we have speculated that a cortical region operates holographically to match its input to the patterns it has stored, where "pattern" is a term for an atomic schema confined to a single cortical region. There may never be an exact match. The intrinsic reference level for a cortical region would be the level of correspondence between input and stored pattern which is necessary to score a match. If there is a match, the input is said to be accounted for by the stored pattern. If there is no match, then a new pattern must be created to account for the input. That requires reorganization. The new pattern thus created will, of course, become part of the permanent repertoire of the cortical region. It will be, in a word, retained.

We now have two classes of intrinsic variables:

  1. ) variables for physical quantities which are, presumably, monitored subcortically; and

  2. ) informatic variables, which are cortically monitored.

These variables are wired into the structure and processes of the brain and thus genetically determined. When "projected" into the social sphere (which I will discuss below) these variables constitute the evolutionary landscape in which culture grows and changes.

I would guess that we have on the order of a thousand or so of these intrinsic variables, with there being more cortical informatic variables (one for each functional area) than subcortical [2]. Many schemas will be distributed across several or even many cortical areas. Many, perhaps ultimately all, will be relevant to regulation of one or more subcortical variables. The (phenotypic) traits of a schema consist then of its various capacities to bring intrinsic variables within range of their respective intrinsic reference levels. In talking thus of a schema's traits I am distinguishing what the schema represents, whether something perceived, thought, planned, or enacted, from its "position" in the multi-dimensional mental space determined by those thousand or so intrinsic variables. Schemas compete with one another according to their capacity to satisfy these intrinsic needs.

I thus believe that we have memes, cultural replicators, in the external physical world. The perception and use of those memes is subserved by psychological schemas, interactors, which are patterns of neural activation in the brain. Those interactors have traits which determine their relationships to the 1000 or so reference variables regulated by the brain's reorganizing system. If an interactor's traits are such that it is retained by the brains of many individuals in a group, then the memes employed/subserved by that interactor are likely successfully to replicate.

5. Feeling in Society: Culture's Evolutionary Arena

Culture inheres in social groups and, up until now, we have been talking about the interior of individual's brains. I am of the view that, while society is "implemented" in the actions and perceptions of its individual members, it cannot be reduced to those actions and perceptions. Society is more than the sum of its individual human parts; just what that something more is remains something of a puzzle, at least to me (cf. Caporael's concept of "obligate interdependence," 1995; Hays, 1973, pp. 204-208). However, I am now so far out on a speculative limb that I could not make things any more hazardous by continuing to speculate.

David Hays (1992, p. 197) has argued that human sociality is strongly enhanced by interactional synchrony, the precise coordination of movements between members of social groups. More recently William McNeill (1995, p. 27) has argued that "muscular bonding," by which he means such activities as communal dance and military drill, is essential to human society:
Moving together rhythmically for hours on end can be counted upon to strengthen emotional bonds among those who take part...Far larger bands than any existing today among chimpanzees or other great apes could therefore come into being...What we may think of as the human scale of primary community, comprising anything from several score to many hundreds of persons, thus emerged, thanks to the emotional solidarities aroused by keeping together in time.
My speculation is that synchronized interaction facilitates the creation of a social space in which the intrinsic variables operating in the brains of individuals become the evolutionary landscape for cultural adaptation and evolution. In saying this I do not mean to raise the specter of mysteries like the Jungian collective unconscious or other non-material phenomena. I am talking about electro-physical interactions taking place in the brains of humans interacting in a group. The symbolic interactions which are central to human social and mental life require coordination of a kind which is unlike interactions in animal groups. Interactional synchrony is the most basic means of achieving that interaction.

This emergent evolutionary landscape is structured by those thousand or so intrinsic variables genetically wired into human brains. And, in the view Hays and I have been elaborating, this landscape would seem to be fundamentally about feelings, which brings us back to Speel's critique, where he distinguishes between norms and our emotional attachment to those norms. What I am saying is that the norms (which would be a schemas in my current view, schemas that could be expressed/realized in a variety of memes) and many other cultural "things," survive or die according to how they mesh with our feelings (see also Geertz, 1973, 80-82). In our paper on the brain (Benzon & Hays, 1988) Hays and I associate feelings with a principle of modal operation which we reworked from its original formulation by Warren McCulloch (Kilmer, McCulloch, & Blum, 1969). A mode is a global structure of brain activation which subserves some particular need, whether physical or informatic. For any given mode some functional areas will be inactive, others fully active, still others in intermediate states. Feelings are the subjective experience of modal processes, the transition from one mode to another, satisfaction of a modal goal, or the failure to satisfy a modal goal. Mode and feeling are thus intimately related to those thousand or so intrinsic variables at the heart of the mind/brain. How we feel is a function of the current satisfaction levels of those variables.

Thus we arrive at the heart of the matter: What relationships obtain between these intrinsic variables? Are there constraints on our capacity to satisfice, to use Herbert Simon's (1981) term, over these variables? The simplest case would be one where all of the variables are correlated in the same way; any schema which contributes to the satisfaction of one variable will contribute to the satisfaction of all variables. A more complex situation would arise if the variables were all independent of one another so that one could act to satisfy any one variable without having any affect on the satisfaction of the other variables. Unfortunately, human life seems more difficult than this. These variables are not independent of one another, nor are they correlated in the same way. As Hays has argued in his discussion of expressive culture (1992) some of these variables seem to be linked in contradictory ways; the satisfaction of one variable will force another variable or variables into error. As biologically given, the evolutionary landscape of human culture is riddled with conflict and contradiction. That makes for difficult living.

And it provides a driving force behind cultural evolution, namely, to create patterns of perception and action which minimize, or perhaps elude, conflict between intrinsic variables. My analysis of the interaction African-American and European-American music (Benzon, 1993, in press), provides an example. What we observe is that over this century (and back well into the nineteenth century) there has been a massive flow of music memes from African America to European America; if you will, there is a "slope" in the evolutionary landscape of American musical culture from African America to European America. I argue that this is because those memes provide for emotional satisfactions of a kind which European-derived memes do not support. That is, those memes give rise to schemas which contribute to the satisfaction of intrinsic variables which have been "starved" in the European cultural regime.

More generally we have the various cultural ranks which Hays and I have elaborated in a series of essays on cultural evolution. In this theory we have followed others in giving a privileged place to writing, calculation, and computation. Our reason for doing this has to do with the modal system, in particular, with the various modal patterns implemented in the cortex. Thus in our first essay (Benzon & Hays, 1990, pp. 302-303) we said:
The activities of reading and writing require patterns of brain activity which don't exist in illiterate peoples. These new patterns of brain activity support modes of analysis and synthesis not possible in other modes; hence concepts of a new kind become possible. Other cultural inventions--we are particularly concerned about algorithmic calculation and computer programming--have similar effects. The creation of a new brain thus doesn't require genetically driven changes in brain structure; it requires only culturally driven changes in cognitive technology.
In the current context I would suggest that the cultural potency of writing, calculation, and computation is that they sustain modes which allow for more effective satisfaction of the 1000 intrinsic variables driving the brain's reorganization. Writing, calculation, and computation change the evolutionary landscape in a way that reduces conflict, thus engendering greater coherence in the mental processing of individuals and societies.

* * * * *

Of course, this is all very speculative. But if we want to advance our understanding of culture in new ways, then speculation is unavoidable. I think we are ready to undertake evolutionary investigations of human culture which are richer and more rigorous than has been possible in the past. As the work moves forward, the evolutionary view of human culture will become the mainstream view. This can only happen if biologists, such as Hans-Cees Speel, instruct humanists and social scientists in the ways of evolution, even as we instruct them in the ways of culture. Together we can construct a new account of human life on earth.


1. I want to emphasize that the memeticists' assertion of memes in the mind/brain is an assumption. They have not, to my knowledge, considered the possibility I am arguing and so have constructed no explicit arguments for this belief. They take it as a self-evident truth.

2. I don't know of any explicit count of distinct functional areas in the human neocortex but, with much anatomical work yet to be done, I'm not sure how valid such a count would be. My sense of things is that the number or cortical areas is likely to be between 100 and 1000. I have even less a sense of just how many intrinsic physical variables are being regulated by subcortical systems. But, whatever that number is, if we add it to the number of functional areas in the cortex, we'll come up with a number on the order of 1000. Nothing in my argument depends on the exact magnitude of this number.


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Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Hans-Cees Speel for the delightful email correspondence which stimulated these remarks.

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