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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
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Culture's Evolutionary Landscape:
A Reply to Hans-Cees Speel
William L. Benzon
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.
- Cultural Success and Failure
- No Memes in Mind
- Intrinsic Variables and Traits
- Feeling in Society: Culture's Evolutionary Landscape
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
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
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
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 . 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,
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:
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
- ) variables for physical quantities which are, presumably, monitored subcortically;
- ) informatic variables, which are cortically monitored.
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 . 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
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)
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
* * * * *
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
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I would like to thank Hans-Cees Speel for the delightful email correspondence which
stimulated these remarks.
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