Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities

Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which humanity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sign to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

– Percy Bysshe Shelley

The key to the treasure is the treasure.
– John Barth

I would like to open by paraphrasing Dobzhanzky’s well-known title (1973) and assert that nothing in human psyche and society makes sense except in the light of cultural evolution. Having written the paraphrase I must confess that, alas, I cannot affirm it. The study of cultural evolution will not yet support such an assertion. It is too scattered and incomplete. Yet I believe that such a paraphrase indicates the proper scope for a robust investigation of cultural evolution. Accordingly I’ll offer a few observations on what we must do to move in that direction.

* * * * *

But first I want to deal with a mundane organizational matter. Once I’d committed myself to this post I recalled those many times when I set out to write an easy piece – nothing new, just bang out a couple of thousand quick words on stuff I’ve been chewing on for some time. Before I knew it Quick and Easy had grown into an Ungainly Monster with no end in sight. As this assignment had all the earmarks of such a beast I decided on a preemptive strike in the form of a series of posts at my own blog, New Savanna. The idea was to think things through ahead of time so that: 1) I had at least the ghost of a chance of writing a coherent post for the Forum, and 2) I would have plenty of online back-up material at hand.

I have listed those posts in an appendix and will refer to them as CE1, CE2, CE7, etc. I’ve also gathered those posts, including some comments, into a single PDF document which you can download from the Social Science Research Network (here). I would, of course, be happy to comment on those posts either here or at New Savanna (see URLs in the appendix).

My Slant

While I accept the anthropological view of culture, I tend first to think of such things as literature, music, art, and film. I was trained in English Literature; I am a musician and have published a book about music (Benzon 2001); I like to photograph graffiti [1]; and have developed a deep interest in animation in the last several years. My discussion is thus biased toward those kinds of things.

Thus I will not be discussing one of the most robust research programs in cultural evolution, gene-culture cooevolution. I am willing to take it as given that cultural environments have influenced our biology. But for reasons given in CE1 and CE2 I don’t think gene-cultural cooevolution has much to say about the phenomena that most interest me.

Nor do I intend to say much about memes. The term is a brilliant coinage, and I’ve adopted it myself, but I think the conceptualization that has come with it is unfortunate. The notion that culture consists of homuncular memebots hopping about from brain to brain is uninformative and thus a useless time sink (cf. Benzon 2002).

And yet I believe that Dawkins got something right. As I say in CE3, Dawkins’ key insight is that, in the cultural evolutionary process, selection operates on cultural entities and not on human phenotypes. That is to say, the evolutionary costs and benefits accrue directly to cultural entities, not to the human beings who create and consume them. There are cases where cultural entities seem to thrive at the expense of humans, but this is a secondary matter and, in the large scope, not worth the attention that’s been lavished on them in popular discussions. Most of my preparatory effort has been aimed at working out such a scheme (CE3, CE4, CE5, CE6, and CE8; see also Benzon 1996, Benzon 2001) and I will offer a few remarks on those matters here and there.

A Start: Colin Martindale

Let me set the stage by quoting a passage from the excellent review Tim Lewens (2007) wrote for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

One might fear that in the end cultural change, and the influence of cultural change on other aspects of the human species, are best understood through a series of individual narratives. Our brief examination of memetics illustrated this concern. We gain no real explanatory insight if we are told that ideas spread through populations, some more successfully than others. We want to know what makes some ideas fitter than others. And it is not clear that there will be any general rules that can help us to answer this question. In the biological realm we need detailed accounts of local environmental circumstances, species-specific physiology and anatomy, and so forth, to tell us what makes one organic variant fitter than another. Similarly, in the cultural realm we will need to look at local psychological dispositions to explain why some ideas are more likely to spread than others. So any explanatory value to be had from memetics is parasitic on conventional work done in psychology.

With those caveats in mind, let’s take a quick look at the work of the late Colin Martindale. Like Dawkins, Martindale realizes that cultural selection operates on cultural objects and processes (1990). Unlike Dawkins he has both a theory about those processes and empirical data supporting that theory.

A need for novelty is the driving factor in Martindale’s scheme. Novelty value is what recommends expressive works to their audience. The trouble, of course, is that once one has sufficient experience of the new, it loses its capacity to excite. It has become old. Psychologists call this habituation, and it is a much-studied aspect of neural operation. Martindale argues that art overcomes habituation 1) through the regressive inclusion of more primordial content and 2) through the formal elaboration of content (pp. 34-76) – here’s an entry point for the local psychological dispositions Lewens mentions.

Using his model Martindale argues for cyclic change in aesthetic styles within a given tradition. Basically, an increase in primordial content (novelty) is followed by a relaxation of stylistic rules. That permits stylistic change (novelty) which then allows the use of primordial content to recede as the new style becomes increasingly elaborated. At some point, however, further elaboration becomes pointless and it’s time to up the primordial content. And so on. Given these predictions, Martindale has analyzed long runs of French and British and American poetry, classical music, Gothic architecture, European painting, Japanese prints, and New England grave stones. In all cases he has found cyclic variations in form and content in line with his predictions.

Martindale’s theory is thus fundamentally about audience reception. For all practical purposes we can treat artists – even the most exalted of geniuses – as an anonymous fountain that spews forth works for public consideration. People decide which works they like and it is those preferences that, in the long run, allow selected works to enter the canon. Thus when Martindale is tracking artistic change he is also indirectly tracking changes in the collective psyche.

But how can we conceptualize the collective psyche without falling into hopeless mysticism?

Collective Culture

Let me offer a simple model system, one simple enough that we are probably within range of understanding it at the neural level. I used this example in my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, and the following discussion is a paraphrase of that discussion.

Consider the bi-modal clapping that routinely rewards a successful performances—music, drama, circus, etc.—in eastern European communities, but which is less common in western Europe and North America. Z. Néda and colleagues (2000) have investigated this phenomenon, recording applause for a number of performances in Romania and Hungary. The applause would start out randomly and then quickly become strongly synchronized. Synchronized clapping would continue for a short while (one mode) and then disintegrate into random clapping (the other mode), from which synchronized clapping would reemerge, and so forth.

Analysis of the recordings revealed two things:

  1. The average noise level was greater during the random clapping than during the synchronized clapping.
  2. During random clapping individuals clapped at roughly twice the frequency they used during synchronized clapping.

Clearly the greater volume during random clapping came because individuals were clapping faster. But during this mode, the time between individual claps varied more than when people clapped at the lower rate. That variability made it impossible for the group to synchronize at the higher rate, which also produced a louder sound.

Néda concluded that audience members were caught in a conflict. They can express one value by making as much noise as possible through rapid clapping. If, however, they wish to express another value by synchronizing their clapping, they must clap more slowly, thereby lowering the volume. It is impossible simultaneously to maximize these two aims. The group deals with this conflict by switching back and forth between two different expressive modes.

The investigators assume that the loudness of the clapping reflects the audience members’ enthusiasm for the performance, while synchronous clapping expresses group solidarity, which seems reasonable enough. What is immediately significant, however, is the mechanism by which these two values, whatever they are, were expressed by the group. That mechanism is clearly self-organizing. No one leads audiences in this behavior. It just happens.

Now I want to take a quick look at memes (cf. CE3) by shifting point of view slightly and asking an obvious question: What is audience attending to in this process? That is, what aspects of the sound stream are carrying the expressive messages in these two clapping modes? Obviously, synchrony in one case and volume in the other. We can thus say that those properties are memetically active (CE5).

In my reading, those properties are memes (CE3). They don’t replicate and scatter (the wrong theoretical imagery). Rather, they allow mutual coordination. In my notes I devote considerable attention to a more complex example, so-called Rhythm Changes (CE5, CE6). This complex is named after George Gershwin’s song, “I Got Rhythm,” and refers to the song’s harmonic structure, which spans 32 bars. Gershwin’s song was so popular that by the late 1930s other composers where writing their own melodies on that harmonic foundation. This practice went riot with the emergence of bebop in the early 1940s, with every musician of stature creating one or more tunes on Rhythm Changes. Consequently any reasonably competent jazz musician can recognize Rhythm Changes tunes regardless of the melody and can jam on Rhythm Changes anytime, anyplace.

It is not obvious to me just how one is to characterize such complex patterns in physical terms. In my posts I draw on fairly standard means of musical notation, but that’s pretty far from the sound itself. But if the patterns weren’t physical, musicians couldn’t use them as vehicle for coordination.

What this suggests about memes in general, however, is that various disciplines may already be quite familiar with them under rubrics such as semiotic codes, or what not. I explore this possibility in a discussion of the emic/etic distinction in a comment to John Wilkins in CE3 and in my discussion of language in CE8, including comments made to John Lawler. But this is taking us a bit afield, into perceptual and cognitive psychology. Both are necessary to our study, but I want to return to group behavior.

I want to move beyond the immediacy of post-performance applause. What happens in the days and weeks following, say, the opening of a film? What gives a film legs, as they say? That’s a question investigated by Robert de Vany in Hollywood Economics, a profound and imaginative treatment of the economics of the movie business. De Vany is interested in understanding what happens to movies once they’re released to the public. To that end he has analyzed a ten year run of box office receipts from the 1990s.

Most movies, of course, don’t even break even, much less make a profit – not in theatrical release, though many movies finally break-even or make a profit though DVDs and TV. The deep and ineradicable condition of the business seems to be that there is no reliable way to estimate the market appeal of a movie short of putting it on screens across the country and seeing if people come to watch. What De Vany shows is that that about 3 or 4 weeks into circulation, the trajectory of movie dynamics (that is, people coming to theatres to watch a movie) splits into one of two alternative trajectories (a term of art in the study of dynamical systems). Most movies enter a trajectory that leads to diminishing attendance and no profits. But a few enter a trajectory that leads to continuing attendance and, eventually, a profit. Among these, a very few become block busters.

No matter how the studios and distributors try to manipulate audience behavior through advertising and public relations, the most important factor in movie success is word-of-mouth (pp. 60-63). People sitting together in a theatre influence one another’s experience of the film through remarks to one’s immediate neighbors, but also through sighs, groans, and laughter audible several rows away. When the movie’s over people tell their friends about the film and that, in turn, influences whether or not their friends will go see the film. The studios cannot elicit this behavior, they cannot lead it. It reflects the spontaneous reactions and interactions of people.

In the short term such behavior determines which movies make a profit and what kind of movies the studios will churn out in search of profits. Over the long run such behavior determines what films will have an enduring cultural presence and become canonical cultural works.

Some Examples of Large-Scale Phenomena

During roughly the third quarter of the twentieth century some anthropologists and archaeologists did a great deal of empirical work on cultural complexity, mostly among preliterate societies. This work typically involved large-scale cross-cultural studies. Much of it was directed toward forms of social organization, establishing a sequence going from the hunting-gathering band, to the tribe, the village, the chiefdom, petty-kingdom, and church-state (Hays 1993, chapter 5; Hays 1997; cf. Service 1975). Note that these levels of social organization are all within preliterate cultures. So far as I know such work has not been attempted among literate cultures.

During the 1960s the late Alan Lomax (1968) decided to investigate folk song styles against the background of cultural complexity. Lomax and his colleagues prepared a sample of over 3000 songs, representing 233 cultures from 5 continents plus the Pacific islands, and had judges code the songs on features of style — nature of the performing group, relationship between vocal part and instrumental parts, melodic style, rhythmic style, wordiness, tone quality, tempo, and so on. They correlated style traits with measures of social complexity and found that the simpler the society, the simpler its song lyrics. The simplest societies used a great deal of repetition and nonsense syllables. Similarly, the precision of enunciation varies with social complexity; the more complex the society, the more precise the enunciation. The prevalence of solo singers was also associated with complexity. In the simplest societies, everyone sang; no one was given or took a solo role. It is only in more complex societies, with permanent leaders and social stratification, that we see ensembles divided into a soloist and accompanists.

This is an empirical finding. And, while it may seem intuitively obvious that complex cultures create a collective ambiance that favors expressive forms that different from those of less complex cultures, one would like an explanation for this “fit.” I would expect a robust account of cultural evolution to provide such an explanation.

In a similar vein, John Roberts, Brian Sutton-Smith, and Adam Kendon (1963) were interested in the relationship between child-rearing practices, community size, types of games, and folk tales. In particular, they were interested in what they have called the strategic mode. Strategy plays a minor role in games of physical skill, but a dominant role in games such as chess and poker, which also has strong elements of chance. In folk tales, we can examine how the outcome is achieved, whether through physical skill, chance (guessing, casting lots, magic), or strategy (e.g. evaluating a situation, deception, out-witting an opponent). They discovered that games of strategy are likely to co-occur with folktales having a strong strategic element and that both are more likely in politically complex societies (chiefdoms and above).

Now let us consider a different style of large-scale research. Franco Moretti (2003) has recently published some very interesting work on the origins and course of the novel in Britain, Denmark, India, Japan, Italy, Span, and Nigeria. In this work he is interested in sheer numbers, creating graphs depicting the number of titles published per year over a century or more, starting in the eighteenth century. In most cases – Britain, Denmark, India, Japan, Italy, Spain – he finds that the rise is not a steady one but is marked with declines so long and deep that we must talk of the cyclic rise and fall of the novel.

To my mind, however, Moretti’s most interesting finding concerns the emergence of British novelistic genres between 1750 and 1900. Most generally, he shows that the types of genre shift over time. For example, Gothic novels were strong from 1800-1825, sporting novels seem to run from 1820 to 1860, while imperial romances run from 1850 though 1890, and so on for over 40 genres. What is most interesting, however, is that the genres seem grouped into six periods of creativity and they disappear in clusters as well. Consequently there is an almost complete turn-over in genres every 25 years or so, that is, roughly a generation (p. 80 ff.). Moretti cannot explain that, but it does seem to be a fact about literary history.

How could one explain such a pattern? I find that to be a deep and puzzling question. But it is not just the evolution of the British novel that puzzles me, it is the phenomenon of cultural, and literary, evolution itself. The work of Lomax and of Roberts, Sutton-Smith, and Kendon suggests causal relations between cultural forms and social organization – a game that has been played by legions of Marxist scholars and critics – but the existence of such relations does not itself tell us why, in the long run, such forms evolve.

Sita Sings the Blues

It is time to turn from such empyrean heights – Moretti talks of distant reading – and think about these aesthetic objects in some greater detail and particularity. Thus I would like to consider one specific example, Nina Paley’s animated film, Sita Sings the Blues. Using a variety of visual styles Paley juxtaposes and intertwines two narratives: 1) the breakup of her own marriage and, 2) the story of Rama and Sita from the Ramayana, one of the classic texts of Hinduism. Paley is thus using Hindu tradition to illuminate her life, and her life to reflect back on that tradition.[2]

Paley tells Sita’s story in three different ways: 1) in a series of vignettes set to songs recorded by Annette Hanshaw in the 1920s and which is animated in a very “cartoony” style; 2) in a series of scenes based on paintings Paley did in imitation of 18th Century Rajput miniatures and on collages based on what appears to be calendar and greeting-card art, and 3) through voice-over dialogue among three Indian-Americans talking about the Ramayana and realized on-screen as three Indonesian shadow puppets. The multiplicity of this story, its many sources – which I’ve only hinted at in this brief description – is deliberately built-in to the visual and audio texture of the film.

One could, in fact, organize a course on cultural process around Sita Sings the Blues. As a way of thinking what could go into such a course, imagine a large table. In the first row we list various elements appearing in the film. In the rows below we trace those elements back to their sources, moving further back in time as we move down the table. The incidents in Paley’s own life took place only a few years ago. The Hanshaw recordings date to the 1920s, as do elements of that caroony style. Hanshaw’s singing, in turn, is in a popular tradition that evolved through over two centuries of interplay between Americans of European origin and Americans of African origin. Some of Paley’s art imitates 18th century Indian sources, which, in turn, can be traced back to Persian miniatures. And so forth and so on through a list of 20, 30, 50 or more items.

And then we have the Ramayana itself, the oldest version of which is attributed to Valmiki. The dating, as best I can tell from a bit of googling, is the sort of thing over which learned scholars argue for generations. It’s not quite lost in the mists of time, but it is very old. As Amardeep Singh (2009) has pointed out, the Ramayana exists in multiple versions that are not always mutually consistent, one source of the confusion exhibited by Paley’s three shadow-puppet narrators. And so this putative course must discuss that kind of process and its role in maintaining culture, but also allowing it to change (cf. Whitehouse 2000).

In thinking about this table one must, of course, distinguish between the process by which Paley took up those materials and made a film and the processes by which those materials had become available for her use. The first is individual creativity while the latter are group processes. The distinction is, however, a difficult one to make. For Paley made the film over five years and began posting segments on the internet as she completed them. Thus she was interacting with her audience during the process, and that audience includes fundamentalist Hindus who objected to her work and, in some cases, threatened her.

Finally, the sociology and economics units in this course can examine Paley’s distribution process and her subsequent income streams. Copyright problems made it impossible for Paley to secure normal theatrical distribution, so she put the film into the public domain and put copies on the internet where people can download them free of charge. She’s shown the film at festivals all over the world, won many prizes, and has developed a small merchandising operation based on the film. All of this depends, more or less, on word of mouth.

But enough already. Let us look at the film itself. What does it look like on the screen? How do we describe it? What features are important to the film’s effect, and which are incidental? These are important and difficult questions and I can do no more than indicate what’s entailed.

I want to examine the Agni Pariksha segment, which is unlike anything other segment in the film.[3] In the Ramayana Sita had to prove her fidelity to Rama in a trial by fire. She throws herself into the flames and is rescued by Agni, the fire deity, thereby establishing her purity.

Paley has placed this segment somewhat after the middle of the film at the point immediately after Nina, her alter ego in the film, learns that her husband wants a divorce. On the sound track we hear her heart thumping away while we see it pulsing (a stylized red heart) and finally breaking. At that point Nina screams, the virtual camera zooms into her wide-open mouth, and we’re into the segment, which is basically a solo dance amid flames.

Nina’s broken heart.

The role of Sita is danced by Reena Shah, who voices Sita and who also sings the lyrics, written in Hindi by her mother, Laxmi Shah. This is the only place in the film where we hear Hindi and the only place where we see live action, sort of. Paley videotaped Shah dancing before a green screen and then hand-traced Shah’s movements into the film.

Rather than attempting to describe the entire three-minute segment, which could easily go on and on – “a picture is worth a thousand words” and this film packs a lot of them into 180 seconds. Instead, I’ll concentrate on a few frames. The following two frames are from the beginning and the end of the segment, respectively. We see Sita in white outline against a black background, but her hair has some color fill (collaged in) in the ending segment, but not the beginning.

Light the match.
Blowing out the match.

In both frames she is holding  a lighted match. She lit the match at the opening of the segment and then dropped it, lighting the fire beneath her. At the end she blows the match out, ending the segment. Thus there is a bit of visual continuity between the opening and ending segments. At the same time the final act, in effect, reverses the opening one. The opening act took Sita into the fire; the closing act brings her out of it and back into the world.

Is this a rite de passage? (Of course it is, of course.) For who? Sita, Nina, us? Of what kind, from what to what?

Now consider these three frames, which come one after the other in the film:

Sita dancing, 1, 2, 3

The backgrounds are pretty much the same, which is what you would expect from such closely spaced frames. But look at Sita in the center. Her outline is not quite the same from one frame to the next, for she’s spinning counter-clockwise at a pretty good rate; but her overall visual mass remains in the same position within the frame. The texture filling her form, however, differs radically from one frame to the next. All three body fills are half-tone images magnified to the point where the individual dots are visible, but I can’t make out identity of the material in either the first frame or the third. The second image is the head of a woman.

Paley uses this technique throughout the segment. None of the collage elements is on the screen for more than a fraction of a second. You can identify some of the images, but not most of them. It is obvious that she’s showing lots of different things mostly through Sita’s form, but through other elements of the segment as well.

Now look at Sita in this next frame, to the left. Her outline, in black, is decoupled from the texture-filling forms, one for her hair (yellow-green), one for her body (a warm medium brown) and still others for her eyes. Paley does this for about six seconds. What’s this about?

Form and fill dissociated

If you’ve been reading visual neuroscience you may note that fill and outline are handled in different systems, as is motion. So Paley is “manipulating” those systems, which is interesting. But that doesn’t tell us why she’s doing it? Because she can, and it’s interesting? Certainly, but is that all?

Before I hazard a guess I want to state that the most important thing, at this point, is simply to describe what’s going on. Without that description, nothing else can be done.

So, why’s she doing it? Because it’s different from every other segment in the film, including the other segment that also depicts the Agni Pariksha. This segment is set to Annette Hanshaw’s performance of “Mean to Me” and the visual style is Paley’s old-time “cartoony” style, which she uses for all the Hanshaw performances. That is to say, that ritual enactment is not stylistically different from any other events in the Hanshaw version of the Sita story.

Any anthropologist will tell you that rituals are about transformation (e.g. van Gennep 1960); some literary critics will tell you that as well (e.g. Frye 1965, Barber 1959). By making this segment visually different from anything else in the film Paley is giving the film itself a ritual dimension – though the part of me that is a child of the 60s is thinking “altered state of consciousness” (cf. Fischer 1975). She’s not merely showing a ritual, depicting one in the film; she is inviting us to enact a ritual by experiencing the visual world in a way that is radically different from what we experience anywhere else in the film. This segment of the film IS ritual.

Now, if we wish, we can begin thinking about what happens in the nervous system in this segment that is different from every other segment in the film. In the annoying manner of math textbooks, however, I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

The Priority of Description

I want to conclude with a more general discussion of the need for better descriptive work in my home discipline, literary studies.

Let’s consider some work by a great anthropologist, the late Mary Douglas. She spent the last years of her career investigating so-called ring structures in narrative (Douglas 2007). In such stories the narrative will unfold through a series of steps to a mid-point and then trace its way back through the same series of steps, but in reverse, thus:

1 2 3 … X … 3’ 2’ 1’

Douglas has been investigating ring structure in books of the Old Testament, while I have found it in Osamu Tezuka’s graphic novel, Metropolis (Benzon, 2006) and in two episodes of Disney’s Fantasia (Benzon 2010). I would like to know, for each text of interest (all 100, 1000, or 10,000+ of them), whether or not it has a ring structure. If not, what kind of structure does it have – and on that point I am embarrassed to confess that I don’t know what the alternatives are. They may be named in the literature somewhere, but I don’t know that work.

Determining whether or not a narrative has a ring-form is not a deeply difficult and problematic task. It is not neuro-science, nor even rocket science. But it is tedious and time-consuming. And that, I suppose, is one one reason why the work hasn’t been done. Another reason is that we have no theory of narrative cognition that would tell us the role such a form plays in comprehension.

As another example, consider the well-known distinction between story and plot (cf. Shklovsky 1965). Story refers to the intrinsic temporal order of a series of events in some narrative while plot refers to the order in which those events are introduced into a particular narrative. Where plot order and story order are the same, there is no need to make the distinction. But many narratives introduce events in some order other than that intrinsic to those events. Noting this fact and attending to it in fragments of texts is standard practice in narratology. But I am unaware of any effort to systematically map the relationships of story and plot for complete texts. David Herman has done so for a film, Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (Herman 2002, pp. 237-250), and has discovered that the ordering of some events with respect to others is indeterminate. That’s an interesting result. Is this the only narrative where that is so? It seems unlikely, but the work hasn’t been done that would permit us to answer that question.

While I can multiply such examples, there’s no point in that. Such work simply hasn’t been systematically and thoroughly done (see Benzon 2005 for a more complete account of such a descriptive program). We have some useful conceptual tools, but lack an overall intellectual context in which the thorough use of those tools for descriptive purposes is seen as an important matter. It seems to me that the cognitive sciences might provide some of that context, for computation – as a model as well as a metaphor – has been critical in the development of the cognitive sciences. And the matter of serial order is fundamental to both the practice and theory of computation. Computation, real computation, is always resource limited: is there enough time to reach a result, do we have enough memory? Intuitively, a narrative which forces the distinction between plot and story requires more computational resources than one that does not (cf. Benzon 1993). Is there a reason, then, for using a more computationally expensive strategy?

That is one thing. There is another.

Consider the situation of Darwin faced in the 19th century. When he began formulating his ideas on the origin of species he had three bodies of knowledge to work from: prior thought on the topic, his own observations over three decades, and the cumulative results of four centuries of descriptive work in natural history (cf. Ogilvie 2006) to which he had access through books and collections. That descriptive work provided models for his own observation and description. Plants and animals, and their lifeways, are very complex. Which traits and features are the most important to observe and describe? That is not an obvious matter, and it took naturalists decades to arrive at useful descriptive methods (cf. Foucault 1973, pp. 128 ff.). Secondly, it gave him the means to abstract and generalize from his own observations, to explore their implications throughout the natural world, most of which, of course, was beyond his immediate experience.

In short, description was indispensable to Darwin’s enterprise, as it is to biology in general. Though discussions of scientific method accord more cachet to theory-testing, and devotes more effort to debating it, description is no less necessary to objective knowledge. It sets the boundaries of the knowable. If we cannot describe a phenomenon – whether in words, images, or mathematical expressions – then we cannot investigate it, we cannot come to explain it.

How, then, do we gain more effective control over literary texts? I have no easy answer to that question. These are very complex objects, not only literary texts, but other cultural artifacts and processes. They have many properties one could note in a description – for all practical purposes the number of properties is unbounded. How, then can we tell which properties are memetically active?

For one thing, it helps to be . . . no, it is essential that one is familiar with a wide range of examples, and to have worked through many examples in detail. This cannot be done by reading a methods book or two or three or ten or by reading up on the pop neuroscience du jour. It requires total immersion in primary materials.

Given that, I imagine that the statistical techniques developed in corpus linguistics would be useful tools. And such tools represent our only hope of gaining some purchase on the vast number of texts that are our proper province. Then, one day some decades from now, perhaps longer, when we have better descriptive control over literary phenomena, then it will be possible for a Darwin-of-literature to come on the scene and make deeper sense of the distribution and diversity of literary forms. But for now, we must labor in the fields of analysis and description. For us, to quote John Barth, the key to the treasure is the treasure.

Conclusion: All Together Now

In the course of my argument I’ve moved from the emergent behavior of coupled neuro-muscular systems (clapping) and so forth to the apparently mundane business of describing literary texts. The former is properly the domain of the sciences while the latter belongs to literary specialists. These are very different kinds of tasks and require very different methods. To those we can add the work of modeling perceptual and cognitive phenomena, conducting field studies, searching through archives, and simulating phenomena at all scales, from the microscale of neural processes through the macro scale of change over historical time and geographical space. The study of culture encompasses all of that, if not more.

The way is by no means clear. But it is there. Or rather, they are there.

Do we have the will to take those first few steps leading thousands of miles into an intellectual future we cannot foresee in any detail?

Appendix: New Savanna Posts on Cultural Evolution

Cultural Evolution 1: How “Thick” is Culture?

Cultural Evolution 2: A Phenomenological Gut Check on Gene-Culture Coevolution

Cultural Evolution 3: Performances and Memes

Cultural Evolution 4: Rhythm Changes 1

Cultural Evolution 5: Rhythm Changes 2

Cultural Evolution 6: The Problem of Design

Cultural Evolution 7: Where Are We At?

Cultural Evolution 8: Language Games 1, Speech

Cultural Evolution 8A: Addendum on Language as Game

Cultural Evolution 9: Language Games 2, Story Telling

These two posts are also useful:

The Busy Bee Brain

The Sound of Many Hands Clapping: Group Intentionality


[1] I post many of my graffiti photos to a Flickr site, where my user name is STC4blues:

[2] Paley has established a website where you can find information about Sita Sings the Blues, links to interviews and articles, and even links to downloadable copies of the film itself. The Wikipedia entries on the film and on Paley herself are also useful, as is Paley’s own blog.

Sita site:

Nina Paley’s blog:

Wikipedia, Sita:

Wikipedia, Paley:

[3] You can view the Agni Pariksha segment online here:

Start at, say, 7:00, to see Nina’s heart get broken; the purification segment itself starts at 7:20.


Barber, C. L. (1959). Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

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19 comments to Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities

  • Bill has mentioned one of the core critical problems with memes over the last 40 years: that memes are rather thin entities that seem to have little in the way of cultural analogues to genes. This is not a new objection to meme theory: Dan Sperber has been making this point for a long time (1996). I want to make a few comments about how that might be resolved, leaving cultural evolution fully darwinian (using lowercase for the adjective to indicate it is neither necessarily what Darwin thought, nor necessarily tied into modern evolutionary biology or any philosophy that might be associated with the New Synthesis).
    As Bill talks about cultural evolution, he finds that he needs a term to identify the things that evolve, and so despite declaiming an attachment to memes, he uses the term. Something evolves in culture, so we may as well accede to popular usage and call them memes. In the internet usage, a “meme” is any cute thing that gets passed around. It might be a video, or a cartoon, or a theme for blog posts, or just the use of a word or phrase. There is little in common here other than these things are cultural, and have a disproportionate transmission rate in the relevant domain, which itself is delimited by conventions, bleeding over to traditional media, popular culture (terms like LOL and “noob” are now words in spoken conversation, for example).
    So, if we presume that culture does evolve, the question is how? Is it a darwinian process? That hinges crucially on what counts as “darwinian”: ordinary usage assumes two properties of a process of change for it to be darwinian. One is that there is a selection process of differential reproduction correlated with ecological success. The other is that lineages are formed through the transformations. The essay by Lewens that Bill cites indicates three problems for memes: they are not replicators, they do not form lineages, and they are not discrete. In fact, the question of discreteness is implied by the question of replication (Hull and Wilkins 2005–), so that there are really two main objections.[There are others, such as the supposed “Lamarckism” of culture, which I have discussed in my 2001.]
    It is fairly clear that cultural items are not replicators most of the time. Take, for example, Dawkins’ example of the backward baseball cap, used in his essay “Viruses of the Mind” (1993). What counts as “backwards”? 180 degrees? 175? this is clearly something that accommodates a fair degree of slop; it is an analogue transmission. Moreover, the error correction that occurs does so in the mind of the imitator, and is not a property of the thing being transmitted. But there is a solution, one proposed by James Griesemer and William Wimsatt: the reproducer. Instead of trying to find a fundamental object in the ontology of evolution, Griesemer has proposed that what is required is not digital replication, but any kind of reproduction; it might be digital, but it might also be analogue.
    Reproducers resolve many of the objections to cultural evolution. They are things that can be subjected to selection (in the cultural ecology in which they are transmitted), and they form lineages, but lineages not of high-fidelity copying. Rather, lineages of some other kind, and that is the problem here, too: what makes something a reproducer? If we want cultural evolution to be more than just social science by another name, it is going to have to be something more than the “I know it when I see it” criterion now in operation (Wilkins 2005).
    A solution is, I think, available. In a recent study of what makes a Darwinian process (the capital indicating this applies to biological evolution), Peter Godfrey-Smith proposed instead a different, almost holistic, criterion and ontology of evolution (Godfrey-Smith 2009). Adopting, and modifying, the notion of a reproducer, Godfrey-Smith proposes that the central “object” of a Darwinian process is the population, which is composed of objects that are capable of reproducing, and assorting according to the basic equations of evolutionary biology, in particular the Price Equation, following a lead from Samir Okasha (2003). Rather than trying to define a priori what must evolve, this depends solely on things being, in effect, subjected to selection over lineages. These lineages are sequences of populations. In culture, they are what Stephen Toulmin (1972) called traditions, the cultural equivalent to species.
    This will enable an approach like Benzon’s to be applied without fear of theoretical approbation: if these things, at whatever level, whatever substrate, and whatever degree of mechanical or conscious involvement, for example by Bill’s favourite domains of musicians and authors, form lineages that are Price-like, then these are the memes for that case. They don’t need neural special structures or necessary material cultural substrates. If they get passed on, and their success depends on selection, they are memes.
    Dawkins, Richard. 1993. Viruses of the Mind in Dahlbom, Bo. ed. Dennett and his critics: demystifying mind, Philosophers and their critics 4. Oxford, UK; Cambridge, MA: Blackwell: 1-12.
    Godfrey-Smith, Peter. 2009. Darwinian populations and natural selection. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    Griesemer, James R. 2000. Development, Culture, and the Units of Inheritance. Philosophy of Science 67 (Supplement. Proceedings of the 1998 Biennial Meetings of the Philosophy of Science Association. Part II: Symposia Papers): S348-S368.
    Griesemer, James R. 2005. The informational gene and the substantial body: on the generalization of evolutionary theory by abstraction. In Idealization XII: Correcting the Model. Idealization and Abstraction in the Sciences, edited by M. R. Jones and N. Cartwright. Amsterdam: Rodopi Publishers: 59-115.
    Hull, David L., and John S. Wilkins. 2005–. Replication. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
    Okasha, Samir. 2003. Multi-level selection, Price’s equation and causality. London: London School of Economics, Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Sciences.
    Sperber, Dan. 1996. Explaining culture: a naturalistic approach. Oxford, UK; Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell.
    Toulmin, Stephen. 1972. Human understanding. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.
    Wilkins, John S. 2001. The appearance of Lamarckism in the evolution of culture. In Darwinism and evolutionary economics, edited by J. Laurent and J. Nightingale. Cheltenham UK: Edward Elgar: 160-183.
    Wilkins, John S. 2005. Is “meme” the new “idea”? Reflections on Aunger. Biology and Philosophy 20 (2-3): 585-598.
    Wimsatt, William C., and James R. Griesemer. 2007. Reproducing Entrenchments to Scaffold Culture: The Central Role of Development in Cultural Evolution. In Integrating Evolution and Development: From Theory to Practice, edited by R. Sansom and R. Brandon. Cambridge: MIT Press: 227-323.

  • I forgot to include a link to the PDF that collects my “workshop” posts: The Evolution of Human Culture: Some Notes Prepared for the National Humanities Center. Here’s the link:

  • Howard Rheingold

    I’m not even going to try to offer a reply as erudite as Wilkins (wouldn’t it be a great world if all blog posts were this thoughtful?) but I do think Boyd, Henrich, Richerson and Richerson & Richerson had a good take on Darwinian mechanisms in human cultural learning (a summary of one such take: ) in regard to imitation, learning, propagation of knowledge with survival value. The populations they refer to are cultural.

  • laufeysson

    If I am reading correctly, Benzon here introduces a system with two particularly novel elements:

    1 cultural evolution has its own logic which may or may not benefit its human carriers
    2 the elements of cultural evolution fit in the phenomenological space that is commonly described by the pop term “memes”; Benzon does not strictly define these elements, but rather gives examples of embodied _patterns_ of behavior.

    I have little to add after John S Wilkins’ comments but would like to emphasize the importance, to Benzon’s system, of the class of entities which are embodied _patterns_ of behavior.

    Wilkins: “In the internet usage, a “meme” is any cute thing that gets passed around. … (but) ordinary usage assumes two properties of a process of change for it to be darwinian. One is that there is a selection process of differential reproduction correlated with ecological success. The other is that lineages are formed through the transformations. The essay by Lewens that Bill cites indicates three problems for memes: they are not replicators, they do not form lineages, and they are not discrete.” Then later Wilkins quotes a solution “proposed by James Griesemer and William Wimsatt: the reproducer. Instead of trying to find a fundamental object in the ontology of evolution, Griesemer has proposed that what is required is not digital replication, but any kind of reproduction; it might be digital, but it might also be analogue. Reproducers resolve many of the objections to cultural evolution …”

    Clearly this slight finesse is advantageous in clarifying the concept of a “meme” so that it can function better as part of an evolutionary model. But Benzon had earlier asked, “How, then, do we gain more effective control over literary texts? I have no easy answer to that question. These are very complex objects, not only literary texts, but other cultural artifacts and processes. They have many properties one could note in a description – for all practical purposes the number of properties is unbounded. How, then can we tell which properties are memetically active?”

    The definition simply of a replicator suggests such purely conceptual mind-contents (alternatively, “opinion-poll questions”) as “do you think the new Woody Allen movie is good” — which is something that could be replicated by word of mouth, “i.e. yes I’ve heard it’s good”. But embodied patterns of behavior are tangible practices like “did you go watch the new Woody Allen movie in a theater” or “did you laugh at scene B” or “how many scenes did you laugh at only after the people around you began to laugh”. More importantly, the elements of the film are also examples of embodied patterns of behavior: “a camera pan from left to right over a landscape”, or “happy music over a sad moment in the story”, or even “the decision to release a major film with a space-opera premise”. The conceptual mind-content view of memes is almost impossible to deal with in actuality, but memes as embodied patterns of behavior are the stock-in-trade of practitioners, whether explicitly defined or not, and many can be identified by inspection.

    Which suggests a further challenge in moving forward practically with such a theory. Culture is hardly monolithic. And it seems to me that there are two very different, familiar cultural arenas that suggest themselves in relation to this analysis. Are we interested primarily in the evolution of explicitly artistic lineages, developments in form? The characteristic changes in production that defined the “Manchester sound”, other schools of contemporary artists? Or are we interested in the spread of advertisements, corporate branding, nameless fads in fashion? Each of these springs to mind with equal facility, providing examples of the spread of “memes”, but it is not at all clear that they can be handled the same way.

    I’d like to suggest that are contemporary theorists in the marketplace making blockbuster movies and advertising campaigns (etc. etc., examples are prevalent in each arena) on the basis of heuristic determinations of effective praxis in the arts. A good screenplay has “these” qualities; a viral ad campaign works like “this”, etc. The situation is much like the Renaissance when the goldsmiths and cannon-founders were, in technological practice, well ahead of the scientific understanding of how those practices actually worked. Heuristic taxonomies of patterns could be identified, with an eye to the system, long before it becomes clear exactly how the system can use them.

    Finally, at least one definition of darwinian evolution I’ve come across, “the change of systems in response to changes in an external environment”, identifies the presence of an external environment as an essential element of the model. The few steps forward Benzon has suggested here could go in any of several different directions depending upon the ultimate definition of the external environment in which culture evolves. Two starting points, both unsatisfactory: 1 Culture evolves in an environment of human cognitive infrastructure. 2 Culture evolves in an environment of political struggle. My first thought based on reading Benzon’s other works is that the identification of the significance of group cognitive phenomena, such as synchronized clapping at a concert or the interplay of improvisational musicians, may be decisive for moving forward with an effective definition, in this context, of the environment in which culture evolves.

  • Some interesting parallels between literature and the cognitive/brain sciences. (That is, in addition to the obvious relevance of the latter to the former.)

    In the cognitive and brain sciences, there is a tendency for dynamical systems approaches, often due to physicists bored with their statistical physics life. But brains — and biology generally — are not best approached from a dynamical systems approach. Biology is not simply a self-organized system (whereas an ecosystem, economy, or clapping is). Only the tiniest fraction of self-organized systems that survive severe selection over a billion or so years get to be the biology we have today. And they *do* things. They carry out functions, best understood teleologically (but, of course, always unpackable without teleology). To understand biology we must understand the selection pressures shaping them, and that requires understanding the ecology in which the animal resides, and so on. One can’t just simply look at the physics of the animal, and self-organization approaches are usually of this kind. (A common example: Natives can’t understand a stapler without understanding that it’s for fastening pieces of paper together; it’s function.)

    And the same applies to cultural entities. Dynamical approaches that, say, predict cycles of some kind, will always radically underdetermine what needs to be explained. Instead, we need hypotheses about what the cultural artifacts are being culturally selected for. For writing — in my own research — I put forth a fairly specific hypothesis (and similarly for speech and music). For literature, one would doubtless need a more sophisticated hypothesis. But all will refer in some way to the brain or cognition or our senses, and perhaps involve efficiency, near-optimality, and so on.

    But just as there is, in the cognitive and brain sciences, an underappreciation of what the brain’s “powers” actually are, there’s probably an underappreciation in cultural domains for the role of cultural artifacts in our human lives.

  • The comments so far, from Wilkins, Rheingold, and Laufeysson, seem to be about how I’ve chosen to delimit my field of interest, though Wilkins and Laufeysson look at memes while Rheingold puts in a word for the work of Boyd and Richerson.

    Let me start with Rheingold’s speaking up for Boyd & Richerson and associates. One of their themes is the cultural artifacts, such as art, serve as group markers and so facilitate cultural group selection. My problem isn’t that I don’t think that art – or religion – serves as a group marker. It certainly does. But I don’t think that tells us much about the character of art. Group marking can be achieved by such simple devices as green shirts, red shirts, shirts, and blue shirts. Such things as 40 foot poles with several animals carved on them, where each animal is associated with a series of tales that are recited on special occasions by the proper authorities, that all seems rather elaborate for the purpose of differentiating one group from another. Where does that elaboration come from, where do we get all that internal structure, and why?

    I don’t see that their thinking addresses such matters. Their attention is elsewhere, e.g. on understanding how and why cultural inheritance will take precedence over genetic inheritance, or understanding the scope and significance of human hypersociality. Those are critical matters, but they’re not what most interests me in this post.

    And then there’s memes, perhaps the messiest topic in the past 30 years of thinking about cultural evolution. I’ve devoted a great deal of attention to them, both in Beethoven’s Anvil, and in my “workshop” posts at by New Savanna blog. But having been in discussions over “just what is a meme, anyhow?” I really don’t want to get bogged down in that here – though perhaps we could do that at New Savanna (e.g. over CE3, CE4, CE5 or CE8). Thus I welcome John Wilkins argument that an array of thinkers have offered different proposals for skinning “cultural genes” cat, each of which is workable. While it is important that we hammer out the details on just what a “meme” is, or might be, we can’t stop working on other matters while the neuro-perceptual-cognitive experts get that one straightened out (for they’re going to be front and center on that one).

    For example, a couple of years ago I did an informal study of the “Xanadu meme.” That is, I googled the word “Xanadu,” looked at the returns, did a little digging in the Oxford English Dictionary and the complete run of the New York Times back to 1851 and offered a tentative cladogram summarizing the cultural history of the meme. It’s not clear to me that “Xanadu” qualifies as a meme in the terms I’ve discussed, but that hardly matters to that little study, which is about the distribution of a clearly identifiable “chunk” of culture. More generally, literary culture if full of recurring tropes, motifs, themes, character types, and so forth. The question of whether or not these recurring items are memes in some technical sense need not be answered in order to study the distribution of such elements in literary culture.

    As for that technical sense, I take the phenomenon of bi-modal clapping as central case. I have some notions of how to think about the perceptual and even neuro-psychology of memes in that case (CE3), and I can just barely extend such thinking to Rhythm Changes (CE4, CE5). I like those cases precisely because I find them useful for thinking about memes in a moderately precise way. But there are lots of other cases that are legitimately interesting. We need to think about them as well, and without worrying over much about certain details.

  • I’m tossed a bucket of cold water on recent efforts to soup up lit crit with evolutionary psychology and neuroscience ( Too much of the work seems to be done for its own sake, and it just makes scholars in the humanities look desperate for grants and status (which of course they are). The science seems gratuitous, tacked on. Bill Benzon is one of the few scholars with the cross-disciplinary tools and mindset for serious, in-depth scientific analysis of culture. I’m not always sure where his curiosity is taking him, but I’m always eager to find out. The research he’s doing is not just a science/humanities hybrid; it’s a new species, and I can’t wait to see how it evolves.

    • William Flesch

      Not really. That was more like drive-by luke-warm decaf. You thoroughly mischaracterized my work, on the basis of three or four sentences in the New York Times, and didn’t respond to any challenges in the comments — mine or others.

  • For those who are interested in Paley’s film, I’ve just posted an essay at my blog in which I situate the Agni Pariksha episode in the context of the whole film. I’ve also posted an informal case study of an old courtship practice in rural America, bundling, and its relation to a well-known family of jokes about a farmer’s daughter and a traveling salesman. What are the circumstances that brought those jokes into being?

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: “memetically active” – “genetically active” seems to be an uncommon term – and when it is used it seems to be a synonym for when a gene sequence expressed – or sometimes transcribed.

  • @Tim Tyler: Thanks for the heads-up. The usage – memetically active – is quite new to me, so, while I do like it, I’m not wedded to it and I’ll discard it if it causes confusion. At the moment, however, if it wards off thoughts of genes as beads on a string, and memes as pesky brain-hopping thought particles, then that’s a good thing IMO. For the purpose of informal conversation and writing it’s OK to think of memes as little agents of thought. But that won’t get you very far if you want to think seriously and in small-scale detail about how memes function in perception, cognition, and communication.

    And that’s where I find the “memetically active” usage to be helpful. It came to me when I was explicating Rhythm Changes as a complex memetic entity (CE4 and especially CE5). As I explain in those posts, Rhythm Changes is a complex entity that would be recognized instantly by any reasonably skilled jazz musician (or fan). At a standard tempo it unfolds over about a half minute and may be repeated 10, 20, or more times in a single performance, never sounding the same way twice (except, perhaps, for the first and last time through). Take one of those 30-second segments, any one. For all practical purposes it has an unbounded number of perceptual properties (including some that we can’t hear because the sound waves are too high, or even too low). A good many of those properties are irrelevant with respect to rhythm changes. Volume, for example, doesn’t matter; and volume is likely to fluctuate from moment to moment. Nor does the timbre of the individual instruments matter. And many details of rhythm and melodic contour are irrelevant. What matters are pitches, relationships among simultaneous pitches, and some aspects of changes among pitches and pitch relationships. Those are the properties that are memetically active in Rhythm Changes.

    This usage also allows me to talk about the whole pattern without having to specify in any detail the elements that make up the pattern. For Rhythm Changes is not a primitive memetic entity. It’s got components that are memetically active independently of their role in Rhythm Changes.

    Note also that, if you aren’t familiar with the jazz idiom, you may not hear Rhythm Changes as a coherent musical entity. That perceptual properties that constitute Rhythm Changes will not be memetically active for you. You may well pick up some of those properties, but the whole will prove elusive.

    I note finally that the concept of the gene has gotten rather slippery; it’s changed a great deal since Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene. A couple of years ago Evelyn Fox Keller and David Harel offered some new concepts to replace the old and battered concept of the gene. I offer a few remarks on their paper, Beyond the Gene, (PLoS ONE, 2007) in CE5.

  • @laufeysson: “Are we interested primarily in the evolution of explicitly artistic lineages, developments in form? . . . Or are we interested in the spread of advertisements, corporate branding, nameless fads in fashion?”

    I tend to be interested in the former, but the subject, of course, encompasses the latter, and much more, as well. Over the long term the variety of cultural materials and expressions increases. Practices accumulate over time, societies grow, become more populous, and incorporate other cultural groups through conquest or immigration. And so we arrive at a world where marketing proceeds by creating artificial mini-cultures goods and services. Thus, for example, the Marlboro Man evoked the mythical ethos of the old West to sell cigarettes, Apple Computer trotted out Orwell’s 1984 to do battle against IBM (and is now doing a good Big Brother act of its own).

    @Mark Changizi: Would you say a little more about dynamics approaches to the brain? I ask because I’ve been influenced by the work of Berkeley’s Walter Freeman, who’s been pursuing brain dynamics for decades using a three-pronged research program including: 1) observation of brain activity with EEG, 2) mathematical analysis of observations, and 3) computer simulation derived jointly from mathematical analysis and micro-scale neuro-physiology. As I understand it, his idea is the self-organizing sheets of neuropile develop their own dynamics. Under perceptual “pressure” from the external world, those dynamics “capture” a pattern in the perceptual input and reorganize so as to incorporate that pattern into their own dynamics. Thus actual brain dynamics reflects the interaction between the brain and the world.

    Now, most of Freeman’s work has been on the olfactory system. And there’s more to the brain than the sense of smell, though that is critical. You have all the other senses, each embodied in multiple regions of the brain, and then the motor systems, and so forth. And the whole contraption reflecting millions of years of neural development under pressure from the external world (cf. Benzon and Hays 1988). So you’ve got a lot of structure there, but it took a loooonnngg time to emerge.

    Finally an observation that connects Martindale’s work to Sita Sings the Blues. Martindale examines expressive culture in terms of stylistic elaboration and the incorporation of primordial content. I’m pretty sure the Agni Pariksha sequence would score high in primordial content with, e.g. the apparently naked form of a woman dancing with abandon, and with imagery the tends to blend everything together. Further, in an interview I conducted last week, Paley told me that “It is by far the rawest and most emotional piece in the film, and possibly that I’ve ever done.” It contrasts with the rest of the film, which is told in four different styles, each developed with sophistication. The fact that there ARE four other styles, of course, indicates a high degree of technical control. Thus Paley’s film would seem to incorporate the disparate artistic tendencies that Martindale has discovered replacing one another in cycles of aesthetic change.

  • The synchronized clapping I discussed above is but a collective aspect of interactional synchrony, which was investigated by Richard Condon (see below) some years ago. It seems this particular wheel is being rediscovered by robotics researchers.

    The following passage is from a New York Times article on the use of robotics as teaching aids and such. RUBI teaches language.

    The timing of a robot’s responses is one. The San Diego researchers found that if RUBI reacted to a child’s expression or comment too fast, it threw off the interaction; the same happened if the response was too slow. But if the robot reacted within about a second and a half, child and machine were smoothly in sync.

    Physical rhythm is crucial. In recent experiments at a day care center in Japan, researchers have shown that having a robot simply bob or shake at the same rhythm a child is rocking or moving can quickly engage even very fearful children with autism.

    “The child begins to notice something in that synchronous behavior and open up,” said Marek Michalowski of Carnegie Mellon University, who collaborated on the studies. Once that happens, he said, “you can piggyback social behaviors onto the interaction, like eye contact, joint attention, turn taking, things these kids have trouble with.”

    There’s nothing surprising about this. The importance of interactional synchrony has been known since the late 1960s and 1970s when Richard Condon, a Boston psychiatrist, published observations in various journals, including Science. My sense is that Condon’s research has just dropped off the face of the earth, though I do hear rumbles here and there.

    I discuss Condon’s work in Beethoven’s Anvil, and reference it in this essay-review of Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals (see the section on synchrony and intentionality.)

    There is a larger question: How much excellent research from the past has been forgotten by current researchers, who end up rediscovering the wheel? How often, for example, does the Theory of Mind research discuss Piaget’s work on egocentricity? There are connections there, and some researchers are aware of them, but my sense is there is too much ignorance of past research.

  • William Flesch

    This is a typically fascinating post by Benzon, and I whole-heartedly endorse the descriptive project he recommends. I have a couple of minor observations to make about the fascinating, tip-of-the-iceberg material he has here, which will bring me to suggestion about one reason the patterns he is so interested in (and so interesting on) would matter so much to consumers of narrative.

    So first of all, a demurral from Martindale. It’s certainly true that audiences crave novelty, and Tony Gilroy (writer and director of Michael Clayton and Duplicity) speaks really interestingly of an arms race between audience and filmmaker in suspense movies about whom to trust. Duplicity is the latest turn of a narrative screw that started with Marathon Man, says Gilroy (this is in The New Yorker, March 16, 2009, in an article about Gilroy by D.T. Max):

    Gilroy believes that the writer and the moviegoing public are engaged in a cognitive arms

    “How do you write a reversal that uses the audience’s expectations in a new way? You have
    to write to their accumulated knowledge.”

    So I think that this bears Martindale out a little bit. On the other hand, everyone still loves Hitchcock. Why? Why George Eliot or Balzac or Austen or Fielding or Milton or Shakespeare or Chaucer or Dante or Virgil or Homer? How can audiences still receive them? Well partly we are also thinking about what their original audience members must have been thinking about the story. We are not only interested in our own surprise. We’re interested in seeing others surprised, or imagining their surprise. We like seeing characters surprised. We like seeing what’s going on in a movie just before our friend does. We love saying, “Oh, I get it,” before the person sitting next to us gets it. We have a kind of vicarious experience of what narrative theory calls the narratee, sometimes embodied in the person next to us at the movie, sometimes in the person we press the suspense novel on, sometimes the original audience as we imagine it. We take pleasure — a very basic kind of narrative pleasure — in thinking about how someone else is misinterpreting the story, misanticipating what’s going to happen. The suitors have no idea what they’re in for. But we do, and we relish their correction. The naive viewer has no idea that Portia has another trick up her sleeve. But we’re waiting for it. And if we’re sometimes tricked, we own the trick subsequently when we say, “You gotta see Sixth Sense. Watch carefully: it doesn’t cheat,” as though it’s to our credit that it doesn’t cheat.

    And it is. The movie has taken our perception seriously, our engagement with the story and plot and our insistence that it follow the rules of fair narrative play. So it’s not just the case that we crave novelty. Probably more primordially we crave the vicarious experience of novelty for other people. This is an impulse to story telling: here’s a story that will keep your interest: so say both tellers and their enthusiasts to new audiences. Those audiences can be imaginary as well as real, from the first readers of Dickens to the kids we teach. Gilroy is saying much the same thing: the arms race is between the teller who enjoys the audience’s surprise, and the audience. But word-of-mouth enthusiasm is about all of us enjoying the surprise we’re promoting by promoting the movie.

    I also want to mention that Genette certainly talks about indeterminate events in Proust, events that (as it were) appear on the complex plane of the novel but aren’t ordered as the real is. (/Mathematical analogy.) Sometimes this is necessary for the ring structure that Benzon cites Mary Douglas on. Dan Decker’s great screen-writing primer Anatomy of the Screenplay is one of the best books I’ve ever read about Shakespeare, whom he never mentions. Decker is interested in the structure of the American mainstream film, but what he says applies perfectly to Shakepeare — partly, no doubt, because of historical and cultural influence; but partly because of the universal tendency of audiences to compete with all the parties to a story: i.e. (very basically) the author or teller; the characters; the other audience members; the narratee.

    I’ll say more about this in a second.

    Decker says that in your film you want, as much as possible, every major character to appear in the first ten minutes, in Act 1, and ideally together, and every surviving character to reappear in the last scene, again all together. This rarely happens perfectly, but something very close to this usually happens — in Hamlet and King Lear as in Casablanca and Pirates of the Caribbean. Why do we eat up convergence (to use Decker’s major term)? Because we want all things settled in a way that everyone knows the score at the end.

    Competing, knowing the score: I’ve just used these terms from sports and games, and I want to use another one. It’s evident that in narrative we root for characters, usually or most simply the protagonist (the first player). Usually we root for an apparent underdog (who will meet what seem like insuperable obstacles: the hatred of the gods, the skill of the enemy). We do we root? And why for the underdog? What does this have to do with narrative?

    Well rooting, especially for the underdog, is a kind of competition too. Ye of little faith, ye think Catherine Moreland won’t marry Henry Tilney. But I have faith — in Austen. I may not be able to see how she’ll pull it off; I’m not in her narrative league. But she’s my guy, and I know that she’ll succeed and this puts me one up on you.

    And sometimes I’ll figure out how the narrative will get my hero out of a jam before I’m supposed to. Then I may be one up even on Hitchcock! But of course he’ll tell the story to y’all better than I can. So Hitch and me, we’re the man.

    Our pleasure in narrative surprise, like our pleasure in jokes, is two-sided. The fact that we’re surprised is also a promise that others will be surprised in their turn. We listen hard and appreciatively to jokes in order to be able to tell them to others (or recommend them to others, or think about how others will enjoy them). Our own surprise is actually not the experiential goal of narrative or joke or riddle: it’s an earnest or warrant that others will feel the same thing, and so an anticipation of our own vicarious experience of others’ pleasure. Do we think their pleasure is simple and an end in itself? Probably we often do. But the fact or possibility that we’re wrong about that doesn’t mean that our vicarious pleasure is empty.

    Why so much interest in vicarious experience? Well, that’s another story, but it does seem uniquely human, irreducible, and essential to human cooperation and sociability. But my bet (which I hope to collect in a few hundred years when Benzon’s research project finally confirms my intuitions) is that the general structures of narrative will all be shown to allow for a kind of tandem novelty, a differential and differentiating attitude towards the story being told where those who keep track better will bask in their own admiration or in the admiration they imagine they’re keeping track of in others who are impressed by their quickness to tell or understand the story.

    I rooted for Spain yesterday, and like millions in Madrid, I feel that those who rooted well and passionately and got what they rooted for are entitled to some of the credit. The story teller may be the first rooter, who like all rooters has to imagine a way for her favorites to win — by winning in comedy and by losing well in tragedy. As Enobarbus says:

    Yet he that can endure
    To follow with allegiance a fall’n lord
    Does conquer him that did his master conquer,
    And earns a place i’ th’ story.

  • I’m glad that William Flesch has commented, and in such interesting detail. His Comeuppance is perhaps the only work of biology-based literary criticism I know that is interesting for what it says about literature, rather than for the psychology and biology it reviews while working its way toward literature. Flesch’s concept of vicarious experience is an enviable contribution and I do hope that he won’t wait on this research program to continue developing it.

    He’s right about Martindale. The value of novelty isn’t so deep as it’s cracked up to be. Why, after all, do story-tellers in traditional cultures insist on telling the story the same way each time? – keeping in mind, of course, that their concept of sameness is different from that engendered in a print culture, where “the same” means “identical, word for word.” I’m inclined to think that novelty is an acquired taste and when large segments of the population have acquired that taste, that is itself a phenomenon that needs explaining.

    His mention of Decker’s point about beginnings and endings suggestions an observation about Sita Sings the Blues. While most of the film is given over to its intertwined parallel narratives, the opening and closing sequences are a bit different. The Ramayana, after all, is a religious text and, as such, brings with it a whole cosmology. Paley gives us a quick “tour” of that cosmology in the opening, with appearances of the major Hindu deities. At the center of this we have a tableau in which the goddess Lakshmi is massaging the leg of the recumbent Vishnu. Paley reprises the cosmology briefly at the end, but the tableau is different. Now it is Lakshmi who reclines while the god Vishnu massages her leg. Through Sita’s sacrifice, the world has changed.

  • I’ve just gotten notice of a new article that bears on the cultural complexity work I mention in my post and on the argument developed by Robert Wright in Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (Pantheon 2000). Here’s the article’s abstract and a link to it:

    Michelle A. Kline and Robert Boyd, Population size predicts technological complexity in Oceania. Proc. R. Soc. B, 22 August 2010, vol. 277, no. 1693, 2559-2564

    Abstract: Much human adaptation depends on the gradual accumulation of culturally transmitted knowledge and technology. Recent models of this process predict that large, well-connected populations will have more diverse and complex tool kits than small, isolated populations. While several examples of the loss of technology in small populations are consistent with this prediction, it found no support in two systematic quantitative tests. Both studies were based on data from continental populations in which contact rates were not available, and therefore these studies do not provide a test of the models. Here, we show that in Oceania, around the time of early European contact, islands with small populations had less complicated marine foraging technology. This finding suggests that explanations of existing cultural variation based on optimality models alone are incomplete because demography plays an important role in generating cumulative cultural adaptation. It also indicates that hominin populations with similar cognitive abilities may leave very different archaeological records, a conclusion that has important implications for our understanding of the origin of anatomically modern humans and their evolved psychology.

  • Nina Paley’s just sent me an email telling me that she’s read the paper and all the comments. Her immediate response takes the the form of a strip from her new series, Mimi & Eunice.

  • As things head to an ending, if not a conclusion, I’d like to make a comment of a different kind. My post was about an intellectual possibility, and the comments have addressed that possibility. Given the possibility, however, is such an endeavor institutionally possible? My best guess is that, no, it is not. In this I do not mean to echo Joseph Carroll’s well-rehearsed, oft-repeated, and ultimately tiresome complaints against Theory and everything else including the kitchen sink. It’s not simply that I’m not as bothered by Theory as Carroll is, or even that I have found value in some of its works. No, it’s that the institutional problems are deeper than those posed by the dying regime in English departments. The problems are institution-wide. As I wrote in an open letter to Steven Pinker:

    What you see as the politicized and sclerotic state of a very visible segment of the profession . . . is, in part, the result a 40-year old effort at disciplinary self-criticism and re-construction.

    What guarantee do we have that a new round of criticism and reconstruction will have a happier outcome? There is, of course, no guarantee. But, it would certainly help if the profession were to take the advice you offer the literary Darwinists, that they should consult “the other sciences of human nature: artificial intelligence on the nature of intelligent systems, cognitive science on visual imagery and theory of mind, linguistics on the use of language to narrate plots and control readers’ attention,” (175) and so on. That advice entails institutional problems.

    Superficial knowledge of those matters is readily at hand in a wide range of excellent popular accounts, including yours. But you cannot rebuild the study of literature on the basis of those popular accounts, plus cognitive metaphor theory, some conceptual blending, some Theory of Mind, and a dash of mirror neurons. Those are decent entry points, but, as you know, one needs to become comfortable with at least some of the technical literature and, in particular, one needs to become comfortable with the idea of computation in some significant form . . . . The last could take various forms – a modest proficiency in computer programming, an upper level course or two in linguistics, or mathematical logic, or knowledge representation – but whatever the specific form, it’s not likely to fit readily into the schedule of an early or mid-career scholar. And what literature graduate program is going to encourage their graduate students to take strange courses in other departments that will allow those students to write a dissertation that is likely to be very obscure to the extant literary faculty?

    Pinker’s reply to those comments was not encouraging: “I agree with you that there is a lot be explored here. And I also despair over whether this will happen in universities, for exactly the reasons you mention.” The problem is not just with English, or the humanities, it is with the current institutional structure of the academic world.

    I see little prospect of it changing. I began my career as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins, which had just formed an interdisciplinary Humanities Center. Again, from my letter to Pinker:

    And so, in due course, the French landed in Baltimore in the Fall of 1966 at a conference on Les Langages Critiques et les Sciences de l’Homme. The conference was organized by two young comp. lit. professors at Johns Hopkins, Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato, and was designed to promote consilience among the sciences of man. To be sure, the word “consilience” wasn’t used back then, but that’s what the effort was about. Among others, the conference featured Georges Poulet, Tzvetan Todorov, Roland “death of the author” Barthes, Jacques Lacan the Obscure, and the Archdeacon of Deconstruction, the Dynamo of Academic Disaster, Jacques Derrida. For many of us, it was the most exciting thing going in the humanities.

    Now the academic landscape is littered with interdisciplinary centers. But our intellectual life is still dominated by a disciplinary arrangement laid down in the 19th century. Beyond that we have the growth and intensification of academic serfdom in which undergraduate instruction is being consigned to permatemps of one sort or another – post-docs, adjuncts and, of course, graduate students who will, in time, become adjuncts or leave the profession. Distance learning is making it possible for for-profit institutions to take over the vocational training that had been done in colleges and universities.

    The old institutional forms are all dying. They do not have enough energy to nurture new structures of intellectual life. Where, then, will new institutions come from, and what form will they be like?

    I do not know, but I am confident that they will emerge.

    Consider, for example, the case of Nina Paley. As you may know, the Animator’s Club has been even stricter about it’s “No Girls Allowed” policy than the Scholar’s Club has been. And yet, I hate to break it to you, guys, but, um, err, Nina’s a girl. This skilled and gifted woman employed post-modern digital technology in artistic laboring through which she transformed her heartbreak into one of the best films of this, the new millennium: Sita Sings the Blues. Not only did she make it herself – and animation is one of the most labor intensive forms of art there is, with work typically being done by teams and teams of teams – but she released the film under a copyleft license and is making money through donations and merchandising.

    Consider this silk bag, hand-embroidered with an image of Sita:

    These beautiful silk bags are produced in India by Ubuntu at Work, “a global social networking community that connects women micro entrepreneurs across the developing world with coaches and collaborators around the world who offer them encouragement and support to develop sound business ideas, funding assistance, and networking resources to pursue their entrepreneurial aspirations.”

    Consider the connections, from whatever events Valmiki distilled into the Ramayana, though a couple thousand years of history, to 21st century America, where Nina Paley retold that story as her own and has thereby made it possible for Sita’s biological descendants to make money with their craft skills.

    In such a world, anything is . . . well, not anything is possible. Never has been, never will be. But surely such a world will afford ronin scholars the opportunity to create new institutions whose forms are grounded in new intellectual realities.

  • Timothy Perper

    A gloomy prognosis, Bill, a gloomy prognosis. Wasn’t it someone like Marx or Lenin or Mao who said you can’t lead a revolution from a cloister? Whoever — it was a shrewd observation.

    No revolution is going to come from evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science, or even computational algorithm theory. That’s only partly because these are all — by now — seriously entrenched university-based fields (and defended with all the fervor and irascibility of any tempest in a teapot, that is, as viciously as you can get). It’s because none of these fields offers anything very interesting to say about matters that have attracted attention ever since someone listening to Homer began to criticize his new-fangled ideas.

    The kind of transformation Bill wants comes ONLY from Very Young People — undergraduates, a few grad students, young kids who have nothing to lose except their minds if they have to listen to another @#$%^& boring lecture on whatever it is. There is, at present, something of a ground swell — or a couple of examples, maybe — of such kids performing “Star Wars” scenes in the New York subways. In full costume, dialogue and all, with Storm Troopers arresting Princess Leia, who is sitting on a subway seat reading a book called “Galactic Revolution for Dummies: The Princess Edition.” It’s just plain funny, and the subway riders are watching and grinning and applauding. In recent years, there have been a few such new openings — one example is the emergence of manga and anime, brought over to the US by kids downloading stuff illegally and emailing it to all their friends for free, just because they all like manga and anime. But no one can predict what sort of inventiveness will seize the day next.

    Back in the 1960s, when the structuralists and deconstructionists were all new, they appealed to just these young kids. “Thank Loki,” they said (since they were grad students in literature, they knew who Loki was), “something NEW!” But when the Professor says that human culture is motivated by an evolved system designed to leave genes, you can see — I mean, physically SEE — dark waves of sleepyness emerging from the classroom and narcotizing half the campus. NOT INTERESTING. In brief, you had to go to school to learn THAT? Lemme out of here!

    But have faith, Bill. Some bunch of kids somewhere are concocting the New Paradigm, which in 40 years will become the Old Paradigm and be replaced by a Newer Paradigm and that, eventually, by a Newer Paradigm Still.

    Timothy Perper (my PhD is from 1969 in case anyone wants to know).