Culture Magazine

Why Do We Need to Talk of Cultural Evolution, Specifically, Rather Than of History Considered as a Collection of Narratives?

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
I’ve posted about this before, e.g. A short note on why it is important to conceive of culture as giving rise to an evolutionary process. And I continue to think about it, this time prompted by John Lawler.
I’ve got two things to say. First, when we think of culture at the level of nervous systems I think we’re going to have to conceive it as an evolutionary process. Second, even without that it does seem to be at least heuristically convenient to think of culture as more or less coherent force acting in history. Let’s take these in order.
Culture at the neural level
All of human behavior is executed by the nervous system. At some point we’re going to have to think about this at the neural level. I undertook to do that in my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil (Basic Books 2001). And I was prompted in part by observations by the late Walter Freeman [1].
Drawing on his work in complex neurodynamics, Freeman argued that each brain is unique, and hence we are in some sense epistemically isolated. Music, however, breaks down neural connections and allows them to reform in concert with others, who share in our music making. When we share music with others we become more alike and so better able to interact.
That became the conceptual seed of the argument I made in Chapters 2 and 3 of Beethoven’s Anvil [2] that, when people are making music together, we may consider their nervous systems to be one interlocked physical system in which some signals travel within brains while other travel between brains through the medium of music itself. Subsequently I wrote an essay review of Steve Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body, where I began extending that argument to language [3]. Though I didn’t quite get this far, the meanings of words, after all, are constantly being negotiated though interactions with others. That’s the only way to keep those meanings stable enough so that they serve as a reliable medium of communication. Still, over time, things drift; that is to say, they evolve.
And so we’re led to a point that Richard Dawkins makes in the second chapter of The Selfish Gene (1976), that stability is the foundation of life and, hence, at the heart of evolution. He finds stability in what he calls replicators (genes in biology, memes in culture). I think we’re better off seeing it in a process. In biology that process is the interactions of genes and phenotypes though action in an environment, which does lead to change over the long term. In culture we find a process involving corresponding entities, though establishing the cultural correlates of those biological entities is tricky – something I discuss at great length in Beethoven’s Anvil and elsewhere [4]. In the short term – which is one thing in biology, something else in human history and culture – this evolutionary process provides stability, but over the long-term it produces change, relatively graduate change.
Food for thought: Surely something like this interactive process must be going on in primate societies to keep individuals in a group ‘in synch’ with one another. I’m thinking particularly of primates that live in so-called fission/fusion societies, where individuals spend most of their time in relatively small groups, but those groups then get together on occasion. How do we keep the smaller groups in synch with one another when the fuse, if only temporarily, with the larger group? I can see this becoming amplified over time so that it comes to ‘coalesce’ around specifically cultural products (remember that apes do have culture, of a sort) and practices – e.g. hand axes, proto-music – and clever apes become proto-humans.

Culture as a useful heuristic
But that neural argument is, for the most part, my own argument, and certainly played no role in the emergence of cultural evolutionary thought in the last quarter of the previous century. Some of that work has been done by experienced biologists – I’m thinking, for example, of Marcus Feldman, Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, and Peter Richerson – and was often empirical in nature. Others have different backgrounds – Robert Boyd is an anthropologist. None of this work involves a cultural theory with parallels to both the gene and the phenotype. That distinction doesn’t exist. And much of the work is empirical in character.
More recently various investigators have taken biological techniques and software for establishing phylogenies and applied them to cultural phenomena such as musical instruments, folk tales, and language. But this doesn’t require conceptualizing culture as an evolutionary phenomenon in any particularly interesting way (which is what I have in mind in the previous section). That is, it seems to me that the empirical work could have done without the evolutionary framing.
So why is it used? I suspect that it’s useful in a loose and metaphoric way. Thinking about populations of individuals and practices is different from thinking about narratives about people, cities, societies, and so forth.
I’ve posted about cultural evolution as a force in history, and subsequently found an article about biological evolution as a play of forces. What I’m thinking is that, whether or not these investigators consciously regard biological evolution as a force or an interplay of forces, they have developed intuitions of that kind and have decided to apply those intuitions to the study of human culture. In doing that they naturally think in terms of cultural evolution even though they don’t have a model of cultural evolution that parallels biological evolution in a ‘deep’ way. They do worry about the parallel, some more than others, but they don’t let that get in the way of empirical investigation.
So, thinking of culture as an evolutionary process has a heuristic value. In the long term, however, I do think this heuristic has to be cashed out in a substantial theoretical model. And that model will be grounded in the nervous system.

[1] Walter Freeman, “A Neurobiological Role of Music in Social Bonding, in The Origins of Music, eds. N. L. Wallin, B. Merker, and Steve Brown (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), 411-424.
[2] Final drafts of those chapters are available online as Brains, Music and Coupling,
[3] William Benzon, Synch, Song, and Society, Human Nature Review, Vol. 5, 2005: 66-86, download:
[4] For the cultural analog to the biological gene, which I’ve come to call coordinators, see William Benzon, “Rhythm Changes” Notes on Some Genetic Elements in Musical Culture, Signata 6, Annales des Sémiotiques /Annals of Semiotics: Sémiotique de la musique / Music and Meaning. Per Aage Brandt and José Roberto do Carmo Jr., eds. Presses Universitaires Liège, 2015, pp. 271-285,

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