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Time after Time: Music and Memory in the Group

Or, messing around in one another’s mind space for fun and funk

This is about a simple, but profound, matter: that we cannot always and reliably access the contents of our own minds. In some circumstances we need external prompts. For reasons that I’ll have to explain in a later post, this absolutely sinks the superficial notions of “information transfer” from one mind to another that seem to be the norm in discussions of cultural evolution. Certain activities seem to be irreducibly GROUP activities.

John Miller Chernoff has an interesting observation in his book, African Rhythm and African Sensibility. It’s about playing one’s part in a percussion choir. Each of three, four, five, etc. players has a specific, simple, repetitive pattern to play. These individually simple patterns interlock to create a rich sonic wall of rhythm.

Chernoff notes that even highly skilled percussionists often have a difficult time playing a specific part without also hearing the other accustomed parts. This suggests that what the percussionist has learned is not just a motor pattern, but an auditory-motor gestalt that includes the whole rhythmic soundscape and not just one specific part of it. In such a gestalt the motor and auditory components would so intertwined that one cannot simple ‘extract’ the sound of one’s own phrase, along with the motor pattern, in order to execute in isolation. Rather, proper execution requires the entire gestalt and that includes the sounds executed by other players, the group sound, not the individual sounds.

It is thus not just that individual parts only sound correct in the context of other parts, but that the motor schema for executing one part is interwoven with the auditory schema for hearing the entire complex of parts. The drummer needs to hear the sound that the others are playing in order properly to activate his own motor schemas. The performance is thus inextricably a collective one.

In order to be as explicit as possible I want to suggest a very strained analogy. I am imagining a scene in a certain kind of action movie where it is time to launch the nuclear missiles. The process requires that two people insert keys into locks and turn them simultaneously. In the case of our African drummer, his auditory-motor schema for a rhythm is analogous to the launch of the nuclear missles. The drummer has the key to one lock, but that isn’t sufficient. Think of the auditory gestalt of the entire pattern as being the other key. Both keys are necessary. The drummer cannot access motor patterns in his own brain and body without help from others. Again: The drummer cannot access motor patterns in his own brain and body without help from others. Both keys must be inserted into their respective locks and then turned in order for the drummer to play his component of the rhythm. Without the full sound the drummer can certainly play something, but it will not be just exactly the appropriate part.

What is so very peculiar about my argument is that it contravenes a deep an unquestioned assumption of almost all of our thinking about the human mind. That assumption is that we are masters of our own mind and body. To be sure, there is, for example, the Freudian unconscious, which I do not here deny. But that does not seem germane in this situation. Our drummer’s inability to drum alone is not a matter of neurotic repression. It is quite different.


Now set that aside and let’s think about a bunch of protohumans gathered together and stomping away to a highly synchronized beat. Let us then imagine that they begin to superimpose other things on this beat, vocal calls, imitations of animal movements, whatever. They can do this as individuals, people can imitate or respond to one another’s gestures, and so forth. All that interests me is that whatever they do, it is done to the beat – and, Hebbian learning is taking place while they’re doing this. They do it for awhile and then stop and go about their business.

The next day they gather together and start stomping at the same tempo as they had done the previous day. Again, they start superimposing other stuff on the basic beat. I would imagine, however, that these superimpositions would be biased by the superimpositions from the previous day. Following a seminal insight by Christopher Longuette-Higgins* – who, incidentally, coined the phrase “cognitive science” – I am imagining that an initial period of isochronous (single period) beating would evoke the prior day’s superimpositions, thus serving as a memory key. Insert the key, turn the lock, open the door, and out comes yesterdays sonic adventures. I don’t imagine that it would evoke the prior day’s superimpositions so strongly that they would be repeated in exactly the same way. But there would be a bias, and the bias would get stronger over time so that the collective activity would converge on a set of routine moves and gestures. We need not imagine that it would ever converge so tightly that two performances would be exactly alike.

What most interests me about this story is that, as a story about memory, that memory is collectively distributed throughout members of the group – recall our African drummers. No one person is in possession of the whole memory pattern. Whatever each one is doing, they all hear and more or less see everything. But each only as one component of the motor pattern necessary to execute the whole pattern.

Now, it seems to me that as long as the folks have only a single isochronous beat to which they dance, they’re only going to have one performance they can execute. But if they have, say, three distinct tempos, then they can have three performances. But there’s something else they can do. Instead of using just an ischronous beat in the groove stream, they can develop differentiated patterns. If they have five different periodic patterns they use at a given tempo, then that gives them five different performances for that tempo. I note in passing that the anthropological record indicates that, among tribal peoples, different deities are associated with different basic rhythms.

As I believe that protomusic precedes the emergence of language, I am imagining that all this is taking place in groups of people who lack language. Once language enters the picture we have the possiblity of superimosing specific lyrics on the musical stream as a further way of differentiating performances.

* See the papers on memory, pp. 369-414, Christopher Longuette-Higgins, Mental Processes, Studies in Cognitive Science, MIT Press, 1987. These papers are among the earliest explorations of the idea that the brain uses holographic processing.

See also: Busy Bee Brain, Music, the Brain, and the Group, and The Sound of Many Hands Clapping: Group Intentionality.

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Memetics is Dead but What’s the Study of Cultural Evolution Otherwise About?

In the waning years of the previous century an online journal for serious work in cultural evolution was established: Journal of Memetics – Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission. The first issue came out in 1997 and the last in 2005. The journal closed for lack of interest; it wasn’t getting enough high-quality submissions.

In the last issue one of the editors, Bruce Edmonds, published a short swansong, The revealed poverty of the gene-meme analogy – why memetics per se has failed to produce substantive results. Those remarks remain valid today, a decade later. Edmonds made a careful distinction

between what might be called the “broad” and the “narrow” approaches to memetics. The former, broad, approach involves modelling communication or other social phenomena using approaches which are evolutionary in structure. Work within this approach is often done without appealing to “memes” or “memetics” since it can be easily accommodated within other frameworks. In other words, it does not require an analogy with genetics. The later, narrow, sense involves a closer analogy between genes and memes – not necessarily 100% direct, but sufficiently direct so as to justify the epithet of “memetics”. What has failed is the narrow approach – that of memetics. Work continues within the broad approach, albeit under other names, and in other journals.

Work on culture that is broadly cultural in nature continues today and, with the proliferation of “big data” approaches to research in the social sciences and humanities will likely grow in the future. This work requires that we count and classify things but, as Edmonds has said, it doesn’t require that we conceptualize them as cultural genes. This work can in fact be empirical in nature with no particular theoretical commitments to specific causal models.

Edmonds goes on the point out that much of memetics is mere redescription: “The ability to think of some phenomena in a particular way (or describe it using a certain framework), does not mean that the phenomena has those properties in any significant sense.” He further notes that

The study of memetics has been characterised by theoretical discussion of extreme abstraction and over ambition. Thus for example, before any evidence is available or detailed causal models constructed, attempts have been made to “explain” some immensely complex phenomena such as religion in general or consciousness.

Frankly, memetics, both in its pop versions and more serious academic versions, has the feel of an intellectual get-rich quick scheme. Just get the definition right, stick to it, and untold intellectual riches will be ours.

I note, however, that the sense of breathless elation and wonderful revelation seemed refreshingly absent from the recent workshop that Daniel Dennett hosted at the Santa Fe Institute. I mention this because Dennett, who is a serious academic, has in the past been an enthusiastic booster of memetics, as has Susan Blackmore, who was also at the workshop. Dennett, after all, is one of those who saw memetics as an explanation for religion.

So What? Getting from There to Here

But why go over this territory once again? Mostly because I’m trying to figure out what, if anything, to do next. That in turn requires getting a sense of where we are now. Continue reading

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Q: Why is the Dawkins Meme Idea so Popular?

A: Because it is daft.

I believe there are two answers to that question. For most people it’s convenient. That requires one explanation, which I’ll run through first.

For some people, however, memetics is more than convenient. Some, including Dawkins himself and his philosophical acolyte, Dan Dennett, use it as a way of explaining religion. In that role the meme idea is attractive because it is, or has evolved into, an egregiously bad idea, one almost as irrational as the religious ideas whose popularity it is supposed to explain away. By analogy to an argument Dawkins himself has made about religion, that makes memetics the perfect vehicle for the affirmation of materialist faith.

But I don’t want to go there yet. Let’s work into it.

Ordinary Memetics

When Dawkins first proposed the idea in The Selfish Gene (1976), it wasn’t a bad idea—nor even a new one. Ted Cloak, among others, got there first, but not with the catchy name. Having worked hard to conceptualize the gene as a replicator, Dawkins was looking for  another set of examples. and coined the term “meme” as a replicator for culture. The word, and the idea, caught on and soon talk of memes was flying all over the place.

I suspect that the spread of computer technology is partially responsible for the cultural climate in which the meme idea found a home. Computers ‘level’ everything into bits: words, pictures, videos, numbers, computer programs of all kinds, simulations of explosions, traffic flow, moon landings, everything becomes bits: bits, bits, and more bits. The meme concept simply ‘levels’ all of culture—songs, recipes, costumes, paintings, hazing rituals, etc.—into the uniform substance of memes.

What is culture? Memes.

Simple and useful. As long as you don’t try to push it very far.


In his original exposition Dawkins was a bit equivocal as to whether or not memes existed inside the brain or outside in the external world. Thus at one point he refers to one copy ‘Auld Lang Syne’ existing in his brain and other copies existing in a song book (p. 194). This issue became a matter of debate among the relatively small community of thinkers who were attempting to develop an intellectually rigorous theory of cultural evolution. Some of us were known as externalists while others were internalists.

I was and am an externalist. I’ve stated my position at length in two papers published in the mid-1990s (Culture as an Evolutionary Arena and Culture’s Evolutionary Landscape) and more recently in an extensive series of notes, The Evolution of Human Culture. I have no intention of rehearsing those arguments here. But I want to make one point, and that is about human language.

Why Memes Cannot Flit from Brain to Brain

As linguists have known for some time, the relationship between a word’s meaning and its sound (or written appearance) is an arbitrary one. The word “apple” does not look, smell, sound, feel, or taste like an apple, nor does the word “god” look, smell, sound, feel, or taste like a god. And so forth through the vast majority of the words in any language’s wordstock.

The arbitrary relationship between the signifier (a word’s sound or visible appearance in print or gesture) and the signified (a word’s meaning) is thus effectively an uncrossable barrier between what’s inside people’s heads and what’s outside in the physical world. There is no way that memes can hitch a ride on language and thereby move from one brain to another. Images aren’t much better. A man nailed to a cross is visible to all, but you need language to convey the idea that one particular man who was nailed to a cross is a divine being.

But that’s what Dawkins and Dennett and their followers want of memes. They talk of them as homuncular beings that live inside people’s heads and move about from one person to another, taking root in brain after brain. Memes, like Dawkinsian ‘selfish’ genes, have their own interests which are independent of the interests of their hosts. People become possessed by memes and memes guide their behavior. In particular, religious memes take over a mind and cause the person to believe irrational ideas and to engage in activity that is often against the person’s own self interest. But it’s in the interest of the memes, who care only to spread from person to person.

Now, when Dawkins talks of selfish genes and of genes having interests of their own, he’s being metaphorical, and he knows that. But he also knows how to cash out the metaphors in the technical language of molecular biology and genetics, as do many other people. So the metaphorical talk is a convenient shorthand that can be dropped whenever precision is needed.

Not so the homuncular meme. It too is tricked out in metaphorical language. But no one knows how to cash the metaphor out in the language of neuroscience or cognitive psychology.

Dawkins has suggested computer viruses as an analogy (Viruses of the Mind, 1991). But those viruses do not spontaneously arise in an ecology of communicating computers. They’re designed by programmers living outside the ecology, programmers who understand how computers work and who use their design knowledge to design and code viruses which they then insert, from ‘above’ (in effect using Dennettian skyhook cranes), into the computer ecology. In the case of memes there is no such designer outside the system, unless, perhaps, you were to designate a god as the designer. And that is exactly what Dawkins does not want to do. The computer virus analogy is thus an utter failure.

Faith of Our Fathers: We Believe Because it is Absurd

And that, I’m arguing, is what makes it so very attractive as an account of human thought and culture and of religion in particular. That and one other thing: It’s lodged firmly in a reductionalist and materialist ontology. The point of memetics is that it does not require some mysterious mind stuff nor any spooky spirit beings. It’s all made of good old familiar atoms and energy. Nothing more.

In theory, of course, in terms of intellectual commitment. In terms of achieved intellectual demonstration memetics is, as I’ve argued, a mess. Hence, by an argument Dawkins makes about religion, that makes memetics the perfect vehicle for the affirmation of materialist faith.

Here’s one of the arguments Dawkins makes about religion in Viruses of the Mind. After developing the meme idea by analogy with computer viruses, he does a bit of this this and that. Then he introduce Zahavi’s handicap principle from evolutionary biology, for which the peacock’s tail is a paradigmatic example. The male’s tail is flamboyantly visible, large, and relatively heavy. It increases the male’s vulnerability to predation and thereby serves the male as a way of advertising its fitness to females. A male who can survive and thrive with THAT burden must be fit indeed.

Here’s how Dawkins applies the handicap principle to religion:

The premise of Zahavi’s idea is that natural selection will favor skepticism among females (or among recipients of advertising messages generally). The only way for a male (or any advertiser) to authenticate his boast of strength (quality, or whatever is is) is to prove that it is true by shouldering a truly costly handicap — a handicap that only a genuinely strong (high quality, etc.) male could bear. It may be called the principle of costly authentication. And now to the point. Is it possible that some religious doctrines are favored not in spite of being ridiculous but precisely because they are ridiculous? Any wimp in religion could believe that bread symbolically represents the body of Christ, but it takes a real, red-blooded Catholic to believe something as daft as the transubstantiation. If you believe that you can believe anything, and (witness the story of Doubting Thomas) these people are trained to see that as a virtue.

Let me translate that last sentence:

Any materialist wimp could believe that brains really represent visual objects, but it takes a real, red-blooded Reductionist to believe something as daft as memes flitting about from brain to brain. If you believe that you can believe anything, and (witness their faith in the coming singularity) these people are trained to see that as a virtue.

So, why are these folks allowed to get away with this nonsense? On the one hand, we have no widely affirmed model of human belief, thought, and communication. We have lots of competing models and theories, many of which provide non-trivial accounts of some aspect of human mental and cultural life. But none of them are comprehensive and none is head and shoulders above the others.

In that context memetics is just another idea. It may be a bit crazy, but then the idea that finally works is likely to be one that would seem a bit crazy to us here and now. Obviously we do think and communicate, ideas and practices sometimes do spread like wildfire, and religion is ubiquitous and powerful. There has to be some explanation for this.

Here’s a favorite dodge: Maybe this crazy memetics idea will somehow work out. Darwin didn’t know about genes, and look what happened with his idea. It worked out, didn’t it? Well, maybe memetics will too.

So, it’s easy for memetics to get its foot in the door. Once in, it reveals itself as the perfect vehicle for affirming materialism, and especially against religion.

Game Set Match

Q. E. D.

Signed, sealed and delivered, you’re ours!

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A Note on Dennett’s Curious Comparison of Words and Apps

I continue to think about Dan Dennett’s inadequate account of words-as-memes in his paper, The Cultural Evolution of Words and Other Thinking Tools (PDF), Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology, Volume LXXIV, pp. 1-7, 2009. You find the same account in, for example, this video of a talk he gave in 2011: “A Human Mind as an Upside Down Brain”. I feel it warrants (yet another) long-form post. But I just don’t want to wrangle my way through that now. So I’m just going to offer a remark that goes a bit beyond what I’ve already said in my working paper, Cultural Evolution, Memes, and the Trouble with Dan Dennett, particularly in the post, Watch Out, Dan Dennett, Your Mind’s Changing Up on You!.

In that article Dennett asserts that “Words are not just like software viruses; they are software viruses, a fact that emerges quite uncontroversially once we adjust our understanding of computation and software.” He then uses Java applets to illustrate this comparison. I believe the overstates the similarity between words and apps or viruses to the point where the comparison has little value. The adjustment of understanding that Dennett calls for is too extreme.

In particular, and here is my new point, it simply vitiates the use of computation as an idea in understanding the modeling mental processes. Dennett has spent much of his career arguing that the mind is fundamentally a computational process. Words are thus computational objects and our use of them is a computational process.

Real computational processes are precise in their nature and the requirements of their physical implementation – and there is always a physical implementation for real computation. Java is based on a certain kind of computational objects and processes, a certain style of computing. But not all computing is like that. What if natural language computing isn’t? What happens to the analogy then? Continue reading

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ICPhS phonetic capabilities satellite meeting – deadline extension

Re. The ICPhS phonetic capabilities satellite meeting, which has been previously advertised on this blog.
We have received a number of requests for late submissions, which we have granted, and as a result, feel it fair to have the same extension for everyone. Thus, if you would like to either submit something, or would like to redraft and resubmit your submission before the new deadline, you are advised that this is now:
 
1st March.
Thank you very much if you have already submitted a paper. What we’ve seen so far looks very exciting, and if you are happy with your paper, you obviously don’t need to do anything. We have previously advised some contributors that notifications of acceptance would appear before the end of February. This is of course now not possible, but we hope to keep the delay to as little as possible, hoping to deliver valuable feedback from the review process by mid-March.
Do no hesitate to contact hannah@ai.vub.ac.be with any further questions.
Here is the call for papers again, in case you missed it:
Call for papers
 
At this year’s International Congress of Phonetic Sciences in Glasgow, there will be a special interest group on the Evolution of our phonetic capabilities. It will focus on the interaction between biological and cultural evolution and encourages work from different modalities too. The call for papers is here (satellite meeting 3) and pasted below:
The evolution of phonetic capabilities: causes, constraints and consequences
In recent years, there has been a resurgence in research in the evolution of language and speech. New techniques in computational and mathematical modelling, experimental paradigms, brain and vocal tract imaging, corpus analysis and animal studies, as well as new archeological evidence, have allowed us to address questions relevant to the evolution of our phonetic capabilities.
This workshop requests contributions from researchers which address the emergence of our phonetic capabilities. We are interested in empirical evidence from models and experiments which explore evolutionary pressures causing the emergence of our phonetic capabilities, both in biological and cultural evolution, and the consequences biological constraints will have on processes of cultural evolution and vice versa. Contributions are welcome to cover not only the evolution of our physical ability to produce structured signals in different modalities, but also cognitive or functional processes that have a bearing on the emergence of phonemic inventories. We are also interested in contributions which look at the interaction between the two areas mentioned above which are often dealt with separately in the field, that is the interaction between physical constraints imposed by a linguistic modality, and cognitive constraints born from learning biases and functional factors, and the consequences this interaction will have on emerging linguistic systems and inventories.
Contributions must fit the same submission requirements on the main ICPhS 2015 call for papers page.
Contributions can be sent as an attachment to hannah@ai.vub.ac.be by 1st March 2015 (**extended**). Queries should be sent to the same address.
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How spurious correlations arise from inheritance and borrowing (with pictures)

James and I have written about Galton’s problem in large datasets.  Because two modern languages can have a common ancestor, the traits that they exhibit aren’t independent observations.  This can lead to spurious correlations: patterns in the data that are statistical artefacts rather than indications of causal links between traits.

However, I’ve often felt like we haven’t articulated the general concept very well.  For an upcoming paper, we created some diagrams that try to present the problem in its simplest form.

Spurious correlations can be caused by cultural inheritance 

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Above is an illustration of how cultural inheritance can lead to spurious correlations.  At the top are three independent historical cultures, each of which has a bundle of various traits which are represented as coloured shapes.  Each trait is causally independent of the others.  On the right is a contingency table for the colours of triangles and squares.  There is no particular relationship between the colour of triangles and the colour of squares.  However, over time these cultures split into new cultures.  Along the bottom of the graph are the currently observable cultures.  We now see a pattern has emerged in the raw numbers (pink triangles occur with orange squares, and blue triangles occur with red squares).  The mechanism that brought about this pattern is simply that the traits are inherited together, with some combinations replicating more often than others: there is no causal mechanism whereby pink triangles are more likely to cause orange squares.

Spurious correlations can be caused by borrowing

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Above is an illustration of how borrowing (or areal effects or horizontal cultural inheritance) can lead to spurious correlations.  Three cultures (left to right) evolve over time (top to bottom).  Each culture has a bundle of various traits which are represented as coloured shapes.  Each trait is causally independent of the others.  On the right is a count of the number of cultures with both blue triangles and red squares.  In the top generation, only one out of three cultures have both.  Over some period of time, the blue triangle is borrowed from the culture on the left to the culture in the middle, and then from the culture in the middle to the culture on the right.  By the end, all languages have blue triangles and red squares.  The mechanism that brought about this pattern is simply that one trait spread through the population: there is no causal mechanism whereby blue triangles are more likely to cause red squares.

A similar effect would be caused by a bundle of causally unrelated features being borrowed, as shown below.

Gproblem_Horizontal

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Persister: A sci-fi novel about cultural evolution and academic funding

Someone has written a sci-fi space opera about a serial killer that targets researchers of cultural evolution which is also a satire on the state of academic funding systems.

That’s quite an action-packed sentence.

Persister: Space Funding Crisis I by Casey Hattrey is a short novel set in the 45th century about a cultural evolution researcher named Arianne. By this point, the decision process for academic funding takes so long that the only sensible option is to cryogenetically freeze yourself while you wait for the decision to come in. The cost of this, and the fierce competition for funding in a pan-galactic community, has made the Central Academic Funding Council Administration the most powerful force in the galaxy. Now, Arianne has been woken from chryo-sleep, not to be given a grant, but to investigate a series of gruesome murders. Someone has been killing the top researchers in the field of cultural evolution.

"In space, no one can hear you apply for funding"

Continue reading

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Some Quick Thoughts on Cultural Evolution

Here are some thoughts I’ve been having on cultural evolution. All of them need fuller exposition, but I don’t have time for that now.

1. Cultural Evolution, so What?

I’ve got a fairly sophisticated narrative account of some varieties of popular music in 20th century America. The account centers on the interaction between African- and European-American populations and musical forms. When I was doing that work–in the late 1990s–I kept thinking that this is the kind of phenomenon that begs for an account in terms of cultural evolution. But I didn’t once use the term “memes” (my term of choice at the time) in the paper nor did I talk of cultural evolution (except in passing at the very end). It’s not at all obvious to me how any existing account of cultural evolution would lead to a deeper understanding of that history. It would just be an exercise in terminology mongering.

This is a very big deal for me, and I don’t yet know what to do about it.

On African American music and so forth, see Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues.

2. Information and Apple Pie

On information, sure, at the highest level of generality and abstraction cultural evolution involves information. But that doesn’t get us much in itself. Until we understand how that information is embodied in the brain and in various media and can measure it, the idea isn’t a very useful or deep one. It’s one of mere terminology, verbal packaging. But see comment seven, below.

3. Information, DNA, the Brain and the Rest

In biology we know that genetic information is embodied in DNA and we know a great deal about how that works. And we are rapidly increasing our ability to manipulate DNA.

We don’t know how information is encoded in the nervous system. But that’s not so much my point here. It belongs in #2 above.

My point here is that, in long-held view, the genetic information for culture isn’t in the brain. It’s in publicly accessible traits of physical objects and processes. That means that, whereas the genetic information of life forms is encoded in the same medium, DNA, that is not the case for cultural genetic information. The genetic information for culture has various embodiments.

From the standpoint of theoretical elegance/parsimony, this is not so good. But the fact is, no matter what kind of model you choose, if you want to deal with information, you are going to have to deal with multiple physical embodiments and the transformations between them.

4. Mutual Information for Culture

We’re interested in the ‘conservation’ of information in the social group. That requires shared access to common reference points. The meaning of those reference points is, in effect, negotiated through interaction. Those agreed reference points are the ‘genes’ of the cultural process.

Compare this with DNA replication. The double strand divides and then each half constructs the necessary complement. The result is two identical DNA molecules where there had been one.

Shared access to a common public reference plays the role in cultural informatics that DNA replication plays in biological informatics.

On mutual information in culture, see my Open Letter to Steven Pinker.

5. The mind as computer program

Programs have variables and variables require values. Where do mental programs get values for their variables? Some of them are generated internally.

And some of them come from the external world. Among those we have the cultural genetic material. They function as values for variables in mental programs.

See this post for further specification of this thought: Memes as Data: Targets, Couplers, and Designators. That is collected in my working paper, Cultural Evolution, Memes, and the Trouble with Dan Dennett. Continue reading

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How Language Evolves Webcast

CARTA (Center for Academic Research & Training in Anthropogeny) are webcasting their free symposium on “How Language Evolves” on Friday, February 20th (1:00 – 5:30 pm PST), co-chaired by Roger Levy (UC San Diego) and David Perlmutter (UC San Diego).

How Language Evolves

 

The symposium addresses the question of how human language came to have the kind of structure it has today, focusing on three sources of evidence:

1) ways languages get new structure not present in the language of the previous generation(s) of speakers or signers;

2) what contrasts between new and mature languages reveal about how language evolves;

3) neuroscientific investigations of functional specialization for language in the human brain and its dependence on the linguistic input the language learner gets during cognitive development.

You can access the live webcast here:

http://carta.anthropogeny.org/events/how-language-evolves

 

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Empty Constructions and the Meaning of “Meaning”

Textbooks are boring. In most cases, they consist of a rather tiring collection of more or less undisputed facts, and they omit the really interesting stuff such as controversial discussions or problematic cases that pose a serious challenge to a specific scientific theory. However, Martin Hilpert’s “Construction Grammar and its Application to English” is an admirable exception since it discusses various potential problems for Construction Grammar at length. What I found particularly interesting was the problem of “meaningless constructions”. In what follows, I will present some examples for such constructions and discuss what they might tell us about the nature of linguistic constructions. First, however, I will outline some basic assumptions of Construction Grammar. Continue reading

Culture, its evolution and anything inbetween