Edge: DANIEL C. DENNETT [page 2]
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"The Evolution of Culture"
Daniel C. Dennett

Cultures evolve. In one sense, this is a truism; in other senses, it asserts one or another controversial, speculative, unconfirmed theory of culture. Consider a cultural inventory of some culture at some time--say 1900AD. It should include all the languages, practices, ceremonies, edifices, methods, tools, myths, music, art, and so forth, that compose that culture. Over time, that inventory changes. Today, a hundred years later, some items will have disappeared, some multiplied, some merged, some changed, and many new elements will appear for the first time. A verbatim record of this changing inventory through history would not be science; it would be a data base. That is the truism: cultures evolve over time. Everybody agrees about that. Now let's turn to the controversial question: how are we to explain the patterns to be found in that data base? Are there any good theories or models of cultural evolution?

1. Science or Narrative?

One possibility is that the only patterns to be found in cultural evolution defy scientific explanation. They are, some might want to say, narrative patterns, not scientific patterns. There is clearly something to this, but it won't do as it stands, for many scientific patterns are also historical patterns, and hence are revealed and explained in narratives--of sorts. Cosmology, geology, and biology are all historical sciences. The great biologist D'Arcy Thompson once said:

Everything is the way it is because it got that way.

If he is right--if everything is the way it is because it got that way--then every science must be, in part, a historical science. But not all history--all recounting of events in temporal sequence-- is narrative, some might want to say. Human history is unique in that the patterns it exhibits require a different form of understanding: hermeneutical understanding or Verstehen, or--you can count on the Germans to have lots of words for claims like this--Geisteswissenschaft (approximately: spiritual science). I think this too is partly right; there is a particular sort of understanding that is used to make sense of narratives about human agents. It is also true that the mark of a good story is that its episodes unfold not as the predicted consequences of general laws and initial conditions, but in delightfully surprising ways. These important facts do not show, however, that cultural evolution escapes the clutches of science and must be addressed in some other realm of inquiry. Quite the contrary; the humanistic comprehension of narratives and the scientific explanation of life processes, for all their differences of style and emphasis, have the same logical backbone. We can see this by examining the special form of understanding we use when following--and creating--good narratives.

Mediocre narratives are either a pointless series of episodes in temporal order--just "one damn thing after another"--or else so utterly predictable as to be boring. Between randomness and routine lie the good stories, whose surprising moments make sense in retrospect, in the framework provided by the unsurprising moments. The perspective from which we can understand these narratives is what I have called the intentional stance: the strategy of analyzing the flux of events into agents and their (rational) actions and reactions. Such agents--people, in this case--do things for reasons, and can be predicted--up to a point--by cataloguing their reasons, their beliefs and desires, and calculating what, given those reasons, the most rational course of action for each agent would be. Sometimes the most rational course is flat obvious, so while the narrative is predictive (or true), it is uninteresting and unenlightening. To take a usefully simple case, a particular game of chess is interesting to the extent that we are surprised by either the brilliant moves that outstrip our own calculations of what it would be rational to do, or the blunders, which we thought too sub-optimal to predict.

In the wider world of human activity, the same holds true. We don't find the tale of Jane going to the supermarket on her way home from work interesting precisely because it all unfolds so predictably from the intentional stance; today she never encountered any interesting options, given her circumstances. Other times, however, the most rational thing for an agent to do is far from obvious, and maybe practically incalculable. When we encounter these narratives, we are surprised (and sometimes delighted, sometimes appalled) by the actual outcome. It makes sense in retrospect, but who'd have guessed that she'd decide to do that? The vast mass of routinely rational human behavior doesn't make good novels, but it is just such humdrum rational narrative that provides the background pattern that permits us to make sense, retrospectively, of the intriguing vagaries we encounter, and to anticipate the complications that will arise when the trains of events they put in motion collide.

The traditional model used by historians and anthropologists to try to explain cultural evolution uses the intentional stance as its explanatory framework. These theorists treat culture as composed of goods, possessions of the people, who husband them in various ways, wisely or foolishly. People carefully preserve their traditions of fire-lighting, house-building, speaking, counting, justice, etc. They trade cultural items as they trade other goods. And of course some cultural items (wagons, pasta, recipes for chocolate cake, etc.) are definitely goods, and so we can plot their trajectories using the tools of economics. It is clear from this perspective that highly prized cultural entities will be protected at the expense of less favored cultural entities, and there will be a competitive market where agents both "buy" and "sell" cultural wares. If a new method of house-building or farming or a new style of music sweeps through the culture, it will be because people perceive advantages to these novelties.

The people, on this model, are seen as having an autonomous rationality: deprive a person of his goods, and he stands there, naked but rational and full of informed desires. When he clothes himself and arms himself and equips himself with goods, he increases his powers, complicates his desires. If Coca Cola bottles proliferate around the world, it is because more and more people prefer to buy a Coke. Advertising may fool them. But then we look to the advertisers, or those who have hired them, to find the relevant agents whose desires fix the values for our cost-benefit calculations. Cui bono? Who benefits? The purveyors of the goods, and those they hire to help them. etc. On this way of thinking, then, the relative "replicative" power of various cultural goods--whether Coke bottles, building styles or religious creeds--is measured in the marketplace of cost-benefit calculations performed by the people.

Biologists , too, can often make sense of the evolution (in the neutral sense) of features of the natural world by treating them as goods belonging to various members of various species: one's food, one's nest, one's burrow, one's territory, one's mate[s], one's time and energy. Cost-benefit analyses shed light on the husbandry engaged in by the members of the different species inhabiting some shared environment.[1] Not every "possession" is considered a good, however. The dirt and grime that accumulates on one's body, to say nothing of the accompanying flies and fleas, are of no value, or of negative value, for instance. These hitchhikers are not normally considered as goods by biologists, except when the benefits derived from them (by whom?) are manifest.

This traditional perspective can obviously explain many features of cultural and biological evolution, but it is not uniformly illuminating, nor is it obligatory. I want to show how theorists of culture--historians, anthropologists, economists, psychologists, and others--can benefit from adopting a different vantage point on these phenomena. It is a different application of the intentional stance, one which still quite properly gives pride of place to the Cui bono question, but which can provide alternative answers that are often overlooked. The perspective I am talking about is Richard Dawkins' meme's-eye point of view, which recognizes--and takes seriously--the possibility that cultural entities may evolve according to selectional regimes that make sense only when the answer to the Cui bono question is that it is the cultural items themselves that benefit from the adaptations they exhibit. [2]

2. Memes as Cultural Viruses

Whenever costs and benefits are the issue we need to ask Cui bono? A benefit by itself is not explanatory; a benefit in a vacuum is indeed a sort of mystery; until it can be shown how the benefit actually redounds to enhance the replicative power of a replicator, it just sits there, alluring, perhaps, but incapable of explaining anything.

We see an ant laboriously climbing up a stalk of grass. Why is it doing that? Why is that adaptive? What good accrues to the ant by doing that? That is the wrong question to ask. No good at all accrues to the ant. Is it just a fluke, then? In fact, that's exactly what it is: a fluke! Its brain has been invaded by a fluke (Dicrocoelium dendriticum), one of a gang of tiny parasites that need to get themselves into the intestines of a sheep in order to reproduce (Ridley, 1995, p258). (Salmon swim up stream, these parasitic worms drive ants up grass stalks, to improve their chances of being ingested by a passing sheep.) The benefit is not to the reproductive prospects of the ant but the reproductive prospects of the fluke. [3]