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The Evolution of Culture
Daniel C. Dennett: The Charles Simonyi Lecture, Oxford

Jaron Lanier on The Evolution of Culture by Daniel C. Dennett

From: Jaron Lanier
Date: 4-1-99

There are a number of frustrations confronting a skeptic who attempts to make sense of the claims made by adherents of the "meme" idea. First and foremost among these is that the notion is so variable as to provide no fixed target. In my conversations with Richard Dawkins, including one that was transcribed and published (click here), I have had the distinct impression that his ambitions for the term are modest. He wonders if some cultural processes could be understood as being like selfish genes. This caution is also found among certain other theorists, who focus on unconscious or semi-conscious phenomena like dance steps as candidate memes. Some meme-adherents (click here) demand a rather strict application of the metaphor to genes, while others, including Dennett, are ready to explore alternate biological models, such as viruses. Then there are meme totalists who believe their one metaphor consumes the whole of culture. Most perplexing is the fact that individual meme proponents display a tendency to waver between these preferences according to who is in the audience. I have more than once had the experience of watching a meme totalist turn into a guarded meme speculator when confronted by a skeptic, only to expand again once the skeptic left the room.

Are memes a rhetorical technique, a metaphor, a theory, or some other device? Depending on who you talk to, they can be so wispy as to be almost nothing. As applied by Dennett in his lecture, they make no predictions and cannot be falsified. They are no more than a perspective. Just as a musician might try to listen to the silences, instead of the notes, to gain a new experience of familiar music, Dennett asks us to consider culture from the point of view of tropes instead of people.

I adore this exercise for it's esthetic value. As a young composer I used to use my imagination to take on the identities of musical ideas. Imagine being equal temperament. You would first come to consciousness in China and feel yourself pounded out into the air from giant bells. You would feel the dark beating of your imperfect harmonies like tingles in your toes. Then, with the death of an Emperor, you would fall into a deep sleep, only to awaken centuries later pulsing out of the fingertips and into the ears of a frenetic, sober, workaholic named Bach. You would then feel your body opened up in new ways by a prying cosmic chiropractor- this is how the successive generations of harmonic innovators would feel to you. You would eventually flow out of the Beatles' space age chrome guitar pickups and through the distorting diminutive speakers of pastel plastic Japanese radios.

Since neither Dennett nor anyone else identified with the meme movement is unambiguous about what they are claiming, I'll answer Dennett's lecture in a similarly schizophrenic fashion. First, I'll assume memes are poetry, then I'll assume they are theory.

If memes are poetry, then they are the poetry of a flight from Meaning. What is communicated in Dennett's account of the origin of music is primarily that it means nothing. Imagine for a moment that instead of music, Dennett had chosen to provide a "just so" story to explain the origin and development of mathematics.

Dennett could have started in the same way, with an early hominid or some other ancestor beating a stick for the hell of it, only in this case he or she would have done so for a certain number of times. The "integers" meme was thus born. Dennett could have created a scenario in which that beating is copied and elaborated and gains its own momentum. This could develop in the course of millennia into an elaborate culture of counting, including strange kinds of numbers, like the imaginaries. It would also explain the often noted concurrence of musical and mathematical talent.

But something would be missing, which is that mathematical ideas can actually be true or false. In the same way, I am not ready to throw out the possibility that musical meaning is not entirely culturally relative. As Dennett points out, "music" is a universal phenomenon. It is probably the only human activity that is both universal and apparently elective. Yet the variety of musical behavior is so extreme as to make one wonder how it is possible for humans to perceive that universality.

By what stretch of the imagination is Inuit throat singing (which is accomplished by two people kissing and using each-others' throats as resonators) in the same category as John Cage sitting quietly in front of a piano, or Stanford students staying up all night perfecting a new signal processing algorithm?

As much as Dennett wants to get rid of ontology, he is its slave. He relies on meaning in order to communicate his attack on meaning. How can he even talk about music? Music is not the only pattern of behavior that has become extremely elaborate. Everyday greetings and small talk are extremely complex, and yet are not experienced as profound.

What is this profundity, this meaning in music? Well, that's the hard question. Music is particularly odd because it sits at the intersection of so many aspects of human experience and capability. It is a little like math, a little like dance, a little like sex, a little like speech, a little like drama. It is all these things and yet it is somehow instantly recognizable as something distinct.

I can report subjectively that in extended work with other musical cultures, there is an eerie sense of common musical understanding that is somehow possible. In learning to play musical instruments from distant cultures I have had the distinct impression of entering a heretofore inaccessible world of experience- as if learning to move and breath with these artifacts conveyed qualities that words and even sounds could not. And yet it is of course impossible to be certain of how much commonality I have ever truly achieved, or indeed if there was as much distance as I initially perceived. I can't know how much of the musical meaning I experience is illusory, except to say that I believe it to be absurd to think that it is entirely an illusion. To assert illusion is ultimately to assert both meaning and consciousness; an unconsciously had, meaningless illusion is an absurd proposition. Such a thing could not be detected.

The question of meaning is one that Dennett is simply deaf to. It is a subjective pleasure, like consciousness. It is part of that world of things that cannot be empirically falsified, but undeniably constitute an individual's subjective reality. A person's rapture at the hearing of Bach's music can theoretically be characterized neurologically, and could then be emulated by a computer. That the experience itself exists is known only to each individual experiencer.

I have speculated elsewhere (click here) that Dennett might represent a class of person who does not have internal experience. I meant this originally as a joke, and I still strongly suspect that he and other "cybernetic totalists" are merely enjoying being smart alecs by tweaking those of us ready to acknowledge that we have subjective awareness. But the logical possibility exists that there are some people without internal experience, and that would certainly explain our diverging philosophies.

Instead of trying to make the question of meaning disappear in the mists of a single metaphor, science can better proceed by gradually helping to illuminate components of meaning that can be subjected to empirical investigation. A genetic component for such a universal phenomenon as music would not be surprising, and indeed it has been proposed. For an example click here. It might at first seem surprising to see Dennett, of all people, not even mention the work that has been done suggesting genetic components to musical behavior, but it shouldn't be. The alliance between information centric theorists and biological determinists is probably a temporary marriage of convenience. Soon enough, I expect, meme theories will cause simplistic cybernetisists to jump over to the cultural relativity side of the fence en masse.

There is an irony here. Dennett seems to be arguing that under a Darwinian lens, culture would look like a "spandrel", which was a metaphor constructed by Stephan J Gould and rather violently repudiated by Dennett.

Now, what of memes as theory rather than poetry? I have addressed this already elsewhere in the Edge dialogs (click here - see bottom of the page ). So I will only summarize here.

Objection #1) There are no predictions that can be tested, no potential for falsification. Memes are, as Dennett points out, open enough in their possibilities to account for the wild variations imaginable in potential cultures. But there is no basis for preferring memes over other potential equally open theories. Are memes more testable than the vague obfuscations of recent "postmodern" philosophers? Or do they merely adopt a cybernetic style that certain people find more comforting?

Objection #2) Ideas and other cultural elements are Lamarckian. That is one reason why people didn't understand Darwin at first. God was supposed to have thought the world into existence. Even people who were ready to question God had trouble getting over the idea of ideas. Indeed, I have seen students adopt incorrect understandings of genes because of the publicity for memes. They thought that genes must work like ideas, and be able to influence each other on contact. Lysenko would have loved memes.

Objection #3) Ideas often have objective value. Mathematical ideas can be proved. Scientific theories can be falsified. Technologies can function, or fail. Political ideas have harder to assess but real moral and ethical implications. A candidate for a virulent meme, such as the music for a Diet Pepsi commercial, might truly be a lesser achievement than, say, a late Beethoven string quartet- yet that judgement cannot exist in the framework of memes alone. Furthermore, in all of the above cases people have created cultural institutions that have formally, rationally improved human achievement in the course of history. Culture is a watchmaker with vision, at least some of the time.

Objection #4) Culture doesn't generally suffer from constraints of the sort found in biological processes. For instance, bad ideas typically don't really die, alas, while the dominant mechanism of evolutionary selection is pre-reproductive death (the other primary mechanism being mate selection). Your genetic traits were largely selected for because your would-be ancestors with alternate traits were killed by your actual ancestors or other organisms, particularly microorganisms- or starved to death. In that sense, the ideas that perished in the library at Alexandria were more like memes than any ideas in currency today. Furthermore, culture doesn't generally have impassable species boundaries. Although cultures become isolated on occasion, in a vast number of cases ideas flow into one another and selection pressure, if it existed, could not be focused on a unit of potential change, as it is in biological systems.

Objection #5) Ideas and other cultural phenomena do not necessarily have an inheritable substrate that functions as a specification layer. Biological organisms are reducible to an evolutionary interpretation to the degree that traits are described by genes. (As in: An undernourished animal will be smaller than a well nourished genetic twin, so not all observed traits are genetic.) In order for a meme theory to say anything it would have to be able to identify some structure that could serve as the basis for reductionism. It is possible that some human behaviors are not reducible. (In my experience, for example, you cannot learn to play Indian classical music without becoming immersed in Hindu culture, including a style of movement, of interpersonal and intergenerational contact, and a great many other things that do not have names.)

Jaron Lanier

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