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Lewontin will be Lewontin

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  • Tom Dolack
    If you haven t seen it already, likely of interest to the group: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/18363
    Message 1 of 4 , Oct 4, 2005
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      If you haven’t seen it already, likely of interest to the group:

       

      http://www.nybooks.com/articles/18363

       

    • William Benzon
      ... Interesting. He is, of course, right to be skeptical about cultural evolution, and the current state of thinking about it IS less than inspiring. But I
      Message 2 of 4 , Oct 8, 2005
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        Re: [biopoet] Lewontin will be Lewontin


        on 10/4/05 11:03 PM, Tom Dolack at tdolack@... wrote:

        If you haven’t seen it already, likely of interest to the group:
         
        http://www.nybooks.com/articles/18363


        Interesting. He is, of course, right to be skeptical about cultural evolution, and the current state of thinking about it IS less than inspiring. But I think that he’s ultimately wrong.

        I’ve taken a passage from his article and recast it in terms I think are in the direction we have to go for cultural evolution. Before that, however, I set the stage with a passage from my music book.



        The chief problem with “standard” attempts to formulate a conception of cultural evolution is to think of individual human beings as the entities whose fitness is being enhanced by culture. That is a mistake. That’s one thing Dawkins got right in formulating the notion of a meme. Dawkinsian memes are out for themselves, not for their “hosts.” That’s the line to take, though we need to depersonalize those pesky memes.

        Here’s what I say in Beethoven’s Anvil (pp. 192-193):

        In the case of musicking I take a more abstract view:

        Peformance-as-Phenotype: The phenotypic role in music’s evolution is played by performance level attractors.

        Note that in identifying musicking’s phenotypes in this way I have not introduced a new entity into the theory; I have simply assigned an existing theoretical entity to a role in a different theory, that of cultural evolution. For we have already discussed performance  level attractors in the previous chapter.

        A performance level attractor is simply a trajectory in a group’s collective neural state space that specifies a whole performance.  As such, it is a different object from the groove stream attractors we discussed in Chapter 6, though a performance’s groove stream attractor would be a component of the overall performance attractor. Performance attractors are thus properties of brains-in-process, whether a single musicking brain or a group of brains coupled through musicking. They cannot be thought of as being inside brains in the way viruses are inside their hosts. They are self-organizing emergent phenomena arising when people make music.

        While music’s performance attractors are not compact physical objects like biological organisms (phenotypes), they are bounded in space and time, as are organisms. They come into being at a certain time and in a certain place and continue on for a finite period of time. Their constituent memes, however, can persist (be reconstructed) from one performance to another just as genes survive from one generation to the next. Further, individual memes can be used in distinctly different performance attractors just as individual genes can be in the genotypes for different organisms. Thus the analogy seems to in certain basic ways.

        Most importantly, a performance attractor can be successful or not, just as organisms can. Success is the subjective experience of pleasure in the musickers while the lack of pleasure is failure. People will be motivated to repeat pleasurable performances, but not lack-luster ones, much less performances engendering anxiety—exclusing, of course, the case of performances considered to be practice or rehearsal for “real” performances. Any memes contributing to a pleasurable performance are likely to be repeated in other performances while memes contirbuting only to unpleasant peformances will drop out of the repertoire.



        In a NYReview of books article, Richard Lewontin lays out Darwinian selection in three propositions as follows:

        Darwinism is a population-based theory consisting of three claims. First, there is variation in some characteristics among individuals in a population. Second, that variation is heritable. That is, offspring tend to resemble their biological parents more than they do unrelated individuals. In modern Darwinism the mechanism of that inheritance is information about development that is contained in the genes that are passed from parent to offspring. Third, there are different survival and reproduction rates among individuals carrying different variants of a characteristic, depending on the environment inhabited by the carriers. That is the principle of natural selection. The consequence of differential reproduction of individuals with different inherited variants is that the population becomes richer over generations in some forms and poorer in others. The population evolves.

        Let’s translate that statement into one about the cultural evolution of performances of narratives where individual performances are taken as the culture analog of biological phenotypes.  This is fairly straight-forward in the case of oral narrative. Each story-telling occasion is a performance. When the telling starts, the performance is “born” and when it ends the performance “dies.” If it is so satisfying that people want to hear it again at a later time, then the performance has descendents. The descendents of performance A should have many features inherited from A.

        In the case of written texts, things are trickier. Each reading of the text counts as a performance. If some one reads a text twice, we can say that the second performance is a descendent of the first. If reader A recommends the text to reader B, and B acts on the recommendation, then B’s reading is a descendent of A’s. In all cases, of course, the text is the same. But the performances will not be. Readers differ from one another, and they differ from themselves from one period in their life to another.

        With this in mind, here’s my translation of Lewontin’s passage:

        Cultural selectionism is a theory about cultural performances consisting of three claims. First, there is variation in some characteristics among performances in a population. Second, that variation is heritable. That is, offspring tend to resemble their cultural parents more than they do unrelated performances. In cultural selectionism the mechanism of that inheritance is information about performance that is contained in the memes that are passed from parent performances to offspring performances through the minds of people in the culture. Third, there are different survival and reproduction rates among performances carrying different variants of a characteristic meme, depending on the community in which the performance takes place. That is the principle of cultural selection. The consequence of differential reproduction of performances with different inherited variants is that the population becomes richer over generations in some forms and poorer in others. The population of performances evolves.

         
      • Jeff Turpin, Supervising Archeologist, T
        Re: [biopoet] Lewontin will be LewontinAlas, that we can practice our memes before we perform them, but have no such opportunity with our genes . . . or do we
        Message 3 of 4 , Oct 8, 2005
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          Re: [biopoet] Lewontin will be Lewontin
          Alas, that we can practice our memes before we perform them, but have no such opportunity with our genes . . . or do we . . . ? (paraphrase from Milan Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being)> JT
          ----- Original Message -----
          Sent: Saturday, October 08, 2005 6:45 AM
          Subject: Re: [biopoet] Lewontin will be Lewontin




          on 10/4/05 11:03 PM, Tom Dolack at tdolack@... wrote:

          If you haven’t seen it already, likely of interest to the group:
           
          http://www.nybooks.com/articles/18363


          Interesting. He is, of course, right to be skeptical about cultural evolution, and the current state of thinking about it IS less than inspiring. But I think that he’s ultimately wrong.

          I’ve taken a passage from his article and recast it in terms I think are in the direction we have to go for cultural evolution. Before that, however, I set the stage with a passage from my music book.



          The chief problem with “standard” attempts to formulate a conception of cultural evolution is to think of individual human beings as the entities whose fitness is being enhanced by culture. That is a mistake. That’s one thing Dawkins got right in formulating the notion of a meme. Dawkinsian memes are out for themselves, not for their “hosts.” That’s the line to take, though we need to depersonalize those pesky memes.

          Here’s what I say in Beethoven’s Anvil (pp. 192-193):

          In the case of musicking I take a more abstract view:

          Peformance-as-Phenotype: The phenotypic role in music’s evolution is played by performance level attractors.

          Note that in identifying musicking’s phenotypes in this way I have not introduced a new entity into the theory; I have simply assigned an existing theoretical entity to a role in a different theory, that of cultural evolution. For we have already discussed performance  level attractors in the previous chapter.

          A performance level attractor is simply a trajectory in a group’s collective neural state space that specifies a whole performance.  As such, it is a different object from the groove stream attractors we discussed in Chapter 6, though a performance’s groove stream attractor would be a component of the overall performance attractor. Performance attractors are thus properties of brains-in-process, whether a single musicking brain or a group of brains coupled through musicking. They cannot be thought of as being inside brains in the way viruses are inside their hosts. They are self-organizing emergent phenomena arising when people make music.

          While music’s performance attractors are not compact physical objects like biological organisms (phenotypes), they are bounded in space and time, as are organisms. They come into being at a certain time and in a certain place and continue on for a finite period of time. Their constituent memes, however, can persist (be reconstructed) from one performance to another just as genes survive from one generation to the next. Further, individual memes can be used in distinctly different performance attractors just as individual genes can be in the genotypes for different organisms. Thus the analogy seems to in certain basic ways.

          Most importantly, a performance attractor can be successful or not, just as organisms can. Success is the subjective experience of pleasure in the musickers while the lack of pleasure is failure. People will be motivated to repeat pleasurable performances, but not lack-luster ones, much less performances engendering anxiety—exclusing, of course, the case of performances considered to be practice or rehearsal for “real” performances. Any memes contributing to a pleasurable performance are likely to be repeated in other performances while memes contirbuting only to unpleasant peformances will drop out of the repertoire.



          In a NYReview of books article, Richard Lewontin lays out Darwinian selection in three propositions as follows:

          Darwinism is a population-based theory consisting of three claims. First, there is variation in some characteristics among individuals in a population. Second, that variation is heritable. That is, offspring tend to resemble their biological parents more than they do unrelated individuals. In modern Darwinism the mechanism of that inheritance is information about development that is contained in the genes that are passed from parent to offspring. Third, there are different survival and reproduction rates among individuals carrying different variants of a characteristic, depending on the environment inhabited by the carriers. That is the principle of natural selection. The consequence of differential reproduction of individuals with different inherited variants is that the population becomes richer over generations in some forms and poorer in others. The population evolves.

          Let’s translate that statement into one about the cultural evolution of performances of narratives where individual performances are taken as the culture analog of biological phenotypes.  This is fairly straight-forward in the case of oral narrative. Each story-telling occasion is a performance. When the telling starts, the performance is “born” and when it ends the performance “dies.” If it is so satisfying that people want to hear it again at a later time, then the performance has descendents. The descendents of performance A should have many features inherited from A.

          In the case of written texts, things are trickier. Each reading of the text counts as a performance. If some one reads a text twice, we can say that the second performance is a descendent of the first. If reader A recommends the text to reader B, and B acts on the recommendation, then B’s reading is a descendent of A’s. In all cases, of course, the text is the same. But the performances will not be. Readers differ from one another, and they differ from themselves from one period in their life to another.

          With this in mind, here’s my translation of Lewontin’s passage:

          Cultural selectionism is a theory about cultural performances consisting of three claims. First, there is variation in some characteristics among performances in a population. Second, that variation is heritable. That is, offspring tend to resemble their cultural parents more than they do unrelated performances. In cultural selectionism the mechanism of that inheritance is information about performance that is contained in the memes that are passed from parent performances to offspring performances through the minds of people in the culture. Third, there are different survival and reproduction rates among performances carrying different variants of a characteristic meme, depending on the community in which the performance takes place. That is the principle of cultural selection. The consequence of differential reproduction of performances with different inherited variants is that the population becomes richer over generations in some forms and poorer in others. The population of performances evolves.

           
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