Shinsaibashi by Janne Moren Attribution License

Chapter 4

Culture and Information and their Interrelation

Culture consists of the symbolic information that acts as an adaptive mental tool and is unique to humans. Culture is the mechanism whereby the learning of previous generations are passed on to the next generation through communication and social interactions.

As suggested by Boyd and Richerson (1985, 14):

Individual learning … can be costly and prone to errors. Learning trials occupy time and energy that could be allocated to other components of fitness, and may entail a considerable risk to the individual as well. Because of these costs, the investments of individuals in determining the locally favored behavior must be limited, and individual learning can lead to errors. Individuals may fail to discover an adaptive behavior, or a maladaptive one maybe retained because it was reinforced by chance. When these costs are important, selection ought to favor shortcuts to learning—ways that an organism can achieve phenotypic flexibility without paying the full cost of learning. Cultural inheritance is adaptive because it is such a shortcut. If the locally adaptive behavior is more common than other behaviors, imitation provides an inexpensive way to acquire it.

Geertz’s (1973, 8) definition of culture emphasizes the symbolic nature of cultural information. He defines culture as “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life.” He goes on to add, that “culture is patterns for behavior not patterns of behavior.”

Adam and Eve, Gossaert Thyssen
Adam and Eve, Gossaert Thyssen

Culture is an extrasomatic form of instruction that provides individuals with an additional margin of survival. Culture is extra-genetic and plays a role similar to genetically transmitted instincts. Both genetically controlled instinctual behavior and culturally constrained behavior evolve with changing conditions. Instinctual behavior and culture both support survival. Without a culture a human being or a family unit for that matter would be unable to survive. If the environment undergoes a dramatic change the instincts that were inherited from a previous time could be detrimental to survival and they will certainly undergo a change and evolution if the species is to survive. The same is true of culture or else the society will not survive. There are in fact many historical examples of inflexible cultures that were unable to adapt to changing conditions and as a result did not survive. The culture of hunting had positive survival benefits and made for an easy life until game was depleted by over hunting. When this happened the hunters/gatherers supplemented their wild food with domesticated plants and/or animals. Hunting cultures evolved either into pastoral societies in which animals were not slaughtered to extinction but domesticated and culled in a controlled way or into agricultural societies in which plants were carefully cultivated and harvested. These activities required much more effort than hunting and as documented in Genesis humankind was driven out of the Garden of Eden and had to earn their bread by the sweat of their brows.

The Relationship of Language and Culture

Durham (1991, 8) claims that culture consists of “symbolically encoded” concepts which means culture is very much like language, which also consists of “symbolically encoded” concepts, namely, words. As a result many of the characteristics that we have discerned and posited for language may well apply to human culture. Language is both an explicit part of culture and the medium for its transmission.

Culture has an enormous impact on human thinking and therefore the mind is not merely an extension of the brain due to language but we need to add culture to the equation. Our new formulation for the mind is therefore:

mind = brain + language + culture.

I formulated my notion of the extended mind before reading Clark’s (1997, 2003, 2008) formulation of the extended mind in which he claims both language and culture provide cognitive scaffoldings that extend the mind. Our ideas are parallel as he recently acknowledged (Clark 2008) and I wish to do likewise. Just as language provides a framework for conceptualization culture does the same thing as it stores all of the lessons that a society has acquired over the years. Given that language is a cultural artifact it makes sense that other cultural artifacts and processes would also contribute to the way the human mind is constructed.

Is Culture an Organism?

In the remainder of this chapter we will examine the possibility that culture, like language, evolved as an organism that was easy for the human mind to grasp and as a result gave rise to Universal Culture just as language evolved in such a way as to give rise to Universal Grammar.

Culture is essentially symbolic—a set of ideas, beliefs, information and knowledge. If it is to be transmitted and hence survive it must be easily acquired by the human mind as is the case with language. It is therefore logical to posit that culture like language evolved in such a way as to be easily acquired by humans. I have therefore suggested that Christiansen’s (1994) idea that language is an organism can be extended to culture which may also be regarded as an organism, an obligate symbiont. If we accept this hypothesis then it follows by analogy that many of the conclusions Christiansen reached regarding language would apply to culture as well.

If we transform a paragraph of Christiansen, Dale, Ellefson and Conway (2001) that I quoted in the last chapter by replacing the word “language” with the word “culture”, we arrive at some interesting thoughts about the nature of culture and its evolution. With this substitution Christiansen’s (1994) notion of “language as an organism” can be extended to culture, which can also be considered as an organism in the same metaphorical sense.

Culture exists only because humans can learn, produce, and process them. Without humans there would be no culture. It therefore makes sense to construe cultures as organisms that have had to adapt themselves through natural selection to fit a particular ecological niche: the human brain. In order for cultures to “survive”, they must adapt to the properties of the human learning and processing mechanisms. This is not to say that having a culture does not confer selective advantages onto humans. It seems clear that humans with superior cultural abilities are likely to have a selective advantage over other humans…. What is often not appreciated is that the selection forces working on culture to fit humans are significantly stronger than the selection pressures on humans to be able to use culture. In the case of the former, a culture can only survive if it is learnable and processable by humans. On the other hand, adaptation toward culture use is merely one out of many selective pressures working on humans (such as, for example, being able to avoid predators and find food). Whereas humans can survive without culture, the opposite is not the case. Thus, culture is more likely to have adapted itself to its human hosts than the other way around. Cultures that are hard for humans to learn simply die out, or more likely, do not come into existence at all.

Christiansen, Dale, Ellefson and Conway (2001, 144–45) quote has been altered by substituting the word culture(s) for language(s). We therefore conclude that culture like language can also be regarded as an organism that evolved to be easily acquired and preserved.

Culture Organisms belong to Individuals and not to a Society as a Whole

Each individual in a society is a symbiont with its language organism and its culture organism. The culture of the society is the species of all the individual cultural organisms in the society.

People learn as individuals. Therefore, if culture is learned, its ultimate locus must be in individuals rather than in groups…. If we accept this, then cultural theory must explain in what sense we can speak of culture as being shared or as the property of groups … and what the processes are by which such sharing arises (Goodenough, 1981, 54).

This insight of Goodenough justifies our assignment of the living organism to the culture of each individual and the culture of the group as a species of the conspecifics of individuals’ cultures, The culture of each individual in a society can be quite different because there are components which depend on the family they are members of, the locale and country in which they live, their profession, the company or organization for which they work, their religious beliefs, their hobbies and a large number of other factors.

Kauffman defines a living organism as “a system of chemicals that has the capacity to catalyze its own reproduction (Kauffman 1995, 49).” Generalizing Kauffman’s definition and applying it to culture we define culture as a system of symbols, ideas, beliefs and knowledge that has the capacity to catalyze its own reproduction. If we consider the culture of each individual as an organism then we may regard culture reproducing itself each time a child acquires a culture similar to his or her parents and other cultural conspecifics. But the child modifies their parent’s culture as a result of the different influences that effect them coming from their peers. A process of selection takes place as those cultural elements which best serve the individual and their society predominate. The cultural organism of each individual in the society thus evolves along the lines of the Darwinian formula of descent, modification and selection. Then as was the case with the language of individuals the inheritance or descent is not by diploidy but that of polyploidy. The culture possessed by each individual can be characterized the way Christiansen and Ellefson (2002) characterized language, namely as “a kind of beneficial parasite—a symbiont—that confers some selective advantage onto its human hosts without whom it cannot survive.”

The culture of the society as a whole is not an organism because it can not reproduce itself, rather it is a cultural species made up of the cultural organisms of all the individuals comprising the society. Just as conspecifics of a biological species are able to reproduce among themselves the conspecifics of a cultural species are able to communicate with each other, to cooperate, to collaborate, and share certain basic values and assumptions. One can speak of English and French cultural species and American, English-speaking Canadian and British cultures as subspecies of English-speaking culture. There are even finer gradations of subspecies within these three countries depending on vocations, hobbies, religion etc. They are subspecies in that they are distinct in some ways but they share certain common values of their cultural species. This is similar to the case of biological subspecies are that distinct but whose members can interbreed.

The culture that belongs to the community or society rather than the individual evolves through the mutations that arise in the idiosyncratic use of and modification of culture by individuals. Those idiosyncratic mutations can then be transmitted through the society by being incorporated into the individual cultures of other individual members of the cultural community.

We have developed two meanings to culture. The culture of the individual, an organism, and the common culture of a society, a species. The cultural community can be a nation state, a local region such as a city, a tiny village or a neighborhood, a profession, a community of practice, or even an extended family.

Universal Culture

Let me introduce another interesting and highly speculative notion based on regarding culture as an organism. Let us generalize Christiansen’s (1995, 9) argument that in order to survive language evolved in such a way as to adapt itself “to fit the human learning and processing mechanism.” This mechanism led to the universality of the characteristics of human language or to Chomsky’s Universal Grammar (UG). If natural selection acting on language as an organism led to the UG then we should expect natural selection acting on culture as an organism should lead to a universal set of rules that govern the social interactions within a culture which we will identify as Universal Culture (UC), defined as the set of universal elements which characterize all human cultures. The universals include such elements as: language, kinship relations, marriage, gossip and incest taboos.

Universal Culture and Universal Grammar have certain parallels as pointed out by Robin Fox (1989, 113), who makes a distinction between the process that represents an universal and the content of the universal or the way it represents itself,

They (referring to cultures) may be unique at the level of specific content—like languages—but at the level of the processes there are remarkable uniformities—like language again…. Each outcome of a universal process can look very different. But it is nowhere written that universal processes should have identical outcomes.

The notion of a universality of human culture, however, runs counter to the main stream of the field of anthropology where the traditional focus has been on the description of primitive and exotic cultures and uncovering the variety and diversity of human culture. There are those that disagree and argue that there are more things in common than the things that are different. They claim that the basic structures of human culture are actually very similar and it is only the details that are different such as Fox who we have just cited.

Lee Cronk for one suggests that world cultures may be like the world’s languages where there are many differences but an underlying common structure exists. He cites as evidence for this position Donald E. Brown’ (1991) book Human Universals and the chapter entitled “Universal People” which details

universals appearing in everything from the details of language and grammar to social arrangement to the ubiquity of music, dance, and play. The list includes some surprises. Every society has gossip, all societies understand the idea of a lie, they all have special types of speech for special occasions, they all use narrative, and they all have poetry with lines that take about three seconds to say. Men are everywhere on average more aggressive and likely to kill than women, though individual men and women do differ significantly from the average. Everyone has taboos on certain statements and certain foods. All societies are at least aware of dancing (though it is prohibited in some of them) and have some sort of music. Remarkably, everyone has children’s music. If as cultural determinist dogma would have it, culture is all-diverse and all-powerful, why are there any such universals? Why aren’t human cultures more diverse than they apparently are? Cronk (1999, 25)

Tiger and Fox (1971, cited by Brown 1991, 81) “argued that the important universals are not at the ‘substantive’ level where anthropologists usually seek them, but at the level of ‘process’ …. Processes may be universal even though their results are highly variable.”

A Catalogue of Cultural Universals

Brown (1991, 130–41) has catalogued all those aspects of human culture which are universal or in his words are “near-universal.” He asks, “what do all people. all societies, all cultures, and all languages have in common? (ibid., 130)” He attempts to provide an answer in terms of what he calls “the Universal People (UP).”

The UP are aware of this uniqueness (i.e. their possession of culture) and posit a difference between their way—culture—and the way of nature. A very significant portion of UP culture is embodied in their language, a system of communication without which their culture would necessarily be very much simpler. With language the UP think about and discuss both their internal states and the world external to each individual…. With language, the UP organize, respond to, and manipulate the behavior of their fellows … UP language is of strategic importance to those who wish to study the UP. This is so because their language is, if not precisely a mirror of, then at least a window into, their culture and into their minds and actions (ibid., 130).

Brown (1991, 130–41, 157–201) lists over one hundred items that human cultures right across the planet share in common on a universal or near-universal basis. Brown’s list includes a number of universal features of culture associated with language including: prestige for good use of language; gossip; lies; humor; insults; and language change. “There are features of language at all basic levels—phonemic, grammatical, and semantic—that are found in all languages (ibid., 131).”

In addition to these features Brown lists the following set of universal or near-universal aspects of language: nouns and verbs; the possessive form; marking (good is never solely expressed as not bad); special speech for special occasions; narrative; poetry with a pause approximately every three seconds; figurative speech; metaphor; metonymy; onomatopoeia; gender; temporal duration; “units of time—such as days, months, seasons, and years”; cyclicity or rhythmicity; tense (past, present and future); similar classification categories (“parts of body, inner states, behavioral properties, flora, fauna, weather conditions, tools, space, and many other definite topics”); proper nouns; pronouns, first, second and third person; topographic and place names; antonyms and synonyms; numerals; kin terms distinguishing gender and generation;

“semantic categories including motion, speed, location, dimension, and other physical properties”; words that are used more often are shorter; “binary discrimination” such as “black and white, nature and culture, male and female, good and bad, and ordered continua with a concept of a middle; measures and distances but not always with uniform units; taxonomies; logic terms such as not, and, same, equivalent, and opposite; symbols; conjectural reasoning; causality; subject/object distinction; mimetic elements such as hand signals; and gestures that can be mimicked, masked or modified and which are universally recognized”.

In addition to these universal associated with language Brown also finds the following psychological and behavioral features of human culture universal: trial and error learning; a theory of mind; concept of self and others, self-awareness; understanding intentions; fear especially of loud noises, strangers and snakes; sexual attraction; homosexuality; flirting; jealousy; envy; recognition of others; prolific tool making and use (levers, containers, materials for tying, spears, weapons; and the use of fire); cooking; drugs; shelter; preparation for birth; post-partum natal care; group living such as the family; groundedness in a locality; marriage and courtship; adultery; family; child rearing; juvenile delinquency; traditional restraints on the rebelliousness of young men; nepotism; sex taboos; Oedipus complex; ascribed and achieved social status; social states; domination; prestige; labor division; male dominance, male rulers; male activities that exclude females; cooperative of labor; trade, gifts, food sharing; predicting and planning for the future; triangular relationships; government or public affairs; authority; power; collective decision making; leaders, never completely democratic nor totally autocratic; admiration of generosity; altruism; loyalty; rules; dispute settlement; proscription against rape, violence, and murder with sanctions; suicide; conflict; control of disruptive behavior; ingroup/outgroup classification; ethnocentrism; recognizing and employing promises; morality; values, ideals and standards; empathy; pride; shame; sorrow; need; daily routines; etiquette; hospitality; sex and excretion modesty; religion or belief in supernatural things; anthropomorphization; medicine; magic; divination; theories of fortune and misfortune; ritual; rites of passage; mourning; world view; dreams and interpretation; possessive case; property; rules of inheritance; aesthetic standards; art; imagination; story telling, narratives and myths; a need to explain the world; adornment; grooming; hair styles; dance; music (instrumental, vocal and children’s); play; and games of skill and chance.

The Selfish Gene, Dawkins, 1976 Oxford University Press
The Selfish Gene, Dawkins, 1976
Oxford University Press

Some aspects of culture are near-universals including the domestication of dogs, notation systems, the association of poetry and ritual; the belief in spiritual entities such as the soul; the symbolism of red, white and black, capital punishment and abortion.

This list of universals comes from the literature and for the most part from the work of Brown (1991) who originally compiled the above lists. There is one universal that I believe should be added to the list which is a justice system to detect and punish cheaters. Although capital punishment is a near-universal almost every society has other forms of punishment for those that transgress against their society by cheating in one form or another.

Memes as the Replicators of the Organism of Culture

If culture is a symbolic organism, as we have posited, then its replication requires something analogous to genes, the replicators of biological systems. Richard Dawkins (1989) in his book The Selfish Gene has identified an analog to genes with his introduction of the meme as a cultural replicator. Dawkins considered the cultural meme as a way of extending Darwin’s theory of evolution from biological systems to cultural or social systems.

I developed the idea of the ‘cultural meme’ as a way of dramatizing that fact that genes aren’t everything in the world of Darwinism…. The meme, the unit of cultural inheritance, ties into the idea of the replicator as the fundamental unit of Darwinism. The replicator can be anything that replicates itself and exerts some power over the world to increase or decrease its probability of being replicated (Dawkins 1996. 80–81).

Dawkins’ notion of the meme, as a cultural replicator and the analog of biological genes helps us solidify our notion of culture as an organism. The meme not only accounts for the reproduction of culture but also natural selection as memes competes with each other memes for a place in human minds. Just as a biological organism can be defined in terms of its genetic composition so can a cultural organism be defined in terms of its memetic composition. The patterns of behavior that make up culture are all memes as are the words of a language and its grammatical structures.

What does it mean to propagate organization in the symbolosphere? Do memes, languages and cultures have purpose and intention? Institutions such as religions, social societies, nation states, a school of scholarly or scientific thought, have the collective purpose of its members and hence a purpose.

What is the mechanism that permits the replication of these memes? Well for one thing they exploit their hosts by providing a benefit, which assures their transmission or replication. Language and culture, however, are absolutely essential for human survival because of the dependency that has developed; just as modern society could no longer survive without electricity. There is a coupling of language and culture, for example, to the energy exploiting behavior of humans, which results in language and culture propagating their organization riding on the back of human metabolism.