Daniel C. Dennett: The De-Darwinizing of Cultural Change (HeadCon '13 Part X)

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HeadCon '13: WHAT'S NEW IN SOCIAL SCIENCE? (Part X)
Daniel C. Dennett: The De-Darwinizing of Cultural Change 

Think for a moment about a termite colony or an ant colony—amazingly competent in many ways, we can do all sorts of things, treat the whole entity as a sort of cognitive agent and it accomplishes all sorts of quite impressive behavior. But if I ask you, "What is it like to be a termite colony?" most people would say, "It's not like anything." Well, now let's look at a brain, let's look at a human brain—100 billion neurons, roughly speaking, and each one of them is dumber than a termite and they're all sort of semi-independent. If you stop and think about it, they're all direct descendants of free-swimming unicellular organisms that fended for themselves for a billion years on their own. There's a lot of competence, a lot of can-do in their background, in their ancestry. Now they're trapped in the skull and they may well have agendas of their own; they have competences of their own, no two are alike. Now the question is, how is a brain inside a head any more integrated, any more capable of there being something that it's like to be that than a termite colony? What can we do with our brains that the termite colony couldn't do or maybe that many animals couldn't do?

Daniel C. Dennett is a Philosopher; Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University; Author, Intuition Pumps.


I deliberately asked to go last and I deliberately didn't plan a talk because I wanted to see what people were going to say so that I could sort of riff off that, and that's what I'm going to do. It's been a good choice because, boy, what a nice day full of ideas. I wouldn't be able to do this ifwe hadn't had all these talks before, which has sort of paved the way very nicely for it.

Think for a moment about a termite colony or an ant colony—amazingly competent in many ways, we can do all sorts of things, treat the whole entity as a sort of cognitive agent and it accomplishes all sorts of quite impressive behavior. But if I ask you, "What is it like to be a termite colony?" most people would say, "It's not like anything." Well, now let's look at a brain, let's look at a human brain—100 billion neurons, roughly speaking, and each one of them is dumber than a termite and they're all sort of semi-independent. If you stop and think about it, they're all direct descendants of free-swimming unicellular organisms that fended for themselves for a billion years on their own. There's a lot of competence, a lot of can-do in their background, in their ancestry. Now they're trapped in the skull and they may well have agendas of their own; they have competences of their own, no two are alike. Now the question is, how is a brain inside a head any more integrated, any more capable of there being something that it's like to be that than a termite colony? What can we do with our brains that the termite colony couldn't do or maybe that many animals couldn't do?

It seems to me that we do actually know some of the answer, and it has to do with mainly what Fiery Cushman was talking about—it's the importance of the cultural niche and the cognitive niche, and in particular I would say you couldn't have the cognitive niche without the cultural niche because it depends on the cultural niche.

What I'm working on these days is to try to figure out—in a very speculative way, but as anchored as I can to whatever people think they know right now about the relevant fields—how culture could prune, tame, organize, structure brains to make language possible and then to make higher cognition (than reason, and so forth) possible on top of that. If you ask the chicken-egg question—which came first—did we first get real smart so that now we could have culture? Or did we get culture and that enabled us to become smart? The answer to that is yes, it's both, it's a co-evolutionary process.

What particularly interests me about that is I am now thinking about culture and its role in creating the human mind as a process, which begins very Darwinian and becomes less Darwinian as time goes by. This is the de-Darwinizing of cultural change in the world.

Our ancestors, at the very early days of proto-language and language, were pretty clueless and they were not adopting language because they could see what it was good for; it was a sort of invasion. But once they had these words, this gave them competences they didn't have before and they began to be able to do things that they couldn't do before. Their brains became structured in ways that brains never were structured before. And so what you see is that, instead of thinking of human culture the way the people in the traditional social sciences and in the humanities want to see it—as high culture, art, and science, and religion, and literature—they're treating all of these as treasures that we bestow on our descendants and that we maintain, and that we preserve, and we have reasons for this.

Many of the trends and stabilities and patterns we see in the world of human culture are well-explained by a sort of economic model. We value these things, we treasure them, we trade them, we buy them, we sell them, we put money and time into maintaining them, and so forth and so on; that exists, that level exists. But that's just the most recent period of cultural history. It wasn't like that when our ancestors were first beginning to get the benefits of human culture.


If you ask the chicken-egg question—which came first—did we first get real smart so that now we could have culture? Or did we get culture and that enabled us to become smart? The answer to that is yes, it's both, it's a co-evolutionary process.


Now, if you look at it this way, then one of the nice things of this is that it means that I can still cling to one of my favorite ideas—the idea of a meme—and say where the meme's eye point of view really works, and really when it is needed is in the early days. The best example of memes are words. Words are memes that can be pronounced; that's their genus and species. Words came into existence not because they were invented, and languages came into existence not because they were designed by intelligent human designers, but they are brilliantly designed and they're designed by cultural evolution in the same way that a bird's wing and the eye of the eagle are designed by genetic evolution. You can't explain human competence all in terms of genetic evolution. You need cultural evolution as well, and that cultural evolution is profoundly Darwinian in the early days. And as time has passed, it has become more and more non-Darwinian.

I have an example that I use when I'm writing about this, well, two examples: One is Turing's computer. If there ever was a top-down design, that's it. I mean, they would not have given him the money to build the Manchester Computer if he didn't have proof of concept and drawings. This was the idea, the understanding preceding the physical reality. Just the opposite of, say, a termite colony, which is bottom-up designed, and although it's brilliantly designed, it's a product of little entities that are themselves non-comprehending but very competent in very limited ways.

What we want to think of is a space. Peter Godfrey Smith's book has wonderful diagrams with three-dimensional spaces, if I could use a diagram I'd have it up. If you think of this cube and in the lower left hand corner we have the early days culture, which is profoundly Darwinian, and that means very little understanding, really no understanding required at all, a very broad search space. It's a lot of randomness, a lot of trial and error, very little intelligence or comprehension coming in anywhere, and where order is local, not global. What do we put up in the back right hand corner? We put Turing, Gaudi, Einstein, and Picasso. There's a phrase of Picasso's, which I love to use because it perfectly epitomizes that extreme. What he famously said was, "Je ne cherche pas je touve"—"I don't search, I find." A perfect expression of the hyper-genius. Bingo, he just goes right to the optimal solution, just like that. No grubby trial and error, no messing around. He's just the perfect genius who goes right in for the kill. Baloney. He was bragging. It was a brilliant brag, absolutely not true of him. It's not true of anybody.

If we have Picasso up in that corner along with Turing, and Shakespeare, and Einstein, and those people, and truly Darwinian evolution—cultural evolution, not genetic evolution—down in the lower left hand group, what's in the middle? That's where most of our lives exist, in what I like to think of as foible manipulation. We are imperfect, kludgy, semi-comprehending agents who are both in cooperation and in competition, exploiting the flaws that we discover in each other's kludgy operation.

Well, think of this. Have you ever played in a chess game where you made a move and only later realized what a smart move it was but not admit it? You were just lucky but you've got a great rationalization for it later. I think that phenomenon is actually ubiquitous. A great deal of the very well-designed behavior that we engage in, we only think we understand, we only think we have to understand. We, in fact, have only a very limited understanding of it and don't need to have the understanding that tradition would say we have.


How do you install a meme? Well, the first time the kid hears it, it's just a sound. The second time the kid hears it, it's a somewhat familiar sound and maybe there's something about the context that's the same. The third time the kid hears it, a little bit more. Pretty soon, by a process of gradual installation, a structure gets established, a little tiny micro-habit in the brain, which is then available to be exploited in various ways and, of course, not always well.


There's this humanistic tradition, which says the godlike mind is required to explain the adroitness with which we get through the world and the wonderfulness of our institutions; no. The wonderfulness of our institutions can be, to a surprising degree, explained with the same Darwinian mechanisms that we explain the wonderfulness of the design of organisms. Mainly, there's a long, long history of trial and error and the features that we have today in culture that we prize are not the products of human genius, they're products of a Darwinian trial and error process going on in culture over the years, which we like to think we invented ourselves but we are more the beneficiaries than the creators of those structures.

Apply that then to the human mind. That's what the human mind is; it's an organization, which is not just evolved genetically. In bringing up a child in a social world, what you're basically doing is installing thousands of apps and meta apps, and apps on top of apps on the hardware of the brain, which is profoundly unlike the hardware of your iPhone, because it's made of all those billions of obstreperous neurons. The trick is to see how the installation of cultural apps on this hardware takes place. But we know something about that, too.

I don't know if you've seen Deb Roy's spectacular work on the Human Speechome Project where he got this tremendous dataset of his own son's learning language. What he can now answer is, on average, how many times had a particular word of English been spoken in Davin's presence before Davin started trying to say the word. It's not very many, it's about five. And many interesting patterns emerged and are beginning to emerge from that dataset. But if you think about it, remember, a word is a meme. How do you install a meme? Well, the first time the kid hears it, it's just a sound. The second time the kid hears it, it's a somewhat familiar sound and maybe there's something about the context that's the same. The third time the kid hears it, a little bit more. Pretty soon, by a process of gradual installation, a structure gets established, a little tiny micro-habit in the brain, which is then available to be exploited in various ways and, of course, not always well.

Somebody mentioned the Stroop Test earlier today. A Stroop Test is a perfect example of where you have all these apps in your head that you can't turn off and they are firing; you're reading the words, you're saying the words, you can't prevent this app from firing, and normally it's a good thing that it fires but here's a case where there's interference.

Fiery's talk discussed the relationship between sort of controlled cognition and habit and the rude associations and so forth. He was on the right track there. He was talking about what the high level controlling mind is—a patchwork of kludges made up of the exploitations of the underlying habits, some of which are genetically encoded but most of which are themselves acquired by basically Pavlovian mechanisms early in childhood. I'll stop there.


MULLAINATHAN: I'm struggling to understand the interaction between the culture component and the things that are more ... I don't know what to call it ... more intrinsic to the mind. An example that's going through my head is a fact from child language development, which is that if you look at, say, pluralizations. Pluralizations that are awkward, like children rather than "childs." What you see is, that early on they get it right.

DENNETT: Then they go through a period when they've discovered some system and now they're over-systematizing it.

CHRISTAKIS: Right. And then they say, "childs" for a while until they learn the exceptions again.

DENNETT: "Holded" and things like that. Right. And then they get back.

CHRISTAKIS: And that dip is intriguing because it feels like the meme of the word, the copycatting feels good for the first part. Perhaps some adult said to them, "Hey, this is how you form it," but it feels more like, at least my understanding of literature, is that's a rule that's just inducted by the child at some primitive level, which is an interesting interface between while the culture is giving some things, the brain and all of our brains are discovering this other thing. I'm trying to see how you think of those kind of interfaces. It feels like not everything can be coming from the outside.

DENNETT: I'm inclined to be a real renegade about this and say that the innate components of the Language Acquisition Device are hugely overestimated and that what's really happening is that, for reasons we don't yet understand, there really are optimal solutions to certain sorts of communicative problems that are discovered by exploration.

Take the Nicaraguan sign language, where you have this brand new language, which gets more grammatical in a very short period of time. I don't think that shows us much about what's genetically encoded. I think it shows what happens when what's genetically encoded is an intense desire to communicate, and a circumstance where you have a bunch of kids running around who have a lot of time on their hands, they're playing and having fun and they're just being kids and they're very plastic, very labile, and they're just exploring the heck out of the possibilities, and they're turning their home sign into language and patterns are being created in front of your eyes.

And the fact that the patterns look very much like the patterns of actual natural languages doesn't speak to the fact that there's an innate mechanism that's biased that way, but speaks to the fact that it turns out that there's some reason why this is the efficient way of doing language. I've put it much too simple. But one ought to resist the innateness view more than is often the case because, after all, if you pass the buck to the biology and say, "Well, that's innate, " then we want to know how did the innate structures get genetically implanted in the brain? And there'd better be some answer in terms of how our ancestors' early explorations with language drove them into these patterns.

CHRISTAKIS: With birdsong we have good examples, right? There's some birdsong that is innate—the birds will produce the song even if they're never exposed to it, and others that are learned in different, often similar species. There's an example where we can actually distinguish, unlike in humans, between the two possibilities and find evidence for both. I suspect it's probably similar in humans with the case of language. There are definitely going to be features of the mind that are encoded.

DENNETT: Oh, sure. Of course there are. But I would say a lot less than has been advertised.



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