March 5, 2014


The De-Darwinizing of Cultural Change (Daniel C. Dennett, 3/04/14, The Edge: HeadCon '13 Part X)

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.

It becomes the putative Darwinists that they reject the theory in practice.
Posted by at March 5, 2014 11:25 AM

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