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Evolution of culture in the light of the second law of thermodynamics.

Abstract

All knowledge is represented by physical structures such as brains, books and computer discs. Because of the second law of thermodynamics, novel knowledge depends on selectionist mechanisms. Even discoveries resembling a flash of inspiration, such as the well-known case of Friedrich Kekule's discovery of the benzene ring, are likely the result of rapid selectionist mechanism in the brain. In oral cultures, complex cultural evolution is impossible because the units of selection reside within individual human brains. These units are unstable compared with the units based on the phonetic alphabet in literate cultures. This pertains especially to the Greek (and its derivatives) variant of the phonetic alphabet. The discrete nature of the phonetic alphabet promotes stable storing and accurate copying, which is necessary to avoid the corruption of knowledge resulting from the second law of thermodynamics. Complex cultural evolution results from selectionist mechanisms that depend on written and printed texts based on the phonetic alphabet.

1. Introduction

C. P. Snow famously wrote about the "two cultures" and argued that a scientist's acquaintance to Shakespeare's dramas was equivalent to a humanist's acquaintance with the second law of thermodynamics. The implication was that both the scientist and the humanist should be aware of the key features of the other's domain. In this article, I argue that the second law of thermodynamics is of special importance even within the domain of the humanist, especially in the evolution of culture.

Considering human history from the Stone Age to the present era seems to require a scientific theory of complex cultural evolution. A related subject is how individual children acquire the surrounding culture. I argue that explaining how children acquire culture illuminates cultural evolution in general.

The social sciences, including cultural anthropology, have mostly led lives independent of the natural sciences. The autonomy of the social sciences is based on the belief that external social forces transform initially formless infants into mature cultural human beings. (1) According to the standard social science model, the generation of complex cultural organization represents external emergent processes at the group level. The individual is denied any significant role in generating novel cultural phenomena. However, recent developments in biology and physics are inconsistent with the standard social science model.

2. Information and Selection Processes

Information has become an important concept in both modern physics and biology. According to Landauer, information is physical. (2) Although this may be debatable, this premise represents an important foundation of modern physics and is fundamental to the discussion in this article. All information is represented by physical structures. No abstract, disembodied information exists. Further, novel information results from physical processes. Knowledge constitutes a subgroup of information (which also comprises noise) related to the biological concept of adaptedness, which represents an informational match between the organism and its environment. Dawkins likens the adaptedness of an organism to its environment in the way a key embodies information about a lock. (3) All knowledge is instances of adaptation and represents a relationship between a knower and the known. (4)

There are two explanations for how novel knowledge emerges. According to instructionism, which is analogous to Lamarckism, novelty arises by instruction directly from the environment. Examples range from trees imposing long necks in giraffes (Lamarckism) and prices inducing order in markets according to mainstream economists, who regard market agents as passive price-takers. According to selectionism, which is analogous to Darwinism, novelty results from competing conjectures. The "best" conjecture is selected by environmental interaction. Outside biological evolution, selectionist processes are acknowledged in immunology in relation to the production of novel antibodies in response to attacks from new viruses or bacteria. Instructionism and selectionism are mutually exclusive. (5, 6)

Because information is physical, knowledge is subject to the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the entropy (a measure of disorder) of any closed system either remains constant or increases. The second law of thermodynamics governs all change. Thermodynamics is a substance-independent theory applicable to any system irrespective of structure or the specific form of energy. The relevance of entropy extends far beyond the narrow confines of classical thermodynamics. Thus, an important consequence of the second law of thermodynamics is that novel knowledge cannot result from instructions from the environment. (6,7) The fact that novel knowledge represents low entropy is easily seen because physical structures representing knowledge invariably decay into high entropy with time. This is because representations of errors or noise vastly outnumber representations of knowledge. For example, the number of ways the meaning of the theory of relativity can be conveyed is small compared to the number of ways a similar amount of letters can be arranged. Instructionism contradicts the second law of thermodynamics by directly producing low- entropy order without paying the price of even higher entropy elsewhere. However, selectionism accords with the second law of thermodynamics because dispersion of maladaptive conjectures represents high entropy. Even long-term preservation of established knowledge depends on selectionist mechanisms because of the second law of thermodynamics. (6)

Entropy can be divided into thermal and configuration entropy. Thermal entropy is associated with the distribution of energy in the system, whereas configuration entropy is concerned with the structural arrangement of mass. In phylogenesis, configuration entropy is the important factor for novel adaptations. Low-configuration-entropy mutations arise at the expense of dissipating high-configuration-entropy mutations. The configuration entropy of adaptive genes is low compared with the configuration entropy of maladaptive genes of similar lengths, even though the thermal entropy may be similar. Adaptations and knowledge may be viewed as macrostates (the "phenotype" level) to which numerous microstates (the "genotype" level) belong.

While configuration entropy is important in phylogenesis, ontogenesis is concerned mainly with the production of low thermal entropy as described in Schrodinger's famous book, What is Life? (8) Thus, ontogenetic development produces low thermal entropy (order) within each individual organism at the expense of high thermal entropy production in the environment. Cessation of life is characterized by a huge increase of thermal entropy (disorder) within the organism and in the environment.

The impossibility of instructionist cultural evolution excludes the standard social science model. Thus, an individual does not consist of indeterminate material to be molded by social factors. Because of the restrictions imposed by the second law of thermodynamics, the evolution of culture is best explained by selectionist mechanisms that can be abstracted into an algorithmic process. The algorithm of selectionism consists of populations of independent units that can be copied. The best copies are selected through environmental interaction. Darwinian evolution, the most thoroughly investigated selectionist process, and thermodynamics further illuminate this algorithm. The units of selection (genes in Darwinian evolution) are discrete. Copying based on discrete units is much more accurate than analogue copying. Accurate copying is necessary, because if the number of copying errors exceeds the number that selection removes, then adaptations are lost. 9 This is because the number of possible errors far outnumbers the number of possible adaptations. Thus, without discrete units, evolution and even long-term preservation of established knowledge become impossible. This is an important fact for selectionist processes in general. Nevertheless, because of the second law of thermodynamics, occasional copying errors occur, making evolution possible. Too many copying errors lead to corruption of knowledge such as "mutational meltdown" in biological evolution, whereas extremely accurate copying provides very little variation on which evolution can feed. Rapid evolution lies somewhere between these extremes ("the edge of chaos").

3. How the Individual Internalizes the Local Culture.

Discrete units carrying information are abundant in human society. Human language consists of discrete words that can be copied. I suggest that words and sentences (microstates) correspond to the "genotype" level and represent meanings (macrostates) corresponding to the "phenotype" level. Grasping the meaning represented by speech requires brain mechanisms including a native language module. (10) Writing, and especially printing, allows more accurate and stable storing of words than that of which the brain is capable because of the long-term structural stability of written and printed texts. However, regardless of how words are stored (internal or external to the brain), the individual constitutes the arena in which the "phenotype" interaction of meanings takes place. There is no meaning independent of individual brains. (11) Because of the constraints of the second law of thermodynamics, the brain of a child is not an empty bucket into which novel knowledge such as language can be poured. This means that conjectures representing possible novel knowledge first arise within an individual brain, and the only known mechanisms capable of this are selectionist.

Cultural phenomena include social behaviors, artifacts and mental entities such as beliefs, taboos and values. For example, novel beliefs such as a scientific hypothesis first arise in an individual brain represented by discrete neurophysiological information. This belief is then made public either by oral or written presentation. Whether this belief is generally accepted (selected) or not by the public, depends on how this belief fares in each individual brain. Thus, if a novel belief fits the existing beliefs, then it tends to be selected. The selection of a novel belief may happen at the expense of an older belief that now seems insufficient in comparison. However, it is important to stress that the evaluation of novel cultural phenomena always takes place in individual brains.

There are several hypotheses on selectionist brain processes. Calvin proposed that hexagonal spatiotemporal firing patterns of pyramidal neurons in the human cortex represent self-copying units embodying information about both the internal and the external environment. (12) I suggest that when a child meets new cultural phenomena, the brain automatically produces different conjectures, possibly represented by firing patterns as described by Calvin. Interaction takes place at the "phenotype" level of meanings within the brain, and the conjecture corresponding best to the cultural phenomena is selected. Although this process is open, it is a focused process guided by innate brain mechanisms and previous knowledge. This is analogous to biochemical mechanisms, which tend to focus genetic mutations at certain places in the genome to increase the likelihood of producing fit antibodies when the body is attacked by foreign bacteria or viruses. (13)

The selected conjecture is not guaranteed to be identical in different children meeting the same cultural phenomena. On the contrary, children are very likely to differ in understanding a novel concept; because children have common innate brain mechanisms and because they live in similar environments, they will converge over time towards similar understanding of a concept. However, two individuals from different environments may interpret the same cultural phenomena differently.

Although speech is discrete, the copying and storing mechanisms are much less accurate for speech than for written units. Because of this disadvantage, oral cultures can only change when copying errors are too numerous for complex evolution. Nevertheless, the level of complexity of oral cultures can persist for ages. This is because long-term persistence of complex oral cultures is linked to the stability of genes through natural selection. Otherwise, oral cultures would rapidly corrupt as a result of the second law of thermodynamics, analogous to the threat of mutational meltdown in biological evolution. For example, although languages may be very different, they are all equally complex because language is linked to common innate language modules in all cultures. (10) Consistent with this, oral cultures are found to be conservative and communal, and do not tolerate much deviant behavior. (14) An individualistic oral culture would result in rapid fragmentation and corruption of knowledge because of a lack of stable storing mechanisms.

Compared with oral societies, the cultural evolution of literate societies is more complex. Written and especially printed texts consist of discrete units (words) and allow information to be stored in more stable structures compared with the storing mechanisms of the brain. The discrete nature of phonetic alphabets such as the Greek alphabet and its derivatives makes copying very accurate. In addition, the phonetic alphabet allows very minute nuances of meaning to be stored, especially because meanings are clearly differentiated from printed texts (analogous to phenotype-genotype division). Texts based on pictographs, ideograms or hieroglyphs are totally different from texts based on phonetic alphabets and are more liable to copying error. Similarly, discrete musical notation and printing provided a phenotype-genotype division in music, igniting a revolution in music after 1500. The playing of a symphony corresponds to phenotype, whereas the score corresponds to genotype. For thermodynamic reasons, it is no accident that Europe evolved rapidly after the printing press based on the Latin alphabet was invented. Likewise, the revolution in philosophy coincided with the arrival of the Greek alphabet.

Because printed texts can be copied and multiplied, they have properties in common with selection units, and (in fact) I believe they do represent such units. However, the "phenotype" level at which these written or printed units interact with the environment is inside the individual brain. The phenotype is either concealed within the brain as thoughts based on concepts or disclosed to others via behavior (including speech) and artifacts. The meaning of printed texts resides inside the individual brain as a result of neurophysiological selection mechanisms. Whether a novel printed text is successful or not, as revealed by multiple copying of the text, depends on the verdict of individual selectionist brain mechanisms.

The copying of printed texts is sometimes incorrect and produces variant texts analogous to mutations. What is the role of copying errors in texts in cultural evolution? I believe that this role is negligible, although not zero. Much more important are the errors produced by the selectionist neurophysiological mechanisms within each individual brain when meanings are attributed to printed texts. An important reason for the differential impact on cultural evolution of the two types of errors is the time-scale. The selectionist mechanisms inside the brain operate on time-scales measured from milliseconds to minutes, whereas copying printed texts operates on time-scales measured from days to years. Internalized knowledge can evolve rapidly within an individual because of the speed of selectionist brain mechanisms. Since memory often fails, the evolution of knowledge within an individual brain is supported by writing down intermediate knowledge. Printed texts represent a ratchet on which the further evolution of cultural knowledge within individual brains depends.

Like all selectionist processes, cultural evolution is a population-based process. The mutation of knowledge starts in an individual brain, but further success depends on whether or not other people accept the mutated knowledge when they mobilize internal selectionist mechanisms. Further, the speed of cultural evolution depends on the frequency that printed texts are copied and distributed. Printing is inexpensive and allows texts to be copied rapidly, thus, increasing the availability of knowledge to individuals of different backgrounds. Wide distribution of knowledge to numerous people raises the likelihood of mutating, successful knowledge, and successful combinations of knowledge from different domains. Hence, literate cultures are more individualistic than oral cultures. (14)

In addition to accurate copying and the rapid dissemination of knowledge, printing based on the phonetic alphabet offers important advantages by facilitating criticism. Mutations (of culture) in oral cultures tend to dissipate, whereas written mutations allow time for reflection, thereby helping novel knowledge to be selected or eliminated. (15) Therefore, printing accelerates cultural evolution in at least four important ways: 1. Stable storing, 2. Accurate copying, 3. Rapid (inexpensive) dissemination of copies, and 4. Facilitating criticism.

The view presented here is consistent with both cultural similarities within groups and differences between groups. However, in contrast to leading theories in anthropology, the present supposition predicts basic cultural similarities across all cultures because of innate brain mechanisms and environmental aspects common to all people this according to what anthropologist have found. (16) Examples of similarities (although specifics may differ) are numerous and include language, rituals, inheritance rules, color classification, kin classification, incest avoidance, marriage, food sharing and trade.

4. Institutions

The previous section dealt with internalization of culture in individuals and mechanisms for cultural evolution of knowledge. However, in culture there seems to be adaptations at the inter-individual level (institutions). Institutions such as marriage, taboos, eating rituals, rules for inheritance, and many other rules for inter-individual conduct are represented in individuals in oral cultures. Stability is maintained by communal interaction, and complex institutions can be preserved in the long-term because they are tied to natural selection. However, there is very little complex evolution: the institutions in oral cultures only change as a result of the second law of thermodynamics.

The complex evolution of institutions became possible when literate culture arrived. This is because institutions in literate cultures are tied to stable written or printed texts (in addition to brains). Institutional entrepreneurs may propose novel institutional arrangements benefiting other people. For example, financial institutions probably evolved because entrepreneurs by trial and error developed better arrangements for investment and credit. Primitive money was probably already being used in oral cultures, but the further evolution of complex financial institutions depended on rules stored in written or printed texts. (17) Institutions such as banks came into existence because trial and error by entrepreneurs facilitated human interaction. Similarly, evolution of the institution of law in literate societies resulted from trial and error by entrepreneurial lawmakers (judges) based on the precedent of previous written verdicts.

In modern cultures, rules governing behavior are a mixture of unwritten rules comparable to those of oral societies and evolved printed rules. Sometimes printed rules are more or less at odds with our innate disposition towards the acceptability of rules. This can be seen in politics, in which, for example, social justice is an important concept. However, economists have shown that social justice often implies policies that may reduce overall rising standards of living. Thus, politics is often an arena in which gut feelings derived from our innate dispositions (our heritage from oral culture) compete with novel rules based on cultural evolution after the dawn of the literate era.

5. Conclusion

Meanings, representing low-configuration entropy, are physical and reside in individual brains. Because of common evolutionary heritage and experience, meanings are more or less similar in humans. Novel knowledge cannot be instructed because of the second law of thermodynamics. Selectionist mechanisms are located somewhere between the knowledge and adaptations of today and the unforeseeable knowledge and adaptations of the future. In oral cultures, complex cultural evolution is impossible because the units of selection reside within individual human brains. These units are not very stable and copying is prone to frequent error, preventing cultural evolution. However, in literate societies printed texts represent much more stable units, thereby allowing the complex evolution of culture. The meaning of printed texts resides in individual brains, and the evolution of culture depends on the conjectures arising in individual brains. For knowledge to evolve, these conjectures must be written down. The digital (discrete) nature of printed texts based on a phonetic alphabet promotes accurate copying, which is necessary to avoid the corruption of knowledge resulting from the second law of thermodynamics. Complex evolution of culture involves institutions. The evolution of institutions depends on printed texts representing discrete selection units. These units affect institutions via individual human beings, and mutating units arise in individuals before they are written down. In oral cultures, there is no evolution towards more complex institutions, only change.

6. References

(1.) Tooby, J. and Cosmides, L. (1992). "The psychological foundations of culture." In Barkow, J. H., Cosmides, L., and Tooby, J., (Eds.), The adapted mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

(2.) Landauer, R. (1987). "Computation: A fundamental physical view." Physica Scripta, 35, 88-95.

(3.) Dawkins, R. (1992). The extended phenotype. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(4.) Plotkin, H. (1994). Darwin machines and the nature of knowledge. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

(5.) Cziko, G. (1995). Without miracles. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

(6.) Naess, H. (2003). "Instructionism is impossible due to the second law of thermodynamics." Journal of Mind and Behavior, 24, 57-66.

(7.) Elitzur, A. C. (1994). "Let there be life." Journal of Theoretical Biology, 168, 429-459.

(8.) Schrodinger, E. (1967). What is life? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(9.) Riley, M. (2000). Mendel's demon. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

(10.) Pinker, S. (1994). The Language instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. London: Penguin Press.

(11.) Turner, M. (1994). "Design for a theory of meaning." In Overton, W. F. and Palermo, D. S., (eds.), The nature and ontogenesis of meaning. Hillsdale, N. J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

(12.) Calvin, W. (1996). The cerebral code. Cambridge, Mass. The MIT Press.

(13.) Caporale, L. H. (2003). Darwin and the genome. New York: McGraw Hill.

(14.) Ong, W. J. (2001). Orality and Literacy. London: Routledge.

(15.) Goody, J. (1977). The domestication of the savage mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(16.) Brown, D. E. (1991). Human universals. New York: McGraw Hill.

(17.) Menger, C. (1976). Principles of economics. New York: New York University Press.

Halvor Naess, MD, PhD

Department of Neurology, Haukeland University Hospital

University of Bergen, N-5021 Bergen, Norway

E-mail: halvor.naess@haukeland.no
COPYRIGHT 2005 Temple University - of the Commonwealth System of Higher Education, through its Center for Frontier Sciences
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:News & Views
Author:Naess, Halvor
Publication:Frontier Perspectives
Geographic Code:4EXNO
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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