Kyushu University, User Science Institute
Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory has recently been applied to culture. This paper aims to contribute to such evolutionary approaches by introducing the notion of information evolution. Based on Ruth Millikan’s concepts of “local information” and of “direct proper function,” this study attempts to clarify how the evolution of cultural entities is related to their informational characteristics. It finds that the very concept of local information in fact implies the concept of direct proper function. It is then shown that natural signs, including those in the cultural domain, have been selected for carrying information by a Darwinian-type selection mechanism.
Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory came to be applied to human culture in the late twentieth century. Evolutionary psychology conceives of cultural entities as phenotypes, that is, secondary units of evolution which contribute to the reproduction of human genes (Tooby & Cosmides, 1989; Cosmides & Tooby, 1989; Barkow, Cosmides, & Tooby, 1992; Pinker, 1994, 1997; Betzig, 1996). In contrast, universal Darwinism conceives of cultural entities as replicators, that is, primary units of evolution which are by themselves reproduced (Dawkins, 1976, 1983; Hull, 1988; Dennett, 1995; Cziko, 1995; Blackmore, 1999). Both evolutionary psychology and universal Darwinism are significant, for they offer the ways to explain cultural phenomena and biological phenomena under a unified framework, that is, the theory of natural selection. The aim of this paper is to support the evolutionary approaches to culture by introducing the concept of information into this context.
In evolutionary psychology, it might not be crucial to introduce the concept of information. Evolutionary psychology conceives of cultural entities as phenotypes. Evolutionary psychologists can conceive that the evolution of cultural entities results from their contribution to the reproduction of human genes. It does make sense to say that handshakes are proliferated because they contribute to the reproduction of human genes. On the other hand, universal Darwinism conceives of cultural entities as replicators. Universal Darwinists cannot conceive that the evolution of cultural entities results from their contribution to the reproduction of other entities, since cultural entities are conceived of as primary units of evolution along with genes. However, it makes sense to say that handshakes are reproduced because they carry information on friendship. In universal Darwinism, it would be crucial to clarify how the evolution of cultural entities is related to their information.
In this paper, based on Ruth Millikan’s concept of “local information” and her concept of “direct proper function,” I will attempt to clarify how the evolution of cultural entities is related to their information.1 Millikan (2000, appendix B, 2004, chapter 3) has proposed the concept of local information as an improvement of Dretske’s (1981, 1988) semantic concept of information.2 On the other hand, Millikan (1984, chapter 1) presented the concept of direct proper function to capture in a unified way, in terms of natural selection, the functions of various entities such as biological traits, customs, tools, and uses of words (see also Millikan, 1993, chapters 1 and 2, 2002). She has never compared the concept of local information with the concept of direct proper function (see also Millikan, 2005). In the next section, I will clarify a rather complicated part of Millikan’s definition of direct proper function. In the section that follows, I will point out that the concept of local information implies the concept of direct proper function. Then it will be shown that natural signs, including cultural ones, have been selected for carrying information by a mechanism one could describe as that of natural selection.3
2. Direct Proper Function
Millikan’s concept of direct proper function contrasts with Cummins’ dispositional concept of function (see Millikan, 1993, chapters 1 and 2, 2002). According to Cummins (1975), the function of an entity is its disposition which contributes to a disposition of its containing system. A heart has a disposition to pump blood, which contributes to its owner’s survival. A heart has a disposition to produce sounds too, which also contributes to its owner’s survival through medical treatment. It seems necessary for a heart to pump blood, whereas, although permitted, it doesn’t seem necessary for a heart to produce sounds. The norms of functional entities, that is, what they should do are beyond the scope of Cummins’ conception.4 Millikan calls the normative functions of various entities, such as biological traits, customs, tools, and uses of words, “direct proper functions.”5
Millikan (1984, chapter 1) defines “direct proper functions” for members of two kinds of “reproductively established families” (hereafter “REFs”). Any set of entities having the same character derived by reproductions from a certain entity or certain entities is called a “first-order reproductively established family” (hereafter “1-REF”). Such a common character is called a “reproductively established character.” (Any member of a 1-REF from which a current member m was derived by reproduction or by successive reproductions is called an “ancestor” of m.) For example, genes, viruses, imitative behaviors, and tools of the same design are members of 1-REFs. On the other hand, any set of entities produced by the same proper function of members of a REF is called a “higher-order reproductively established family” (hereafter “h-REF”). Such a character as every member of a h-REF should have is called a “Normal character.” (Any earlier member of a h-REF produced by either n or n’ of a REF, where n produces a current member m and n’ is an ancestor of n, is also called an “ancestor” of m.) For example, biological organs, innate behaviors, and outputs of instruments are members of h-REFs. Roughly, members of 1-REFs are replicators, while members of h-REFs are phenotypes. The concept of REFs captures the local natural proliferation of entities having the same character. Millikan gives the definition of direct proper function in the following way:
Where m is a member of a reproductively established family R and R has the reproductively established or Normal character C, m has the function F as a direct proper function iff:
(1) Certain ancestors of m performed F.
(2) In part because there existed a direct causal connection between having the character C and performance of the function F in the case of these ancestors of m, C correlated positively with F over a certain set of items S which included these ancestors and other things not having C.
(3) One among the legitimate explanations that can be given of the fact that m exists makes reference to the fact that C correlated positively with F over S, either directly causing reproduction of m or explaining why R was proliferated and hence why m exists. (Millikan, 1984, p. 28)
According to Millikan, if these conditions are satisfied, C’s have been selected for performing F by natural selection (see especially Millikan, 1993, chapter 2, 2002).
(1) and (2) seem rather clear, but (3) seems complicated. Millikan makes the following remark on “legitimate explanations” in (3):
There are of course many legitimate explanations, some more interesting than others, for every happening in nature. What matters here is only that explanations making reference to correlations of a certain type can be given at all for why certain traits of organisms survive. (Millikan, 1984, p. 26)
Following this remark, one among the legitimate explanations in (3) must make reference to a correlation of a certain type.6 What type of correlation? (3) requires it to be a correlation of the type in (2). In addition, for m to have F as a direct proper function, (3) requires only that such an explanation explain the proliferation of R which results in the existence of m. However, if (1) and (2) are satisfied, such an explanation can be given at all. Hence, m has F as a direct proper function if (1) and (2) are satisfied.
3. Local Information and Natural Selection
Millikan’s concept of local information is intended as an improvement of Dretske’s semantic concept of information (see Millikan, 2000, appendix B, 2004, chapter 3). According to Dretske (1981, chapter 3), certain entities are natural signs carrying information if they are instances of types that are perfectly correlated with what they sign because each instance is causally connected with what it signs.7 A certain kind of tracks are correlated with the presence of quails. Readings on fuel gauges are correlated with the amount of fuel in the tanks to which they are connected. However, as Millikan has pointed out, such a correlation does not need to be perfect. Pheasants, also in the woods, might leave the same kind of tracks, and readings on broken gauges might say “Full” where the tanks are not full. Moreover, Dretske has left it obscure how sign instances, because of which such a correlation holds, are fixed (see also Dretske, 1988, chapter 3).8 Millikan proposes conceiving of them as fixed by local natural proliferation, and gives the following characterization of information. (Note that Millikan (2000) still called local information “informationC.”)
Natural signs bearing informationC are… instances of types that are correlated with what they sign… because each sign instance is [causally] connected with what it represents in a way that recurs…. (Millikan, 2000, pp. 236-237, emphasis mine)
On the other hand, as we have seen in the last section,
Entities having a direct proper function are instances of characters that are correlated with the function because some instances are causally connected with the function in a way that recurs.
The difference between the concept of local information and the concept of direct proper function is that, while the former requires each instance, the latter requires some instances. It follows that the concept of local information implies the concept of direct proper function. The concept of direct proper function, as mentioned in the last section, implies that the functional entities have been selected for performing the function by natural selection. It follows that the concept of local information implies this: Natural signs, including cultural ones, have been selected for carrying information by natural selection (while products of natural selection, including the functional entities, are not always natural signs carrying information). For instance, genes carry information on a phenotype, are correlated with its presence, and have been selected for carrying this information in an environment. Readings on fuel gauges carry information on the amount of fuel, are correlated with it, and have been selected for carrying this information in a civilization. Consider cultural cases. Handshakes carry information on friendship, are correlated with its presence, and have been selected for carrying this information in a community. The colour “red” on a traffic light carries the information that you should stop, is correlated with the standstill of people, and has been selected for carrying this information in a society. Following the fashion or rules carries information on the intention to belong to a community or society, is correlated with it, and has been selected for carrying this information.
Semiotics came to be applied to biological phenomena in the late 20th century. Biosemiotics conceives of biological phenomena as sign processes, which are to be explained by introducing the point of view of producer/interpreters’ agencies (Anderson et al., 1984; Sebeok & Umiker-Sebeok, 1992; Hoffmeyer, 1996; Taborsky, 1999). On the other hand, in this paper, I have proposed conceiving of cultural signs as products of natural selection, which are beyond individual producer/interpreters’ agencies. In biological domains, it might offer a drastically illuminating perspective to introduce the point of view of producer/interpreters’ agencies. However, in cultural domains, reference to producer/interpreters’ agencies is a matter of course. In contrast, it would be illuminating and significant to capture the aspects of culture which are beyond individual producer/interpreters’ agencies. This paper could be seen as such an attempt.
Notes [Click Back button to return]
1. Note that I will not attempt to clarify how the evolution of cultural entities is related to information in the communication-theoretic sense (cf. Shannon, 1948; Dretske, 1981, chapter 1). See Harms (2004) for such an attempt.
2. I will follow Millikan’s abbreviation of “local natural information” to “local information.”
3. It might be that “cultural, natural signs” sounds odd, but the Darwinian approaches to culture aim to naturalize culture. Under such a perspective, “cultural, natural signs” would not sound odd.
4. Hardcastle (2002) has attempted to show that Cummins’ conception can distinguish normative functions.
5. Millikan (1993, chapters 1 and 2, 2002) has emphasized that her concept of direct proper function and Cummins’ dispositional concept of function are not competing but compatible concepts, and admitted that functions in Cummins’ sense may turn into direct proper functions. She also presented the concept of “derived proper function” to capture the functions of actions or tools which are derived from the agents’ or producers’ intentions (1984, chapter 2, see also Millikan, 2002). They may not coincide with direct proper functions.
6. Millikan (1984, p. 26) characterizes the notion “correlation” exactly in the same way as Sober (1984, pp. 281-282).
7. Millikan (2000, p. 218) has pointed out that reference to prior knowledge in Dretske’s original conception can be eliminated.
8. Barwise and Seligman (1997) also seem to have left it obscure how normal tokens of a classification, because of which an informational constraint holds, are fixed.
Anderson, M., Deely, J., Krampen, M., Ransdell, J., Sebeok, T. A., & Uexküll, T.v. (1984). A semiotic perspective on the sciences: Steps toward a new paradigm. Semiotica, 52(1-2), 7-47.
Barkow, J. H., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (Eds.). (1992). The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Barwise, J., & Seligman, J. (1997). Information flow: The logic of distributed systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Betzig, L. L. (Ed.). (1996). Human nature: A critical reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Blackmore, S. (1999). The meme machine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1989). Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. Part II. Case study: A computational theory of social exchange. Ethology and Sociobiology, 10, 51-98.
Cummins, R. (1975). Functional analysis. Journal of Philosophy, 72, 741-765.
Cziko, G. (1995). Without miracles: Universal selection theory and the second Darwinian revolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dawkins, R. (1983). Universal Darwinism. In D. S. Bendall (Ed.), Evolution from molecules to men (pp. 66-81). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dennett, D. C. (1995). Darwin’s dangerous idea: Evolution and the meanings of life. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Dretske, F. I. (1981). Knowledge and the flow of information. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Dretske, F. I. (1988). Explaining behavior: Reasons in a world of causes. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Hardcastle, V. G. (2002). On the normativity of functions. In A. Ariew, R. Cummins, & M. Perlman (Eds.), Functions: New essays in the philosophy of psychology and biology (pp. 144-156). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Harms, W. F. (2004). Information and meaning in evolutionary processes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hoffmeyer, J. (1996). Signs of meaning in the universe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Hull, D. L. (1988). Science as a process: An evolutionary account of the social and conceptual development of science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Millikan, R. G. (1984). Language, thought, and other biological categories: New foundations for realism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Millikan, R. G. (1993). White Queen psychology and other essays for Alice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Millikan, R. G. (2000). On clear and confused ideas: An essay about substance concepts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Millikan, R. G. (2002). Biofunctions: Two paradigms. In A. Ariew, R. Cummins, & M. Perlman (Eds.), Functions: New essays in the philosophy of psychology and biology (pp. 113-143). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Millikan, R. G. (2004). Varieties of meaning: The 2002 Jean Nicod lectures. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Millikan, R. G. (2005). Language: A biological model. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: How the mind creates language. New York: Morrow.
Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works. New York: Norton.
Sebeok, T. A., & Umiker-Sebeok, J. (Eds.). (1992). Biosemiotics: The semiotic web 1991. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Shannon, C. (1948). The mathematical theory of communication. Bell System Technical Journal, 27, 379-423 & 623-656.
Sober, E. (1984). The nature of selection: Evolutionary theory in philosophical focus. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Taborsky, E. (Ed.). (1999). Semiosis, evolution, energy: Towards a reconceptualization of the sign. Aachen: Shaker Verlag.
Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1989). Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. Part I: Theoretical consideration. Ethology and Sociobiology, 10, 29-49.
E-mail the editors
Pour écrire à la rédaction
© 2006, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée