Saturday, August 23, 2008

New Historicism as Self-Fulfilling Process

From "The Six Essentials: Minimal Requirements for the Darwinian Bootstrapping of Quality" by William H. Calvin (Journal of Memetics <>).

History as a Darwinian Process

History qua history—what it includes, what it leaves out, and how these change over time—provides us with a memetic example of these six essentials at work [i.e. (1) pattern—(2) a copied pattern—(3) with occasional chance variations, (4) variations that compete for limited space, (5) the competition being biased by an environment (= natural selection), (6) new variants occurring preferentially around the more successful of current patterns (= the inheritance principle)]. Of the many happenings, some are captured in patterned sentences that describe who did what to whom, why, and with what means.

Some of these patterns are retold (copied), often with little confusions (variation) and conflations (superpositions). Alternative versions of stories compete for the limited space of bookstore shelves or the limited time of campfire storytelling. There is a multifaceted environment that affects their success, the association of the described events to those of everyday life. In particular, the environment contains mental schemas and scripts; as Aristotle noted and all four-year-olds demanding bedtime stories seem to know, a proper narrative has a beginning, middle, and end—and so "good stories" fare much better in the memorized environment. (Especially those conveyed by historical novels that strengthen the narrative aspects!) Finally, because historians rewrite earlier historians, we see Darwin's inheritance principle in action: new variations are preferentially based on the more successfully copied of the current generation of historical stories, and so history has a drift to better and better fits to language instincts (such as chunking and narratives) because current relevance is shifting and ephemeral.

After many generations, only those stories of timeless relevance are left alongside the likely-ephemeral contemporary ones. Quality emerges, in some sense, as in the way that the nine-part epic tales studied by Misia Landau (youth sets out on a quest, fails, returns, sets out again with a helper, survives a new set of trials and tribulations, finally succeeds and returns home, and so on) seem to have emerged in many cultures from the retelling of simpler narratives, generation after generation. Our modern origin stories, the anthropological scenarios about human ancestors during the tribulations of the ice age climate changes, are even said to follow the epic template!

Can history, as we know it, run on a reduced set—say, without the inheritance principle? (Imagine storytellers always reviewing a videotape before telling the story again, so variations were always done from an unchanging "standard version.") Certainly, a pattern that copied and varied, with retelling biased by resonances with current memories of the current population, would be impressive—but the anchoring of the center of variation to the standard version would keep stories from drifting very far and prevent the recursive bootstrapping of quality.

Suppose that, instead of eliminating inheritance, we loosened the environmental influence—say, individuals' memories for unique episodes faded within a year. The often-told tales would simply drift, adapting to current concerns, losing those of the antepenultimate generation. It would be about like the whale songs that drift from one year to the next. What you would lose, lacking a good memorized environment that persisted a lifetime to overlap several generations, would be shaping up of quality (those timeless stories with universal relevance, the resonance with episodes recurring only twice in a lifetime, and so forth).

My first "knock-out mutation" sounds, of course, like what we try to train scholars to do ("Avoid secondary sources! Read the original!"), while my second is merely an exaggerated version of the ahistoricism of preliterate societies (the Navajo emigrated from the Yukon to the American Southwest about 500 years ago, but this great migration has been lost to them, recovered only through a linguistic and genetic analysis of the Athabascan peoples). History, however, is not merely the retention of facts: it involves detecting patterns and attempting to understand them -- and this involves making good guesses and refining them. That intellectual endeavor is, I suggest in How Brains Think, another full-fledged Darwinian process.

Competition between concepts is, of course, one of the ways in which science advances; evolutionary epistemology treats this as a Darwinian process. The advance of science differs from ordinary history because the environment biasing the competition between concepts involves a broad range of testing against reality.

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