June 11, 2006

HBES 2006

The Human Behavior and Evolution Society is in town for its annual meeting. Last night was the keynote address by Dan Dennett, "Domesticating the Wild Memes of Folk Religion":

Organized religions are brilliantly designed social systems. Reverse engineering them suggests that some of their features are ancient, and have no authors, while others are the more or less deliberate brainchildren of religion-designers--and these answer to rather different selection pressures. Like features under sexual selection, which are shaped by interactions with the perceptual and cognitive systems of potential mates, some features of organized religions are "intelligently" selected. But still, Orgel's Second Rule applies: Evolution is cleverer than you are.

Rob Kurzban asked me to introduce Dennett, so here's what I wrote for the purpose:

Daniel Dennett is Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He's also the author of many books, including The Intentional Stance, Consciousness Explained, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Kinds of Minds, Freedom Evolves, and most recently and relevantly, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

With these books, Prof. Dennett has accomplished something extraordinarily rare in the modern world. Over the past century, our culture has erected a wall separating serious scholarly and scientific writing from popularization. Fewer and fewer works simultaneously have a serious impact on scholars and scientists, and also appeal to a general intellectual audience, in the way that books by Locke or Darwin or William James did.

Breaking the Spell contains things of professional interest to academics in many disciplines: philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, economists, biologists.... It even raises some issues of central concern to my own guild of linguistics.

But Breaking the Spell is also having an impact outside of academia. When I checked earlier today, it was #345 on amazon’s list, just in between Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Yesterday, it was in between The Pearl, by John Steinbeck, and The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway. The only other philosophical work near it, in yesterday’s rankings (and it was five places behind) was Burnt Toast: And Other Philosophies of Life, by Teri Hatcher, one of the stars of Desperate Housewives.

So why is Dan Dennett’s serious (if often entertaining) investigation of the natural philosophy of religion running neck-and-neck with Teri Hatcher’s “personal, heartfelt, and often very funny manifesto on life, love, and the lessons we all need to learn -- and unlearn -- on the road to happiness”?

My hypothesis is that three factors explain their success. First, both authors engage topics that are simultaneously timeless and timely – Hatcher deals with “life, love and dying cats”, while Dennett deals with the nature of religion. Second, their writing offers memorable illustrations of their striking and attractive personal style – Dennett’s exploration of our likely reaction to the epidemiological discovery that music causes Alzheimer’s is as unforgettable as Hatcher’s story of having a t-shirt made up to express her disappointment with a date’s virility. And third, they present clear and broadly-applicable theories – Hatcher suggests that “happiness and success are choices that we owe it to ourselves to make”, while Dennett argues that in culture, as in biology, there are many questions, but only one answer (variation and selection).

But we don’t have to rely on my hypotheses when we can examine the phenomenon itself. I feel deeply honored to introduce Daniel Dennett, one of my intellectual heroes, who will speak on the subject Domesticating the Wild Memes of Folk Religion.

Dan was pleased to learn that Ms. Hatcher is a fellow-philosopher, and speculated that perhaps they could write a book together.

Amy Alkon has some interesting posts on HBES 2006 activities here, here, here and here. In this case, the blogosphere seems to be way ahead of the old media: the only thing that I get this morning by searching Google News for {HBES} is this recycled press release. That's curious, given how evocative many HBES presentations are. You can tell just from a random sample of titles, say the posters that Amy Alkon has pictures of here, or a few examples taken from the first few pages of the program: "The Role of 'Outrages' in the Evolved Psychology of Intergroup Conflict"; "Deception as a Strategy in Long-Term and Short-Term Mating"; "I Don't Get It: Further Evidence for the Encryption Theory of Humor"; "How Fatal 'Accidents' Select for Higher General Intelligence"; "They All Look the Same to Me (Unless They're Angry)"; and so on. I'd think that science reporters would be all over this one. Perhaps we'll see some uptake over the next few weeks?

Looking over the HBES 2006 program, it strikes me at this meeting, linguistics was the one dog that (mostly) didn't bark.

There was a "speech" session on Thursday, which included these paper titles:

"An Evolutionary Explanation for a Deep Voice in the Human Male"; "Maintenance of Vocal Sexual Dimorphism: Adaptive Selection Against Androgyny"; "Male Facial Attractiveness, Perceived Personality, and Child Directed Behaviour"; "Evidence for Universals in Infant-Directed Speech"; "Is Low Voice Pitch a Male Dominance Display?"

As a speech person, I'm pleased to see my subdiscipline represented, but where's the rest of the field? There's a lot of interesting recent stuff on the biological evolution of language, but there was none of it at HBES 2006.

It's easier to explain why work on cultural evolution in language was missing -- HBES seems to be mostly a gene-oriented group. Except for Dennett's talk, the word "meme" only occurs in one paper in the 2006 HBES program.

Still, there's an interesting and curious cultural gap here, even if HBES 2006 is not the best place to look for evidence of it. Darwin took the concept of "descent with modification" from historical linguistics; and the idea of language change as cultural evolution via variation and selection has remained central in modern sociolinguistics, as can be seen in the title of one the key journals in that subfield, Language Variation and Change; but partisans of memetics and linguistic researchers don't pay much attention to one another, as far as I can tell.

If meme is to become a scientifically useful concept -- and I'm agnostic on this issue -- then surely a key test will be its application to the origin and spread of linguistic innovation. This includes ubiquitous but sporadic word-related phenomena such as neologisms, idioms, collocations, connotations, figures of speech, and lexicalized metaphors. And it also includes the more systematic processes of change in sound systems, word formation and inflection, and sentence structure. I don't mean to ask whether you could use the term "meme" to talk about these things. Some people (though mostly not linguists) do that all the time. What I want to know is whether this way of talking can be turned into a scientifically interesting model, or even a sketched explanation that goes beyond the obvious common-sense observation that people make stuff up all the time, and a few of these inventions catch on and spread, sometimes with changes.

[Email from Cosma Shalizi:

I've just read your post about the HBES meeting, and am radiating deep envy in the direction of Philadelphia.
I have run across references to two books which sound like they're trying to do something serious with memes and linguistics, but unfortunately I have not had the chance to read either of them:

* Andrew Chesterman, Memes of Translation: The Spread of Ideas in Translation Theory (John Benjamins Co., 1997)
* Nikolaus Ritt, Selfish Sounds and Linguistic Evolution: A Darwinian Approach to Language Change (Cambridge U.P., 2004)

There is also a book supposedly applying Dan Sperber's non-memetic (but close) "epidemology of representations" to linguistic change in Asia:
* N. J. Enfield, Linguistic Epidemiology: Semantics and Grammar of Language Contact in Mainland Southeast Asia (Routledge, 2002)
but again I've not been able to lay hold of it.

Of course there's also Juliette Blevins' Evolutionary Phonology.

Here's a bit of memetic (or at least selectionist) analysis. The three books in this list that deal with cultural evolution of language share a relatively high price ($100 for Ritt, $135 for Enfield, $100 for Blevins), and presumably also a fairly low availability in libraries. Though I buy more $100 books than I like to think about (and I already own the Blevins volume), I can't bring myself to buy every such book that looks like it might be interesting. One can argue that we (I include myself) should adjust our expectations for book prices -- attending a conference can easily cost over between one and two thousand dollars for airfare, hotel bills and registrations, equivalent to 10 to 20 high-priced academic books. On the other hand, the production and replication cost of such books is usually only a fraction of their price; and in principle, their content could be made available for free on the web. More important, what is the likely success of a field that locks its ideas up in such high-priced boxes, compared to one that makes itself available for free?

There is considerable evidence that "Open Acess" to individual articles increases their impact, as measured by citation indices and so forth. Is there a comparable effect for whole subfields? ]

[Cosma replies:

Re book pricing, I continue to be astonished by things like this:
because it makes me wonder why we still act like this was our situation:

Indeed. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 11, 2006 07:36 AM