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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

Ideas And Organisms: What Translates, And What Doesn't

by Scott Johnson

The Counterpoint Of Species, 1997

  1. Introduction
  2. A Strobe Light And A Staircase
  3. Splitting The Adam
  4. Ideas And Organisms: What Translates, And What Doesn't
  5. Stir Thoroughly, And Not All At Once
  6. Growing A Purpose
  7. Uses And Niches
  8. The Fools On The Hill Go Down In The Valley
  9. The Urge To Procreate
  10. Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, The In-Laws, And The Kids [Hybrids, Thoroughbreds, and Survival]

     Music has both an inside and an outside. Its internal concepts and terminology are necessary for understanding and describing the music itself, but they are not sufficient for explaining the transactions it makes with the surrounding world; transactions involving education, economics, class, stylistic tribalism, audience demographics, and serendipitous inspiration from unexpected sources, whether romantic landscapes or modern math. Conversely, ideas imported from the philosophy of science are not going to be of much use in understanding any individual piece of music, much less enjoying it emotionally. But physical evolution has some illuminating and relevant tales to tell as we again redefine the modern musical world. It has something to say about extremes of purity, in the form of dangerously specific adaptations that put all of a creature's eggs in one basket. It has something to say about the fragmentation of habitat, and how shrinking gene pools and loss of species diversity can set isolated systems up for a crash under the pressure of healthy new invaders. And it underscores the unprecedented ability of the human mind to create hybrids and assimilate portions of seemingly distant and distinct virtual lineages; to trade bits of foreign thematic material and enter into a counterpoint of species.

     As we have seen, the basic principles of evolutionary change travel well. From a young animal's hunting lessons all the way to rocket science, culture is a continuation by other means of life's basic business: transmitting its hard-won information into the future. Whether in an evolving species in the natural world or a cultural project like music, new uses are found for existing structures, previous transformations are transformed again, and things gradually lose their resemblance to their ancestors. The function of ecological forces also transfers comfortably, merely requiring us to acknowledge that our opinions, passions, or indifference exert selective pressures among ideas and behaviors just as surely as bugs or a particularly dry summer do among plants. But there are differences between the mechanisms and materials of nature and culture which are concrete and unavoidable, and we need to take note of the details and recognize the limits of analogy. Unlike genetic information, ideas can spread throughout a population within a generation. They are extremely mobile, divisible into parts, and utterly promiscuous. And they are capable of transmission and hybridization over the gulfs between widely divergent species of cultural endeavor: the intellect's lamb and lion indeed lay down together, and not for a nap either.

     A discredited 19th century evolutionary heresy called Lamarckism speculated that a creature's life experience and learning could be somehow biologically passed along to its heirs, when in fact the "germ line" of reproductive cells spends an entire life cordoned off from the "somatic line", which consists of all of the other cells of the body. If Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had been right, it would have provided a huge enhancement of evolution's speed and efficiency. Each species would possess the ability to learn quickly from its mistakes, and then pass the news along on an individual basis. That, of course, is exactly what has been accomplished in the cultural realm of ideas, behaviors, and artifacts.

     Compared to the slow and wasteful mechanisms of biology, the exchange of learnable behaviors and ideas provides huge advantages in speed and efficiency, both within and between separate cultural lineages. Inheritance becomes a network, as groups or even single individuals experiment with partial and selective hybridization; in essence, freely picking and choosing their own conceptual parents. Variation becomes directional through individual invention, which is simply a new way of putting proposals on life's table: a way of crafting targeted alternatives, rather than waiting for one of nature's accidental mutations. Selection's edge is blunted by choice and learning, as people switch strategies and drape layers of options over the hard-wired behaviors inherited from simpler animals. Conscious invention and continual revision can avoid much of the massive waste of time and effort involved in the biosphere's endless process of sorting through randomly generated variations, blindly searching for that one in a million which will somehow happen to work better.

     Thus our ability to choose freely does not contradict or refute an evolutionary outlook on life; it is in fact the very essence of our particular evolutionary path, and the key to our success as a species. The human brain can break down and reassemble its knowledge of the past, and from these raw materials we can picture the possible future effects of our choices in the mind's eye before making a physical commitment, allowing what neurobiologist Antonio Damasio calls "memories of a possible future".2 Once they have been mentally previewed, new combinations of invention and influence can be taken for trial runs as fast as they can come off the behavioral assembly lines. Experiments seldom have to wait generations to find out if selective pressures will make a judgment on their viability; unless, like most of the details of our lives, they are simply ignored because their positive or negative effects are so minuscule or counterbalanced that they fall beneath the radar of adaptation. In any given year, a human community can gossip, trade, and legislate its way through enough successful, failed, or indifferent experiments to keep whole species of bees busy for centuries.

     Slow rates of change, linear inheritance, and formal purity within art forms is exactly what we would expect if they evolved in the way that the natural world does. Biological lineages can't undergo too much mutation in too short a time and still remain viable, and they are unforgivingly specific about the details. Without the right number of genes making the right chemicals in the right proportions, a would-be mutant cannot even win the right to fail. In the biosphere, breeding and blending over any evolutionary distance seems to be out of the question for complex organisms, with the mixing of DNA confined to closely related subspecies and to the pared-down parasitism of viruses. Past a certain point, divergence within individual lineages creates species which are forever separate. They can still interact on an ecological level: they can compete, they can cooperate, or they can move to opposite ends of the forest, but they can never again interbreed.

     So there is no clear genetic parallel to the free and fast exchange of distant information that creates a Zeitgeist of shared ideas across a society's specialized branches. Although many genes serve nearly identical functions in species as distant as mammals and insects, they come by their similarity only by inheritance, not by communication. For example, eyes have been passed on along chains of descent, and they have been independently evolved in separate lineages (convergent evolution), but no blind species has ever obtained eyes by genetically "noticing" that everybody else seems to have them, and then copying their DNA (although selection by external forces could offer a species a more roundabout way of "noticing" everyone else's optical advantage through the death of its most photo-insensitive individuals, eventually growing its own eyes if it could survive long enough to do so). To create a true ecological version of a cultural Zeitgeist, free-floating genes would have to somehow splice themselves from species to species. But apparently that's not how it works above a single-celled level (although it's likely that cell organelles are the descendants of engulfed symbiotes). Stravinsky said that a great artist steals rather than borrows, but a great species doesn't have either option: it must experiment and develop from scratch, staying among its own kind.

     This is not what we generally see when we look at cultural evolution: traditions with anything approaching this sort of stability and formal repetition usually require isolation or sacralisation to survive. They are very difficult to maintain in the presence of a large and varied culture, because some percentage of their members will adopt whatever borrowed practices appeal to them, and incorporate them into their own work. Hybrids abound, and altered artistic traditions can rarely be put back together outside of museum-like settings, dedicated to the appreciation of genres which are no longer producing new works.

     Culture's talent for making hybrids suggests a variation on the single most common and useful image of evolution: that of a tree, with its trunk dividing into multiple branches as new forms of life arise. Since biological subspecies can't separate very far from each other without losing their ability to interbreed, the overall shape of the tree comes from pronounced, large scale divergences into whole new branches. The only convergences are within species, between organisms so close to each other that they appear to exist as a solid branch. Now if we climb up the animal branch to the vertebrates, take a left at the fish and go all the way through mammals and primates, we will find a place where the tree is looking very different. From the human twig, a complex culture has sprouted. The familiar genetic branches have started to grow vine-like extensions, which not only diverge under the pressures of variation and selection like everything else on the tree, but also curve back and wrap around each other, forming bundled branches of converged ideas and practices. These cultural constructs are themselves subjected to evolutionary forces, and we don't have to travel very far to find two examples of such vine-like composite limbs, assembled in mid-air. The "modern synthesis" in evolutionary thought is a 20th century hybrid of Darwinian principles and a post-Mendelian genetic biology which did not exist in his time, and I am borrowing some thoughts from it to throw a different light upon the current state of Western art music, a braided cable which came into its own centuries ago after it began to hybridize elements from separate sacred and profane branches within the music of earlier periods.

     Artists and scientists alike fondly collect tales of inspiration from unlikely associations, proving again and again that fragments can be broken off from bodies of thought and still prove fruitful. This ability to merge separate lineages, in whole or in part, is called anastomosis, after the merging of blood vessels. The word itself makes the point that living cultural traditions, like their biological counterparts, exist as conduits for information, not simply as sequential collections of forms. Richard Dawkins' controversial concept of memes3 proposes a mechanism for this transfer of ideational material. A meme is a memorable idea which easily copies itself into different minds, and provides a template for their activities. Here are some memes: the idea of an insurance company, or of an umbrella, or a bass drum, or of tending to play that bass drum on beat one. Such eminently imitate-able chunks of thought and behavior spread like viruses, and if one accepts the basic outlines of this scenario, then there are repercussions for group cultural endeavors which already have a difficult set of skills and concepts to teach to their members.

     The opening of new channels between cultural conduits tends to subvert the purity of genres by injecting competing memes, which suggest different ways of doing things, or different things to focus one's attention upon. What does this mean for individuals, whose curiosity drives the entire process? More stuff to learn; maybe even too much. The sheer difficulty of learning new and strange materials will offer a cultural tradition some protection from distracting influences, but if genres really wish to preserve their purity, they will also respond with social pressures upon their members, inducing them to reject such wayward impulses out of loyalty, shame, or disdain for the source of contamination. Thus is born both the concentration of the master and the obstinacy of the reactionary. A familial chain of masters and students, trained to operate according to biology's model of linear inheritance, discourages attention to the potentially distracting memetic messages arriving laterally from adjacent cultural conduits. Filtering incoming data to avoid overload and confusion is not a trivial function, and the advantages to members are obvious, but the group loyalty which enforces these attitudes is adapted from the same basic program as the local pride driving other human groupings: family and tribe, team and nation. This double-edged sword makes musical traditions prone to the rigidity and defensiveness which are so often the downfall of other cultural groupings, at the same time that it offers a means for conserving skills, and a buffer against the wasting of energy and attention.


1 On this point, see Stephen Jay Gould's essays "Bushes and Ladders in Human Evolution", from Ever Since Darwin, 1977, New York, Norton; or "Life's Little Joke" from Bully For Brontosaurus, 1991, New York, Norton.

2 Antonio Damasio, 1994, Descartes Error. New York, Grosset/Putnam (chapter 10 p. 239). Descartes Error is not specifically about evolution, but about its outcome. Damasio's examination of how the mind/brain/body allows us to imagine the future describes the operating system which gives cultural evolution its unique qualities. Also, his overall point about the crucial role which emotions play in reasoning should be both gratifying and intuitively familiar to most artists.

3 Richard Dawkins, 1976, new edition 1989, The Selfish Gene. Oxford, Oxford University Press (chapter 11). This book is a central text in sociobiology, which sometimes suffers from the long and unhappy history of attempts to derive right wing political implications from knowledge about our place in the natural world. But the idea of memes is not necessarily responsible for the behavior of all of its relatives. For a brief and lucid summary of the concept, see also Daniel Dennett's 1990 Memes and the Exploitation of Imagination, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 48.

4 Daniel Dennett, 1995, Darwin's Dangerous Idea New York, Touchstone, pp. 203-204. This book is a sweeping attempt to make a whole of biological Darwinism and its ethical, cultural, and philosophical implications. The determined attack on Gould as a threat to Darwinism may seem puzzling to outsiders.

5 As I was editing this essay, an article by Richard Taruskin appeared in the New York Times (9/24/97) in which he referred to classical music's concern with artistic pedigree and inherited texts as "vertical", versus the "horizontal" influence of recordings, which reflect a cross-section of what is available in our living culture, regardless of source. As far as I can tell, his "vertical" is essentially identical to my "linear", and his "horizontal" to my "lateral". I hope that this concept enters into common use, under whatever name survives the selection process.

6 Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, 1979, The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, vol. B205, no. 1161.

7 Stephen Jay Gould, "Not Necessarily A Wing", from Bully For Brontosaurus, 1991, New York, Norton.

8 Stephen Jay Gould and Elizabeth Vrba, 1981, Exaptation: A Missing Term in the Science of Form, Paleobiology, vol. 8.

9 Ernst Mayr, 1988, "An Analysis of the Concept of Natural Selection", from Towards A New Philosophy of Biology (p. 99), Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

10 For several days, I thought this visual analogy was of my own imagining, but then I noticed that on p.192 of Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which I had read several months earlier, there is a similar visual image in a quote from Manfred Eigen's Steps Towards Life (1992 Oxford University Press). It is populated by genetic mutations, with different meanings attached to the hills and valleys in the terrain, and no miners clomping around its abstract topography in their dirty boots. Well, at least I get a good example of the exaptation of an idea as a consolation prize.