Humans aren’t influenced by culture—we create it

How we got from there to here.
How we got from there to here.
Image: Reuters/Michael Caronna
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Daniel Cloud is an unlikely philosopher. He is a partner at Euphrates, a hedge fund based in Iraq, and was among the first wave of Westerners to invest in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Before that, he was an equity analyst in Indonesia, Hong Kong, and China.

These days, he spends a lot of his time thinking about evolutionary biology and the development of human culture. His new book, “The Domestication of Language,” presents an intriguing new theory of cultural evolution.

We usually think of culture as something that evolves outside of our control, a mysterious force that influences us. By looking at the language we use to communicate, Cloud suggests the alternative: we actively create our culture, and have a responsibility to do it well. Quartz sat down with Cloud to discuss these ideas and more. (This interview has been condensed and edited.)

Quartz: The first chapter of your book discusses the origin of words. If we were to ask the average person, “Where do words come from?” what do you think would be the most common answer?

Daniel Cloud: They’ll think about it carefully for a minute or two and they’ll report out some version of behaviorism. They’ll say, “Well, there must have been two monkeys sitting around, one of the monkeys made a noise every time it did some action, other monkeys came to associate that noise with the action, and then we went on from there.” I think that’s the cultural myth about this. That’s the image of the origin of language that’s been dominant since the Greeks.

Quartz: So according to this idea, the development of language is completely out of our control.

Cloud: Well, that’s one thing that’s wrong with it. It’s not faithful to psychological reality or everyday life. I guess I would call it science fiction. It’s a theory about some events that happened in the distant past, which nobody ever observed, but that seem plausible. Things like that are inevitably just some old bit of philosophy that somebody dredged up.

I think what you really have to do to get an evolutionary theory is look at what people are doing in the present and project it backwards. That’s what Darwin did. And if you look at what people are doing in the present, they mean particular things by words, they use words in a specific sense. If you prod them, they’re willing to say what sense they were using the word in, and there’s this strong feeling of intentional, conscious word choice. You can’t have a theory of the evolution of language that leaves that out. There’s something that just isn’t being explained by the image of us as robots that learn to signal in a mechanistic way, the same way a pigeon could. There’s something that humans are doing that the monkey isn’t doing.

Columbia University Press
Columbia University Press

Quartz: So what is it that’s missing?

Cloud: The problem is that in a model where you’re just responding automatically to some signal, there’s nothing in that story that says anything about your ability to detect lies. If your response is just a conditioned response, you’re hopelessly gullible. What limits animals to using relatively few signals is not that they’re stupid, it’s not that their brains are simple, it’s that they can’t trust each other. We’ve known since the work of Richard Dawkins in the ’60s and ’70s that [trust] is the really big obstacle to animal communication.

The question you’ve got to ask about human communication specifically is not “how did humans get to send each other signals in the first place?”—because even genes do that—the question is “how did we get into a situation where we can trust each other in a way chimpanzees can’t?” That’s the foundation for this whole very unusual thing that humans do.

Quartz: That brings us to the distinction you make between “artificial selection” and “natural selection.” Can you explain how this helps us understand human culture and language?

Cloud: So my theory falls into the genre of cultural evolution. The existing theory of cultural evolution is the “meme theory,” that culture works like a virus. The big problem with this is that the more bits of culture look like viruses, the more it becomes the case that they ought to be pathogenic.

There are two ways to deal with this problem. One is just to accept that most of our culture is bad for us. Or you can ask, “Is there something that’s going on with the transmission of culture that’s not going on with the transmission of viruses?” What seems to make it easy for culture to be bad for people is that it can spread from person to person without their genes being transferred. That means culture should evolve to suit itself. To stop that, you have to have some kind of external control over its replication.

I think the reason humans can have culture, and chimpanzees can’t, is that people are actively removing things—in their kids in particular—that they think are bad. A chimpanzee doesn’t know how to do that, so all it can do is avoid having culture entirely. If it had culture, it would mostly consist of things that are bad for it. But humans are smart enough to spot stuff that isn’t great or is less useful. So we do this thing of constantly weeding out potentially pathogenic or noisy aspects of our cultural inheritance, without even really noticing it. That’s what makes it possible for an adult to transfer culture to a child, that while you’re doing it you’re constantly correcting little mistakes. The “domestication” angle of language is this constant intervention.

Once you notice that human parents are doing that with their children, and once you start to look around at normal human activities, a lot of the stuff that people do every day seems like it counts as cultural gardening or weeding. Like when people argue about the meaning of a word, they think that there is some formal meaning out there that they’re trying to capture. But what’s really happening is that their collective sense of what the word means has deteriorated and become noisy, and they’re trying to filter it and get it back into something clean and well defined.

Quartz: The title of your book is “The Domestication of Language.” How is the process you’re describing in language like the domestication of animals?

Cloud: This is just Darwin’s story. I’m just taking Darwin’s story and transferring it over to language. Darwin wanted to prove that evolution happens at all. There was a lot of skepticism about that. So he said, “Just look at how much cows have changed, or how much pigeons have changed, in the last 100 years.” He had the good fortune to live in a society where commercial animal breeding and horticulture were really taking off, and if these people had been able to change long-horned cows into herefords in a couple hundred years, surely natural processes could accomplish the same sort of thing over millions of years. You don’t have a human being making choices about which cows are the best cows; now you have the environment making choices.

Quartz: And this process is self-emergent. No single person is trying to influence the entire species.

Cloud: Exactly. And nobody has an image of a hereford cow in their mind when they start. Darwin’s story is that, before Victorian times, people would just say, “Let’s keep the cows that give the most milk and slaughter the others,” without any realization that they were doing anything else. Over time, they would end up with breeds of cows that would give a lot more milk. We’ve been trying to apply Darwin’s theory to human culture, but we’ve been applying the wrong part. We’re applying the theory of the evolution of pathogens instead of the theory of domesticated organisms.

Domestication of animals is just the tip of the iceberg. The thing that’s been going on for hundreds of thousands of years is the domestication of culture. If you ask yourself what evidence there is of that, what Darwin remarks on over and over again is the tendency for things to become ornamental. People pick the plant that’s a little nicer-looking than the other, and by the end we have big, fancy flowers. The really striking thing in the evolution of human culture—what we can see in the archeological record—is that over the last 400,000 years everything starts to become decorated.

That’s just evidence that culture has been domesticated, because people are choosing to replicate the most beautiful examples. There’s just this human thing of looking for the variant that’s slightly more useful or slightly more attractive. And at the end of that you get the kind of bizarrely complicated—overcomplicated—languages that people speak today.

Quartz: Why do you think the pathogenic theory is so much more attractive, or prevalent?

Cloud: There are two reasons. The biology does really seem to suggest that. The other thing is that it’s cool to say that. It’s provocative to say that most of your culture isn’t really good for you. But within biology itself it’s simply the fact that we understand why viruses evolve so much more quickly than people do.

Quartz: So have we made any progress since the Greeks were thinking about this question?

Cloud: Well, remarkably little progress. I’m kind of surprised that what I’m doing now wasn’t done at some point in the ’80s because we’ve had the ingredients to do it since then. People tend to focus on the static state of affairs with language. They have the idea that words have some fixed, absolute meanings, that exist in some void and don’t have anything to do with people. Their actual account of the origin of language, and how language might be thought of as evolving over time works perfectly well for pigeons, or for monkeys, but there’s something horribly wrong (when we try to apply it to humans).

Quartz: Let’s discuss how the internet plays into this. We can understand domestication when we imagine some prehistoric parents teaching their kids how to communicate about this or that. But when we have billions of English-language users on the web, can we understand the process the same way?

Cloud: Of course it’s a lot more complicated in a modern society. Even the existence of dictionaries complicated the process enormously. Technology has been changing the way this works for a long time now.

But there are still a lot of very characteristically human things that you can see people doing on the internet. What the old theory, the meme theory, would predict about the internet is that it allows the pathogens access to a much larger pool of potential victims, so things are just going to get worse for us. But in a domestication theory, what you would expect is that language would improve on the internet, that there would be lots of people coming up with new things and refining things. It should be kind of like the agricultural revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, in terms of new species. If people are intentionally adopting bits of culture, then they’re using their judgment. If they have more choices, they’re going to be able to find better things. There’s this cultural feeling that the internet has somehow made language worse. My sense is that it has made ordinary language more precise. There’s simply more vocabulary available. But the really striking effect is going to be on special-purpose languages. There’s just going to end up being more of them and they’ll be better suited to their purpose.

Quartz: What is going to determine whether or not English dominates this kind of world?

Cloud: I don’t know if there’s any way to stop that at this point. Mandarin certainly isn’t going to displace it—Mandarin is for keeping out people who don’t have time to teach their kids how to write characters with a brush. English has momentum and it’s obviously suitable. We will all end up speaking English. You can say that it’s sad that people are losing their languages, but if you go to each person, your advice for them will be “learn English.” It’s just human nature to want to use the most useful tool. And the most useful tool is the prestige language. From a practical point of view it makes a lot of sense. Stopping that is one of these romantic dreams about getting people to act in ways that are not in their individual interest for some collective purpose. If a kid in Mali asks whether to learn English, French, or Arabic, it would be irresponsible to say anything but “you’ve got to master English.”

Quartz: Finally, if culture and language are the result of domestication, does that mean we have control over them?

Cloud: It’s not just control, but responsibility. If you don’t do the work of arguing with people about the meanings of words, being careful to use words well, coming up with more precise definitions, all this stuff that people do—some of which causes a considerable amount of emotional stress—if people aren’t constantly doing that, the culture will deteriorate very rapidly. It would become unsafe to use, and we’d have to go back to being chimpanzees.

There was a group in Tasmania [Australia], and when the Ice Age came, they were cut off from the mainland. You had a human population that was too small to maintain a full human culture. They were losing things and weren’t reinventing them fast enough. So 18,000 years later, European explorers found them and they didn’t eat fish or have clothes, and had an extraordinarily simple toolkit. This demonstrates that it can happen. If conditions are wrong, people can lose their culture.

It really does matter, all this micro-level stuff that people do. It affects what your whole society is going to be like 100 years in the future. If it’s done well, it can create incredible bursts of creativity. If it’s done badly, suddenly nobody will have any new ideas.