Friday, 6 January 2012

Cultural organisms

In The Beginning Of Infinity, David Deutsch writes:

There is no close cultural analogue of a species, or of an organism, or a cell, or of sexual or asexual reproduction.

I am sceptical. For one thing, I think that there are cultural organisms. It just seems obvious that an iPhone or a CD should count as a cultural organism - in much the same way that a cat is classified as an organic organism.

We could call cultural organisms memeganisms and organic organisms geneganisms.

A number of features have been considered to be defining traits of organisms:

  • Components exhibit near-unanimous cooperation;
  • Components have a tendency to die together;
  • Components are spatially contiguous;
  • Components share a single genome;
  • Components are mostly alive;
Most of these concepts apply well to cultural entities. I think they can be combined to produce a useful conception of an "organism" that can be applied to both the cultural and organic realms.

The "near-unanimous cooperation" criterion looks useful - though it raises the issue of exactly how much cooperation is needed. However, here we also need the notion of the "largest cooperating set" - or one risks concluding that the cells in my big toe form an organism. Symbiosis is the other complicating factor here. We probably don't want to rule symbiotic unions out - though there's continuous variation in the degree of cooperation in such unions.

The "tendency to die together" criterion also looks pretty useful - although some groups of creatures regularly die together - for example, groups of nasturtiums die together annually during the first frost. Also, some organs regularly die together - for example the leaves of deciduous trees. Again - symbiosis is a complicating factor, since some symbionts may survive the dissolution of any alliance.

Some writers have observed that the concept of "organism" attempts to combine the concepts of "genetic individual" and "functional individual" - with the result inevitably being a compromise. That sounds about right.

Not that one should not expect completely unambiguous divisions between cultural creatures - since the organic world there are ants, slime molds, corals, lichens, the Portuguese man o' war - and other systems in which the concept of an individual organism becomes fuzzy and ambiguous.

My impression is that - despite the serious handicap of being developed with only the organic realm in mind - the conceptions of the concept of "organism" developed by biologists mostly transfer across to the cultural realm with relatively little modification.

However, it's probably true that the cultural realm comes up with problematical corner cases more regularly.


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