Greg Urban: On Rules, Ultimate Causes, and Cultural Motion

By Peter Turchin April 3, 2012 4 Comments

In my admittedly small corner of anthropology, I study the motion of culture, taking “culture” to be what we acquire through social transmission and social learning.  I am particularly concerned with how motion takes place — transmission through the medium of artifacts, especially ephemeral ones like sounds and behaviors, but also more durable ones such as documents and material objects.  My special interest is in exploring the forces that bring about and affect motion. 

I have identified four (or possibly five) kinds of forces: (1) inertia, or the tendency of culture already in motion to continue in motion; (2) entropy, or the tendency for cultural artifacts such as narratives or rules to get disorganized or reshaped in the transmission process, of which forgetting, mentioned by Ostrom (2012), forms a part; (3) interest, that is, attraction to or repulsion from artifacts, interest generally corresponding to the economic notion of utility, though interest need not be expressed monetarily; and (4) metaculture, that is reflexive culture, culture that is about other culture, for example, recognized socially transmitted “rules,” like those Ostrom formulates as “genotypes.”  A fifth candidate is creativity, about which I know too little at this point. From the perspective of cultural motion so construed (Urban 2001, 2010), I will try to make a few friendly comments on the game-theoretic view of rules so elegantly formulated by Ostrom (2012), as well as on the sweeping evolution-as-ultimate-cause theory outlined by Wilson and Gowdy (2011).

Regarding “rules,” when they are explicitly formulated, as in Ostrom’s paper, they depend on cultural artifacts for their transmission or circulation.  Rules are a special type of artifact for two reasons: first, because they involve the explicit referential use of language, and, hence, the referential meanings are maximally salient to consciousness, in contrast to cultural forms that rely on non-referential signaling usages, such as ritual lamentation, which I will say more about below; but, also, second, because they are what I have dubbed metacultural, that is, they reflect back on cultural practices, in Ostrom’s case, practices related to irrigation and water usage, and they seem designed to affect those practices, simultaneously as they are themselves part of socially transmitted culture.  The metacultural property is obviously what makes plausible the analogy to genotypes.

If we think of rules in their public manifestation as cultural artifacts, and ask what their function is, a game-theoretic formulation focuses attention on the referential aspect of rules as artifacts —that is, on the cultural behaviors described and prescribed by the rules.  Without denying the importance of this referential aspect, it is nevertheless significant that the game theoretic approach tends to mask the existence of rules as cultural artifacts, which happen to be also simultaneously metacultural.  If rules are cultural artifacts (not just metacultural artifacts), we need to inquire into how and why they circulate or move. Their very circulation within a community may be part of another and perhaps evolutionarily more basic function, namely to produce the semblance of a common culture, which in turn promotes a cooperative community.  This latter function depends on the interplay between the referential and non-referential role of rules as cultural artifacts.

I have elsewhere (Urban 1996) made an argument along these lines for the discursively formulated “rules” of social organization in a Brazilian indigenous community, where the social groups constituted by the rules (and manifested through body painting practices in ritual) were said to be exogamous, that is, you had to marry someone from a different group.  In reality, virtually no attention was paid in practice to exogamy, even though everyone at the time of my field research was able to tell me the “rule”.  This may seem a small revision to Ostrom’s formulation, but it could help to account for the empirical finding that sites where water use rules are externally imposed are less productive than those where the rules are internally generated.  Internal generation of rules may go along with better social circulation and, therefore, a more cooperative community, one likely to be more productive.

In addition to function, Wilson and Gowdy also draw attention to Tinbergen’s “mechanism”. One key aspect of the mechanism of the rule, viewed as a cultural artifact, is the interplay between its semantic referential and pragmatic non-referential aspects. To make this distinction more empirically intelligible, let me briefly describe a very different cultural artifact, which I have also had the opportunity to observe firsthand in Brazil — ritual lamentation.  This is a stylized form of crying, which, in the case of the indigenous community I mentioned earlier, involves words but also cry breaks, creaky voice, sing song intonation, and other markers of crying.  Importantly, though, the actions can be neocortically controlled — that is — turned on and off at will.  The form can be used not only in the aftermath of deaths, but also as a greeting, the so-called “welcome of tears”.  It is an almost quintessential cultural artifact, socially learned and transmitted, and also highly salient.  In the analysis I have given of the phenomenon (Urban 1988, 2002), it is important that lamenters manifest or perform feelings, not just talk about them through referential language.  Their power lies in their unspoken pragmatic qualities, which are designed to resemble crying but also be distinguishable from it as a socially learned cultural form.  The force behind the circulation of the cultural form — the interest or fascination in it — derives from its non-referential functioning, but in a way similarly to rules in which the non-referential meaning (feelings of sadness and loss) make for good circulation even though they may not be present or may be summoned by the cultural artifact.

In her paper, Ostrom recognizes the inertial quality of rules as part of culture.  Once formulated, the rules then pass down over time.  She also points to the role of entropy in the form of forgetting.  However, a game theoretic approach, such as she proposes, runs the risk of missing the role of interest as a force contributing to the circulation of rules as cultural artifacts. The rules may be attractive because they are felt to produce a sense of community, not just because of the efficacy of the patterns of cultural activity they prescribe.  They may hold interest because they are “good to think,” that is, because of the appeal of the referentially imagined world they purport to describe and constitute, despite and even because of possibly wide deviation between rule and practice.  Communal orientation can make the actual practices more efficacious.  Correspondingly, exogenously imposed rules may meet with negative interest, what is known in the literature as “resistance.”  This tends to inhibit their uptake as cultural expressions of community.  Correspondingly, it tends to undercut the efficacy of the behaviors prescribed by the rules, even though the prescribed behaviors might be well-designed to promote efficient use.

Let me turn now to make a brief comment about the evolution-as-ultimate-cause account in Wilson and Gowdy’s paper. Function and mechanism seem to me important when studying the processes of motion in which I am interested, since they help in figuring out what promotes and retards the motion of which cultural forms.  If I understand development, the analogy to biological development would be in terms of how new individuals — for example, young children or recent immigrants — come to acquire their orientations to cultural forms as well as their abilities to reproduce them.  This is certainly crucial for an understanding of cultural motion.  The analogy to phylogenesis may be though archaeology and cultural history, which supply a perspective crucial to illuminating the motion of cultural forms through longer stretches of time.

My one hesitation is that the biological analogy tends to treat the world to which organisms or cultural forms are adapting as given.  We know that animals other than humans reshape the world — beavers, for example, create dams, with the attendant consequences for riverine systems. However, equipped with culture, humans are able to transform the objective world to an unprecedented extent.  We have been tinkering with genetics for thousands of years through breeding, an ability that has been greatly amplified by biological science in recent decades.  Through cultural accumulation of many sorts, we are now able to transform environments to unprecedented extent.  If we can use the crystal ball to gaze into a distant future, we might ask ourselves what the limits of that reshaping could be.  Culture might certainly be seen to be adapting, since it would be proliferating in the universe, but it is unclear how effective our current knowledge of the universe is in providing an ultimate causal understanding.  There is a cutting-edge effect here, in which the cultural element may be creating a new environment into which it fits.  Because of the rapidity with which this transformation can take place in the case of cultural elements, it may be impossible to ascertain whether a present day cultural element is in the process of creating a new world in which it is adaptive, or whether it is something destined to die out in short order because of its lack of fit in the present world.

Of course, we might also ask whether the survival of genes per se will prove crucial in some distant and impossible to glimpse future.  Suppose self-assembling and self-reproducing machines — such as von Neumann (1966) imagined many years ago — became the more important carriers of culture, making genes per se obsolete or at least secondary, as some science fiction might suppose.  Think of 2001, A Space Odyssey: “Open the pod bay doors, Hal” — “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” While ultimate cause may prove explanatory of a cultural element, we may not be able to foresee its adaptiveness, because it makes sense not in this world right now but in a world that is coming into being as a result of the cultural element.


Ostrom, Elinor.  2012. Do institutions for collective action evolve?  Paper for conference on Rules as Genotypes in Cultural Evolution, Indiana University, April 11-13, 2012.

Urban, Greg.  1988. Ritual wailing in Amerindian Brazil.  American Anthropologist 90(2):385-400.

——–.  1996. Metaphysical Community: The Interplay of the Senses and the Intellect.  Austin: University of Texas Press. 

——–.  2001. Metaculture: How Culture Moves through the World.  Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press.

——–.    2002. Metasignaling and language origins.  American Anthropologist 104(1): 233-246.

——–.  2010. A method for measuring the motion of culture. American Anthropologist 112(1): 122-139.

von Neumann, John. 1966. The Theory of Self-reproducing Automata, A. Burks. ed.  Urbana, IL: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Wilson, David Sloan and John Gowdy. 2011. Evolution as a general theoretical framework for economics and public policy.  Introductory article for special issue of JEBO, and paper for conference on Rules as Genotypes in Cultural Evolution, Indiana University, April 11-13, 2012.

Published On: April 3, 2012

Peter Turchin

Peter Turchin

Curriculum Vitae

Peter Turchin is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who works in the field of historical social science that he and his colleagues call Cliodynamics. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history and cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Currently he investigates a set of broad and interrelated questions. How do human societies evolve? In particular, what processes explain the evolution of ultrasociality—our capacity to cooperate in huge anonymous societies of millions? Why do we see such a staggering degree of inequality in economic performance and effectiveness of governance among nations? Turchin uses the theoretical framework of cultural multilevel selection to address these questions. Currently his main research effort is directed at coordinating the Seshat Databank project, which builds a massive historical database of cultural evolution that will enable us to empirically test theoretical predictions coming from various social evolution theories.

Turchin has published 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including a dozen in Nature, Science, and PNAS. His publications are frequently cited and in 2004 he was designated as “Highly cited researcher” by Turchin has authored seven books. His most recent book is Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth (Beresta Books, 2016).


  • Peter Turchin says:

    Greg, there is some parallelism between your forces of cultural motion and the forces of cultural evolution as proposed by Richerson and Boyd (e.g., in the Table 3.1 of Not by Genes Alone). Thus, (1) inertia is essentially one of Darwinian postulates, that cultural variation is heritable. Another way of thinking about it is that when we write a dynamic equation for cultural evolution, we start with the null model, that the rate of change of the frequency of a cultural trait is zero, and then add terms corresponding to various forces.

    (2) Entropy corresponds to cultural mutation, which includes such processes as misremembering. (3) Interest appears to be related to biased transmission. (5) Creativity is what Richerson and Boyd would probably call ‘guided variation.’ And I am not sure what your (4) metaculture might correspond to. On the other hand, your list misses such forces discussed by Richerson and Boyd as cultural drift and natural selection.


    • Greg Urban says:

      Peter, I took a look at Richerson and Boyd’s Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution (2005), especially Table 3.1 on p. 69. Having interacted with Rob Boyd recently, I believe he and I agree substantially on our understanding of the forces at work on the motion of culture. I will take a preliminary stab here at the comparison, trying especially to note a few differences.

      Regarding cultural inertia, yes, the basic Darwinian idea of heritability makes sense translated into the realm of social transmission. An additional distinction I made in my 2001 book, Metaculture, is between existential and habitual forms of inertia. The former is the culture that is already there to be acquired — like the language spoken in the family in which you grow up. Habitual inertia, as the name suggests, results from repetition of embodied patterns or practices, including paralinguistic features such as give rise to accents when a new language is learned. Habitual inertia is what typically resists change.

      Another small, but not insignificant, difference is my relatively greater emphasis on the publicly accessible or sensible objects — including sounds, behaviors, material items, and the like (even other human bodies) — as the vehicles through which transmission and replication take place. Hence, the principle of inertia formulated in my 2010 paper, “A Method for Measuring the Motion of Culture”: the tendency of culture in motion to stay in motion at the same rate [i.e., rate of interaction with the vehicles through it is transmitted] unless acted upon by an external force.

      Entropy tends to correspond generally to Richerson and Boyd’s “random forces,” which they further subcategorize into cultural mutation and cultural drift. By entropic force, I am trying to emphasize again the vehicles or object forms through which culture is transmitted and to underscore the tendency of those forms to get disorganized in the transmission process. I would probably include under entropic force what they call “cultural drift,” which I believe they have modeled on Sewall Wright’s notion of genetic drift.

      Incidentally, the term “drift” has been used traditionally in anthropology by Edward Sapir (linguistic drift) and Melville Herskovits (cultural drift) to describe the tendency for small changes to accumulate over time producing larger changes. This is a bit different from the Sewall Wright small population notion of genetic drift. In Sapir’s version of “linguistic drift,” random individual changes tend to wash out unless they contribute to some larger structural shift, as for example the tendency to eliminate case marking in American English pronouns, so that who rather than the prescriptively correct whom comes to seem natural in a sentence like: “who did you see?”. So drift in this sense has a directionality.

      I believe there is also a correlation between Boyd and Richerson’s notion of “biased transmission” and what I have called the force of interest. Again, the difference is in the emphasis I give to interest as a force attracting people to the vehicles or forms through which culture is transmitted, as when one wants to listen over and over again to a song until the interest is exhausted or one wants to copy a clothing style until it feels out of date. Interest is also a force behind the movement of people through space, as, for example, pilgrimages to religious sites, tourism, migration, etc. Additionally, in my view, interest can have a negative value, as when one is repulsed by something, gets sick of hearing a particular song, and so forth. In this way, interest is a force tending to increase or decrease the rates of interaction with the forms or vehicles through which culture is transmitted. Finally, I think there is also a relationship between interest and the notion of “utility” in economics, though the force of interest is by no means confined to bargaining situations.

      By metacultural force, I mean the force exerted on culture by other culture that reflects upon it or points to it — such as advertisements picking out products or film reviews criticizing films or linguistic preservation ideologies contributing to the survival of languages. Metaculture in this sense tends to accelerate or retard the motion of other culture. Simultaneously, metaculture is itself culture moving through the world. There have also been widespread metacultural emphases on tradition — accuracy in the replication of culture — and also, especially in the modern world, metacultural emphases on newness, which encourage people to change or reshape extant culture. This is an important theme of my 2001 book.

      I had thought that perhaps the idea of “guided transmission” from Boyd and Richerson might have some connection to this notion of a reflective cultural force, but I am not sure. Teaching, where the instructor also monitors and tries to correct the pupil’s replication, would fit metaculture. Does it also fit guided transmission?

      I am inclined to think there is a fifth force at work at the micro level, which I have been calling creativity, but I don’t know enough about it yet to make any serious claims.

      As for what’s missing from my list, as I mentioned earlier, I think small population effects analogous to Wright’s genetic drift would fall under my entropic category. What about natural selection, though? I will have to do more thinking and reading (in Boyd and Richerson and others) about this. My current understanding is inadequate.

      Some initial thoughts: I can see how selection can act as a negative force to retard the forward motion through time of certain cultural elements, for example, the belief of the members of the Heaven’s Gate cult that they should commit suicide in order to ascend to the space ship they thought was traveling in the wake of Comet Hale-Bopp. The cultural element here exercises a negative effect on the biology of the population carrying it, which in turn affects the spread of the cultural belief.

      At the same time, we can imagine situations in which the negative biological effect might add force to the motion of the cultural belief rather than retarding it, as, for example, in the death of Jesus Christ adding circulatory force to the belief that he ascended into heaven rather than detracting from it, and contributing to generations of martyrs, whose deaths only furthered the spread of the belief. From this point of view, the effect of natural selection is not directly on the belief, but on portions of the population carrying the belief.

      More generally, I am not certain that we can adequately distinguish selection as a force independent of the other forces I mentioned, especially interest. We can say that the bow and arrow, as a cultural invention, gave an adaptive advantage to those who carried the trait, and so rapidly spread. Populations adopting the trait were more likely to prosper biologically. At the same time, it seems obvious that the bow and arrow, as cultural element, would have spread through the force of interest. The mechanism would not have been identical to the one posited for natural selection, where a random change gets passed on passively, so to speak, through the blind operation of survival. The spread of the bow and arrow as cultural element would have take place actively; people would be attracted to its perceived or felt utility to them.

      I recognize that these thoughts are not yet clear let alone adequately developed. My intuition, however, is this: we need to better unpack the forces of interest and metacultural reflection before assuming the operation of a blind force of selection. Yes, processes of adaptation are at work; but they may be working through these other forces rather than independently of them.

      I, of course, welcome comments and feedback.

  • tmtyler says:

    I don’t really see what you are getting at by saying that non-human reatures don’t reshape their environment very much. Jungles and coral reefs reshape their environments from barren landscapes consisting of rocks and water. These are surely enormous transformations.

  • tmtyler says:

    You speculate about the possibility of a memetic takeover at the end. That outcome is indeed quite plausible. DNA is a one-size fits all solution to information storage – which means it fits most specific information storage problems very badly. It was cobbled together by natural selection long ago using whatever it could find to hand. It would be very surprising if it persisted very far into an engineered future.

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