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Meaning of Life, cont. 11 May 2007

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Biology, Cognitive Science, Modernity and Modernism, Mormonism/LDS Church.
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[A cyber-aquaintence posted some questions to my meaning of life post, and I thought it might be interesting to others who read my blog.]

What are examples of adaptive, maladaptive and spandrel meanings?

Well, it’s probably easier to speak in generalities, but here’s the skinny:

1) Humans are social animals, and like all social animals, our behaviors (or mode of interacting with the environment) are necessarily also always social.

2) Meaning must be understood as much more than the cognitive-linguistic explanation of something. We tend to think of “meaning” in terms of the dictionary: a discursive, linguistic representation of an idea. However, in social-behavioristic terms, language is merely a kind of behavior: so meaning becomes the whole set of circumstances, postures, consequences of a given behavior in a particular environment. We learn what something “means” not merely by hearing a dictionary definition of the thing, but by doing, observing, experiencing the thing. [Side note: Language is very cool because it allows us to experience something vicariously and abstractly, but the brain responses are the same as if we were directly experiencing it, which is why, for example, you get butterflies watching someone else jump out of a plane.]

so 3) adaptive meanings are those which, within a given environment (which remember is both physical and social) enable survival. There are some beliefs that only peripherally relate to the physical environment, but are key to survival in the social environment. Part of survival for a social species is successful interdependence in the social group.

Maladaptive meanings are those which inhibit survival and/or reproduction in the environment. And a spandrel is a meaning that is adaptively neutral.

Think of meanings as a kind of adaptation that persist or desist in the same dynamics as physical characteristics. If the environment changes, the meanings must adapt to the new enviornment. Adaptive could become maladaptive; a spandrel could become adaptive; etc.

There are a couple professors at UC Davis who have done a series of mathematical studies and have shown that human cultures have a balance of conservative and innovative thinkers within them. If the culture is too conservative, its members will fail to adapt to a changing environment; if a culture is too innovative, its members will adopt possibly maladaptive meanings in the wrong times and places. Cognitive scientists are finding that individuals tend to lean to one side or the other, and that both sides are necessary for survival. Evolution seems to favor slightly conservation, because our lifespan is so short and because when we evolved our environments were changing so slowly, that being more or less conservative culturally ensured survival: Once you find what works, you keep it.

Also remember a key part of evolutionary theory, which seems to also apply to culture/meanings: adaptation does not select for the best possible answer. Rather, it selects for the merely good enough. This seems to be true both biologically and socially.

And what’s the reader’s digest version of how you make that evaluation? Is it simply a matter of whether it’s constructive or destructive?

John Dewey argued that you make the evaluation based on outcomes. What is the consequence of believing such a thing (or doing such a thing) and is that the outcome you want? Then there’s the meta-level where you have to argue about what you *should* want in the first place (what kind of society/physical environment do we want to establish or maintain)? That, in simple terms, is the method of evaluation.

Finally, for Joseph Smith and True Believin Mormons nowadays (and I understand those are 2 vastly different mindsets from a social scientific or any other perspective) is the “meaning” of the plan of salvation simply an adaptive meaning to give “purpose” to life and give us comfort knowing that things are fucked up on earth but everything will be perfect in the next life (if you follow the rules of course)?

To answer this question, I would stand back and think about this scientifically. JS lived in a particular time and place in America, where there were many open questions and huge problems in the environment. The U.S. was still quite young, and it was not at all clear what it would mean to be free, what a democracy was, who was a citizen, who had power and who not, etc. Further, the older folk magic of the agrarian peoples (i.e., Smith’s magic hunting) was coming into direct conflict with the explosive 2nd Great Awakening and the increasingly influential Moral reform movements; so people all over rural America were unsure about their cultures, because there was conflict within the social environment. On a broad scale, the industrial revolution was causing major disruption to the social and economic lifeways of the entire nation, displacing 10s of 1000s of people and forcing them to radically change the way they lived their lives. I cannot understate the upheaval this caused during the first 100 years of America’s existence as a nation. Finally, even though it had been 200 years since the Euroepans had started colonizing north america, the question as yet had not been answered: Where does America fit in spiritually? is it the “city upon the hill” as the Puritans thought? And if so, what exactly does that mean? Combine all this with the growing ideas of manifest destiny and westward expansion, and you have a social and cultural environment rife with the need to be explained.

JS’s ever-changing mode of understanding Christianity and his place in it was both one man’s efforts to become powerful, and an entire people’s efforts to make sense of that world. JS was an innovator, in the terms I laid out above.

As it happens, mormonism was so outside the bounds of the environment as it was, they were harried to and fro for 75 years.

I think that contemporary mormons have carried into the present all those beliefs that still manage to fill in the wholes in the environments they live in, but it’s more complicated now: Mormons today have to survive in both the American social environment (they’re no longer isolated) and among each other. And all of these meanings are circulating again in a time of great upheaval, primarily in the form of massive technological changes and globalization, which have thrown into question every fundamental belief of every culture on the planet. TBMs reactions and retrenchments now are on the conservative side (although they are adapting at break-neck speed, as we see in the major doctrinal changes occuring in the past 25 years). Mormon belief systems are pretty adaptive in our current social environment: TBMs function mostly well in society, gain prominence in general (although not the presidency), are economically stable and reproduce at an alarming rate, both sexually and proselytically.

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Comments

1. Diane Vera - 17 May 2007

You wrote:

There are a couple professors at UC Davis who have done a series of mathematical studies and have shown that human cultures have a balance of conservative and innovative thinkers within them. If the culture is too conservative, its members will fail to adapt to a changing environment; if a culture is too innovative, its members will adopt possibly maladaptive meanings in the wrong times and places. Cognitive scientists are finding that individuals tend to lean to one side or the other, and that both sides are necessary for survival.

Hi! Could you please tell us the names of these UC Davis professors, and, if you happen to have them handy, citations for their studies, or other sources? I’d love to read more about this.

2. Todd - 17 May 2007

Hi Diane,

Actually, now that I look at it, one is at UC Davis, the other at UCLA. They are basically doing statistical analyses of the evolution of culture/cognition; that is, the role of culture/cognition in survivability/adaptation.

Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson, _The Origin and Evolution of Cultures_ (Oxford University Press, 2005).

The statistical analysis I was referencing is described in the first chapter of that book; but I recommend the whole thing.

3. The necessary roles of both innovation and conservativism - Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson « Diane Vera - 17 May 2007

[…] May 17th, 2007 On a blog called “Todd’s Hammer” here on WordPress.com, Todd wrote: There are a couple professors at UC Davis who have done a series of mathematical studies and have […]


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