Some thoughts on intelligence and culture as constraint and resource

Posted on Thu 05 August 2010 in Rumination

Maybe a year or more ago, in another context, John McCreery wrote:

As an anthropologist I both feel attracted to describing culture as “the panoply of resources that show that a place is unique and distinctive” and also aware that attaching culture to place may be too limiting. Consider diasporas, for example, or pop culture worlds like those of gamers or musicians that spill across the boundaries and distances that separate geographical spaces.

What strikes me most, however, is the notion of culture as a “panoply of resources” with which creativity works to enhance, elaborate or transform those resources. How very different this is from the notion of culture as a set of givens (be they norms, rules, values, symbols, whatever) that impose constraints on what is possible for members of this or that human group.

The nature of any resource is a source of constraint as much as a source of opportunity. In the composition of music one may choose to employ a particular meter and tempo. Such a decision constrains the rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic forms one may then employ, but it also is a scaffold supporting those forms. The choice of a meter, tempo, or key may also be used to set up a listener's expectations in order that one may violate those expectations to great effect by introducing new musical background conditions such as a new meter or key.

Constraints are scaffolds for artistic expression, contexts for the flowering of elaborate and sophisticated art forms, but only if they are treated as resources to be used. If one cannot find a way to break-out of those self-imposed constraints-- something that many fail to achieve-- then the result may be a dull piece of music. Imagination is required, but also artistic skill to pull off those transitions.

When we engage with formal systems we often find ourselves shifting within and without of that system. Simpler organisms will continue to engage in a particular behavioral routine even when the background conditions for that behavior are violated. We are not immune ourselves to such folly, of course, but in contrast, we exhibit a great deal of flexibility, or adaptivity as it is called in the artificial science literature. I view it as a mark of general intelligence.

The game-space defined by the rules of chess is immense. Deep in the game our thoughts may not stray from that space, though we might strategically step outside of it, for example to recollect useful stratagems you've learned; yet to play well in that space requires great space-specific intelligence. But our thought is not constrained by the rules of chess. It is merely a game we play. Any child can step outside of that game space. We do so for many reasons, to transform it by changing the rules, or to reflect on the game itself. One might decide to begin the game with a different set or arrangement of pieces, change how pieces move, the number of moves per turn, the conditions for winning and losing, or even, somewhat amusingly, decide to play the game with oneself. Or one might spend time theorizing on general chess strategy, philosophically contemplate the game, or even write a history of chess.

But some spaces are extremely difficult to step outside of. Consider the almost inevitable naturalness of kinship, how difficult it is to imagine any other way a given system might be, except in the encounter of a contrasting system. Indeed, I never questioned my own kinship system and terminology it until I had studied anthropology. As a "fracture in the uniformity of being", a datum is a relational object, a contrast between two uniformities. A blue ink-mark on a white piece of paper is not a datum except in contrast to the white sheet of paper. If the sheet of paper turned blue (or the mark faded into white) until no contrast remained, then that datum (as a datum) ceases to exist. The relative non-uniformity of human kinship was simply inaccessible to me until I was able to perceive how one system contrasts with another.

Culture is our species' amazing adaptive toolkit. Whether one is conscious of something as cultural or not (or indeed arbitrary or merely conventional) makes no difference as to whether it is used; that is, if anything, what culture is for. Yet, the awareness of difference, of contrast, or at least of contra-possibility, seems to make a difference in one's stance toward culture, that is, how one uses it. In particular, conscious attempts to transform or reflect upon elements of culture would not seem possible without such an awareness.

Originally posted by Jacob Lee on November 5, 2009 at