Liane Gabora (1999) Motivation and the Origin of Culture. Psycoloquy: 10(042) Origin Culture (11)

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PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 10(042): Motivation and the Origin of Culture

Reply to Prudkov on Gabora on Origin-Culture

Liane Gabora
Center Leo Apostel, Brussels Free University
Krijgskundestraat 33,
1160 Brussels, Belgium


Motivation no doubt did play a vital role in early human culture. It is not clear, however, how a mutation affecting some component of the motivational system could bring about the origin of culture.


autocatalysis, culture, goal, memory, motivation, need.
1. Prudkov's (1999) commentary stresses the critical role of needs and motives in the origin of culture. I wholeheartedly agree with this. The target paper was presented as an elaboration of an idea discussed in an earlier article (Gabora 1997) which reads as follows:

    Section 3.1

    Von Neumann [91] postulated that any self- replicating system
    consists of two parts: (1) uninterpreted information - a
    self-description that is passively copied to offspring, and (2)
    interpreted information - instructions on how to construct
    offspring. This turned out to be true of the genetic code; there
    are genes that provide instructions to the body on how to sustain
    itself, and genes that provide instructions for how, with the help
    of someone of the opposite sex, to create a child.  But unlike
    genes, memes do not come prepackaged with instructions for their
    reproduction. They rely on the pattern- evolving machinery of their
    hosts' brains to create, select, and replicate them. Since we
    preferentially spread ideas that satisfy needs, our needs define
    viable niches for memes to evolve towards. As infants we might cry
    and kick no matter what need is most pressing, but as children we
    acquire and continually refine a repertoire of memes that, when
    implemented, satisfy various needs. We learn that reaching into the
    cookie jar satisfies one need, shouting "help" satisfies another,
    et cetera. Our memes, and the behavior they elicit, slide into
    need-defined attractors (regions of stability) in the memetic
    fitness landscape.

    The fact that memes are not independently self- replicating does
    not prevent them from achieving reproductive success. In fact it
    may ironically work in their favor, because the cognitive machinery
    they depend upon not only actively manipulates them to produce
    "offspring-memes", but organizes them into a model of the world, or
    worldview, which it can use to figure out what to do whenever a
    situation is too complicated for its hardwired instincts. The
    worldview orchestrates behavior such that a meme gets implemented
    when it is likely to be useful, and that increases the probability
    that other hosts will consider it worthy of replication. This also
    means that there is a continuous coevolutionary interplay between
    pattern and landscape, which contributes to the often noted
    rapidity with which culture evolves.


    Since many of our needs have a biological basis, e.g., the need for
    food and shelter, meme generation is largely constrained by our
    heritage as products of biological evolution. Thus the topology of
    the memetic fitness landscape largely echoes that of the biological
    fitness landscape. In the short term, the biological fitness
    landscape, and thus the memetic fitness landscape, fluctuates
    continuously as one need is satisfied and others take precedence
    (Hull [41], McFarland & Sibly [64], Gabora & Colgan [24], Maes
    [59]). For example, after eating, ideas that pertain to finding
    food are less likely. Over the lifetime of an individual, however,
    the set of biologically-based needs remains relatively constant.
    The trajectory of survival- motivated thought can be described as a
    limit cycle (periodic attractor) that moves through the set of
    stable memes whose implementations satisfy the various biological

    Variation-inducing operations restructure conceptual space and thus
    affect the memetic fitness landscape.  Much as the evolution of
    rabbits created ecological niches for species that eat them and
    parasitize them, the invention of cars created cultural niches for
    gas stations, seat belts, and garage door openers. As one
    progresses from infanthood to maturity, and simple needs give way
    to increasingly complex needs, the stream of thought acquires the
    properties of a chaotic or strange attractor, which can be viewed
    as the formation of crevices in the original limit cycle. The
    landscape is fractal (i.e., there is statistical similarity under
    change of scale), in that the satisfaction of one need creates
    other needs - every crevice when examined closely reveals more
    crevices. This is analogous to the fractal distributions of species
    and vegetation patterns described by ecologists (Mandelbrot [60],
    Palmer [69], Scheuring & Riedi [83]). The endpoint of a cultural
    evolution trajectory turns out to be not just a point in
    multidimensional space, but a set of points with their own fitness
    metric - a "micro-landscape" in its own right. So although the
    memetic fitness landscape loosely follows the biological fitness
    landscape, there are places where it deviates, and this effect
    undoubtedly becomes more pronounced throughout an individual's
    lifetime. This means that the potential for meme diversity, though
    constrained by host need, is open-ended.

Or as "Bruno" put it (Gabora, unpublished ms.):

    A lot of people in artificial intelligence are modeling how goals
    give rise to subgoals. The evolution of cars created niches for gas
    stations and seat belts and garage door openers. This is similar to
    how filling one ecological niche spawns other ecological niche -
    the evolution of cats created niches for species that eat cats and
    species that live in their guts as parasites.  And it's a fractal
    process, in the sense that every time you examine one need, you
    realize that it can be decomposed into a set of subneeds, which
    themselves are decomposable into subneeds. Invariance with respect
    to scale. As the number of need-fulfilling objects increases, the
    utility of any one of them seems to decrease, until it reaches the
    state of absurdity it has reached in our society, where we make
    stuff like the strip of paper they put over toilets in fancy hotels
    to make it look like you're the first person who ever shit in

2. The role of motivation apparently did not come through as strongly in the target article, and am grateful to Prudkov for pointing this out. However, his statement that "One possibility is that the thought streams are independent of the system of motivations and that the activation of a basic drive is unnecessary to maintain them. This is Gabora's position." is surely a distortion, given that the example of abstraction I use throughout is explicitly derived from the NEED TO TRANSPORT WATER, and discussed in this context, e.g., "They could not retrieve the memory that an intestine is in the cave, much less realize it is relevant to the goal of transporting water" (paragraph 21). Prudkov claims "in other words, the first concept did not emerge at random, it arose from long-term and deliberate concentration on a particular problem". Though I may not have succeeded, this is exactly what I meant to convey through the example of the problem of water transport. Although Prudkov characterizes his view as "opposite" to mine, I think upon rereading my article, and the earlier one of which it is an elaboration, he will see that the two views are very compatible.

3. Prudkov claims that since the "memetic mind imposes no constraints on the associative stream of thought" it would be "chaotic". Again this is misleading. In paragraph 40, I write: "Selection comes in the form of drives, needs, attention-focusing mechanisms, and the associative organization of memory, which constrain how one meme evokes another." In paragraph 38 I go to great lengths to explain why streams of thought are not chaotic but rather at the proverbial edge of chaos.

4. Although I agree with Prudkov that motivation played an important role, I do not see how "changes in the motivational system" ALONE constitute a serious alternative explanation for the origin of culture to that proposed in the target article. Prudkov claims that "Perhaps from a genetic mutation, an early human began to use sticks as tools after an initial situation involving very high levels of activation conditioned by a basic drive." It is unclear how a heritable mutation affecting the motivational system would cause a human to use sticks as tools.

5. Finally, the clean separation Prudkov seems to draw between memory and thinking strikes me as odd; to me they are intimately entwined.


Gabora, L. (1997) The Origin and Evolution of Culture and Creativity. Journal of Memetics, 1.

Gabora, L. (1998). Autocatalytic Closure in a Cognitive System. PSYCOLOQUY 9(67). psyc.98.9.67.origin-culture.1.gabora

Gabora, L. (unpublished) Sequined Streams. utline.html

Gabora, L. M. & Colgan, P. W. (1990) A model of the mechanisms underlying exploratory behaviour. In The simulation of adaptive behavior, eds. S. Wilson and J. A. Mayer, MIT Press. Hull, C. L. (1943) Principles of behavior, Appleton- Century-Crofts.

Maes, P., ed. (1991) Designing autonomous agents: Theory and practice from biology to engineering and back, MIT Press.

Mandelbrot, B.B. (1982) The fractal nature of geometry. W.H. Freedman and Company.

McFarland, D.J. & Sibly, R.M. (1975) The behavioural final common path. Philosophical transactions of the London Royal Society 270B, 265-93.

Palmer, M.W. (1992) The coexistence of species in fractal landscapes. American Naturalist, 139, 375-397.

Prudkov, P.N. (1999) Origin of culture: Evolution applied another mechanism. PSYCOLOQUY 10(037). psyc.98.10.037.origin-culture.10.prudkov

Scheuring, I. & Riedi, R.H. (1994) Application of multifractals to the analysis of vegetation pattern. Journal of Vegetation Science, 5, 489-496.

Von Neumann, J. (1966) Theory of self-reproducing automata, University of Illinois Press.

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