Franco Orsucci (1999) Origins of the Origins: Evolution in the Semiotic Universe. Psycoloquy: 10(013) Origin Culture (4)

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Psycoloquy 10(013): Origins of the Origins: Evolution in the Semiotic Universe

Commentary on Gabora on Origin-Culture

Franco Orsucci
Psychology Department and Institute of Complexity Studies
Rome International University
Via Leonida Bissolati 20
I-00187 Rome, Italy


Gabora outlines a hypothesis about the origins of culture which could improve our understanding of this process, and facilitate (computer) simulations. The basic fuzziness of the meme concept makes it an interesting heuristic tool, but becomes a limitation when it obscures the evident distinctions between various components of the semiotic universe: information, pragmatics, icons and symbols. These various components are organized by different dynamics, and the semiotic phase transitions between their domains are peculiar. The dialectics between autocatalytic closure as a source of differentiation, and catalytic openness as a form of communication is another basic morphogenetic power in action.


communication, differentiation, icon, index, information, meme, morphogenesis, punctuation, semiosis, symbol
1. Gabora's (1998) target article presents a speculative model of the cognitive mechanisms underlying the transition from episodic to mimetic (or memetic) culture, as a representation of the unique features of human culture as a form of evolution (Dawkins 1976). The problem she addresses is the transition phase from a series of discrete ideas to a stream of consciousness. It is "a nontrivial problem of origins," which she proposes to study in the field of "a multimodal modeling system with a self triggered rehearsal loop." This is the field in which we are prepared to play this game, and drawing the lines is a crucial part of the game itself.

2. Another important component of this game is defined when Gabora suggests that the elements (the memes) could be considered more as discrete representations than patterns of connection. This is, as we know, an important bifurcation at the core matter of cognitive sciences. The start of a reaction (a catalysis) which generates a phase transition needs a catalyst, and Gabora suggests that autocatalysis, in a (partially, temporarily or functionally) closed system, could be a crucial key to understanding the situation. This is a clever way of bypassing the chicken-egg problem by positing that the same collective entity is both code and decoder. Episodic memes become the basic food in the primal soup in which, by autocatalysis and self-organization, further levels of abstraction and structure emerge.

3. The closure of the system is a preliminary condition for autocatalysis. Its process can be modeled using hyperspheres or hypercubes, nested in levels of abstraction and organization. These phase transitions should be related to a supracritical state of the system, a Self-Organized Criticality. Such a state may generate an expansion, which would include other individual systems and social entities.

4. There are some nontrivial definitions which can change the markings on the court, thus altering the evolution of the game. We are referring to "a tentative scenario for the origin of culture." The scenario which Gabora suggests has two main themes (memes and autocatalytic closure) and a stage (the origins of culture).

5. What is culture? It seems to be a set of dissimilar elements implied in human social life: language, institutions, family and kinship, religion, food, art, technology, media, etc. Language (including thinking and inner dialogue) has been considered the basic matter of culture (Levi-Strauss 1964; Foucault 1988).

6. Gabora suggests that the origin of culture could be found in the passage from episodic to mimetic (or memetic) culture The meme is the corner-stone in this construction but it is not sharply defined: it can be a unit of cultural transmission. This definition can make it useful in sociology, in some simulations and in the media soup. Otherwise it is too vague. One of the founders of modern linguistics, Peirce (1932) [scheme 1] used to differentiate linguistic events in at least three different categories: indexes (information), icons, and symbols. Jacobson (1963) added other important categories, among them pragmatics.


7. Bacteria and viruses can store and communicate information, but they are unable to use icons and symbols. This transition phase was defined by Peirce as the passage from oneness, to secondness to thirdness. Each of these levels has different combination rules. Symbols, for example, can be interpreted using other symbols. They have a meaning. The structures of meaning have been represented in a famous scheme by Quillian (1968). It is clear, in this scheme, that the interconnections in the semiotic universe are much more complex than the Euclidean geometries of hyperspheres or hypercubes. If we claim that the semiotic universe is structured by Self Organized Criticality, its geometries should be fractal, as they probably are (Orsucci 1998).


8. The meme concept can be a useful simplification for heuristic purposes which should be explicitly declared. Otherwise, it will be a meme in itself: a new organism reproducing in the media primal-soup. The differences in the transition phases between information, icons and symbols, and the inner rules in these different domains, are worth exploring. The idea of autocatalytic cycles is related to periods of punctuation and phase transition triggered by exponential growths. Gabora's paper is certainly an effective contribution to the study of culture, and its processes of self-organization as changes due to internal dynamics. In any case, it needs to be considered in a relativistic perspective in the context of other important factors related to contact-induced change (catalysis).

9. Linguistic changes can be brought on by internal dynamics, but also by extra-linguistic events. These may be natural events, such as floods, droughts or volcanic eruptions, or socio-political events, such as the emergence of an aggressive political or religious group, or some striking technical innovation, or simply an entry into new and pristine territory (Dixon 1998). This relativistic notation is directly related to the idea that living systems are open. We know how in biology change can be related to interaction and symbiosis. Gabora's paper brings the taste of possible new approaches to culture and linguistics in terms of nonlinear dynamics and simulations. Saint Thomas used to say "simplex, sigillum veri": simplifications can give power to innovative endeavours.


Dawkins R (1976) The selfish gene, New York, Oxford Univ. Press.

Dixon RMW (1997) The rise and fall of languages, Cambridge UK, Cambridge Univ. Press.

Foucault M (1988) Technologies of the Self. Amherst, USA, Massachussets University Press

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

Jacobson R (1966) Essais de linguistique generale, Paris F, Editions de Minuit.

Levi-Strauss C (1964) Le Cru et le Cuit. Paris F, Librairie Plon.

Orsucci F (Ed.)(1998) The complex matters of the mind, Singapore, World Scientific Pub.

Peirce CS (1932) Collected Papers. Cambridge Mass. USA, Harvard Univ. Press.

Quillian RM (1968) Semantic memory. in Minsky (Ed.) Semantic Information Processing, Cambridge, MIT Press.

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