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Part 3: Cooperative Conventions

In part 2 we discussed the role of copying or reproduction in the persistence of cultural and ethnic groups. The second force in the biological examples discussed in part 1 was the need for homeostatic compatibilities between the members. There is an analogous compatibility between members of an ethnic or cultural group. To see this we need to introduce Millikan’s notion of a cooperative or stabilizing function.

Imagine a case where two individuals have a common interest, the achievement of which has historically been achieved by each party reproducing their part in a pattern. The benefit of obtaining this common interest serves to coordinate each one to the other in order to cooperate in the achievement of this common purpose. For example, in order to communicate concerning the presence or actions of, say, dogs, we create and spread a convention to use the sound associated with “dog” to be reproduced on relevant occasions as to facilitate this communication. If one has an interest in alerting another individual to the presence of a dog the speaker will use this conventional sound to indicate this. There is no reason that it had to be the sound associated with “dog,” other sounds could have served just as well, as they do in other languages, but a convention was started by English speakers and the benefits of having everyone on the same page resulted in this convention being copied from person to person via learning because of its beneficial effect.

The common interest of this cooperative function is being able to communicate concerning dogs. This is normally done by the speaker doing his part of using the language conventions to communicate information, and the hearer doing their part of coming to believe that what is said is true. If speakers were too often wrong and the hearers were frequently mislead they would soon stop forming the beliefs based on the speaker’s utterances, and if hearers stopped forming the beliefs, speakers would stop using the conventions to instill these beliefs in their hearers; the convention would go extinct and speakers would try to find another way to communicate. But because both speakers and hearers interests are mutually reinforced sufficiently often there is no incentive to change the convention; it reinforces both parties in continuing to use it as precedent has determined since both sides have their interests met in doing so.  Because of this the convention will persist through time.

To take another example of Millikan’s, drivers have a common interest in avoiding collisions, so in the United States a convention was instituted so that everyone drives on the right. We cooperate with one another in the avoidance of collisions by adhering to this convention (Language: A Biological Model, p. 12). A driver approaching from the north has an interest in not colliding with a driver approaching from the south, and vice versa, and so each will be reinforced in following the convention. There is nothing inherently superior to this convention; in England the convention is driving on the left. Because of its ability to achieve the common interest in avoiding collisions this convention has been maintained in the cultural community. Thus the members of a cultural group are co-adapted to one another through learning the local conventions. They have come to adopt these behaviors as a means of enjoying the benefits successful performance of the cooperative conventions bestows–avoiding collisions–being able to converse concerning a myriad of subjects, being able to exchange goods, and so on.

An additional interesting case is the way that people coordinate their appearance. In any workplace, or neighborhood, or culture (or subculture) you are inevitably going to find a high degree of coordination of appearance. Why people coordinate in this way is very interesting, and it appears to be a cultural universal that people do so coordinate–different cultures have their conventional attire. I am sitting in an airport as I write this and the level or coordination of attire of the people around me is astounding. Everyone is wearing the standard American shoes, pants, shirt, etc.. Of course there is much variety, but the standardization is far more prevalent: there are no samurai warriors, Dutch wooden shoes, Native-American head-dresses, or the like. Attire in a sense forms its own language as people choose certain attire because of what it “says” about them. We are all in on this language just as much as we are all in on the coordinations involved in speaking English. We know that dressing certain ways will say or communicate certain things about us. If someone wore a tuxedo to a football game because they were not aware of the convention it would be an awkward and alienating experience as they became aware of the mis-coordination. Likewise, someone wearing attire of the language from one historical tradition among those of another tradition is going to produce a failure to communicate. The controversy over the Muslim headscarf is such an example. In its language the headscarf means modesty, but being produced in Western cultures it produces alienation among both wearer and perceiver as it indicates that one is not historically related to it in the way intended, and the failure to coordinate in its meaning occurs. Muslims are co-adapted to one another to understand the meaning of the headscarf and what it describes and proscribes.

In order for an individual to secure the benefits coordination bestows they must maneuver themselves into conditions that allow the cooperative function to succeed.   Take as an example the biological conditions for the successful visual perception of color. If one is in biologically abnormal conditions for successful color perception, say, it is too dark, or there are colored lights instead of sunlight, and one is unable to judge accurately an object’s color, the solution is to bring the object into functionally enabling conditions, to bring it outdoors, for example, and look at it under the sun. Millikan writes “One knows how, physically, to maneuver oneself into conditions normal for making accurate perceptual judgments of a given kind” (On Clear and Confused Ideas, p. 103). When trying to see something, we bring objects into conditions that enable successful visual perception, when trying to hear a sound we might turn our head in order to sense from which direction the sound is coming, or move closer to the sound, and so on.

The same need to bring about functionally enabling conditions exists in the case of the interpersonal cooperative functions we have been discussing; people need to bring about conditions that ensure success for the functions of language, appearance, customs, morals, and other cooperative functions. For instance, if one is in a foreign country and needs to ask a question, the answer is to maneuver yourself into success-enabling conditions, to find your co-adapted partner–another English speaker–and thus succeed in the performance of one’s cooperative function of eliciting true information from one’s listeners. Another example of maneuvering into historically enabling conditions would be the case of an immigrant who moves to an ethnic enclave in order to ensure the presence of those with whom they are co-adopted and so may succeed in various interactions. We require our co-adapted partners in order to succeed in communicating and other day-to-day interactions that require coordination and cooperation amongst members of a community in the successful performance of cooperative functions, or to avoid the negative consequences of a failure to coordinate.

Similar to how the stability of biological species results from the maintenance of compatibilities in the gene pool, the need for successful inter-personal coordination is what keeps words meaning the same things over time, or keeps traditions alive, or keeps social practices in existence. In the case of coordinating behaviors, the need for a co-adapted partner reinforces the parties in behaving in conventional ways. In the United States, drivers coordinate by driving on the right hand side of the road, people shake hands when greeting rather than, say, bowing to one another, we start work at 9 a.m., we have standards for dress, we use dollars for currency, etc. These and innumerable other historical co-adaptations are what create, constitutes, and maintains a culture; they are the bonds that hold a culture together. And just as in the biological case homeostasis preserves the diversity of biological species, this process of cultural homeostasis is what preserves cultures and ethnicities; it keeps such groups in existence over time and safe from dispersal. The members of an ethnic and cultural group are co-adapted and require one another in order to perpetuate the cultural and ethnic conventions and traditions.

We will discuss a third force in part 4.

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