Thought Tapestries

Origin and Evolution of the Creative Human Mind

© Liane Gabora, Revised April 2004



It has often been proposed that, since the origin of life and the ensuing evolution of biological species, a second evolutionary process has appeared on our planet. It is the evolution of culture—e.g. ideas, beliefs, and artifacts—and the creative minds that invent them, adapt them to new situations, and play with them for artistic expression and fun. But does culture genuinely evolve in the same sense as biological life? And if so, does it evolve through natural selection, or by some other means? Why does no other species remotely approach the degree of cultural complexity of humans? These are the questions addressed in Thought Tapestries, questions that lie at the foundation of who we are and what makes each life meaningful.

Although much research has been done on how selective pressures operating at the biological level affect cognition and culture, little is known about how culture (and its underlying mechanisms) functions as an evolutionary process in its own right. The exception to this is the meme perspective, which restricts what counts as ‘culturally transmitted’ to things that are passed from one person to another relatively intact, such as eye-catching fashions, or belief in God. However, this approach quickly runs into problems. First because ideas and stories are not simply ‘stored’ and imitated; we each process and re-process them in ways that reflect our own uniquely woven internal model of the world, or worldview. The items with which we weave the fabric of our reality are not static and complete unto themselves; they are dynamically influenced by the context in which they appear. Furthermore, the meme perspective leads us to view ourselves as ‘meme hosts’, passive imitators and transmitters of memes. Although some authors have capitalized on the shock value of the ensuing dismal view of the human condition, clearly we are not merely passive hosts but active evolvers of culture. 

Although the meme approach hasn’t provided the kind of unifying framework for the social sciences that Darwin’s idea of natural selection provided for the biological sciences (as those who favor it may have envisioned), culture does appear to incrementally adapt to the constraints of its environment, to evolve. And in some respects the process looks Darwinian. The way we invent stuff, choose the best, and spread it around may loosely resemble the ‘variation and selective replication’ process through which biological life evolves. Indeed, culture generates phenomena observed in biological evolution such as drift, co-evolution, niches, and altruism.

In many respects, however, the mechanisms of cultural evolution turn out to be markedly different from those of biology. Culture evolves only in small part through Darwinian mechanisms; its basic mode of evolving turns out to be a more general process referred to as context-driven actualization of potential. The difference between these two forms of evolution owes largely to the uniquely human strategic, intuitive manner in which the mind generates novelty. Thus a primary focus of Thought Tapestries is how we attained the creative powers we now possess, and how creative processes actually work, in groups as well as individuals. This will lead to insights into how, when, and why the human mind became capable of supporting culture, and what may have previously held it back. It has been suggested that what was necessary to bootstrap culture was the capacity for a theory of mind (ToM), but we will see that much more is involved. To invent in the strategic, intuitive manner characteristic of the human mind, items that are related to one another must be held in memory such that they are accessible to one another (even when their relationship has never been consciously noticed), so that they can be readily adapted to one another or blended together when the right context comes along. In other words, they need to form some kind of interconnected web structure, wherein particular episodes are collectively categorized as instances of classes or abstract concepts.

Thus we find that at the heart of the puzzle lies the problem of concepts, not just how we use them to identify and classify objects in the world, but their contextuality and compositionality: how we spontaneously adapt them to different circumstances, integrate them into our worldview, and merge them to generate new concepts. Because of the central and enigmatic role played by concepts, a theory of how culture evolves brings in notions from not just biology, but also cognitive science (e.g. neural networks, associative memory), complexity theory (e.g. attractors, phase transitions, self organization), and even physics (e.g. superposition, entanglement, collapse). And finally, the book explores how an evolutionary perspective on culture sheds light on questions of a philosophical or spiritual nature that have been with us since the first fledgling insights glimmered in our ancestors’ brains.

Table of Contents


1. Mind and Culture: A New Form of Evolution?. 3

2. A Day in the Life of an Idea. 4

3. Meme and Variations: A Computer Model 5

4. The Beer Can Theory of Creativity. 6

5. Focusing and Defocusing. 7

6. Conceptual Closure in the Mind of a Child. 8

7. What Sparked the Origin of Culture?. 9

8. The Cultural Replicator: Minds Not Memes. 10

9. The Earliest Modern Human Minds. 11

10. Why Creative Thought is Not a Darwinian Process. 12

11. Evolution as Context-driven Actualization of Potential 12

12. Concepts: An Enigma at the Center of it all 13

13. How Concepts Combine. 14

14. Rethinking how Minds and Ideas Evolve. 15

15. Implications for Consciousness. 16

16. Weaving, Bending, Patching, Mending the Fabric of Reality. 17


Chapter-by-Chapter Synopsis

1. Mind and Culture: A New Form of Evolution?

Like biological evolution, culture is a process whereby patterns of information—ideas, attitudes, artifacts, mannerisms, etc.—incrementally adapting to the constraints and affordances of their environment through descent with modification. Agricultural techniques become more efficient, computers get faster, scientific theories predict and account for more observations, artistic forms both build upon and creatively modify previous ones. But does culture genuinely constitute a new form of evolution?

Like biological evolution, it has forever changed the face of this planet. And in some respects the evolution of culture appears to be Darwinian; that is, a process of natural selection causing the differential replication of randomly generated variants. For example, different brands of peanut butter may be said to compete to be ‘selected’ by consumers. This suggests that knowledge of biological evolution can be put to use to gain insight into cognitive and cultural phenomena. However, the application of Darwinian theory to culture has not proven straightforward, because in many respects, cultural change is distinctly non-Darwinian. For example, natural selection cannot tell us much about how someone came up with the idea for turning peanuts into a spreadable substance in the first place!

The difficulty applying evolutionary theory to culture arises largely because of the complexity of the mind—the hub of cultural change—and the strategic, intuitive, creative manner in which it generates and assimilates cultural novelty. Thus the goal of developing a theory of how culture evolves gives rise to the subgoal of elucidating the relevant underlying cognitive mechanisms. And in so doing, we expand our knowledge of what it means to evolve, and how an evolutionary process could work.

It is important to make clear from the start that culture is not simply an extension of biology. The Earth is embedded with things like paintings, circuses, and computer networks that cannot be accounted for by either (1) the properties of matter or (2) biological evolution. They are manifestations of yet another causal principle: (3) the evolution of culture. Since biology does not provide adequate explanatory power to account for the existence of widgets (just as physics cannot explain the existence of worms), culture cannot be dismissed as a natural extension of biology. It is spectacularly unlike anything else biological processes have given rise to.

This chapter is derived in part from:

Gabora, L. & Aerts, D. (2005) Distilling the essence of an evolutionary process, and implications for a formal description of culture. In (W. Kistler, Ed.) Proceedings of Center for Human Evolution Workshop #4: Cultural Evolution, May 2000, Foundation for the Future, Seattle WA.


2. A Day in the Life of an Idea

Just about anything one can think of or experience is food for thought, and thus food for culturally-transmittable behavior. Some items, such as a recipe for goulash, are straightforwardly transmitted through imitation. Others, such as, say, an attitude of racial prejudice, appear to be culturally transmitted, but it is impossible to point to any particular phrase or gesture through which this transmission is mediated. Still others partake in the cultural dynamic in even subtler ways, as when a composer releases the painful experience of his daughter's death in a piece of music. 

Chapter two follows a particular idea as it passes from one individual to another over the course of a day. The idea both assimilates into the various minds it encounters, and these minds are altered to accommodate not only the idea but what it may, perhaps only subtly, imply or suggest. We see that the idea has a different impact on different individuals, depending on the beliefs and preconceptions already in place. Furthermore, individuals differ in the extent to which they process it, and thus the extent to which their worldview is affected by it and by its ‘halo’ of implications. They also differ in the extent to which their processing of the idea takes place in interaction with others. There are individuals who are never directly exposed to the idea, but indirectly altered by it nevertheless, through exposure to others who were directly exposed.

Some delight in the idea. They playfully adapt it to new circumstances, and combine it with other ideas. Others find it shameful and embarrassing. They bundle it up in a cloak of repression, fencing it off from streams of thought that might try to penetrate its mysteries, with the result that they either avoid it altogether (forbidden from crossing the fence) or dwell on it excessively (stuck inside the fence).

As we track our idea, we see that it exhibits phenomena observed in biological evolution such as Founder Effect and altruism. In fact one could argue that humans feel more altruistic toward their ‘cultural kin’ than their biological kin. (For example, who would you go out of your way for the most: someone who has the same eye color or blood type as you, or someone who shares your interests?) However, the manner in which it changes is definitely not random as in biology. Some people modify it in ways that make good logical sense, while others transform the feelings it evokes into poetry or art. By the end of the day it has contradicted itself, made fun of itself, and been radically altered in a way that may result in a Nobel prize for the mind that bears one of its progeny.  

This chapter is derived in part from the following publication:

Gabora, L. (1996) A day in the life of a meme. Philosophica 57: 901-938.


3. Meme and Variations: A Computer Model

If culture, like biology, is a form of evolution, it should be possible to abstract the underlying skeleton of the process and develop a minimal model of it analogous to the genetic algorithm, a computational model of biological evolution. This chapter presents Meme and Variations (or MAV for short) a model of the process by which culture evolves in a society of interacting individuals. MAV consists of an artificial society of neural network-based agents that don’t have genomes, and neither die nor have offspring, but that can invent, imitate, and implement ideas, and thereby gradually increase the fitness of their actions. Every iteration, each agent has the opportunity to acquire a new idea, either through 1) innovation, by mutating a previously learned idea, or 2) imitation, by copying an action performed by a neighbor.

We find that MAV exhibits many phenomena observed in biology, such as drift—changes in the relative frequencies of different alleles (forms of a gene) as a statistical byproduct of randomly sampling from a finite population. Second, as in biology we find that epistasis increases the amount of time it takes to evolve. Third, although in the absence of variation-generating operations culture does not evolve, increasing innovation much beyond the minimum necessary causes average fitness to decrease, just as in biology.

MAV also addresses the evolutionary consequences of phenomena unique to culture. Imitation, mental simulation, and strategic (as opposed to random) generation of variation all increase the rate at which fitter actions evolve. The higher the ratio of innovation to imitation, the greater the diversity, and the higher the fitness of the fittest action. Interestingly however, for the society as a whole, the optimal innovation-to-imitation ratio was approximately 2:1 (but diversity is then compromised). For the agent with the fittest behavior, the less it imitated (i.e. the more effort reserved for innovation), the better. This suggests if you’re the smartest one around, don’t waste time copying what others are doing!

This chapter is derived in part from:

Gabora, L. (2003) Meme and variations: A computer model of cultural evolution. In (L. Nadel & D. Stein, Eds.) 1993 Lectures in Complex Systems, Addison-Wesley, 471-486. [pdf]


4. The Beer Can Theory of Creativity

This is the first of two chapters in which we examine the mechanisms underlying the creative processes through which cultural novelty is generated. The title of the chapter comes from a newspaper article which described a crafty, but incompetent thief, as “He’s got a full six pack, but the plastic thingy that holds them together is missing”, a spin-off of the saying “He’s one can short of a full six pack”. The journalist’s description of the thief not only exemplifies the interplay of continuity and context-driven change characteristic of creativity. It's also a pithy summary of the other main point of this chapter: the capacity to adapt ideas in new directions depends on how richly interwoven an individual’s concepts are in memory. In other words, when it comes to creativity, how your ‘beer cans’ are connected is as important as how many of them there are.

To appreciate what this involves requires that we briefly examine how episodes or items of experience are stored in memory, and how we navigate through memory by way of abstract concepts. Episodes stored in the mind are distributed across multiple memory locations, and content-addressable, meaning that similar or related items activate, and get stored in, overlapping memory regions. It can be useful to think of a state of the mind as consisting of a specific combination of distinguishable features, and of all possible states of mind as defining what can be called conceptual space.

There is a saying, 'you never step into the same stream twice,' and it applies to streams of thought as well as streams of water. Ideas or past events are not retrieved whole and discreet from memory like apples from a box. Since they were first experienced, they may have been recursively manipulated or redescribed in streams of thought, or indirectly colored by more recent events. Moreover, they are affected by the circumstances of the present moment; thus, their recollection is a reconstructive event. Items are never recalled exactly as they were originally experienced, and the alterations they acquire are highly nonrandom, reflecting the associative structure of the mind as well as its analytic capacities. We will see that this is largely the reason that cultural and biological form evolve differently.

This chapter is derived in part from:

Gabora, L. (2002) The beer can theory of creativity. In (P. Bentley & D. Corne, Eds.) Creative Evolutionary Systems, Morgan Kauffman, 147-161. [pdf]

Gabora, L. (2000) Toward a theory of creative inklings. In (R. Ascott, Ed.) Art, Technology, and Consciousness, Intellect Press, 159-164. [pdf]


5. Focusing and Defocusing

Whereas the previous chapter investigated what sort of cognitive architecture can support creativity, this chapter investigates the mechanics of actually generating a creative idea. It is widely believed that thought varies along a continuum from rigorous and analytical to intuitive and associative, and it has been experimentally demonstrated that particularly creative individuals excel at both. Synthesis of diverse empirical and computational studies suggests that this is related to contextual focus: the capacity to subconsciously focus or defocus attention in response to the situation, thereby varying the size and diversity of the memory region impacted by and retrieved from.  This capacity enables one to spontaneously shift between analytic and associative modes of thought.

When you seek self-expression or encounter a problem that defies logical analysis, you enter a state of defocused attention, in which you are receptive to the possible relevance of many facets of the situation. Each percept or idea is processed in detail, activating and potentially retrieving information from a large receptive field containing many memory locations. Since, as we saw in the previous chapter, memory is distributed and content-addressable, the diverse contents of this receptive field merge in the generation of a next thought which is related, in some perhaps unexpected way, to the first. Thus thought is associative in the sense that seemingly less irrelevant aspects may come into play and affect how an idea takes shape.

Ideas are refined by focusing attention, filtering out irrelevant dimensions and zeroing in on relevant ones. This is accomplished through a narrowing of the receptive field searched and retrieved from, such that the next thought is the product of fewer memory locations. When each thought or percept is processed in terms of only its most defining or characteristic features, mental effort can be reserved for the sorts of complex operations characteristic of analytic thought.

This chapter is derived in part from:

Gabora, L. (2002) Cognitive mechanisms underlying the creative process. In (T. Hewett and T. Kavanagh, Eds.) Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Creativity and Cognition, 13-16 October, Loughborough University UK, 126-133. [pdf]



6. Conceptual Closure in the Mind of a Child

Research by developmental psychologists such as Annette Karmiloff-Smith and others has demonstrated that a child’s generative or creative capacity increases rapidly between four and seven years of age. At this time, a child gives evidence of starting to have a sense of how the various aspects of life, society, and the world at large, fit together and relate to one another. It is proposed that this happens through the process of conceptual closure. The notion of a closure space comes from a branch of topology known as graph theory. It deals with how points can be connected by edges, and the basic idea can be explained easily as follows. Imagine you have a jar full of buttons, which you spill on the floor. You tie two randomly chosen buttons with a thread, and repeat this again and again. Occasionally you lift a button and see how many connected buttons get lifted, and you find that clusters start to emerge. When the ratio of strings to buttons reaches about 0.5, you arrive at what is called a percolation threshold, at which point clusters of connected buttons join to form a giant cluster containing most of the buttons. Thus closure in the mathematical sense does not mean that nothing can get in or out. It means that there exists a path for getting from any one point to any other in the set by means of connected points.


Now we apply the concept of closure to cognition. Memories are described as points (buttons), associative paths between them as edges (strings), and concepts as clusters of connected points. Learning and reminding increase the density of associative paths, and the probability of concept formation. Concepts facilitate streams of thought, which forge connections between more distantly related clusters. The ratio of associative paths to concepts increases until it becomes almost inevitable that one giant cluster emerges and the points form a connected closure space. At this point there exists a potential associative pathway from any one memory or concept to any other. Because the memory is now integrated, it has the capacity to reason about one thing in terms of another, adapt ideas to new circumstances, or frame new experiences in terms of previous ones, and combine information from different domains as in a joke.


Aided by social exchange, and mediated by artifacts, a framework for how things are and how things work falls into place in a child’s mind, and it bears some likeness (and also some dis-similarities) to that of its predecessors, such as the worldviews of parents and other influential individuals. Some experiences are either so consistent, or so inconsistent with the child’s worldview that they have little impact on it. Others mesh readily with existing ideas, or ring true intuitively, and percolate deep into the worldview, renewing the child’s understanding of a myriad other notions or events. The child is thereby encultured, becomes a unique cog in the culture-evolving machinery.


This chapter is derived in part from the following publication:

Gabora, L. (2000) Conceptual closure: Weaving memories into an interconnected worldview. In (G. Van de Vijver & J. Chandler, Eds.) Closure: Emergent Organizations and their Dynamics. Vol. 901 of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 42-53.[pdf]


7. What Sparked the Origin of Culture?

Having examined the cognitive architecture underlying our unique creative abilities, we are ready to consider: how did these abilities come about? The origin of task-specific tools, organized hunting, fire use, and migration out of Africa 1.7 million years ago are suggestive of a significant cognitive transition at this time. It is proposed that this transition occurred due to neurophysiological changes enabling the receptive fields where memories are storied and retrieved from to become more distributed, facilitating reminding events and concept formation. This paved the way for onset of the capacity for conceptual closure, which as we saw in the previous chapter, enables memories and concepts to become integrated through the formation of a dynamical network of concepts to yield a self-modifying internal model of the world, or worldview. 


Thus, while brains were evolving through biological evolution, conceptually closed worldviews began evolving through cultural evolution. This second evolutionary process rides piggybacks on the first, and the two mutually reinforce one another. As worldviews become increasingly complex, the artifacts they manifest become increasingly complex, which necessitates even more complex worldviews, et cetera.  


This chapter is derived in part from:

Gabora, L. (2005). Mind: What archaeology can tell us about the origins of modern human cognition. In (A. Bentley & H. Maschner, Eds.) Handbook of Theories and Methods in Archaeology, Altamira Press, Walnut Creek CA.


8. The Cultural Replicator: Minds Not Memes

It is often assumed that the basic units of cultural evolution are artifacts like tools, fashions, and so forth, or the mental representations or ideas that give rise to these concrete cultural forms. Moreover, it is suggested that artifacts or ideas constitute ‘replicators’, cultural entities that replicate themselves in the same sense as living organisms do. This chapter shows that neither an artifact nor an idea is a replicator because it does not consist of self-assembly instructions. It may retain structure as it passes from one individual to another, but does not replicate it. The cultural replicator is not an idea but a conceptually closed web of them that together form a mind, or from an ‘inside’ point of view, a worldview. A worldview replicates without a code, in a self-organized, emergent fashion, like the autocatalytic sets of polymers widely believed to be the earliest form of life. These life forms generated self-similar structure, but since there was no code yet to copy from, there was no explicit copying going on. The presence of a given catalytic polymer, say polymer X, simply sped up the rate at which certain reactions took place, while another catalytic polymer, say Y, influenced the reaction that generated X. Eventually, for each polymer in the set, there existed a reaction that catalyzed it. Because the process occured in a piecemeal manner, through bottom-up interactions rather than a top-down genetic code, they replicated with low fidelity, and acquired characteristics were inherited. We can refer to this kind of structure as a primitive replicator.

A worldview has a similar structure and dynamics. Just as polymers catalyze reactions that generate other polymers, retrieval of an item from memory can trigger another, which triggers yet another and so forth, thereby cross-linking memories, ideas, and concepts into a conceptually-closed web. Thus a worldview constitutes a second kind of primitive replicator, and it is worldviews (not separate ideas or memes) that evolve. A worldview is not just a collection of discrete ideas or memes, nor do ideas or memes form an interlocking set like puzzle pieces, because each context impacts it differently, fragmenting it into a slightly different puzzle. So, in contradiction to the meme perspective, neither a painting nor the ideas that went through the artist’s mind while painting it constitute a replicator. A painting plays its role in the evolution of culture by revealing some aspect of the artist’s worldview (which is a replicator) and thereby affecting the worldviews (other replicators) of those who admire it.

As with the earliest forms of life, traits acquired over a lifetime are heritable; that is, get passed on from one ‘generation’ to the next. We hear a joke and, in telling it, give it our own slant, or we create a disco version of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and a rap version of that. The evolutionary trajectory of a worldview makes itself known indirectly, like footprints in the sand, via the behavior and artifacts it manifests under the influence of the contexts it encounters. For example, when you explain how to change a tire, certain facets of your worldview are revealed, while playing a piano concerto reveals others. The situation of a flat tire ‘sliced through’ your worldview in such a way that certain parts of it were expressed, while the concerto expressed others.

This chapter is derived in part from:

Gabora, L. (2004) Ideas are not replicators but minds are. Biology and Philosophy 19(1): 127-143.[pdf]


9. The Earliest Modern Human Minds

A second cultural transition took place approximately 50,000 ka, during the Upper Paleolithic. We see at this time a more strategic style of hunting involving specific animals at specific sites, colonization of Australia, replacement of Levallois tool technology by blade cores in the Near East, elaborate burial sites indicative of ritualized religion, and the first appearance of art, jewelery, and decoration of tools and pottery in Europe. There is also evidence of modern language, and a restructuring of social relations. Moreover, cultural change becomes cumulative, one change building on another, what has come to be called the Ratchet Effect.

It is proposed that this transition resulted from fine-tuning of the mechanisms underlying contextual focus, the capacity to focus or defocus attention spontaneously in response to the situation at hand. As mentioned in chapter five, defocused attention facilitates associative thought, which is conducive to coming up with new ideas, while focused attention facilitates analytical thought, conducive to the refinement of ideas. Once humans acquired the capacity to spontaneously shift between these two modes, when unsuccessful attempting to solve a problem analytically, they could defocus attention, enter a more associative form of thought, and see the situation in a new light. Resuming a state of focused attention, but now viewing the situation in a new way, they might be able to solve the problem. If not, the focus/defocus process could be repeated. Thus it became possible to generate new approaches to the myriad small and large problems and dilemmas that arise in everyday life. This chapter explains how onset of contextual focus could have given rise to the capacity for conceptual closure at multiple hierarchical levels, and the role it could have played in the origin of art, science, religion, and possibly modern language.

This chapter is derived in part from:

Gabora, L. (2003) Contextual focus: A cognitive explanation for the cultural transition of the Middle/Upper Paleolithic. Proceedings of the 25th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, Boston MA, 31 July-2 August. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


10. Why Creative Thought is Not a Darwinian Process

In this chapter we will see why (contrary to psychologists like Donald Campbell and Dean Simonton) creative thought does not constitute a process of natural selection. Selection theory requires multiple, distinct, simultaneously-actualized states. In cognition, each thought or cognitive state changes the ‘selection pressure’ against which the next is evaluated; they are not simultaneously selected amongst. Creative thought is more a matter of honing in on a vague idea by redescribing successive iterations of it from different real or imagined perspectives; in other words, actualizing potential through exposure to different contexts. It has been proven that the mathematical description of contextual change of state introduces a non-Kolmogorovian probability distribution, and a classical formalism such as selection theory cannot be used. Thus an idea certainly changes as it gets mulled over in a stream of thought, and indeed it appears to evolve, but the process through which it evolves is not Darwinian.

Natural selection as it has been mathematically formulated has been able to yield an approximate description of the evolution of biological organisms because self-replication instructions are encoded in the form of a genome, which is shielded from contextual influence; the genome of the child does not retain change acquired over the lifetime of the parent. However, this is not the case for cultural evolution and the cognitive processes underlying it (nor, as we will see, for the earliest forms of biological life itself). In a stream of thought, or a discussion amongst individuals, neither are all contexts equally likely, nor does context have a limited effect on future iterations. So the assumptions that make classical stochastic models useful approximations do not hold for creative thought. Attempts to apply selection theory to thought commit the serious error of treating a set of potential, contextually elicited states of one entity as if they were actual states of a collection of entities, or possible states with no effect of context, even though the mathematical structure of the two situations is completely different.

This chapter is derived in part from:

Gabora, L. & Aerts, D. (in press) Creative thought as a non-Darwinian evolutionary process. Journal of Creative Behavior.


11. Evolution as Context-driven Actualization of Potential

We have seen that human culture does appear to evolve, and examined two transitions in its evolution. However, we have also seen that the process through which it evolves is not strictly Darwinian. How then does this process of evolution work?

In fact, probing the similarities and differences between biological and cultural evolution can deepen our understanding of how any sort of evolutionary process could manifest itself. My colleagues and I have been working on a general, transdisciplinary framework for the description and analysis of evolutionary processes. The goals of this project are:

·   To investigate in what sense ideas and cultures evolve.

·   To formulate an account of biological change that incorporates emergent phenomena (e.g. autocatalysis, symbiosis, mate selection, epigenetic mechanisms) that do not fit readily into a neo-Darwinian framework.

·   To develop a broad framework from which we can meaningfully compare and contrast different means of change across the physical, biological, cognitive, and social sciences.

In a nutshell, evolution is viewed as process through which an entity actualizes its potential for change, sometimes through interaction with a context or environment. In other words, it is a process of context-driven actualization of potential, or CAP. Different forms of evolution differ with respect to the degree to which they are sensitive to, internalize, and depend upon a particular context, and whether change of state is deterministic or nondeterministic.

The CAP framework has implications for both the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences. For example, it suggests that the dynamical evolution of a quantum entity is not fundamentally different from collapse, but rather a change of state for which there is only one way to collapse. By way of enabling cross-disciplinary comparison, it illustrates how unusual Darwinian evolution is, and clarifies in what sense culture is and is not Darwinian. Thus we reach a more general understanding of how it is that something could evolve.

This chapter is derived in part from:

Gabora, L. & Aerts, D. (in press) Evolution as context-driven actualization of potential. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews.


12. Concepts: An Enigma at the Center of it all

We have seen that at the heart of the question of how culture evolves lies the question of how novelty is generated. And at the heart of that question lies a two-pronged question: how do concepts adapt to new contexts, and how do they combine?

Science has had difficulty accounting for the flexibility and compositionality of concepts in everyday situations. This difficulty stems in part from the Cartesian tendency to view concepts as fixed representations or identifiers, entities in the mind that represent a class of entities in the world. However, as first shown by Eleanor Rosch, concepts do not have a fixed representational structure; their features or properties shift depending on the context in which they arise. (For example, although the concept baby can refer to a real human baby, a plastic doll, or a stick figure painted with icing on a cake, for each situation the set of properties is different.) Moreover, concepts appear to gain and lose properties when they combine. (For example, when baby combines with doll in the conjunction baby doll, properties atypical of baby, such as ‘made of plastic’, appear, while other baby properties such as ‘has DNA’, disappear.) Thus, increasingly concepts are seen not just to identify but to actively participate in the generation of meaning. A complete theory of concepts therefore requires a mathematical formalism that can describe the emergence of structure at the interface between entity and context, as well as the spontaneous generation of new states with new properties when two entities merge to form one.

These constraints on the sort of mathematical structure that could be used to describe concepts are reminiscent of the situation encountered in physics a century ago.  In physics, formalisms developed to describe form that emerges at the interface between subject and object were necessitated by the paradoxes of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics was born when experiments on micro-particles revealed, for the first time in history, a world that completely resisted description using the mathematics of classical mechanics which had until then been completely successful. Like quantum entities whose structure dynamically manifests when evoked by a measurement, a concept dynamically manifests when evoked by a stimulus or situation. Prior to the measurement or context, both quantum entities and concepts can be described as existing in a state of potentiality, a superposition of the different ways they could possibly actualize. Moreover, as in quantum mechanics, where a property is neither present nor absent except in the context of a measurement that is relevant to the detection of that property, features of concepts are not necessarily present nor absent except in the context of a situation to which they are relevant. Finally, quantum mechanics provides a means of mathematically describing the process where two entities merge to become one, and a generalization of these formalisms are applicable to not just entangled particles but also conjunctions of concepts.

This chapter is derived in part from:

Gabora, L., Rosch, E. & Aerts, D. (2005) Toward an ecological theory of concepts. In (D. Aerts, B. D'Hooghe & N. Note, Eds.) Worldviews, Science and Us: Bridging Knowledge and Perspectives on the World, World Scientific, Singapore.

Gabora, L. & Aerts, D. (2002) Contextualizing concepts using a mathematical generalization of the quantum formalism. Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Artificial Intelligence 14(4): 327-358. [pdf]


13. How Concepts Combine

My colleagues and I have proposed a theory for modeling concepts that uses the state-context-property theory (SCOP), a generalization of the quantum formalism, whose basic notions are states, contexts and properties. A concept (e.g. ‘cup’) is defined not just in terms of exemplary instances or states (e.g. ‘tea cup’) and their features or properties (e.g. ‘concave’), but also by the relational structures of these properties, and their susceptibility to change under different contexts. SCOP enables us to incorporate context into the mathematical structure used to describe a concept, and thereby model how context influences the typicality of an instance or exemplar and the applicability of a property. 

Similarity-based theories of concepts have difficulty accounting for why items that are dissimilar or even opposite might nevertheless belong together; for example, why white might be more likely to be categorized with black than with flat, or why dwarf might be more likely to be categorized with giant than with, say, salesman. Adopting the quantum terminology, we distinguish between similarity with respect to which contexts are relevant—compatibility—and similarity with respect to values for those contexts—correlation. This refined notion of similarity enables us to develop context-sensitive measures of conceptual distance. We also differentiate between superposition states of a concept, which have the potential to undergo a change of state with respect to the current context, and collapsed states, which do not.

We show that it is also possible to embed the sets of contexts and properties of a concept in the complex Hilbert space of quantum mechanics. (States are unit vectors or density operators, and contexts and properties are orthogonal projections.) This enables conjunctions or combinations of concepts to be described as states of entanglement using the tensor product. Implications for the productivity of spoken and written language are discussed.

This chapter is derived in part froms:

Aerts, D. & Gabora, L. (2005) A state-context-property model of concepts and their combinations I: The structure of the sets of contexts and properties. Kybernetes. 34(1&2), 151-175. [quant-ph/0402207] [pdf]

Aerts, D. & Gabora, L. (2005) A state-context-property model of concepts and their combinations II: A Hilbert space representation. Kybernetes 34(1&2), 176-205. [quant-ph/0402205] [pdf]


14. Rethinking how Minds and Ideas Evolve

The reason concepts play such a big part in this story is largely due to their central role in a stream of creative thought. Our approach to describing a stream of thought is explained using a hypothetical example of what may conceivably have been the first creative act: an ember rolls out of a bonfire leading to invention of the torch. Since it cannot be known with certainty that Oga, the inventor, will notice the ember and realize it could be picked up and used to light the way, the change of cognitive state at the instant the ember rolls out of the fire is an intrinsically contextual, nondeterministic event, and a nonclassical formalism is necessary to describe it. Because the lack of knowledge concerns how the context interacts with Oga’s mind, the dynamics of Oga’s cognitive state can be described as undergoing a collapse event that actualizes one of the cognitive states that was previously potential.

Changes of cognitive state before and after this follow quite deterministically given states that precede them and the ongoing context of sitting before a bonfire and needing light to find the way home. During these segments, Oga’s mind is not in a potentiality state with respect to the current context. The cognitive state still changes in a way that reflects the context to which it is exposed, but its trajectory can be predicted with certainty. Note that nowhere does ‘selection’ occur. Oga’s mind is simply adapting to its circumstances by undergoing a series of context-driven changes, actualizing one state after another that was previously potential for it.

Our approach to describing the effect of social interaction is explained using as an example the spread of the idea of how to make a torch throughout the tribe in which it was invented, and how it adapts to one mind after another, each lighting the torch, so to speak, for the next. 

This chapter is derived in part from:

Gabora, L. (in prep.) How minds and cultures evolve.

15. Implications for Consciousness

What are the implications of this second evolutionary process for consciousness? Approaches to consciousness can be divided into two groups: physical and fundamental. Physical explanations are specified in terms of structure and dynamics. Structure and dynamics at one level may add up to new structure and dynamics at another level, but still all you have is structure and dynamics. For most problems in science, that is all you need. But with consciousness, there is something beyond structure and dynamics to account for: subjective experience. Thus, as David Chalmers points out, physical explanations do not come to grips with the hard problem of consciousness.

Fundamental approaches to consciousness come to terms the problem of subjective experience because they take consciousness to be a universal fundamental, like mass. Thus they posit that consciousness—or at least a primitive form of it, perhaps quite unlike that with which we are familiar—is present in the very building blocks from which more complex structures are built. The notion that consciousness is fundamental has been with us for centuries, and it has been drawn on the basis of philosophical, religious, and scientific argument alike. The fact that the same conclusion has been reached by influential thinkers from very different angles does not mean it is right, but suggests that it should not be dismissed lightly.

An example of a fundamental approach to consciousness is Chalmers’ double aspect theory of information, according to which whenever an information state is realized physically it is also realized phenomenally. Thus information has a conscious aspect. Note that although ‘information’ in its classic sense involves a passive transmission of knowledge involving a decision between two alternatives that travels from a source or sender to a destination or receiver, with the advent of quantum logic and quantum computing, our notion of what information can be includes situations in which neither side acts solely as source or destination, sender or receiver. The outcome emerges at the interface between them, and depends upon how the two interact. Thus ‘information’ in the term ‘double aspect theory of information’ attributes phenomenality also to these processes.

Although fundamental approaches bypass the problem of how complex an entity must be to be conscious, and what sort of complication grants it consciousness, by positing consciousness as a basic primitive, they open up another problem, referred to as the combination problem. Namely, how do you get from the sort of consciousness that could be present in rocks and trees and everything else to the real McCoy, human consciousness? In this chapter we explore what happens if we take the double aspect theory of information seriously and suggest that an entity is conscious to the extent it amplifies information. We will see how information, and thus consciousness, could be increasingly amplified through the various stages in the evolution of life from the earliest autocatalytic sets of self-replicating polymers, through the cognitive transitions discuss in previous chapters. We also will explore some of the implications for altered states of consciousness.

This chapter is derived in part from:

Gabora, L. (2002) Amplifying phenomenal information: Toward a fundamental theory of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies 9(8): 3-29.[pdf]


16. Weaving, Bending, Patching, Mending the Fabric of Reality

If we are to take seriously the idea that culture is an evolutionary process, we can indeed look to evolution to provide the kind of overarching framework for the humanities that it provides for the biological sciences. But in so doing, we come to a more general view of what evolution can be and what it involves—context-driven actualization of potential. Although some aspects of culture are amenable to Darwinian description, such as the competition of artifacts in the marketplace. Others, such as the origin of culture, require concepts from complexity theory such as self organization and emergence. Still other aspects of culture, particularly those that involve the generation and refinement of novel ideas within and between individuals, require for their formal description a means of dealing with potentiality, context, and nondeterminism.

The final chapter provides not just a synthesis of previous chapters, but takes us back to the everyday questions that can inspire this kind of investigation. Specifically, one can, say, buy something nice and feel happy for a while, but sooner or later life feels hollow unless there is a sense of purpose, a sense of one’s place in something larger, an effect one can have. By viewing each person as a conscious player in the process through which worldviews evolve, each act becomes sacred and imbued with the potential to change the future. This is what it really means to be human, to partake in the web of thoughts and cultural artifacts that extends back to our earliest ancestors and will affect all who come next. Maladaptive ideas and attitudes have a chance to get replaced by (literally) more evolved ones, and there are mechanisms at work to help this along. We feel happy and encouraging when we recognize in other people ‘sister ideas’ to those we find useful or beautiful. These kinds of mechanisms guide us as individuals to take meaningful steps toward a second form of evolution, cultural evolution, which got started much later than biological evolution, but is every bit as remarkable. It is the process through which today’s culture is rooted in cultures of the past, the process whereby our thoughts generate actions, which touch others, which touch still others, and thus a vast web of conscious minds together weave the fabric of their reality, forever creating new ways of seeing and being. 

This chapter is derived in part from:

Gabora, L. (1999) Weaving, bending, patching, mending the fabric of reality: A cognitive science perspective on worldview inconsistency. Foundations of Science 3(2): 395-428.





Altruism – Being especially nice to those who are related to you.


Drift – Changes in the relative frequencies of different alleles (forms of a gene) as a statistical byproduct of randomly sampling from a finite population.


Epistasis – The fitness conferred by one gene depends on which allele is present at another gene.


Founder Effect – Stabilization in a closed-off social group.


Mental Simulation – Ability to assess the relative fitness of an action before actually implementing it.


Theory of Mind – The capacity to reason about the mental states of others.


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Last modified April 2004. All writing and artwork by Liane Gabora.. Do not use without permission.