Some: Applied Culturology…!

So, Culture Evolves… (This is not news…)

Charles Darwin [ca. 1830] by G. Richmond (public domain)

Charles Darwin [c.1830] by G. Richmond (public domain)

As Charles Darwin noted, in The Descent of Man (1871): words, and also languages, evolve. To be precise, Darwin (1871) wrote:

`The formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously parallel.

(67. See the very interesting parallelism between the development of species and languages, given by Sir C. Lyell in ‘The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man,’ 1863, chap. xxiii.)

But we can trace the formation of many words further back than that of species, for we can perceive how they actually arose from the imitation of various sounds.

We find in distinct languages striking homologies due to community of descent, and analogies due to a similar process of formation. The manner in which certain letters or sounds change when others change is very like correlated growth. We have in both cases the reduplication of parts, the effects of long-continued use, and so forth.

The frequent presence of rudiments, both in languages and in species, is still more remarkable. The letter m in the word am, means I; so that in the expression I am, a superfluous and useless rudiment has been retained.

In the spelling also of words, letters often remain as the rudiments of ancient forms of pronunciation.

Languages, like organic beings, can be classed in groups under groups; and they can be classed either naturally according to descent, or artificially by other characters. Dominant languages and dialects spread widely, and lead to the gradual extinction of other tongues.

A language, like a species, when once extinct, never, as Sir C. Lyell remarks, reappears. The same language never has two birth-places.

Distinct languages may be crossed or blended together. (68. See remarks to this effect by the Rev. F.W. Farrar, in an interesting article, entitled ‘Philology and Darwinism,’ in ‘Nature,’ March 24th, 1870, p. 528.)

We see variability in every tongue, and new words are continually cropping up; but as there is a limit to the powers of the memory, single words, like whole languages, gradually become extinct.

As Max Muller (69. ‘Nature,’ January 6th, 1870, p. 257.) has well remarked:—”A struggle for life is constantly going on amongst the words and grammatical forms in each language. The better, the shorter, the easier forms are constantly gaining the upper hand, and they owe their success to their own inherent virtue.”

To these more important causes of the survival of certain words, mere novelty and fashion may be added; for there is in the mind of man a strong love for slight changes in all things.

The survival or preservation of certain favoured words in the struggle for existence is natural selection.

(Darwin [1871], 1952, pp. 300-301, bold emphasis mine)

At any rate, I posted (at some length) on Joe Brewer’s excellent article A Forty Year Update on Meme Theory (Brewer 2016, online) here.

But right now, I want to focus on just one paragraph (which – by the way – is: a unit of culture, or a meme) of that great article (i.e., of, Brewer 2016, online).

Memes – or “units of culture” are subject to replication.

Now, watch me replicate that paragraph, here:

`Digital media represents a phase transition in cultural research -sometimes called the Big Data Explosion or the “dataclysm” by social scientists who analyze patterns in the massive datasets now used to study emotional sentiments on Twitter, track themes with keyword searches of text on Lexus-Nexus, or deconstruct narrative tropes in the media.’

(Brewer, 2016, online)

And – actually, rather than looking at it as “replication”, a wider view takes into account: the evolutionary algorithm: Selection, Variation and Transmission (of: units, whether they be biological, or cultural).

i.e., I selected that paragraph (of Joe’s), then I varied it, very slightly (I changed the font, and swapped an em-dash out for a normal dash in the first line) and then, transmitted it back into the culture-pool (by republishing that paragraph right here, on this blog).

And – If you are still reading this, then you have just selected that para, too – just by reading it. (Whether you later vary and/or transmit it in culture, depends on what you do… You may, perhaps, later mention the general idea of that para to someone – or you may even send someone a link to this blog page, or to Joe Brewer’s article – either of which, will re-transmit it.) But, I guess that’s all pretty obvious.

i.e. Evolution happens a lot, in culture. Descent with modification.

Namely, what happens is: Selection, Variation and Transmission, of: units of culture. i.e. Of, memes.

See: The systems model of creativity (Csikszentmihalyi 1988, 2015).

General model of creativity (in the Wiley Handbook of Creativity, ed: DK Simonton 2014)

General model of creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, in The Wiley Handbook of Genius, ed: DK Simonton 2014, p 538)

– At any rate, that’s not what I really wanted to talk about here, except to note that: Darwin was obviously on to something in 1871, in talking about how words (and, languages) evolve.

And, if you want to read a research article on `The Descent of Words: Evolutionary Thinking 1780–1880′ (van Wyhe 2005) then, here it is.

At any rate…

One fun example of “How To Track: Memes” (i.e., units of culture)

Inspired by Joe Brewer’s para above (the replicated one), I wanted to note, this point – So, I’m in, among other groups. the Digital Humanities Research Group. So let’s briefly do some Digital Humanities Research… Mainly, to briefly examine, just one way that A Science of Memetics (i.e., Cultural Evolution) can work.

But first – a Preamble.

How Creativity Works

On a very simple level, creativity happens when: You combine (and thus vary, or modify) at least two old things, to get a new thing, and – Eureka: it works! (i.e., If it doesn’t solve the problem better than the old thing, then it’s not: creative.)

Stated more formally: creativity scholar Colin Martindale (1989) writes:

`Ultimately, all creative products have this quality: old ideas or elements are combined in new ways. This is the case for all domains of creativity.’

(Martindale, 1989, p. 212).

For much more detail, if desired, see this post on How Creativity Works

And see also, the great article: The Standard Definition of Creativity (Runco & Jaeger 2012). An idea, process or product, is judged creative if it is novel and appropriate, or in other words, new and useful. Original and adapted (to its environment).

Note: (On quoting the standard definition of creativity, I now need to cite: Barron (1955), and especially Stein (1953), as recommended in (Runco & Jaeger 2012, p. 95))-!

When we think of things constantly becoming better adapted to their environment (even while that environment evolves, itself!)  – Note also just how this correlates with Charles Darwin’s (1871) suggestion: “for there is in the mind of man a strong love for slight changes in all things(Darwin 1871). That Charles Darwin. What am amazing human being.

At any rate. So, part of the evolutionary algorithm is: selection, variation and transmission.

(I should note: most tend to examine the evolutionary algorithm in a different order, namely as: variation, selection,  and transmission. But – that refers to things like: when variation occurs, say, in the genes, in the gene pool [e.g., say, solar radiation mutating DNA, or DNA-replication typos by DNA], but I am talking now about “variation” as combination, i.e. when we combine two or more “old things” to get a new thing, and THEN, we transmit the new thing back into the wider environment).

So, here, I am referring to, this part of an evolutionary process:

Selection, Variation, Tranmission

Selection, Variation, Transmission – Velikovsky 2017

In the diagram above: first of all, there is a big “pool” of fairly-similar things (e.g. say, coloured circles, or maybe even imagine: words in culture); Step 1 (above) is when we select a thing from that pool (i.e., say, we select the blue circle) and then we also select a pink circle (maybe they even select each other? eg Like say in: Sexual Selection) and then Step 2 – both the 2 `selected’ things are then combined (thus variation occurs, for both the “selected” circles) – (in this case, they combine and they make a new, hybrid-blue-pink circle). Then Step 3 – that offspring, the new “hybrid blue-pink circle-thingy” is transmitted back into: the pool. – If a consensus of the pool (or, whoever judges these things) decides that it’s “new and useful” (i.e. better adapted to its environment than other similar things) then hey-presto, we just had some creativity happen. Anyway then the cycle (Selection, Variation, Transmission) repeats. Actually, it is going on: constantly.

Thus, creativity is a side-effect (a feature, and a benefit) of evolution.

At this point, I should note, I am certainly not the first to make this observation. e.g. Montuori and Donnelly (2016) point out that Barron (1969, 1972, 1979, 1995) was onto this.

In my view Barron was way ahead of his time; and only now, are scholars widely realizing the value of what he said:

`Drawing explicitly from systems, complexity, and gestalt approaches, Barron (1995) developed the idea of an ecology of creativity, which he rst articulated in an article entitled Towards an Ecology of Consciousness (Barron 1972).
The ecological approach viewed creativity in the largest possible context. Barron argued, for instance that “psychogenesis is best understood in the context of cosmogenesis” (p. 30).
Barron’s highly original vision was grounded in the psychology of creativity but it also situates this research in a larger evolutionary and philosophical context which requires a transdisciplinary approach. 
For Barron, the context of creativity was vast (Barron 1969):
“The problem of psychic creation is a special case of the problem of novelty in all of nature. By what process do new forms come into being? The specication of the conditions under which novelty appears in human psychical functioning is the task to which the psychology  of creativity addresses itself. In doing so, it links itself to the general scientic enterprise of describing the evolution of forms in the natural world. (Barron 1969, p. 9)
His approach focused on the phenomenon of emergence, viewing creativity as the result of a conjunction of social and psychological processes. Barron drew on the social and the natural sciences, studying interactions and processes identifying signicant self-similarity or fractal characteristics in systems at all levels (Barron 19791995).’
(Montuori and Donnelly , 750-1)

At any rate, just wanted to give credit where it is due. Many original thinkers are ignored and/or misunderstood in their own time, and are only really appreciated after their death. (Charles Darwin, for example!) (If you want to read a heart-breaking list of such people, read The Act of Creation, (Koestler 1964), and by God, have a huge box of Kleenex on hand.)

Okay enough with the heartbreak. Back to that diagram above, and the pink and blue circles.

As another example of combination as variation: two humans of either sex (or – any two animals in fact, and even plants) can combine their DNA, and can make a new kid. If the kid turns out to be “new and useful”, then, hey presto – that was: “creative”!

In culture, same thing. Combine two or more old things to get a new thing. If it works, then it’s: creative. That’s evolution, babay.

Sometimes, creativity works really well, and then, it’s considered genius-level creativity. Like say, Darwin, Mozart, Jimi Hendrix, Picasso, Newton, Marie Curie, Einstein, etc. For more on all that, see: Simonton, D. K. (2014). The Wiley Handbook of Genius. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

So anyway – let’s quickly do some Digital Humanities style research…

First, I want you to think of: a relatively-new word… (preferably, between the years 1800  and 2008)…

Ok, well – here’s one I prepared earlier: Brangelina. (You can try tracking your one, later.)

This word (Brangelina) was apparently created by combining the words Brad (as in Pitt) and Angelina (as in Jolie.) – It sure makes it easier and faster to talk about them as a couple, except sadly, they broke up.

Waxworks Branagelina (Public Domain, http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=6526&)

Brangelina. (Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt wax figures. Public Domain image.  http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=6526&)

And now, let’s go to Google NGram Viewer, and see, when that word (Brangelina) first emerged in the printed cultural records – well, that include the books that Google has scanned. And let’s see how many times that word currently appears there; let’s see how the frequency of the word increased.

So – first we go to Google NGram Viewer. (You can try this at home.)


Then, we type in 2017 instead of the year 2000:

Change the end-year to 2017 (or whatever the current year is) - see green arrow

Change the end-year to 2017 (or whatever the current year is) – see green arrow


Then we type in Brangelina

Type in the word: Brangelina

Type in the word: Brangelina (note the end-year will change to 2008, despite our saying 2017, but whatever)


And after we hit the “Search Lots of Books” button, it comes back with:

Google NGram result for search term "Brangelina" as at: (March 2017)

Google NGram result for search term “Brangelina” as at: (March 2017)


i.e. Note the start-date – and then the rapid increase in frequency, of that “new” word.

Results for Brangelina begin around the year 2002 and increase rapidly.

Results for “Brangelina” begin around the year 2002, and increase rapidly.


So, we should remember: the word “Brangelina” is a unit of culture, i.e., a meme.

We can track when that new word first emerged (around the year 2002) – and how far it has spread in the wider culture. (Noting also the limitations of the dataset, of “books that are digitized, and scanned and searched by Google NGram” in this instance.)

Anyway – so, now – well, that was fun – so, What about… tracking a longer / larger unit of culture? (aka, meme)…?

Say, maybe, the first sentence of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities? (Which apparently is one of the best selling books.)

A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens 1859)

A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens 1859)


So – let’s maybe try a search on:

`It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.’

(Dickens, 1859,

i.e., the same year Darwin published On The Origin of Species)

Well, the problem there is, Google NGram Viewer can only handle a maximum of 5 words in the search terms.

So – hmph.

Instead then, let’s just try: A Tale of Two Cities.

And, when we do, voila – we get – this:


Google NGram search on: A Tale of Two Cities (case sensitive)

Google NGram search on the term: A Tale of Two Cities (case-sensitive)

So; that’s interesting…?

Note the earlier instances of the phrase “A Tale of Two Cities”, before 1859… (wait – maybe Dickens stole the title?)

Anyway – so, that’s just one way, you can do: that. (Track units of culture, aka memes.)

So… Have fun, tracking units of culture (i,e, memes), with Google NGram !

…It’s a wonderful app for using Big Data to trace units of culture (aka memes), in Cultural Evolution.

Well – if you like that sort of thing? (And, I do.)

…Comments always most welcome!


Dr JT Velikovsky Ph.D

High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie & Transmedia Researcher

& Evolutionary Systems Theorist

& Transmedia Writer-Director-Producer: Movies, Games, TV, Theatre, Books, Comics

Some of the above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky

JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/



Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). The Systems Model of Creativity and Its Applications. In D. K. Simonton (Ed.), The Wiley Handbook of Genius (pp. 533-545). Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Darwin, C. ([1871] 1952). Darwin: The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man (Great Books of the Western World, Founders’ Edn.). Chicago: W. Benton; Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., University of Chicago. See also: The Descent of Man (Darwin 1871) at Project Gutenberg. (for the Inserted Notes in Darwin 1871, above.)

Martindale, C. (1989). Personality, Situation and Creativity. In J. A. Glover, R. R. Ronning & C. R. Reynolds (Eds.), Handbook of Creativity: Perspectives on Individual Differences (pp. 211-232). New York; London: Plenum.

Montuori, A., & Donnelly, G. (2016). The Creativity of Culture and the Culture of Creativity Research: The Promise of Integrative Transdisciplinarity. In V. P. Glăveanu (Ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Creativity and Culture Research. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Runco, M. A., & Jaeger, G. J. (2012). The Standard Definition of Creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 24(1), 92-96.

Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). The Holon/Parton Theory of the Unit of Culture (or the Meme, and Narreme) in Science, Media, Entertainment and the Arts. In A. Connor & S. Marks (Eds.), Creative Technologies for Multidisciplinary Applications. New York: IGI Global.

3 thoughts on “StoryAlity#138 – Darwin on the evolution of words and languages

  1. Hi CJ,
    So `the word/image/light kinetic cluster’ is: screen media? (Including: film, TV, etc)?
    Whatever it is, I like it. (both as a phrase, and, as a descriptor for screen media.)
    -Tell me more.
    i.e. – Did I speculate/guesstimate right? 🙂
    (And, is there something of yours where I should read more on this?)
    -Dr V

  2. Pingback: StoryAlity#139 – The Evolution of Darwin’s Tree of Life diagram | StoryAlity

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