Sunday, 25 October 2009

Cultural Tansmission and Martial Arts

As I tried to think of anything else except the searing pain in my quads at my last Kung Fu class, I started wondering about how martial arts are taught. The master gradually imparts a very stratified sequence of movements, called the form, to a student who then repeats them over and over. Importantly, the master tries to minimise the idiocyncracies in the student's form - a slightly arched back, irregular timing, poor balance etc. Because of this, I was wondering how much variation there is between different schools paracticing the same forms. Do different masters have different 'accents'?

The approach of most martial arts is specifically set up in order to minimise this. Eugen Herrigel, a german proffesor of philosophy living in Japan, describes his attempt to master the art of Archery. He claimed that, although the initial repetition of movements isolated from application was frustrating, he eventually experienced a 'direct transference of the spirit' from his master (from Singleton, 1998). How about that for anyone doubting the fidelity of memetic transfer?

The theory of evolution states that, in order for a system to improve, there must be variation and competition. In martial arts there is literal competition between sparring partners and in organised events. The best sequences will be selected. However, the system of teaching is set up so only the highest ranking teachers can alter and add to the form. This seems sensible, since changes are likely to improve the form, but it sacrificies improvements that could be found by chance.

Can we learn anything about the cultural transmission of language by studying the way form is transferred from master to student? Moscato (1989) in one of the first articles on memetic algorithms argues that Martial Arts is indeed a good candidate for the study of complex adaptive systems:

The form, like a chromosome, is not an indivisible entity. It is composed of a sequence of defensive and aggressive sub-units which can also be divided, a pattern that resembles the structure of chromosomes, genes and alleles. But within the form there are some movements which can be understood as an indivisible unit, and these are the ones that are really important. The whole is a support to let the brain transform them as reflexes that can be automatically triggered in real combat. The individuals can compute their fitness function by the evaluation of their performance in the execution of the movements of the forms and with some tournaments where they compete.
Moscato points out that most primates, including unskilled humans, tend to fight in an unorganised way while a martial art teaches one to use simple, efficient movements. This might be compared to the chimpanzee Nim's ramblings 'give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you' compared to a human's utterance ('give me the orange'). The martial art from may have a 'syntax' in the sense that the order of moves is very important.

However, there are several problems with using martial arts to study language. First, an estimation of the amount of variation in martial arts forms would be necessary. In lieu of excellent historical records, the best estimation would be reached by a comparative approach. This would involve the codification of forms then comparisons to find underlying structures. In other words, the whole problem of linguistics in the first place, and not obviously easier than for languages.

Secondly, it's not clear that martial arts has a semantics. In fact, the moves are not signals used for communication, but coercive actions.

Ah well, back to the searing leg pain.

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