Conditions necessary for the evolution of the hominin extended phenotype.

(The first paragraph is basic stuff which everyone is totally familiar with.  It is there to contextualise the next bit)

If females within a population fancy males (this may itself be an evolved response with a genetic component) with green tail feathers at a slightly higher rate than they fancy males with blue tail feathers, then males with green tail feathers will reproduce more successfully than those with blue.  The tendency towards green tail feathers moving to fixation is the summation of individual female choices, but results in the fixation of one characteristic-determining allele and the extinction of the other in the whole population.  One of the ways you can now distinguish between this species and one that is evolutionarily close to it is by the green outer tail feathers of the male. This is a simplistic account, but with broad brush strokes represents the case.

In this case the proximate selecting environment is composed of the individual females in the population.  In the case of stone handaxes the proximate selecting environment is the collective population of human organisms.  Each individual human organism can be analytically resolved into tissue, blood, muscle, bone and central nervous system.  In order for any thing-in-the world to be replicated, it must pass into the hub of the human CNS, via the eyes, ears or tactile and proprioceptive nerves, and exit again via muscle contraction as yet another handaxe.  However what is necessary for evolution to happen is a population of handaxes replicated with fidelity but with a sufficient envelope of marginal variation for selection to work on.  This requires  not just one but many human organisms to be producing a large number of more or less identical handaxes.  In other words the information that regulates replication and variation is not located in any one human brain, but is distributed throughout the tradition of handaxe manufacture as it exists in the at-the-time products of handaxe manufacture and the infrastructure of the industry, and in human organisms, including their individual brains, who are the proximate environment of handaxe production.

This is the significant conclusion, as yet to be fully explored, of the groundbreaking experiment Investigating the Effects of Social Information on Individual Ability at Refining and Understanding a Physical System, Derex, Bonnefon, Boyd and Mesoudi 2018, presented by Maxime Derex at the 2018 Tartu conference.

This explains how each of us can function perfectly adequately in the immediate environment of our extended phenotype, in my case a small town in middle England, and at the same time understand practically nothing about it.  I doubt if there is a single person in Market Harborough with enough knowledge to singlehandedly produce an LED screen smart TV with all its connective functions, even if they were presented with all the constituent materials in basic chemical form.  I’m slightly doubtful that I could describe in detail the whole electricity generating and distribution system of the UK, let alone single handedly reconstruct it from scratch.  I don’t need to labour the point.  As a collective, including all the works of the dead, we are by our own standards unimaginably massively intelligent.  As individuals we are characterised by our unimaginably massive ignorance of all there is to know.  This explains why, though we think of ourselves as intelligent individuals, we notice that most other people, while they tend to have information that we do not personally have, are, how can one put it?  I think Uncle Galahad in Blandings has it about right.

CELIA:                   (of her fiancé) Of course a lot of people might think of Freddie as fairly ordinary.



Tartu CE: a commentary

From 6 to 8 June I attended the Applications in Cultural Evolution: Arts, Languages, Technology conference organised by the University of Tartu, Estonia.  It was a brilliant event, both relaxed and intense, in a university on a tree-covered hill in the middle of an old and beautiful city in midsummer in a country where there was still light in the sky at midnight.  Oleg Sobchuk and Peeter Tinits did a fine job, many thanks.

Public interest in Cultural Evolution is not universal—if even locatable.  The news media constantly run stories on the latest findings of palaeontology, biology, medicine, cosmology, particle physics and even the evolution of once-living things, especially dinosaurs, but Cultural Evolution seldom (ever?) makes science editors prick up their ears, pay attention and amaze the media-devouring world.  So one of my intentions in going to the conference was to find out what, that might fascinate the intellectually curious at large, were the cutting-edge discoveries of those who led the field.

The conference started with Jamie Tehrani’s keynote address, an assured and urbane run-down on the state of play of the phylogeny of folk tales.  Tehrani also drew attention, during the panel discussion, to Chris Buckley’s The Evolution of an ancient technology , perhaps the most significant study of the phylogeny of a technology and the cognitive-skeleto-muscular processes through which it evolved since  Augustus Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers’ On the Evolution of Culture (1875).

Tartu is not, as Arizona will briefly be, the centre of the Cultural Evolution universe, but the general absence of the NAMES IN BIG LETTERS on Mason Youngblood’s co-authorship network had an upside, it gave the young and dynamic a chance to strut their stuff, which they did with panache.

I learnt many interesting and potentially productive things.  I learnt from Erik Gjesfeld that the degree of innovation within a technology at one time is predicted by the diversity of the material expressions within that technology at an immediately preceding time.  Thus the data from a given technology—he focussed on the automobile industry—is congruent with the middle term of the standard pattern of evolution; replication, variation, selection.  This may seem unremarkable, but I felt that at Tartu evolution, in any Darwinian sense, was rather the elephant in the room, something acknowledged in passing with a bit of arm waving familiarity but never directly addressed.  Gjesfeld kind of bracketed it by inference, but rather than foreground say the evolution of the Ford Mustang, maybe with  bit of phylogeny of forms and parts, he chose to concentrate on rates; things representable by graphs; to quote his abstract, “to examining macroevolutionary patterns of technological change by using a Bayesian modelling approach to estimate rates of diversification within various technological systems”.  This struck me as running round and round the elephant at a distance rather than risking moving into its personal space. Nonetheless his paper contained much information that would have populated an evolutionary template had such a procedure been thought appropriate.  Phylogeny was particularly inferred.  I can’t remember if Erik said it or whether it was just implicit, but my note says “Mustang did not turn into van.”  I am a simple soul, and like to work from clear image to abstruse calculation, rather than the far more difficult task of attempting the reverse process.

I learnt from Natalie Gontier’s keynote address that, “from the applied evolutionary  epistemological perspective, I define evolution as the process whereby units evolve at levels of ontological hierarchies by mechanisms”.  At first sight this looks preposterously circular, and indeed my reactions to her pronouncements fluctuated between outrage and grateful agreement.  What she attempted was to include every current model of “evolution” when preceded by the word “cultural”, and from there derive a definition which would include them all.  This resulted in the term and the definition, evolution, being reciprocally defined by each other.  This can often be a bit of a mistake, but Natalie was very specific.  “If you say a chair evolves,” and I quote her from memory, “then you must tell me where it evolves, when it evolves, and how it evolves”.  I was immediately won over.  Her specifying a material type, a perceptible physical entity, was unusual in Cultural Evolution circles.  It was also concordant with Richard Dawkins’ observation that evolutionary change is limited to a set of substitutions at identical loci.  I forgave what were in my view the solecisms of her address; the total ignoring of the many pages of Dawkins’ The Extended Phenotype that assert volubly that genes are not deterministic, and there is seldom if ever a gene “for” something; and (this is from my notes so I may  have got it wrong) her inclusion of kin selection and group selection under Sociobiology.  In my view, kin selection is, evolutionarily and ontologically, firmly located in Biology, while group selection (see Pinker The False Allure of Group Selection (Pinker, 2012)) should be placed in neo-liberal Sociometaphysics.  However, when we spoke briefly, Natalie’s own opinions seemed to be firmly located towards the centre of the Modern Synthesis and, in my clearly eccentric judgement, well-grounded.

Kristian Tylén’s talk, The Cumulative Cultural Evolution of Symbolic Behaviour was again tremendously productive of ideas.  But again I thought the elephant in the room was avoided, and this avoidance was implicit in the last sentence of his abstract.  “The experimental approach allows us to test concrete hypotheses concerning suggested symbolic functions of the artefacts”.  Why “suggested”?  Is it because, while such processes whereby one hominin may perceive and durably register the drawing by another with the finger of a line in the dust—which Peter I think characterises as the aesthetic stage—may evolve along dimensions through which they “become more salient, reproducible, intentionally expressive and memorizable”, there is no indication of, and no apparent interest in, the point at which they might become symbolic—whatever precise and callibratable meaning is being ascribed to “symbolic”.  If “symbolic” means “denotational”, as his abstract implies it might, then do we not need to find a more precise word than “symbolic”, which traditionally means an arbitrary link between sign and signified, as between fish and Jesus?

Barbara Pavlek’s stand-out paper was the only one that addressed the evolution of material entities, Ionian coins; proposed a precise environment of selection; and as a bonus used information theory (Shannon 1948) to investigate the mode of selection.

I  was delighted to hear, in Daniil Skorikin’s Measuring the ‘Epification’ of Drama, the term “small world property” which in my ignorance, fairly comprehensive, I had only come across in reference to neuron connections on the surface of the Homo sapiens cerebral cortex in (Herculano-Houzel, 2013).

And there were many other such delights, examples of which were Kaspar Kruups sparkling introduction to 4chan, and Karim Baraghith’s “Linking Micro- and Macrolevel Models of the Cultural Evolution of Language: From Graph Theory to Game Theory”.  I will not pretend to know what the “Causal Interactionist Population Concept” is, but Karim did produce a useful general definition of a population, which I wish I had noted in full, rather than my scribbled “Population is where rates of interaction are much higher within the group than outside”.  This is obvious once it has been made apparent, the prime marker of all classic definitions.  It clears up the niggle about “species”.  Maybe of course everybody already knew it but me; but at least one person was impressed.

Karim also raised the question about the whole conference that I have already suggested was the elephant in the room.  It was to the panel in the general discussion, and again I wish I had recorded it properly.  The gist was, “surely when discussing any kind of evolution, in the Darwinian sense when the term is not merely used to denote change, we must identify something which replicates, and that something is always going to be information”.

This was the moment I had been waiting for.  So far the conference had been outputting huge amounts of data and graphs, each episode of which was greeted by “Great talk” and then a niche technical question.  There seemed to be no conflict or disagreement about anything significant, let alone fundamental; not the slightest flicker of dissent, let alone irritation, or anger. But now, I thought, a conceptual fissure is going to open up, with evolutionists on one side, and an academic bureaucracy on the other.

No.  The moment was over in about half a minute.  One of the panellists said that long ago and far away it used to be believed that genes were deterministic, but now there was epigenetics and the Extended Synthesis and all that stuff, so it would be perverse to start worrying about replicators.

As I have already noted, this is a straw dolly set up by anti-evolutionists, and can be dismissed as nonsense by a quick reading of (Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype, 2016) pgs. 299 ff..  Today’s Quanta Magazine has a piece Theory Suggests That All Genes Affect Every Complex Trait.  Nobody in their right mind suggests that any gene is deterministic, but likewise nobody in their right mind denies that the irreducible locus or replicating information in life forms is the nucleotide sequence.  Otherwise why do we bother with genomes?

And that brings me to the core of my unease with Cultural Evolution as represented by the Tartu and other much more expensive and grandiose conferences.  But before that, an example.

At the last coffee break I had a chat with a couple of guys, one of whom was one of the surprising number of mathematicians who have joined cultural evolution academia as high level operatives, as the people who do the maths that appears to make Cultural Evolution respectable.  The development of mathematical concordances with physical data is a noble calling, as cosmology, astrophysics and quantum mechanics testify.  But, I said to them, what seems to happen in the case of Cultural Evolution is that an anthropologist or sociologist or archaeologist will come up with real-world data, often of great potential in the evolutionary sphere; ignore that potential; and instead submit their data, often through surrogates, to a Bayesian or other modelling approach; and come up with graphical representations of exactly what they had deduced from the data and expressed verbally in the first place.  The derived graph is merely an alternative representation of the, to descend into the demotic, absolutely fucking obvious.

That’ s what I said.  The two looked at each other and shook their heads, obviously wondering how to correct such pitiable stupidity and ignorance.  “No it’s not,” they said kindly, “it’s an explanation.”

Determined to proceed along the path of stupidity and ignorance, I disagreed.

“Give an example,” they said.

Possibly the clearest and most interesting paper of the whole conference, because it raised so many questions, was that by Maxime Derex, from an experiment and findings by Derex, Bonnefon, Boyd and Mesoudi, an august line-up if ever there was one.  I won’t try to describe it here, if you were there you’ll know what I mean and if you weren’t I’ll only confuse you.  It involved a ramp, a hub with four levers at the cardinal points of the compass, and four weights one of which could be placed at a number of determinate points on each lever.  It was a transmission chain experiment, and the task was to determine the optimum disposition of weights for the shortest possible rolling time between start and a set point on the ramp.

I described to the other two what I thought were the set-up and parameters of the experiment.  More pity.  No it wasn’t they said.  Okay, what was it?  The first gave his version.  No it wasn’t said the other,  it was like this.  We looked at each other in silence.  Luckily at that point Maxime Derex himself came past.  “Oi”, we said.

Maxime elucidated apparatus and findings with great clarity.  What emerged was that the information available to the subjects in the transmission chain was inadequate to determine what was the best distribution of weights.  To do that one would have to know the diameter of the hub and the length of track over which its descent was being timed (I think).

Nonetheless, along the transmission chain the dispositions of weights moved to the optimum, whether or not those in the chain merely passed on their last two results, or were allowed to pass on their theory also (the contributory effects of the cumulative theories more or less flatlined).

The graph did not give an explanation of these results.  What the experimenters seemed to be interested in was not an explanation of the mechanism which ultimately produced the graphical curve of improvement to the optimum.  This was a surprising curve given that Maxime said that the subjects came up, when questioned, with some very strange and erroneous theories.  Thus this experiment could so obviously be a perfect model for an investigation of— Pitt Rivers’ term— the evolution of culture.  But that seemed to have been irrelevant to the experimenters.  What they had deduced, and graphically represented, was that “social learning” played very little part in the improvement; which is a valuable conclusion, but still secondary to the superordinate question, which is “What in this case, in Gontier’s interrogation, is evolving, when is it evolving, and how is it evolving?”  And the follow-up question, “If this is the evolution of culture, then what is Cultural Evolution?”

The impression that the Tartu conference left me with was this.  Here is a huge amount of valuable data produced by a number of talented and highly intelligent people.  And for some reason it is not being used.  Instead it is being ritualised and emptied of its potential for extension by spurious mathematical performances.

There is no elephant in the room.  The empty space is indeed an empty space.  The alternative to ritual mathematicisation would be to relate all this data to a general theory of the evolution of hominin culture, or indeed hominid culture.  But there is no such theory.  Natalie Gontier and Alex Mesoudi (13 June 2018.DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2018.0712) make this absolutely clear.

And why there is no such general theory is in itself a huge puzzle.  One that such bright young things as were at the conference should set out to solve.  With or without their supervisors’ approval.  And here would be some real work for the best mathematicians.  Cladistics and onwards.

Cultural evolution: an alternative hypothesis


Hominin evolution has not been fully explained.  Material evidence of the evolution of the hominin organism increases by the week, but accounts of how the content of hominin cognition developed have not yet produced any plausible model (except in the case of linguistics).  This absence is surprising.

Human beings do not doubt that their abnormally big brains are the basis of cognitive powers unique in the animal kingdom.  While this still seems self-evident, our increasing appreciation of various modes of animal cognition make it correspondingly harder to define exactly what it is that makes human cognition unique.  The distinction seems to be increasingly quantitative rather than qualitative.

Cognition can be described as the correlation of systems of information physically present, down to the quantal level, in the architecture of the brain, and the nervous system more generally.  The more numerous the systems of information, the more complex the cognition.  The smallest bit of information, the Shannon S bit, can only be adduced by such a correlation, by its irreducible difference with at least one other bit.  At the locus of irreducibility, which like the gene is likely to be more composite than the S bit, human cognition is the correlation of vastly more numerous systems of information than exist in the brain of any other animal.

The substantive irreducible bit of information in animal cognition is the difference between two things as perceived through the nervous system, as between, for instance, a stone and a nut.  The unique ability of human beings is to make innumerable distinctions of this sort, and to be able to operate their durable registrations in the brain without the presence of external stimuli (that is, to think of a stone without being able to see a stone) in hierarchies of abnormal complexity (as expressed in cooking an egg, or building the Taj Mahal or writing or reading Cervantes’ Quixote).

This irreducible locus of culture needs a name, and for the moment I’ll call it a lep.

This advanced differentiating ability is expressed, entirely by way of muscle contraction, as the material human extended phenotype; the totality of human culture. Where an evolved species, as for example a web-weaving spider, produces through its own organism an extended phenotype upon which the organism is dependent for survival, the relation between the two is one of obligate symbiosis.  Clearly, if one part of this symbiosis evolve by the Darwinian process of evolution; replication, variation, selection; then the other part must evolve by the same process.  As long as it is accepted that Homo sapiens is an evolved species (and we must acknowledge that this is only accepted by a minority of human beings) then a first assumption must be that the human extended phenotype, today a mass of some thirty trillion tons, emerged by a process of Darwinian evolution.

This paper will outline a physical model for the evolution of the content of hominin cognition, including Homo sapiens cognition.  The model is speculative, since the evidence for what happened over the long duration of hominin development is sparse.  If we had a fly-on-the-wall video of a day in the life of a Homo erectus family, it would help immeasurably.  We don’t.



Many significant theories first emerge as physical models, which are models at least partially constructed in the visual cortex; this was how Faraday, Darwin and Einstein worked.  The physicality of biological evolution is beyond doubt, and the evidential data for it must initially be perceived by the senses.  The same should be true of the content of all cultural evolution, which is not mere behaviour mediated by conspecifics, but also individual interaction with insentient structures.  In some non-human taxa these insentient structures are in a relationship of obligate symbiosis with their constructors; the webs of spiders, the nests of birds, the hives of bees.  Neither organism nor extended phenotype could persist without the other.

The extended phenotype of Homo sapiens is the present thirty trillion tons of the technosphere (Zalasiewicz, 2016)[i].  Cultural evolutionists seldom take account of the fact that the survival of Homo sapiens depends entirely upon the extended phenotype of the species.  The reciprocal is exactly true of the extended phenotype.  At the instantaneous cessation of all humanity, the extended phenotype would cease to proliferate and begin a process of increasing entropy.  On this evidence alone the most parsimonious account of hominin evolution, and thus of hominin cognition, would be that it occurred in the context of obligate symbiosis between organism and extended phenotype.  If the organism evolved by the consensual Darwinian process, then the extended phenotype, its obligate symbiont, must have done the same.  Thus the collective of hominin organisms was the immediate environment in which the technosphere evolved.

The first step is to “specify the exact question under investigation” (Smaldino, 2016)[ii].  The current question is consensually perceived as something like, “Account for unique status of hominin cognition”.  However, cognition is a metaphysical trope.  Our perception of what cognition is depends entirely on the content, the physical extension of whatever is being known.

Human thought, another metaphysical trope, can only be transmitted between brains via muscle contraction.  I’ll repeat that in another way, because it’s a rather unusual axiom.  Muscle contraction is the immediately perceivable and only output of human thought.   “A physical system manifests itself only by interaction with another” 216ff. (Rovelli, 2016)[iii].  Much of this muscle contraction is expressed in behaviour; smiling, throwing, speaking.  In the hominin clade we have no material evidence of such behaviour from the time before the emergence of graphic art, and very little until the emergence of movie photography.

The other fraction of  the history of hominin muscle contraction, that which is not unmediated inter-individual behaviour, is expressed as material extended phenotype; a flaked stone used for cutting, the Taj Mahal.  The aggregate of this fraction of the realisation of hominin cognition is the technosphere; the insentient novel content of the recently coined Anthropocene.

The first possible evidence of deliberate shaping of a stone with another stone does not, at the moment, go back further than about 3.2my, when hominin brains were not much bigger than those of apes.  Human brains at 200kya were apparently big enough to optimise the persistence of production and use of the extended phenotype (EP) of the hominin clade.  It seems that further brain enlargement, with its increasing energy consumption, did not further enhance that utility.

While it is customary to omit this hominin EP, the thirty trillion tons of the technosphere, from current accounts of cultural evolution, it might be productive to do the reverse, and bring it into primary focus.  The study of cultural evolution becomes the study of the evolution of the hominin EP.

If every atom of human organism were to be annihilated on the instant, the still existent hominin EP would contain much information available to an extra-terrestrial intelligence.  From this we can conclude that the hominin extended phenotype has information for any information-accepting and processing system, human or non-human.  We also know that current Homo sapiens persistence is entirely dependent on the hominin EP.

This dependency saves energy for the organism.  A digging machine replaces the muscle power with which human beings wielded pick and shovel.  It also has an energy cost to the organism.  The resting metabolic rate of a brain of sufficient capacity to produce and utilise the present hominin EP consumes at least twice the energy of the brains of our nearest related primates, the chimpanzees.  This energy cost could not have evolved if there was no reciprocal energy gain.  There is no possible evolutionary model whereby the big brain evolved over six million years, and only then “invented” the marvels of the hominin EP.

The gain that compensated for increased metabolic rate is the utility value of the hominin EP.  If the two things could not have emerged sequentially, small brain to big brain, and only then scant extended phenotype to vast extended phenotype, then they must have emerged diachronically.  At any stage, the extended phenotype could only increase to the extent that the brain could accommodate it, and the brain could only increase to the extent that the extended phenotype could satisfy the increasing energy demand.

A mutualistic system is one where two systems correlate in a way that benefits both systems.  Obligate symbiosis is where each system is dependent for persistence on the persistence of the other.  Trees persist in obligate symbiosis with fungi.  The fungi provide the trees with vital minerals that tree roots have too little surface area to accumulate, the trees provide the subterranean fungi with energy from photosynthesised carbon compounds.

In the absence of any counter-argument I shall proceed as if hominin organisms and their extended phenotype persist in a relationship of obligate symbiosis, as the evidence suggests.  Thus what we call a human being is not an organism exhibiting behaviour that is entirely independent of its material environment (the Cartesian  and cognitive psychology positions), nor is it the insentient technosphere, but a mutualistic co-persistence of the two; not the rough Lomekwi 3 stone tool or the Taj Mahal, not a hairless ape, but a superposition of two correlating systems describable at every scale that the rest of the universe is describable.

Extended phenotype is a metaphysical trope, like trait.  It can only be perceived as its content.  There is no causal link between mass of extended phenotype and brain mass.  Ants have much smaller brains than dolphins but, in terms of persistent mass, much bigger extended phenotypes.  Dolphins have slight physical means (their beaks and flippers, in fact) of manipulating the material world, so modify little persistent mass, whereas ants produce ant-hills.  Dolphins do have large energy-hungry brains, and a material extended phenotype in that part of an E=mc2 universe which is  the transmission and reception of acoustic energy, possibly as language; but every atom of every dolphin were to be annihilated on the instant, nothing with significant mass would persist. Many protists, stromatolites, ants, bees, earthworms, birds, octopuses and beavers, annihilated (or merely dead), do leave significant altered mass behind them after their deaths; as do human beings.

Materials and Methods

(This is a meta-study, in the sense that the writer is not discovering anything new, merely synthesising some empirical data fully available to anybody interested.  The only excuse for its presentation is that it paints with a coarse brush an unusual picture of hominin evolution that might be worth some refinement by more accomplished practitioners.  The materials and methods are too distributed and, being part of the extended hominin phenotype, too complex to be catalogued in a few paragraphs.)



As an extended phenotype which is far from human, take the web of the web-spinning spider clade.  Clearly this was not a result of saltation,  one day no spiders spinning any kind of web and then the next day a spider emerging via a huge and complex genetic mutation fully equipped to weave a complex web of the sort we visualise when we visualise a spider’s web; and then spinning it.  The web-spinning of a modern spider must have evolved in minute particulars, and those which increased the spider’s available energy were selected while those that decreased it were extinguished, all by selective factors distributed between the spider organism and the environment beyond spider and web.  At the same time as the web evolved, the organism of the spider also evolved in a way that could produce, and utilise, the web; in step, minute step by minute step.

The obligate symbiosis between a web-spinning spider and its web is not just dependent on information flow from spider to web, but also from web to spider.  For the small-brained spider the algorithms of web-construction depend on the last angle between filaments that the spider encountered.  If just the information processing system correlated to the web-weaving system of every web-weaving spider were to be terminally disrupted on the instant, there would be a lot of dead spiders within however long it takes an unfed spider to die.

We who accept Darwinian evolution as the process by which life emerged and diversified have no difficulty in accepting this obligate symbiosis of organism and extended phenotype in the case of spiders.  We do have immense difficulty accepting the same obligate symbiosis of hominins, including ourselves, and their extended phenotype.  If we overcame this difficulty, then the emergence of Homo sapiens would be easier to account for.

As with the web-weaving spider, it is likely that hominin brains and the hominin EP evolved by way of obligate symbiosis.  And as with the web weaving spider, it is likely that the information flow is not one way. “A physical system manifests itself only by interaction with another.”  Like the spider, the individual human organism gains information from the extended phenotype.  A child doesn’t learn what a cup or a house is via some sort of abstract explication by one or more con-specifics.  A child comes to know what a cup or a house is by the correlation of a physical system, delimited as a cup or a house, with the physical system contained by its skin.

The hominin EP contains orders of magnitude more information than any individual human brain.  Even the World Wide Web, a fraction of the hominin EP, contains more information than any individual human brain.  The aggregate of human knowledge stored in every now existent human brain is clearly also much larger than that in any single brain, but it can only be correlated at any instant by human networks much smaller than the total population.  There is no meaningful aggregate of all the knowledge in human brains, even on the instant, and knowledge changes continuously with information flux within and between brains.

As has been said, information in a human brain can only get out into the world via muscle contraction.  There is clearly unexpressed information in each brain, but it is effectively non-existent to all other human brains.  A passing bullet might merely make this non-existence permanent.

It can be well argued that there are certain somatic processes, weeping, secreting, excreting, that are part of the phenotype and not the hominin EP; though each of these is clearly must also be part of the hominin EP, because I have just expressed their representations by way of muscle contraction, and you have just perceived them via language, which is certainly part of the hominin EP.  Every bit, and the word bit is pregnant, of human knowledge has its hominin EP equivalent.

This necessity for the correlation of at least two systems, and the necessity of muscle contraction to get information from one human brain to another, leads to the logical conclusion that the hominin EP contains as much information as the aggregate of all human brains.

So, to put together the following reasonably secure suppositions:  The web of a web-weaving spider is it’s extended phenotype.  It is external to the spider organism.  It evolved very gradually from a blob of goo to its present typical structure by small, gradual steps, each step being selected, or not, by Darwinian “external factors”.  This evolutionary path was diachronically interdependent with the evolution of the spider organism, muscular, neural and excretory; that is, behavioural.  Therefore an extended phenotype, as a bird’s nest, a beaver’s dam, a termite’s mound, is an evolved structure; structure in the sense of something with extension in the material universe.  This structure persists in mutual dependence with the spider organism and its behaviour.

It is a small speculative step to test the same proposition for hominins.  Hominin material culture is the hominin extended phenotype.  It evolved very gradually from, probably, sticks and stones to the present technosphere by small, gradual steps, each step being selected, or not, by Darwinian “external factors”.  This evolutionary path was diachronically interdependent with the evolution of the hominin organism, skeletal, muscular and neural; that is, behavioural. Therefore the hominin EP, just as a bird’s nest, a beaver’s dam, a termite’s mound, is an evolved structure; structure in the sense of something with extension in the material universe.  This structure persists in mutual dependence with the hominin organism and its behaviour.

It will be argued that the hominin EP is unique, both in its mass and its complexity, and therefore is qualitatively different from the extended phenotypes of all other animals.  It is indeed different, and it is indeed many orders of magnitude more complex than the extended phenotype of any other animal.  Take a coral reef.  It is the product of three correlated systems of information, the coral polyp, the substance and form which constitutes the reef, and the wider ocean, substance and ecology.  The substance and form of the reef can be an imposing edifice, but it does not correlate with any other entity in the polyp’s extended phenotype because there is no other entity.  The hominin EP on the other hand constitutes a very large number of correlations of systems of information which persist in a continuum.  This continuum persists as a distribution across a space of the same kind of dimensions as cyberspace.  The nodes that define the space are every material occurrence of the hominin EP, and their persisting registrations, where present, in the architecture of every living human brain.  The almost empty cup of coffee by my hand is connected back in time to the first ancestral cups, across the universe by its own gravitational field, through the hominin EP to the fact that coffee drinkers throughout the world know what a cup of coffee is; and by agricultural and trading practice, meteorological change… a universal continuum.  How can this magnitude be accounted for by mere evolution?

The question is answered by the answer to another, what is the ability of the human brain that all other animals lack?  It is possible that the answer is relatively straight-forward.  It is not the ability to imitate, nor is it sociality or social complexity, nor is it the ability to recognise the difference between two perceptual objects, as it may be a lion and a lion-sized rock, or an edible and a poisonous fruit.  Nor is it language.  Language is certainly part of the hominin EP and did, I suggest, evolve in obligate symbiosis with it, but did not initiate it.  The evolutionary roots of the hominin EP go back a long way, and are certainly there in macaque monkeys that diverged from the hominid line about 25mya.  The early evolving hominin EP both provided the ecology in which language could evolve, and had reached a stage of complexity where it could not evolve further without language.

The ability manifested by hominins at the emergence of the specifically hominin extended phenotype was the holotype of human competence.  Macaques had hammered stones with stones, and licked the resultant powder, ignoring the adventitious flakes.  At some protracted time after 3.5mya, hominin individuals recognised the chance products of their hammering as entities good for cutting, of the same type as the found stones good for cutting they were already using.  Macaques have never expressed this act of recognition.  The evolving hominins had the capacity, not of invention, but of recognition.  And they had the capacity to shut their eyes, look away, and still have that entity stored in the brain.  They had a durable registration of all that is a >flake that is also a cutting tool<, and everything else in the world that is not a >flake that is also a cutting tool<.

This is the hominin genius.  Chimpanzees can enact it in the context of the already evolved extended human phenotype, but it seems they can’t perform autogenic acts of type recognition, the sequence distraction (attention moving away from the object) and “re-engagement where you left off”, which necessitates not only a persisting passive registration of the object in the brain, that which triggers simple recognition, but a replicable registration of the object in the brain which triggers anticipation of the object being present even when the context of its probable appearance is not immediately available to the senses.  If the worked stones of Lomekwi 3 really are the product of Australopithecus afarensis or a similar taxon, then they could perform this act of durably registered recognition and anticipation over three million years ago.

The significant word in all this is recognise.  The competence is not one of invention,  it is one of persisting registration of a type in the brain such as will trigger recognition of that type even when an immediate stimulus for acquiring it is absent.  It is collecting behaviour, but not the same as a squirrel storing nuts.

Collecting without an evolved stimulatory pathway, as in a hominin picking up a stone good for cutting and carrying it home (a manuport), is significant, but it did not build the Taj Mahal.  It constituted only a part of the evolving hominin competence.  The other part was to recognise, initially probably only as a brain-neuro-muscular registration, the spatiotemporal relationship (the semantic space where the verb would emerge) between hand, hammer stone, core, anvil stone and flakes durably registered as cutting stones, such that after a period of distraction, a few seconds or a whole day, the operation of striking flakes off a core resting on an anvil stone — the same operation as a chimpanzee cracking a nut — could be repeated.  That is to say, they knew you had to hit the core with the hammer and that would produce flakes with a cutting edge.

This unique competence, of not just recognising a potential specific dynamic relationship between two objects when the objects are present, but of retaining a durable and addressable representation of this relationship when the physical referents are absent, is clearly described in Iain Davis’s game-changing Carta lecture, University of California, UCSDTV [iv].  It constitutes anticipation, or foresight.

Clearly anticipation, foresight, are not uniquely human, or even uniquely warm-blooded.  An African hunting dog can superimpose durable brain registrations of a particular dynamic environment upon an in-the-world dynamic environment being instantaneously registered by its perceptions; it can anticipate that when a colleague is moving in from the left, the prey will move to the right, where possible.  But the human foresight is thus.  It can superimpose durable brain registrations of a certain static environment, not upon a simultaneously perceived in-the-world environment, but upon the persistent registration in its brain of another dynamic environment that has no simultaneously perceived correlate in the immediately external world.  The correlation is between two information systems both within the organism; organism advisedly rather than just brain, because the whole organism is needed to perform acts such as using a stone to cut with, or knapping a flake.  This sounds abstruse, but in naturalistic terms it just means seeing a stone of a certain type and thinking, that will come in useful, with a context, in part represented in the visual cortex, of how this may be so.

This is the competence which has the potential for building the Taj Mahal.

This evolutionary departure point, Australopithecus afarensis or Homo habilis, required the (very very slowly) increasing ability to divide the world up into more and more discrete things, >?<, that might much later become the >cord<, the >awl<, the >chisel<, the >bowl<, the >basket<, the >spear<, the >cloak<, all initially adventitious morphological loci, each with a function that contributed to more efficient nutrition or other means of balancing the energy equation, and each a durable registration in the brain; and to locate each of those loci in a matrix of dynamic spatiotemporal relationships, or actions.

The remaining and more intractable problem is this.  If the hominin EP evolved in a Darwinian process, by which I mean one of observed phylogenetic heritability, continual replication with fidelity, an envelope of fractional variation, selection by external factors; how can this evolution be described?

Here information theory may be useful.  The smallest unit of information is the Shannon bit S, the minimum number of alternatives between two possibilities.  N = the number of actual possibilities in a system. The Shannon bit is conventionally the base 2 logarithm of N:S = log2N, so that when N = 2, S = 1.  The S bit is the fundamental , irreducible unit of all information transmission.

There have been half-hearted attempts to identify such an irreducible entity within the metaphysical trope culture.  These have been made in a context where human material culture is conceived of as a discrete, downstream, informationally inert system that did not evolve, but was in some undescribed way the product of another trope, human cognition.  Thus the task is made impossible.  Dawkins (Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1976)[v], rather off the cuff, suggested the meme as the replicating entity, but the meme too is a metaphysical object.  It cannot replicate.

The possibility of such a replicating entity is therefore denied, without further discussion.  Boyd and Richerson in their seminal Not by our Genes Alone (Boyd, 2005)[vi] discount it in a few unargued assertions. However, the possibility of replication with fidelity is inherent in the uniquely hominin competence outlined above.  That competence is based on recognition of type, and that in turn is derived from the recognition of the difference between two entities; between a stone good for cutting and a stone good for bashing, where N=2 and S=1. The whole environment of this early hominin, not just stones, could be reduced to such distinctions.  A stone good for cutting is not just the irreducible difference between itself and a stone good for bashing, or throwing, or scraping.  It is also the irreducible difference between a stone good for cutting and everything else in the universe.  That is the information which is located in the system that is the type of a stone good for cutting when it correlates with its durable registration in a human brain.  That correlation is a distributed persistence, not just within the stone or the brain, but across the space-time continuum that connects the two.  Dragging in the space-time continuum may appear to be the gratuitous appeal to the authority of a higher power, a rhetorical trick.  And we know now that space-time is not a continuum, but quantal.  Nonetheless it is a pedestrian fact that the correlation of two systems requires a field between them.  An insentient object like a stone good for cutting may be perceived by a hominin as light.  The atomic structure of the surface of the stone receives light in one set of frequencies and radiates it in another, which is received in the visual cortex as a system, an image, which correlates with a persistent registration of the type stone good for cutting.  As long as this process continues across the space-time continuum, so long will the image of that particular, unique stone correlate with the system in the brain: type, stone good for cutting.  Correlation necessitates modulation.  Thus the briefly perceived particular stone  modulates its persisting registration as a type in the brain.

The type stone-good-for-cutting will be populated by many variations, both found and recognised before the emergence of controlled striking, or knapping; and after its emergence, when struck flakes will vary within one envelope delimited by the nature of the material, and another envelope delimited by the skill which constitutes the technique of the knapper.  The selecting environment in which such cutting tools function, as it might be cutting meat, type A, or cutting plant fibre, type B, will lead to differences being recognised within the type: stone-good-for-cutting.  In this way new loci of irreducible difference will emerge.  Within the categorical type, there are sub-types.

This ability for categorisation is again not peculiar to hominins.  It can be diagrammatically represented by a branching tree.  Any sequence of differentiation in an animal brain: prey animal: worth chasing/not worth chasing; is, within the brain, categorisation and sub-categorisation.  But in the process of knapping stone, the human competence is to retain in the architecture of the brain a persistent registration of the differences between types, and a persistent registration of the dynamic relationships between types, as it might be between a hammer stone and a core. That durable registration can initiate and modulate, through so far unknown complexities of feed-back, a sequence of neural, muscular and skeletal actions that eventuate in, on average, flakes of either type A, or type B.

The locus of irreducible difference upon which this model is based is difference between types, not between objects.  Within a type there may be hundreds, billions, of in-the-world examples, each at some scale different from all the others; ball bearing for instance.

Type is a hard word to pin down.  Here it is used it to signify, for example, the set of all knives in the world; their in-the-world signifiers (words, pictures); and their persisting and distributed registrations in all human brains.  I don’t think we yet know enough about the dynamic state of the brain to describe the precise nature of this distributed persistence, knife.

Here is a worked example.  There is a type knife.  Every instance of that type has a unique morphology at the microscopic level.  There are more significant differences of morphology that divide sub-types; knife with a  20cm blade, sharp point and serrated back for stabbing / knife with a rounded tip for pushing food onto a fork.  There are manifold differences of substance in the various parts, steel, bronze, ceramic, wood, ivory, leather.  We can assert that something is a knife, and something else is a dagger.  If any human being is asked to visualise a knife, each human being will visualise something unique within a uniquely connected neural architecture.  And yet we all know what a knife is.  And we know how it differs from a dagger morphologically.  A knife is a backed blade with one cutting edge, a dagger has two.  Morphologically there is likely to be a continuum between knife and dagger, and therefore at the margin arguments will happen, but for most people most of the time there is no confusion.

And here a remarkable fact about human cognition, and about language, becomes significant.  A knife is an in-the-world object which a hundred thousand word monograph could analyse and anatomise in exhaustive detail, and yet—

“He laid the knife on the table and smiled, radiantly, as if the whole evening had been a joke.  Then the smile, it was hard to tell the exact instant, stopped spreading across his face, and he picked it…”

—and yet when you just read that, you did not have to refer to such a compendium of knowledge as the monograph to work out what a knife is.  You knew on the fly, stored it almost instantaneously in short term memory so you could pay attention to the phrase “on the table” [table ditto], and when you got to the word “it” you could immediately correlate it with “knife” rather than with “table”.  There must be a unique, dynamic but persisting structure that is a functioning element of this episode of recognition.  It cannot be a widely distributed synthesising system like long-term memory which can take days to come up with a name you have forgotten.  The processing speed has to be high enough to get the whole thing done in a fraction of a second.  That unique, persisting, dynamic structure is the locus of irreducible difference signified by the word “knife”.

The locus of irreducible difference, a dynamic structure small enough to be almost instantaneously addressable, is a discrete functional element of what happens when you read knife in continuous text.  It is also a necessary nexus in decoding language.  It is probable that “knife” actuates a complex almost instantaneous pulse around the brain which provides context and thus a more particular knife morphology (abattoir, café, a grape to be peeled) which certainly involves the visual cortex, but that pulse is cued by the material locus of the registration of irreducible difference that is knife and nothing else.  That discrete locus may itself be distributed, but will be small.  This recognition cannot address the whole of the brain potential that could write the monograph on knife, which one way and another will correlate with the entirety of human knowledge, because that would require virtually infinite processing power to read a sentence containing only four nouns, knife, table, evening, joke.  Information theory, thermodynamics, take precedence over infinity.

An information system that is one (S)bit must be located in at least one human brain, but it is derived from objects in the world (say, the set of all knives) and from the distributed system of “knowing what a knife is” across a continuum of all human brains.  It is the smallest possible set of attributes which differentiates a knife from everything that is not a knife, inherent in the correlation of these two distributed systems, that is the type.

I return to another set of correlating systems of information; the web-weaving spider, its web, and the wider environment.  The replication of the web weaving spider organism is concordant with the necessary conditions for evolution: observed phylogenetic heritability, continual replication with fidelity, an envelope of fractional variation, selection by external factors.  The replication of its web across many generations of both web and spider is also concordant with those conditions.  The external factors which acted selectively upon web morphology were the spider organism and the wider environment.  So the web also evolved; and it is a general condition of extended phenotypes that they evolve alongside their symbionts; octopuses and their little cities, birds and their nests, termites and their mounds.  So it is parsimonious to suggest that the hominin extended phenotype also evolved.  Also, apart from Just So stories, there is not other current explanation.

From this evidence, knives evolved according to the Darwinian model.  It is I think irrefutable that, in order to be replicated, a knife has to go through a human brain; or did before the age of AI and robotic machines.  It is widely agreed that insentient objects do not spontaneously replicate.  Leave a knife, or even two knives, in complete isolation in a drawer and the quantity will never increase.  The same is not true of rabbits.  But replication of knives does take place.  There is a variation of form, size and substance both across time, and at any instant across the world, but within that envelope knives have been replicated for tens of millennia.  Go anywhere in the world, use the correct words to ask to borrow a knife and people will know what you want to borrow.  Knife is a stable type with a phylogeny that goes way back beyond the emergence of Homo sapiens.  Subtypes are replicated with fidelity.  The knives I use to eat with at home have been replicated in their hundreds of thousands, identical at the natural visual scale.

The problem that remains is to identify the irreducible locus which carries the information necessary for replication with fidelity of the hominin EP.  Once that is done, variation and selection by external factors raise no problem.  At the onset of the production of stone tools, excessive variation, both in the structure of the raw material and the competence of the organism, was something that evolution might suppress, leading to uniformity and economy in the replicating process. Likewise the environmental factors which selected certain types of stone tool over others, and certain morphologies over others, are already well described and argued.

An irreducible locus is not infinitesimal.  Both an actual knife and the dynamic neural structure which is its locus of irreducible difference in the brain, have extension.  They persist in three spatial dimensions and time.  The difficulty is that we are looking at three correlated systems of information, the knife, the organism, and the continuum through which they correlate.  We know that if every human organism was annihilated on the instant, knives would no longer replicate, so the organism is part of the environment of replication.  We also know that if the entire hominin EP were annihilated on the instant knives, being thus non-existent, would fail to replicate.  Thus the information upon which the replication with fidelity of knives is conditional is distributed between the organism and its extended phenotype.

As with any system of information down to the node of a grain of space, there can be no singularity.  Such a node can only be described as its relationship to other nodes.  The same goes for a gene.  A gene is conventionally described as a sequence of nucleotides with the information required for a ribosome to build one protein.  A nucleotide is therefore the irreducible entity within the system of life.  But a single nucleotide contains no information useable by another system.  Its useful information only emerges in its correlations with other nucleotides.  Likewise, within the same system, a single gene carries information within the environment of its chromatin infrastructure, and of its correlated messenger RNA; and that in the context of available ribosomes, and so on.  The information necessary for the production of a protein, let alone a whole organism, is distributed throughout the phenotype, which necessitates two-way correlation.  This leads to a very complex picture of biological evolution.  But biologists do not say as a result, biological evolution is an impossibility.  They say, this means there is a lot of work to do.  Then they get on with the work.

Distribution is not itself a problem.  An (S)bit is distributed.  All information is distributed.  Any description of a system, such as the locus of irreducible difference as a structure in the brain, knife/dagger, or knife/rest of the universe, “is also therefore always the description of the information which a system has about another system, the correlation between the two systems” (Rovelli, 2016).  In the case of the irreducible locus of difference, it is this correlation which is the basis of replication with fidelity.  The correlation is a dynamic persistence across a continuum.  It is very difficult to grasp.  Physics can handle such concepts without boggling, natural human understanding has more difficulty.

I might help to give this correlation a name.  Let us call it the lep, which is a monosyllable, is not yet a lexeme in English[1], and might have as an acronym Locus Extended Phenotype.  A lep is the (S)bit of hominin culture.  1 lep = the irreducible difference between two systems of information.

The extension of 1 lep in the dynamic structure of the brain is very small; the systems with which it correlates can be of any size.  You can read the word knife on the fly and decoding will occupy a fraction of a second because correlation of small systems is much faster than that of big systems.  Think of the respective reproductive processes of E. coli and elephants.  Nonetheless, if I give you some matches, charcoal, a copper ingot, some clay, some wood and leather and tell you to make a knife, your registration of the lep knife is necessary to the outcome, that you make a knife and not a  spearhead.  The lep knife will correlate with at least three distributed systems: 1) the information latent in the stuff I’ve given you, 2) all information about knives in your brain, and 3) the rest of the world and all the information it contains useful for making a knife, like the presence and significance of oxygen.

This correlation is a dynamic process, not a statistical property. The information about knives in your brain will be many orders of magnitude larger than the irreducible lep knife; fires, bellows, moulds, and the hoped-for morphology of the knife you are about to make.

It is likely that all these correlations in the brain do not persist as bigger and bigger conglomerates of discrete dynamic neural structures each of which is absolutely identical to all the others.  They persist as dynamic alliances between differentiated neural structures, right down to the finest possible reduction, the lep.  Some leps will be identical, they may even form groups of two or more, but in “Knife”, the monograph, the lep knife will correlate with a number of leps upon which at the moment we cannot set a limit.

Each large complex correlation (a concept in natural language) is also different from every other, and can be addressed via the nexus of a lep.  We know the difference between mathematics and chemistry (discrete leps), but you cannot reduce mathematics to an essence, you can only reduce it to its particles; ultimately, to leps.

If we regard these correlations as within a continuum, then information travels through the continuum via various material structures. You’ve been challenged to make a knife.  You look at the gear on the ground.  The copper ingot receives information from the sun, the excitation of its surface atoms emits this information both as heat and light at transposed energies.  The eye receives this light through the lens, and at the retina it is transformed into electro-chemical information, goes through a process of selective destruction for increased informational efficiency and travels to the brain, where it correlates with the kinds of conglomerates of leps outlined above, which correlate with many other systems.  One of these systems will be the lep ingot, and another the lep copper, which as a pair tell you that this is a copper ingot (not a copper pipe) and this is a copper ingot (not a silver ingot).  Further on in your exploration ingot will correlate with the information that you have the components of a furnace but you do not have a hammer.  Melt and cast, not bash.

In this process information moves from the sun to the lep through many transpositions.  Information will be gained and information will be lost.  Overall the whole system will lose information.  Entropy increases.  One definition of life is that it is an enclosed system that can transfer entropy from inside itself to outside itself.  It gains information (such as 1 lep) but the universe loses more.  The hominin EP does the same, with the concomitant gross loss of information from the biosphere which already haunts its symbiont.

To conceive of the watch on my wrist or the International Space Station as composed by leps seems like the outer reaches of fantasy.  In biology things are different.  Darwin did not know what were the basic “factors” that composed life, what it was that  selection acted on.  Mendel produced genes as a verbal and visual model.  This was gradually co-related with continuing  biological discoveries until in the same short period, and respectively, Rosalind Franklin produced X-ray crystallographic images, and Watson and Crick a 3D model, of the DNA sequence structure.  Electron microscopes are rematerialising clearer and more complex images of the genome by the day.  Through this evolutionary process we can now see DNA, and that makes belief much easier.  There is no way at the moment that we can see the structure of the distributed system of a lep as it is encoded in the dynamic structure of the brain.  In that sense it is still an “unknown factor”.  But it occupies a space which can be filled by further information.  There is no reason why in the future we should not be able to see a “lep”, just as we can see the sequence of nucleotides that make up a “gene”.

My watch is not composed only of metal, jewels, glass and leather.  It contains information.  An exhaustive explication of the properties of a lep will have to wait for a book, but each component will have a lep, and each component will also be composed of leps (a cog wheel has teeth, as does a saw) and every lep has a phylogeny, some short, some going way back before Homo sapiens.  So yes, a watch is complicated, but what did we expect?  Biological forms are complicated, as our own organism.  We have to deal with it.

The model I propose is speculative and full of gaps.  It also seems to me to fill a gaping explanatory hole without any competition.  It might serve as a default postulate until the competition shows up.






[1] In Ireland it is an alternative to leap.

[i] Scale and diversity of the physical technosphere: geological perspective

Jan Zalasiewicz,(et al.) The Anthropocene Review 1–14 © The Author(s) 2016 Reprints and permissions: OI: 0.1177/2053019616677743


[ii] August 12, 2016   Draft of chapter to appear in: Computational Models in Social Psychology, edited by R. R. Vallacher, A. Nowak, & S. J. Read. Forthcoming in 2017 from Psychology Press.


[iii] Reality Is Not What It Seems, Carlo Rovelli Penguin Books London 2017


[iv] (accessed 30/11/17) Iain Davidson (Univ of New England, Australia) CARTA – Behaviorally Modern Humans: The Origin of Us Premiere Date: 8/2/2013; 21 minutesCARTA: Behaviorally Modern Humans: The Origin of Us Iain Davidson: Stone Tools and Cognition: Lessons from Australia.


[v] The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins, Oxford University Press London 1976 ISBN


[vi] Not By Genes Alone, How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd, University of Chicago Press June 2006



Jonathan Jones on Neanderthal Art


Chapter 12: Richard Dawkins and The Extended Phenotype

While the emergence of the human organism is accounted for, with gaps but with sufficient continuity to be robust, by the archaeological record, the emergence of human material culture is still treated, by paleo-archaeologists as much as by anthropologists and sociologists, as if the process of its coming into existence were so obvious as to need no explanation.

It so happens that, this year (as I write) some seminal cave art was re-dated.  This work, in Maltravieso cave in Spain, consists of stencils of what had since their discovery be taken to be “human” hands, done by blowing pigment against a hand held to the cave wall.  But now dating of calcite deposits over the artwork puts them at around 66ky, before there is any evidence of Homo sapiens in Europe.  This art was apparently the work of Neanderthals.

The art critic of the Guardian captures the moment of this realisation perfectly.  Jonathan Jones is not a paleoanthropologist, and his language reflects what I take to be the common human view of what we are, while his perspicuity makes clear what a transitional moment in the underpinning of that view the discovery of Neanderthal art was.  So I feel that our common view is worth a moment’s more reflection.

He writes:

“the painted hands – not to mention bison, horses and mammoths – found in European caves have come to be seen as the moment when the modern human mind itself is born: the first evidence not just of the intelligence of Homo sapiens but our capacity to imagine and dream, to reflect, in short to possess consciousness. What does it mean if another kind of human species shared those traits? Is there nothing special about us at all?”

Jones is writing about what had been understood since the end of the last century but one as the “first art”.  The oldest, and maybe the most accomplished of this drawing and painting is in Chauvet cave, dated from 37,000 to 33,500 years ago.

His language is reverential and metaphorical.  “The modern human mind itself is born” is a very vague metaphor indeed.  “Born” in natural language suggests a process by which a foetus emerges from the birth canal in a welter of membrane and mucous, but it doesn’t seem that that is the image that Jones is presenting.  It seems to be something more like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, where the naked goddess comes ashore as a woman in her nubile prime.  And this is how “the human mind” was born.  In other words it is a magical moment, nothing like anything that ever actually happened.  And yet Jones is absolutely correct in using this projection of how we think of ourselves.  The soft human foetus/neonate smeared with human matter is not much employed as the earliest in-the-world form of each of us, nor of our collective beauty and grandeur.

But from a reductionist, scientific point of view, while we can stand for minutes on end in the Uffizi in Florence, totally lost and entranced (and, like the first glimpse of the Taj Mahal through the Great Gate, experiencing the thing with your whole organism is a transformative experience for many human beings) we don’t for a moment think The Birth of Venus was a real event, if only because the goddess Venus is an evolved concept, not an actual creature of flesh and ichor or whatever goddesses are made of, but a nexus of information distributed about sculpture, painting, poetry, narrative epic and common speech.  No more can the “modern human mind itself” be understood as anything that actually exists, except as an evolved conceptual object, a nexus of information distributed about literature and philosophy, psychology and anthropology, frequently referred to in natural language, as in “It crossed my mind”, “She has a good mind” “Have you lost [or gone out of your] mind?”.  One can “call to mind” a surprising number of these examples of natural usage, where the mind is an object, a place, a tool or instrument; and always has been, “time out of mind”.

As users of natural language we know perfectly well that there is no actual place or thing, the mind, even though it’s a great big metaphor for a large part of what we feel we are.  And the “modern mind”, if discussed in a scientific way, is even looser than that, a ridiculous fiction with far less dignity than Venus atop her cockle shell.  Jones continues to exemplify this point in the image that finalises the next quote.

“Today, it [the art in Lascaux cave] is at the heart of thinking about human evolution because it seems to illuminate the birth of the complex cathedral of the modern mind.”

He immediately goes on:

“Now that all has to be rethought. “There must be something that’s different about modern humans,” says Stringer. “But it isn’t cave art.”” (Jones, 2018)

This seems to be a seminal moment for Chris Stringer.  He is probably the most renowned physical anthropologist in the world, and his books on the evolution of the human organism are wonderful accounts of his leading-edge research, of the prehistory of hominins, and they are popular and accessible accounts of human evolution.  But he is quite explicitly uninterested in cultural evolution, and given the nature of cultural evolution in academia at the moment he is perhaps correct to be so.  But the result has been that up to now he has rather used the metaphorical language, and thus the thought processes, which the Jonathan Jones article exemplifies.  He leaves Jones, he says, a way back to the common, comfortable delusion.

On the other hand they are not much like Leonardo da Vinci either. “I don’t think there’s any evidence of representational art,” says Stringer. For me, that leaves a massive lifeline for the image of Homo sapiens as a uniquely brilliant creature.

The drawing, painting and sculpture, in wood, bone and ivory, dated to the twenty millennia that started around thirty three thousand BCE, can still Jones says, be “at the heart of thinking about human evolution”.  In fact they never were at the heart of human evolution.  The notion that something miraculous happened at the beginning of the upper Palaeolithic was first dreamt up by an early anthropologist, French and in holy orders, who asserted that art was a gift to man from God, who was, of course, a French Catholic.  This is a diametric negation of evolution.

And Jonathan Jones, to his credit, sees that the game is up.  The “complex cathedral of the modern mind” (Notre Dame or Chartres?) never suddenly sprang into existence, like Botticelli’s Venus, or indeed a gothic cathedral.  Neither, of course, did a gothic cathedral or a painting.  Even an anti-evolutionary would concede that renaissance paintings and ritual spaces developed from a very long line of tradition.  The Chauvet cave art of 37,000 to 33,500 years ago was clearly far too accomplished to be a first-off attempt, and must itself have developed from a long tradition of representation.

And here is Jonathan Jones telling us what is the case:

“But here’s the thing. That Neanderthal hand is the first evidence ever found of another species showing cultural self-consciousness. It’s not so very far from a hand print to a self-portrait to a diary to a novel. This discovery dethrones the modern human mind.”

His language is archaic.  The phrase “showing cultural self-consciousness” is a WEIRD psycho-anthropological trope of extreme nonsensicality which I won’t dwell on, but I think the trope of dethroning is immensely apt.  Bravo Jonathan.  You have done Darwinian evolution a service.

Which is this.  If the idea of the fully modern mind arriving on Earth like Venus on her cockleshell is abject bollocks, what are we to put in its place?


Why we still need an evolutionary account of Homo sapiens

We need one because we do not yet have one, or even the attempt at one.

This is our present situation.  Animals behave and behaviour, as Richard Dawkins says, is “rapid muscular movement”.  This seems strange at first.  Surely we behave in ways that do not involve rapid muscular movement?  Surely thinking is behaviour?  Not so, if we account behaviour only as that which is perceivable by another human being.  Your closest other can behave, from your point of view, only if you can perceive them behaving.  The only way that thought can be expressed is through rapid muscular movement (I think Dawkins put in the ‘rapid’ to distinguish it from, say, gut peristalsis.  The beating of the heart of another is perceivable behaviour, the muscular contraction of the viscera not so much.)  That thinking can only be expressed through muscular contraction is even more of a surprise than that behaviour can.  It means that thinking can only be expressed by behaviour.  But think of Steven Hawking.  He can only communicate via a tiny muscle in his cheek.  Contracting it activates an electrical sensor.  If that muscle goes, he can no longer behave in any way, and that includes communicating his thoughts.

So humans behave, just as do all other animals.  And the evolutionarily earliest kind of behaviour which differentiates us from other animals is not speech.  Speech is a derivative of the other, earlier big thing in hominin behaviour, fabrication; manu, literally, facture.  That is, all that we, as a genus, made and used, until the age of machines, by muscle contraction.

The word hominin is used because what we naturally refer to as human beings is our species, Homo sapiens, and a lot of the evolution of our ancestors, including the evolution of our material culture, took place before we were around.  Hominin includes for instance the Acheulian handaxe makers, a different species with a smaller brain and probably more hair, Homo erectus.  And the earliest worked stones go way back beyond erectus, possibly to Australopithecines about three point two million years ago.

If all human behaviour is rapid muscle contraction, what has this muscle contraction produced?  Well, the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramids, the Benin bronzes, the coffee mug and the boomerang — the first locus of applied aerodynamics.  Also, Don Quixote, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Goldberg Variations and the Mona Lisa.  Also the Large Hadron Collider.  But the LHC is of course a bit different.  The ultimate agent in its construction was invariably the human central nervous system (CNS) and human rapid muscular movement, but the proximate agents were almost invariably electronic and mechanical machinery which can now do things previously only doable by the human organism.

Everything that has been produced since maybe 3.2 million years ago, and still persists today, the possibly earliest worked stones at Lomekwi 3 and that possibly hubristic city of Dubai, together with 60 billion tons of concrete, all the mining and processing waste that comes from our half a billion tons of aluminium, and half a billion tons of plastic per year.  (I am sceptical of these figures, but they seem to be all we have).  All in all this product of the human CNS and muscle contraction adds up to, at a round figure, 30 trillion tons.  It does not take a huge effort to arrive at the conclusion that we as a species are dependent on our survival on this 30 trillion tons of matter, I don’t mean long term but from day to day, and anywhere that it’s winter and cold or desert and hot, hour to hour, even minute to minute.  If everything which has emerged on earth from human muscle contraction (or in the last three hundred or so years from its machine surrogates) were to disappear on the instant (this includes language, of course) the only groups likely to survive are hunter gathers who are so totally educated in their own environment and ecology that they could pre-linguistically fabricate much of their material culture from the nature around them from the registrations in their CNSs.  Me, I’d be gone after one starlit frosty night, if not before.

This thirty trillion tons of matter on which our species is wholly dependent has been labelled, by a worldwide group of researchers led by the Leicester University palaeogeologist Jan Zalasiewicz, the technosphere; the signature of the age of the geologically perceptible presence of human beings, the Anthropocene.

These incontrovertible facts are hugely alien to almost all human beings.  We are not psychologically attuned to them.  We like to forget this mass of matter as a sine qua non of our existence and regard all that we do as the output of pure thought.  Steven Pinker is an example of this tendency, and an example of how even the most intelligent of human beings can entertain vacuous notions.

Unfortunately it is not the sudden absence, physically impossible, of the technosphere which is likely to give our species the chop, but the opposite.  The life support systems of our planet are already falling apart as the result of the technosphere, and at an accelerating rate.  The true horror of this situation for me is as I look straight out of the window onto the solar panels that at this moment, midday and sunny in mid-February and slightly hazy, have generated 4.25 kilowatt hours of electricity.  If we release so much carbon (my diesel car and wood-burning stove) and other pollutants into the atmosphere that the sun cannot penetrate the murk, these solar panels, which are meant to be a carbon substitute, will stop working.  And what else will stop working is that on which all eukaryotic life (cells with a nucleus) fundamentally depend, photosynthesis.  The  rapid result would be a great extinction which, if it runs its course, would have been perceived as inevitable by any thought-experiment extra-terrestrial intelligence that might be watching us.  (I see The Long Read in yesterday’s Guardian is To the ends of the Earth: why Silicone Valley’s tech billionaires are prepping for the apocalypse in New Zealand).

So, among other things, like getting rid of a neoliberal polity and Silicone Valley’s tech billionaires, what is immediately necessary is both decelerating the growth of the technosphere, and converting it from fossil to direct solar (and hopefully hydrogen and geothermal) energy, while ceasing to strip the earth of multitudinous mutualistic eco-systems for very short term gain (industrial agriculture, biofuels).  These steps are crucial to our persistence as a species.  That much is formally obvious to all people on earth except neoliberals, who can see no further than their exponentially accumulating wealth; and their attendant workers and agents.

So why is the practice so opposed to the logic?  To put it at its most simple, because of what we are.  I now move into the central themes of the book, and put them in a nutshell from which they need careful extraction, expansion and analysis.

We humans have, from the very earliest creation myths, regarded ourselves as created beings.  “The Salmon People went to their King and said ‘we look to the land and we see the Wolf People and the Eagle People have already become human beings, and we would like to as well.’ And the Salmon King gave his permission, under certain strict conditions.”  That’s the general kind of thing.  And the Salmon People kept up their covenant with the Salmon King until the arrival of the first NGOs, the Christian missionaries.

During the Eurasian Enlightenment, which became a thing in the 17thC, the creation myth peddled by the Christian NGOs became the creation myth of the Rational Soul, under the icon of Descartes, and the rational soul was transmuted into god-like (Descartes said as much) human intelligence, which created the technosphere out of pure thought, ideas generated wholly in the brain; here the icon is Steven Pinker again.  That view, well ensconced in the academic discipline of Cognitive Psychology is, two nutshells here, bollocks.  It entirely discounts the evolution of the technosphere, which is a massive repository of information.  In this way.  How in a Pharaoh’s time did an apprentice learn to make bricks?  By going on a course where they were sequestered in a windowless room while a lecturer explained to them over hours and days what a brick was, the process of their manufacture and use ad nauseam?  We who have taught in a Cumbrian technical college know to what degree of utter rubbish this tends.  The Pharaonic apprentice would be dispatched by their mother with a packed lunch and an excess of good advice to their first morning at the brick field.  “Okay, you’re puddling clay.  Now get fucking on with it.”  And over the days and months and years they would learn to make bricks.  They learnt this largely from the brickfield itself and its processes, with just a bit of natural pedagogy, “Nah, nah, nah, not like that, yer great mollox, like this.”

We learn what dogs are from living examples of dogs, not from humans, except for the word dog.  Likewise cups, fences, apples.  Without the technosphere, we could know nothing, and would have no language.

So, in a nutshell, human beings evolved from pre-apes, and the technosphere evolved alongside us, step by minute step, the brain increasing in mass in order to incorporate the initially minute but evolving technosphere, the technosphere evolving in a way, and only in a way, that could supply the growing, relatively enormous energy needs of the brain.  At a certain point, around 300,000 – 200,000 years ago, the brain stopped getting bigger and since then has got a little smaller.  It presumably stopped at the time it could accommodate the technosphere (accommodating the technosphere needed massive expansion).  At that point of sufficiency, any excess brain mass would be selected against because of higher energy demand, and it is possible that our smaller brains are a result of the evolving  technosphere being increasingly efficient at supplying us with usable energy, to the eventual detriment of course of our nutrition and health, which decline began with agriculture, sedentary living (in the locale sense, not lounging in armchairs) and the domus. [Laland’s extended cognition may have a place here, that we need slightly smaller brains because so much information has been farmed out to the technosphere.]

The drive which this mutualism between our organisms and our material culture, our organisms and the technosphere, our organisms and what Dawkins calls our extended phenotype and so do I, is straightforward.  It is the selection criterion of success, first to reproduce and, just as significant, to accumulate as much of our extended phenotype as possible.  At the moment I’m reading the scraps of Theoginis.  It was certainly so in his day two and a half thousand years ago, and it’s a safe assumption that it was so with our Acheulian handaxe making forebears a million years ago.  Neoliberalism is but the latest guise of that basic function.

So the imperative for our continuance in our present condition as species is not a matter of ‘us’ taming the technosphere, because the technosphere is half of us.  Take it away, not just central heating, Mycenae and Stonehenge, but every last atom of it, and we are naked apes with huge brains, nothing in them, and no natural survival skills.  I am particularly aware of this because outside the double glazing, beyond the snow-blanked solar panels, is a blizzard, engendered by the collapse of the circumpolar vortex.  Where, naked, would I walk to in this pre-human wilderness?

So ‘us’ isn’t the naked organism, nor our material culture, our extended phenotype, the technosphere.  It is a symbiosis of the two, absolutely interdependent; an obligate symbiosis.  And it is a symbiosis of two things, one of which, the organism, is the environment in which the other, a god-made shield for Achilles, concrete, CO2, replicate.  It follows that a constraint on manufacturing and extraction is not ‘us’ acting against ‘it’, it is a matter of obligate symbionts, human beings, which have evolved as a mutual entanglement with our material culture over millions of years — and evolution is a process without a purpose, it’s not teleological, not anthropomorphic like ‘God’ — and are continuing to so evolve, at an increasing rate, with now the material culture taking the upper hand, artificial intelligence, robotics, evolving with accelerating rapidity.

Now the symbiont has somehow to take control of its own evolutionary path.  This is not impossible.  It is about as difficult as say a brain surgeon operating on their own brain, which I suppose with state of the art robotics and vision technology is theoretically possible.

So that’s why I think this hypothesis, or model, and it is not more than that, of the evolution of human beings is important.

Kevin Laland, cultural evolution and magical thinking

Why do good, respectable scientists escape into teleology and magical thinking as soon as they get on to the subject of the evolution of human culture?

Kevin Laland is an excellent scientist. Extended spider cognition, Hilton F. Japyassú and Kevin N. Laland, is worth half an hour of anybody’s time.  But as soon as Laland gets on to human culture he enters a realm of teleology, of magical thinking.

I have just listened to Nicola Davis interviewing him on “What role might culture play in intelligence?” Guardian  Science Weekly, 07 February 2018 .

Towards the end, Laland  is trawling through “A good theory of the evolution of language would be…” statements, and comes up with what he says is the most robust: “Language originally evolved to teach; to teach knowledge to close relatives.”

Teleology: basically it’s in the grammar.

A purpose is the intention of doing something in the future.

An intention can be expressed in the form “X did y [in order to] do (or be, or achieve) z”, where X is the subject of the sentence.

Here language is X.  Language [did something] [in order] to teach.

So, language had an intention of doing something in the future.  The intention is represented by “[in order] to”.

Language is a distributed system.  Its existence extends into many domains, acoustic, alphabetic, semantic.  If language has an intention, some very precise argument is needed to demonstrate this and to show where in language such an intention is located.  In the absence of any such argument we can assume that language is totally devoid of intention.

From the sentence “language evolved [in order] to teach” we  must therefore remove “[in order] to”.

The sentence is now:

Language evolved                 teach.

The part before the lacuna is true.  It has no grammatical or any other relation to “teach.”

The insertion into the statement of “[in order] to” creates a short, teleological, Just So Story.

Just So Stories are not science.

Cultural evolution: a five sentence definition

The Homo sapiens extended phenotype is all that has emerged through the neural system of the Homo sapiens organism by processes of muscular contraction.  It is also known as human culture.

The Homo sapiens extended phenotype is uniquely extensive and diverse, a physical mass of, today, around thirty trillion tons.

The Homo sapiens organism, without its extended phenotype, is ill-adapted to any natural habitat, and would be unlikely to survive.

The Homo sapiens organism is a crucial, sine qua non environment for the evolution of the Homo sapiens extended phenotype.

The last two propositions lead to the conclusion that the Homo sapiens organism and the Homo sapiens extended phenotype are obligate symbionts.