A short account of the evolution of human language

This is taken from the middle of a 254 page manuscript, and some of the vocabulary may seem distinctly wu-wu.  However I found a minimum amount of neologism necessary to get clear water between this and other current hypotheses.  A hep is merely an Sbit in the brain, a durable registration of irreducible difference between something and everything else, a bicycle, not a car or a scooter for instance.  Metaverse has a similar materialist, non-metaphysical definition.

In the idioversal frame, in the absolutely unique world inside your brain or mine, each registration of each hep arrived in a way different from each registration of the same hep in all the other brains on earth that have registered it.  You didn’t learn the difference between a dog and a cat in the same series of contexts that I did.   Each idioversal hep develops in a unique internal and external environment, so each registration of each hep will also be unique in terms of its within-the-brain relationships.

The registration of the hep finger in the brain is not so much a label as an address.  That address is a node of the relationship of the hep finger to all the other heps in the brain, with greatly varying connection strengths, pretty close to thumb, more distant from cloud.  It is at the same time a node of the distribution of finger in the metaverse, most of the other nodes being actual fingers, but also pictures of fingers and words for finger and so on.  In this contextual sense, because the relational registration of the same hep in different brains will have different histories—you learnt what a finger is in different circumstances to the ones where I learnt what a finger is—no two registrations of a hep are absolutely identical.  Likewise in an atomic sense no two nodes of a hep outside the brain  are identical either, be they actual fingers, cups or Boeing Dreamliners.  In both material realisation and brain registration there is always an envelope of variation in a hep.

This fluidity is therefore the condition of the metaverse.  Heps are subject to replication, variation, selection at every scale, in a single brain, in a single culture and, in a world of global communication, at the global scale.  Biological evolution is distributed across the same sort of landscape and is, at the level of interactions at all scales, almost unimaginably complex.  It is no surprise that the evolution of the hominin extended phenotype is equally complex.

In the metaversal frame the specific but multiple nodes of a hep are the things of a recognised type, the stone good for cutting, the Taj Mahal, dinner.   But language adds a level of complication.  Firstly a hep may have a denotational word that maps onto it, but it doesn’t have to, since chimpanzees recognise an irreducible difference between an anvil stone and a hammer stone, and they do not have words.  In English there is no word for the shallow groove that in humans runs between the nose and the upper lip though, if you know the bit of anatomy I‘m talking about, that is a hep.

There is an another complication.  An irreducible difference may emerge in one situation but not in another.  The English middle class in the first half of the Twentieth Century drank tea out of a cup, specifically a small bowl with one vertical handle of a size that would accommodate only finger and thumb, not a handle big enough for the proletarian male grasp of all the digits, as with a mug.  And a cup [type], de rigeur and comme il faut, must be placed upon a saucer.  But in French there is no irreducible difference between cup and mug, no two heps, there is merely une grande tasse (sans soucoupe).  So the English have two heps, cup and mug where the French have just one, tasse — unless in France une grand tasse is one locus of irreducible difference, while une tasse is another; and just how big does une tasse have to be before it looks categorically out if place if that place is in superior contact with a soucoupe.

The upshot of all this is that language is not a totally reliable way of identifying heps.  In the pre-linguistic hominin world, pointing at things, aiming the digit or the fist at the in-the-world nodes of proto-heps while engaging the attention of another, maybe with a grunt, was a possible means of isolating salient features of the perceptual landscape, and it is what is widely assumed to be the environment in which language emerged.  Once hominins had reached the stage of recognising distinctions between more than a few types of stick and stone, and between the dynamic relationships between these types, and had an increasing number of durable registrations of these in their brains, registrations which they could idioversally address even when the things themselves were absent, then in the absence of the actual thing there was nothing to point at, and there was a denotational vacuum into which acoustic information might emerge and evolve—by the usual process—as speech.

The vocabularies of chimpanzees suggest that this later hominin projection into the infinitely expandable singularity of the semantic zone was at first sparsely populated by modulated vowels that represented heps, “Hoo, hoo-ho, uh, uh-uh-uh-uh”, that kind of thing.  But the very slowly evolving sticks and stones, gourds and roots, bark and plant stems and configurations of mud became, collectively, a zone of latent potential where an increasing number of discrete denotational combinations of sound, words in fact, could link each hep in the brain with a thing-in-the-world, as these things-in-the-world evolved, divided and proliferated.  Over maybe hundreds of thousands of years, maybe a much shorter time, a whole range of consonants evolved, impossible for apes to produce.  The early vowels, the “Hoo, hoo-ho, uh, uh-uh-uh-uh”, were interspersed with ks and ts, ms and bs and so on.  As with the base pair in DNA, each  phoneme, each acoustic locus of irreducible difference, vowel or consonant, could combine with others in short discrete sequences and, by a process of selection within the metaverse, these discrete sequences come to link uniquely to a node of a hep in the world.  So the hep stick was linked to an actual stick by the word stick, for instance; or the hep for the spatio-temporal relationship between two heps stick and arm become a zone of latent potential where noun and verb diverged.  Throw stick, the hep of sequential and dynamic interaction, was linked to the act of throwing a stick by the verbal phrase: throw stick.  Throw stick: the hep of the pointy stick in the world, was addressed by the word spear.  We in English don’t as far as I know have a word for throwing a spear, though clearly we have a hep for it, but I would be willing to bet there have been many words in many evolving languages in the last million years for chucking a stick as opposed to chucking a stone.

These new heps could only evolve into the sequential and nested combinations of spoken language within a collective of multiple human brains,  a collective big enough to provide an environment of replication, variation and selection. There was a huge energy saving in being able to “point to things when they weren’t actually there”, so you didn’t have to physically go to the large rock where you were to meet at dawn, point to it, point to the sun, point to the sun’s position at dawn, then go back to where you started the discussion and sit back down.  “Where were we again?” (conveyed by raised shoulders, hands turned outwards, raised eyebrows and pretend searching behaviour with the head; or acting.)

This expanding language evolved reciprocally with an increasing ability to organise the environment in a way that enhanced hunting, fishing, gathering, shelter assembly, and the quality of life in general.  In this environment, and again reciprocally, there would have been selection upon the human organism such that competence in all these behaviours would affect differential fertility.  Hunting, gathering, fishing, talking and listening, as behaviour, would become more more complex, more layered and nested, as the extended phenotype, including language, evolved — it would be lovely to know what the first hominin verbal jokes were, or the first terms of endearment .

Here we have a characterisation of the evolving obligate symbiosis of the hominin organism with two domains of its extended phenotype: the collective of hominin brains interconnected by the output of muscle contraction; material culture; and language.

Present day study of language has more useful descriptive, analytical and theoretical things to say about evolution than any other branch of cultural evolution, and the reason is clear.  Language is so much simpler than what it refers to.  So language cannot distinguish between all the meanings that the brain can contain.  Nonetheless, even with it’s obvious shortcomings—

But I gotta use words when I talk to you.

T.S. Eliot, Fragment of an Agon

—language is the best we’ve got, and gives us clues as to the organisation of each idioverse.

It no longer seems adequate to say a hep is a locus of irreducible difference.  It is exactly that, cat or dog, cup or mug, but a hep is also the neural addresses of a discrete instance of recognition distributed between at least two brains, and this instance of recognition is short-lived, a few seconds or even less than a second.  The hep in the brain of each may last as long as the brain does, or nearly.  Most people can tell the difference between a cat and a dog on their death beds.  But the most durable nodes, the apex of a two-people-looking-at-a-thing triangle, is the objective type recognised, cat, dog, cup, mug, church.  That is to say, individual brains wink into existence and out again quite quickly, but cats and dogs have, as themselves and as heps, been about for a long time. This characterisation allows, I hope, for the fluidity of all heps, both as to the evolution of their in-the-world nodes, how today’s cell phone is not yesterday’s cell phone, and to their occurrence or non-occurrence within a particular group; culture, ethnicity, faith, intellectual discipline, working environment and so on.  It also accommodates things that don’t strictly speaking exist, like ghosts or angels.  Though they don’t exist, I know the difference between a ghost and an angel with quite a high degree of precision and probably could, with a series of flash cards representing either a ghost or an angel, get the answer right nine times out of ten.  What happens when an angel appears disguised as a ghost, or the Ghost happens to be Holy, merely demonstrates the fluidity which we have to accommodate.


Reply to Igor Nikolic

This is proximately addressed to Igor Nikolic,  @ComplexEvo

You have no comments section on your blog Thoughts on co-evolution of technology and society  so I’ll blog this.  These are just initial observations to a piece which covers a huge amount of ground.

I am not a big fan of cognitive evolution, and this is why.  In his abstract (the article is behind a paywall and I don’t read stuff behind paywalls unless I really, really need to) Steven Pinker writes,

‘One is that intelligence is an adaptation to a knowledge-using, socially interdependent lifestyle, the “cognitive niche”.’ The cognitive niche: Coevolution of intelligence, sociality, and language

This comes from the Rationalist, ahistorical tradition.  It makes no sense in evolutionary terms, since it suggests that there was an already established “knowledge-using, socially interdependent lifestyle” that intelligence, also apparently a priori, adapted to.  Steven Pinker is manifestly an intelligent human being, he wrote the cogent demolition job  https://www.edge.org/conversation/the-false-allure-of-group-selection .  So this seems so nonsensical that it cannot be what Pinker actually writes, and yet it self-evidently is.

In my evolutionary perspective, intelligence is not a sufficiently coherent concept to be described in evolutionary terms, it is rather a (nominal) general descriptor of the human (Homo organism/technosphere obligate symbiosis) ability to operate that symbiosis optimally. So from an evolutionary point of view anything based on Pinker’s notions is a non-starter.

I have always understood ‘emergent’ to refer to situations with so many often but not necessarily opaque variables that the outcome, though empirically that outcome is manifestly the case, is incomputable.  You seem to use emergent to mean very complex.  As I said to Rafal, if we had used complexity as an excuse to sink into magical thinking then biology would still be back with Aristotle.  My aim is to rescue the evolution of human beings from just such a fate.

I was struck by the phrase “Culture (through social learning etc.) emerges [from?] technology, as a way to increase its own fitness.”  Personifying culture as an agent with foresight and purpose that emerges from an a priori Technology ( a technology that can not therefore be part of culture) is very far removed from any possible evolutionary account., much closer to the Pentateuch (or Torah) in its phylogeny.

I would rather leave Chris Buckley to comment on your discussion of his work should he feel inclined to, but I’ll just mention your “My (and probably authors) assumption here is that a weaver also knows how to make a loom”.  As I read it, Buckley goes to some pains to emphasise that the opposite is the case.  It is even possible, though I’d like to ask him about this, that the pattern-drums evolve into a level of complexity that makes a developed multi-pattern drum completely opaque, and if one is destroyed it cannot be recreated.  However, the structure of an empty pattern drum can be copied and some, very knowledgeable, weavers will understand its function and, within the evolutionary space of actually weaving patterned material, guide the recording of patterns onto the drum to accumulate, solely in the drum, the information that it, the drum, can transmit to the rest of  the proximate symbiont, Homo and loom.  It is by the control of that information that the precise complexities of warp and weft are, literally, realised.

Finally, I have to admit that nothing you say diminishes my confidence in the evolutionary model.  However I do share you deep concern with sustainability.  We are not overlords of the world and the heavens as the Abrahamic myth suggests, we are members of a collective, the obligate symbiosis of technosphere and Homo organism.  As such, we have brought about the Anthropocene, and the proliferating technosphere may well bring about the extinction the symbiont.  Our approach cannot be evolutionary, that is a category error for very obvious reasons that I won’t get into now.  It must be empirical and pragmatic, and it is to guide those bits of the technosphere (fossil fuels, plastics, industrial agriculture &c, Bitcoin, Google, Amazon) towards extinction while enthusiastically encouraging those bits of the technosphere (all the derivatives of instantaneous conversion of solar energy, horticulture, economy of replication of information) through which we can retain a much modified but pleasant and fulfilling quality of life.  The evolutionary model suggests that we will be incapable of doing this purposefully but it allows a scintilla of hope, that it might happen anyway, in evolutionary ways that we symbionts are incapable of foreseeing.

Evolution as a black box

This is a reply to a discussion between @RafalMista and me; RM and JW.  The last JW: is a bit long for Twitter, so I’ve blogged it.

JW: Trying to account for the evolution  of “state policy” is like trying to account for the evolution of the biome of the African continent. Best start with the evolution of a tilapia species, or the holes in violins

RM: But if you’re interested in the explanation of sociotechnical systems evolution now, then it’s natural that you’ll start with a theory which uses coarse-grained concepts and leaves places for future explanations of lower-level mechanisms (“black boxes”). I agree with you that it’s important to find the basic mechanism of cultural evolution and it shouldn’t be abandoned. But the offer of rejection all theories which blackbox it, is like the offer of stopping medicine until we can deduce treatments from molecular level mechanisms.  Especially that there is no guarantee that you can find the passage from basic operations to explanations of complex systems (like a micro-macro link), that this passage will be as useful as we assume, and that it will be done in a finite, human time horizon.

JW:  OK, let’s start with “the explanation of sociotechnical systems evolution now”. This might be better phrased “the explanation of the evolution of sociotechnical systems now”.  The inclusion of “now” at the end of the phrase suggests you mean at this moment; that is to say sociotechnical systems merely seen as the last frame of a freeze frame movie; that is to say, with the time dimension removed.

Whereas you cannot remove the time dimension from evolution.  Evolution is a continual process, a succession of very small changes that moves in a certain direction.  So to attempt to explain a freeze-frame of a sociotechnical system without relation to its history is unwise.

“You’ll start with a theory which uses coarse-grained concepts” sure, but one should check to make sure they are not erroneous, magical, or nonexistent.

I am surprised that you call evolution, that is replication, variation, selection by external factors, “lower-level mechanisms (“black boxes”)”.   Darwinian evolution is not a black box, it is entirely open to examination.  This does not mean that the complexities of Darwinian evolution have been resolved and accounted for at every scale, it just means that at a certain level of probability and coherence it is the best model of what is the case.  This is true of all science.

But of course Darwinian evolution can be used as a black box.  The mechanism of a black box, as I understand it, is thus: information inblack box (process that is not examined or not understood) → information out.  If one is explaining to a child “how the giraffe got its long neck” it’s not a good idea to try to explain the whole theory of evolution first, and in this case you would put most of it in a black box.  Nonetheless you yourself would have recourse to the theory, you might explain that there were long ago animals like giraffes but with shorter necks… and tell the story of differential survival in simple terms and with a narrative skill that would keep the child’s attention.  You wouldn’t say God gave them long necks when he created all the animals in the Garden of Eden, or tell them a Just So Story.  Here the genetic and sex bit would be the black box.  Likewise, we use black boxes all the time in evolutionary, and all, science, just for economy.  As Dawkins says, we even use teleology as a black box in natural discussion because it’s more economical.  But we do tacitly acknowledge the rigorous non-teleological theory which the teleological statement represents.

The Derex et al. experiment https://psyarxiv.com/nm5sh/ produced an interesting black box.  The assumption was that the progress along the transmission chain towards the optimum configuration of the apparatus could be explained by the weakly defined tropes “cultural transmission” or “social learning” or “the cognitive niche hypothesis” or any combination of the three.  The experiment demonstrated that none of these tropes, even in their literary indeterminateness, could be applied.  This led to the black box : information in (the experiment, apparatus and procedure)  → black boxinformation out (progress towards optimum configuration) .  I imagine that what actually happens in the black box has a fairly straightforward explanation which fits a Darwinian theory of the evolution of hominin culture, but cannot be explained by the non-existent, or as you put it “coarse-grained”, CES hypothesis.

I suggest that the CES model is not a black box in the scientific sense, since the information in and out is always homologous, no actual work has been done on it, no information has been added.  It is more of a magic cabinet, where statistical procedures do the magic (I’m not denying the utility of Bayesian procedures, obviously, but it is improper to use them as a Harry Potter type wand).  The information out cannot therefore be anything but the product of magical thinking and, to come full circle, to expect “the explanation of sociotechnical systems evolution now” without a lot of “lower order” (not lower order at all) hard work of the empirical kind that Darwin, Huxley, Watson and Crick, Dawkins and many others did over decades is to expect a magical solution.

So how did this unfortunate situation come about?  If you actually accept Darwinian evolution as an account of what is the case, of Homo sapiens as much as of the first life or the first eukaryote, then this evolution will account for the emergence of the CES.  The consensual dogma of the CES looks from the outside like any other evolved religion, with its own institutions, rituals, bureaucracy, hierarchy and economic infrastructure.  In principal it is not unlike (though rather less salient) than the congress of priests who sometime round the 6thC BCE (I’m going from memory here) edited from much more ancient texts a narrative of what it was to be a descendent of King David, one that was very supportive of the wellbeing of said priests; or the Congress of Nicaea, in (still guessing here) about the 4thC CE which thrashed out from many versions exactly what it was that Christians believed, much to the benefit of the Roman State.

And, I suggest, the consensual dogma of the CES is no more an account of what is empirically the case than the Nicene creed.

Your suggestion, “But the offer of rejection all theories which blackbox it, is like the offer of stopping medicine until we can deduce treatments from molecular level mechanisms” is, I suggest, the opposite of the case.  Medicine, like all other hominin culture, evolved by a process of replication, variation and selection.  Some of it worked, some of it didn’t, between the limits of curing people and killing them.  That is still the case today, but we now have theories, very complex theories, as to how medicine works.  These are all derived from the evolution of material culture, medicines, apparatus and instruments, pharmaceuticals, models of cells down to the molecular level.  It has never been an either or situation.  The process of medicine has been one of a recognition of what works (with other factors, like the appropriation and monopolisation of that part of the hominin extended phenotype which produces the acquisition of more extended phenotype or its monetary —also extended phenotype— equivalent).

I am very aware of how easy it is for me to say these things.  Apart from through my laptop I have no relationship at all with the CES hegemony.  But if I wanted to make a career, or worse still had a successful career, in Cultural Evolution, then I would have no alternative but to buckle down and follow the consensual dogma.  In which case, say I was an up and coming PhD, I think I would look for a more long-term secure niche, like linguistics or musicology.  The evolution of music is already an area with a good literature (whereas nothing in cultural evolution between Pitt Rivers and Buckley and Boudot) and it is relatively uncomplicated, though beware trying to do a cladistic analysis of the phylogeny of the Baltic Psaltery [Veloz et al. 2012].  Even if something is ever more than the sum of its parts, which I doubt, it is absolutely necessary to study the parts first. And there again we come back to the, I think, intractable problem of trying to divine an explanation of ahistorical “socicotechnical systems”.

Finally, “Especially that there is no guarantee that you can find the passage from basic operations to explanations of complex systems (like a micro-macro link)”.  Imagine that that pessimistic mantra had been accepted by people coming after Darwin; we would be lost in a world of magical thinking, merely because a group of religious reactionaries had dictated that things should be that way. Evolution is better than that.

Ping! the only replicator of the hominin extended phenotype that’s out there

Chapter 21: Ping, maybe

What’s a ping?

A ping, like the metaverse, mentioned but not yet explored, is a new concept, though only in the sense that it is a recent variant of a larger concept.  A ping is a stable cycle of energy in the part of the continuum of the universe that is the human brain. That stable cycle of energy is one node of a locus of irreducible difference.  Irreducible difference is the difference between two things, one Shannon bit of information, S.  It is the difference between two precisely localised states of a zone of the universe, such as a between a stick and a stone, or between the durable registration of stick and stone in a brain.  One ping is thus by extension the difference between a stick and everything in the universe that is not a stick.  In a universe composed of nothing but a stick, a stick could not exist.  It also accomodates, as will I hope be seen, the fact that a universe composed of nothing but a stick is impossible, not just for intuitive reasons, but because a stick is made of other stuff, wood, and wood is made of other stuff, and all this other stuff necessitates yet more stuff, it in fact necessistates a lot of the universe that we now live in.  So Ping is not an essentialist idea.  There is no essence of stick-ness that makes a stick a stick.  What makes a stick a stick is the state of a precisely bounded zone of the universe, the information that travels from that zone into the human brain and is articulated to, we are not yet clear how, the durable registration in that brain of a type, stick.  That is to say the ping stick, all of it, is not just the locus of the bit of wood which is not a twig or a branch or a snake or a planet; not just the durable registration in the brain where when you say to me “we could poke it out with a stick”, we both know immediately what we are talking about, and neither of us will hunt about the place for a shovel.  And this whole distribution, a term which will need a little more examination, of information, from the stick to your brain and out of your brain by rapid muscle contraction and into my brain via pressure waves through the air is the ping stick.

The language here is ponderous and pedantic, but it has to be because it has to say exactly what a ping is and what it isn’t.  A ping and the meaning of a word overlap, but they are by no means the same thing.  A ping is a unique and bounded distribution of information, as the above paragraph made clear when stick, without an actual stick being anywhere present, traveled from your brain to mine, and hopefully out into the world again when one of us found an actual stick and could proceed with said poking.

Here are a few propositions about pings:

  • Difference is binary. You cannot have “x not y” without both x and y.
  • The smallest possible number of pings is 2, equivalent to a Shannon bit S = 1 in information theory.
  • The irreducible difference between x and y, the ping, is the locus of meaning.
  • The ping is the fundamental stable structure of human culture.
  • The ping is also the fundamental stable structure of all animal cognition.
  • Pings can combine, and there is no limit on the number of their combination; ping and ping ping and…n.
  • Combinations of pings can combine.
  • Any number of pings can emerge from a ping.
  • Any ping, despite being a locus of irreducible difference, is resolvable into constituent pings.
  • A ping, or any combination of pings, can travel between brain and brain as information, via any medium perceptible to the senses.
  • A combination of pings can also be a ping.
  • The locus of variation in any combination of pings upon which selection can act is the ping.
  • Irreducible difference is a contextual, not an ontological property.


That’s probably enough to be going on with.  Rather more than, you may think.  And for something that does not so far exist in the discourse of reasonable human beings, the claims are pretty massive.

Also, on the face of it, they are contradictory.  Logically, if a ping is indivisible and irreducible, it cannot be true that a combination of pings can also be a ping.


A dog and a cat

We are walking.  It is dusk.  We see an animal standing against the dying light at the end of the path.  We hope it will move as we walk on.  There is something slightly threatening about it and in silhouette its size is difficult to determine.  “Is it a dog or a cat?” my companion says.  Her voice is hushed, as in the presence of something other worldly.  I don’t know which I hope it is.

Okay, x or y?  Dog or cat?  If everything in the world was a dog, I mean everything, wherever you looked there was nothing but dog, then dog would be meaningless.  Whereas if there was suddenly a tree, then a dog could be a dog not a tree, and a tree could be a tree not a dog.  The meaning of dog and tree would be the difference between them.  The meaning of dog is not in the dog.  This is even simpler if it’s a stone, because a stone is a simpler thing than a dog.  The meaning of a stone is not in a stone.  A stone had no meaning until it was registered (a ping) inside the human organism, and its meaning was the difference between it and everything that wasn’t a stone, as a stick for instance, or a rock.

So when my companion asked, in hushed tones, “Is it a dog or a cat?” the meaning of each was quite clear to me, no ambiguity.  Dog was a ping and cat was a ping.  The meaning of dog is the difference between everything in the world that is a dog and all the other things that aren’t.  In our ordinary everyday natural lives the meaning of dog is clear.

But if I am an encyclopaedist and the next entry is dog:, I’m not going to get away with ‘Noun: anything in the world that is not not a dog’.  I’m going to have to embark on a description of the combined characteristics which constitute a dog, and differentiate it from all other species of animal, with examples.  This description will involve a hundred pings, or a million, or an uncountable number depending on how far you want to go.  The word species can be employed as a ping, but there again long papers, whole books can be devoted to what exactly is or is not a species. Ping upon ping to a trillion pings.  If you really wanted to, you could spend the rest of your life defining a dog, down to the cellular, the molecular, the fundamental particle level.  However, communication is economical and falls into the lowest possible energy state.  If I say, “We’re getting a dog next week” you’re not likely to ask me for an encyclopaedic definition of a dog.  Dog there is a ping, an irreducible locus of difference.  We’re getting a dog, not a cat or a washing machine.  The economy of communication has given you the irreducible bit of information about what it is we are getting next week.

Then you ask, “What kind?”  Now we are looking at all the pings in the dog ping: spaniel, poodle, Rottweiler.  What sex?  Basically only two possible pings, but both modifiable by surgery.  “Rescue dog?”

Pings have two states, open and closed.  The closed ping is as in natural language at its lowest energy level, “we’re getting a dog”.  The open ping is the same ping, but open to an examination of some, or all of the pings that might constitute a description or definition or picture or video or DNA analysis of or story about, the list is indefinitely extensible, a dog.

It is in that sense that a dog ping, closed can, once opened, be derived from or constructed with a combination of pings, each of which in turn can be open or closed.

So, this thing that does not so far exist in the discourse of reasonable human beings, this ping the existence of which I have assumed or asserted and then had the brass neck to lay down what look as if they are supposed to be laws about — these claims are crazy, are they not?

I know it’s a leap, but not in the dark.  Here we have a situation where something needs to be explained, that is, how did human beings come to be as they are?  And, to date, there is no detailed model.  I’ll go further.  There is not even an attempt at an explanation that does not try to avoid the basic question by bending and pummelling psychological and sociological faux-hypothesising into an apparent description, adding a lot of fancy mathematics and jargon, and then pretending it’s a theory.  All that emerges is Pitt Rivers’ “metaphysical project” and indeed Karl Popper’s “metaphysical research programme”.


There is an additional problem of testability in evolution.  Darwin’s theory, though believed by a small but vocal and articulate minority of Earth’s population to be correct, is not predictive.  Evolution of a biological species, itself a problematic entity, is multifactorial, depending on mutation, epigenetic processes, random genetic drift, as well as variation in the environment which does the selection, including intra-specific variations in genotype, phenotype, extended phenotype and behaviour, inter-specific ditto, and variations in climate and nutrition sources; in other words there is selection across a continuum that includes the world outside and beyond the species’ extended phenotype, that extended phenotype itself as a modification of the world, and the organic, within-the-skin phenotype.  In certain situations one of these may be obviously dominant, as nutrition source was in the evolution of various finches from one stock that Darwin observed on the Galapagos, and it is this obvious cause and effect relationship that gives strong credence to his theory.  But the theory itself is not predictive.  Multifactorial things are more like the weather.  They proceed through the space-time continuum where they are limited by contextual constraints, in the case of the weather, atmosphere, oceans, sun, gravity, the tilt of the Earth’s axis, dispostions of landmass and so on, and in the case of the Galapagos finches, an island ecology with various but limited food sources, insect and seed, and a whole lot of other finches subject to much the same situation.  But Darwin did not pretend that his theory could predict the tail of the male Peacock, the mating behaviour of the Ruff, the haploid-diploid alternation in the reproduction of green algae or the morphology of human female breasts.  What it could do is account retrospectively for these unpredictable outcomes.

I ought to point out at this point that when I say the Ping Hypothesis is the only current account of the emergence of the hominin EP, I am apparently dismissing out of hand other authoritative explanations which just now dominate academia in the cultural evolution field.  I would hate to seem to avoid such explanations merely because I am daunted by their exhaustive explanatory power, so here’s a taster, and the link will lead you as far as you like into this interesting world.


Why does culture sometimes evolve via sudden bursts of innovation?


When Nicole Creanz and Oren Kolodny produced the following in The Conversation (“Academic Rigour, Journalistic Flair”), they were Postdoctoral Research Fellows in Biology at Stanford University, funded in part by the Templeton Foundation.  One can thus confidently assume that they were institutionally validated authorities, if not absolute authorities, on what they write:

…We allow new “large leaps” in knowledge to occur at a certain rate per person. Once someone in the population has made one of these rare large leaps, other innovations might occur more readily. For example, the invention of a fishing net could lead to other related tools – maybe a weight to sink the net – or combinations with other tools, such as adding a pole to wield it.

Here is another paragraph.

…We set the rules for a number of interdependent innovation processes to occur at different rates. For example, inventions that can be viewed as “strokes of genius” may be rare, while the invention of tools that are versions of existing ones might be more frequent.

Authoritative or not, there are questions to be asked, or several, about this approach.  Are we to believe that a “large leap” or a “stroke of genius” can be inserted into an equation, or any computational procedure, and come up with non-circular results?  And ask yourself what the kind of complicated statistical analysis uses a “large leap” as a mathematical constant.  From calculations using this constant is adduced, “The invention of a fishing net could lead to other related tools – maybe a weight to sink the net…”.


Our authors refer to statistical models, but the statistical procedures seem to be predicated on narrative, Just So Story constants and variables.  “Oh, my days, I’ve just through a stroke of genius made a large leap and invented a fishing net, but the fish are all under the surface, while this net floats on top.  What to do, what to do?  (Assumes Rodin’s Le Penseur pose, signifying the massive brain at work)  “I’ve got it.  By George I’ve got it.  I’ll invent the weight, to weigh things down with.  And while I’m about it I’ll invent the knot[1], to tie the weight on with.  And, my days and I’ll be hornswoggled, having invented the knot it now flashes across my enormous brain that this net I’ve just invented is a woven structure with sliding joints around the holes, which is pretty inadequate in the long run because the edges keep unravelling and the holes keep changing size and though it’s meant to be square it distorts across the plane and becomes a rhomboid (oh, I’ve just invented the plane and the rhomboid as well).  Once I’ve tied this secondary invention, the weight, onto the primary flash of genius, the net, with my next  invention, the knot, I will begin adapting said knot to the construction of the net.”

I am an old man, and do not wish to be uncharitable about the undoubted enthusiasm of young people, so I’ll leave it at that.

And, before carrying on, I will just assert once more, as a testable statement, incessant I know, that the Ping Hypothesis is currently privileged by the fact that there is as yet no non-teleological non-supernatural post-Cartesian explanation for how the evolved being, Homo sapiens, came about.

Pings expanded

The generation of a ping can be perceptual or virtual.  It is perceptual when the information upon which the ping is formed comes into the organism through the senses.  It is virtual when that information is generated by pings already durably registered in the brain, which collectivley construct the virtual theatre that represents the world; and then the additional distinction, a new ping, is generated in this virtual theatre.  All new, or new to the subject, perceptually generated pings are registered as a differentiation from the already existant pings from which their uniqueness can be most usefully derived.

‘What’s that?’ [pointing to a millipede, black and about ten centimetres long]

‘It’s a ciongolo.’


Here the ciongolo is most usefully differentiable from other millipedes, other multi-legged arthropods (whether known as such or not), other creepy-crawlies, small lizards and snakes; and there is a whole millipedia of analysis at the intra-ciongolo level, legs, senses, digestive tract and so on.  But the ping ciongolo is registered as a locus of irreducible difference, the difference between what is and what is not a ciongolo.  This ping can then be subdivided  into types of ciongolo, and its boundaries can be sharpened and more surely defined.

The perceptual process itself is of course a challenge.  Take vision.  How do we see things?  Common sense mate.  Information goes in through my eyes, along the optic nerve to the visual cortex, and there you go.  Bit like a TV.

Okay, but we’re not really like a TV, are we?  We are many orders of magnitude more complex than a TV.  Evolutionarily, the brain emerged from the eye and other sensors, not the other way round.  The eye and optic nerve are, size for size, the most energy hungry bits of the organism, even more than the brain and heart.  A lot of processing, selective destruction of information, starts in the neural complex immediately connected to the human retina, before it transmits the resultant information out along the optic nerve.  It is transmitted via the hypothalamus to the visual cortex, which has six main layers, all with different functions, and these layers themselves have layers, and there are interconnections and feedback loops and the whole thing is vastly complicated and in its relationships to the whole brain not yet perfectly  understood.

One of the main divisions of visual function that is posited is the difference between visually guided motor action (catching a ball) and perception (“Is this a dagger that I see before me, the handle towards my hand?”).  And Macbeth’s question raises an important point about vision.  It can work on its own, independent of light entering the eye.  We know this from dreaming, which is mainly visual, with a strong affective accompaniment, most of it anxiety.  Some of us also know it from hallucination, brought on by drugs, mental illness, or malfunctioning of some part of the visual system itself.  Macbeth’s question is not about the identity of the ping.  He’s not enquiring of himself whether it is a dagger that he sees before him, or whether it could be more properly called a kitchen knife.  It is clear that it is a dagger and he can actually see it.  It’s not metaphorical, because he precisely describes its orientation in space.  What he’s asking, as I understand it, is whether it’s a real, in-the-world dagger, or a construct of his highly stressed brain.  He knows the answer, and so do we, but that’s not entirely reassuring if he can still see the fucking thing.

In other words, the brain can represent the locus of a ping and series of pings autonomously, without sensory stimulation from the world outside the skin.  It does this because the many layers of the visual cortex are complexly connected to the rest of the brain, particularly memory.  There are orders of complexity because, while we don’t yet know how memory works,  we know it’s not like a filing system where you just have to work your way to the correct address of the file and bingo, there’s what you were looking for, a film actor’s name for instance.

Wouldn’t it be much more efficient if the brain stored this information in a rational manner, as in a set of  drawers with a unique number for each?

There are at least two answers.  The first is that evolved bits of biology are not teleological, they do not make a charted journey to a predetermined end state and while, in the context in which the human brain evolved, remembering names and faces was of great importance — social animals recognise faces and maybe some recognise names — the ability to catalogue and instantaneously recall hundreds, maybe thousands of them, not just people but gods and characters from fiction, even animals from cartoons, was probably not a million years ago a significant trait in terms of hominin survival.  It’s not surprising that I can’t immediately recall the name of a woman I saw only once on the screen in The Great Caruso  in 1952 when I was ten, even if at the time I thought I would never, ever forget her.

The second probable answer as to why memory operates in the way it does is economy.  Your average dog has a pretty good memory.  Our daughter’s family dog likes killing wrapping paper.  When they all went up to her partner’s family for Christmas in Sunderland for the second year running, the dog on Christmas Eve sensed midwinter festivities in the air, and went unobtrusively upstairs, where she was on no account allowed, while everybody was eating.  By the time they wondered where she was, she had flayed all the Christmas presents and given the wrapping paper a good seeing to.  So dogs, or rather a dog’s organism, can compare  quite sophisticated contextual cues with similar models already in their heads and act accordingly.  That is a kind of memory.  But if you consider how much a dog knows, even at the ping level, with how much you or I know at the ping level, then a dog’s knowledge is small indeed.

The human organism, principally the brain, can accommodate hundreds of thousands and probably millions of pings, some lasting a few seconds, some lasting, if the organism does, more than a century.  Some things we would like to remember are probably entirely lost, unreconstructable.  Other things we would like to forget are always there.  It’s a dynamic and changing landscape, an emergent system, like the weather, with certain constants predictable, like rain, wind, sunshine, ice, and other manifestations, like the shape of a cloud, or the position of a single water molecule in a particular cloud, transient and only amenable to statistical analysis, if that.

In order to retain all this, the brain has evolved to be as economical as possible; like in thermodynamics, to fall into the lowest possible energy state consistent with ‘remembering’ a million different pings.  That minimum energy state does not seem to be consistent with there being a photograph of a film actor posted somewhere in my head, with the name neatly printed underneath.  The brain can put words together with pictures, but not in a way that seems natural to the human subject.

I am going to have to give some sort of representation of the volume in which the actual ping exists, the stable cycle of energy in the part of the continuum of the universe that is the human brain.  It is in the brain that the ping replicates, combines with other pings in communities and alliances, and from the brain goes out into the world, either to act on replicated bits of the extended phenotype (heating a tin of baked beans), or to travel to other brains (have we got any baked beans, mate?).

But before that,


On the power of pings

A ping is the irreducible difference between something, and everything else.  A basic ping is a simple entity.  Take a table.  There are many shapes and sizes of table, and many functions.  It has a minimum of three legs, but there’s no reason, beyond awkwardness, why if it’s long enough it shouldn’t have twenty or a hundred.

Whatever its variables, we know a table when we see one.  If I ask you to get another chair, you don’t come back with a table.  A chair can function as a table, but it’s not a table, and vice versa.  The nearest things to a table in shape and function are a bench, a chair, a desk, a stool and I think that’s about it.  None of these things are confusable with each other.  These are basic pings, they wink in and out over a very short duration.  If you were writing a treatise on that whole set of furniture, you would use pings, probably geometry pings, height, aspect ratio, and function pings.  But the basic ping, the simple entity, the fast-decay ping is available to the subject almost instantaneously, like the red kite in this sentence which you registered before you got to here, possibly as a ~ red rhomboid in the sky with a paper tail and a bit of string, possibly as a bird with a six foot wing span and a forked tail.  I counted seventeen pings towards the end of the last sentence, from the ~.  Most of them were things.  Things are the basis of our thought.  The rest of the words signify relationships of things.  You registered these seventeen things at a fast processing rate, not pausing to contemplate, reflect on each one and analyse it, hmmm, red, now what is meant by red here?  Is it the visual cortex’s registration of a certain wave length in the electromagnetic spectrum?  Or does it perhaps mean ideologically left-wing?  You didn’t do that at all, you performed an almost instantaneous register and erase, otherwise you’d have got to here a lot later than you did.  You knew what red was as your eye passed over it at speed and onwards.  Even if I hadn’t drawn attention to it you might remember five minutes afterwards what colour the kite was, and your visual cortex does a lot of work in ping registration, even when you’re reading.  Your visual cortex didn’t process a kite of no colour, a grey kite, because once red is there, a basic ping, it becomes part of the kite.

But although it is part of the kite, red as ping still has an independent existence, uncountably extensible.  Red chair.  Red sand. Your turn.   Oh,~, that’s a tilde, that’s a ping too, irreducibly different from a  dash or a hyphen by one property obvious to the eye.  And it could be a red tilde. ~.[2]  And the kite’s a ping too, separable from red, it could be any colour.  ping ping ping ping ping ping ping at one or two per second.  That’s the basic grain of how we ‘think’.

In biological life, one gene can have long term consequences of great significance.  The genetic/epigenetic complex which says, at a critical point, not just “do it again” but “now do that whole thing again”, can produce segmentation, the chain, the segmented worm.  In the most primitive, like a tapeworm, each segment is still a viable multi-celled animal which can produce eggs that continue the life cycle.  These eggs turn into larvae which have six hooks that can latch into the wall of the intestine.  Presumably segmentation is a matter of economy.  The head of the tapeworm, not much of a head really, just the archetype of a sci-fi monster one millimetre across, is just an anchor with chitinous hooks and suckers.  It would be uneconomical to produce one for each segment if one will do for many.  An anchor is needed because the segments need to remain static in the nutrient flow and not move with it to a premature exit. The segments reproduce, bud, at the neck, and further down the line these clones mature into gravid proglottids, segments full of eggs, which in time fall off and hopefully travel in faeces to the next host.  I’m not sure where sex figures in the lives of tapeworms, presumably at some pre-mature phase after ingestion when it is still mobile.

Each segment in the chain is covered by a layer containing microscopic hair-like processes which ingest nutrition from the gut.  Once anchored in the gut, reproduction is by cell division, but in a segmented linear colony.  The putative selection path of this characteristic, the way it had higher survival value than exploiting the gut as a proliferation of individual parasitical cells, can be inferred from the animal’s life cycle above— going with the flow leads to minimal nutrition, rapid excretion.  That last part is important, because it is one of the three criteria for Darwinian selection, which must also apply to the evolution of culture.  Selection must have observable value, minus for deleterious characteristics, plus for beneficial characteristics, zero for the maintenance of the usually optimum status quo, or for zero value genetic drift.

The segmenting genetic/epigenetic structure that led to earth worms and the abdomens of insects is complex, but the advent of the simple instruction, now do the whole thing again, was revolutionary.

The ping is a much more simple structure than a gene.  It is just one thing, the locus of irreducible difference, and can replicate with fidelity to virtual infinity if it gets the chance.  Red.  Red can go practically anywhere, link up with anything.  It is uncountably replicative, and the energy expended, as opposed to the energy consumed by even the resting brain, is minimal.  Red gravid proglottids.  That phrase has probably never been iterated up to this moment.  When I started this morning I’d never heard of a gravid proglottid, and establishing it as a node of a ping, a stable cycle of energy in the part of the continuum of the universe that is my brain, would have taken energy, energy that I don’t give to millions of unattended pings that whiz through my immediate environment every day.  And it is the case that the brain has so evolved that, wherever it has expended energy in the registration or a durable locus, that locus goes for an immediate pay-off, to put the ping back out there and test its chances of survival.  That’s why when I was trying to think of some ping that might seldom or hopefully never have been combined with red before in the whole universe, my brain supplied gravid proglottid, which was already handy, rather than red mesenchymal cell, which up to that moment had no sort of registration in my brain, (zilch, I just looked for a word I’d never heard of in a molecular biology index), and is a pretty certain complete waste of the energy of pingification that its registration required.  It’s not going to fly.  It won’t be with me by lunchtime.  Or more likely, given the way the brain works, like an irritating tune that keeps running through your head, it’ll keep popping up for days where it’s not wanted, never wanted, red mesenchmal cell, red mesenchymal cell, WTF.  To the tune of Flanders and Swans’ “The left handed honeysuckle and the right-handed bindweed:

The red mesenchymal cell and the red gravid proglottid…

Feel free to improvise.

But once a ping is established, in the world and in a lot of brains, the energy required for its reproduction is very small.  Ant.  Don’t know why.  I gave my brain no time to come up with a ping, and it came up with ant.  Let us leave the ant to walk away, and move on.



[1] This is particular bollocks.  Anybody with experience of any thin linear solid, including hair and the cables of electric lawn-mowers, knows that knots invent themselves, irritatingly and incessantly.

[2] It probably won’t be, because to print one red character in a text of 551,445 black characters will cost.  But if you have a fine red pen you could do it yourself and initial your art-work in the margin, thus making your copy unique.

Humans: how and what we are

What is initially required is an answer to a simple question: what return, as energy (food and warmth), did the hominid organism gain from day to day in the roughly two thousand million day journey from ape to man, to balance the increasing energy consumption of the increasing brain? The human brain is needy, and what it needs in order to work properly are two things, energy, and information, both in amounts way in excess of anything that our most recent common ancestor with the chimpanzees had  access to.  By information I mean everything that has gone into a human phenotype up to this moment, whenever this moment may be, through the eyes and ears and nose and mouth and skin, that has ended up being what we collectively know about the universe.  And what each and every one of us individually knows about the universe is orders of magnitude greater than what even the brightest chimp ever knows or knew. Biological energy, though complex in its detail, is in principle equally straightforward.  It’s what our mitochondria produce to fuel each of the forty trillion cells in our bodies.  Mitochondria (each of us has about a quadrillion) are tiny energy pumps distributed about each of our cells as densely as stars in the sky. They convert electrons stripped from food into the chemical ATP that fuels our whole organism and the organisms of all complex life (Lane, The Vital Question, 2015).  They fuel our brains and nerves, our muscles, digestions, all our organs.  If all my mitochondria disappeared on the instant, I would be dead within seconds. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” is an important principle of evolution, though Darwin never put it quite that way. Energy that our mitochondria converts into  ATP comes ultimately from the sun, more immediately from the food we eat.  The human brain has long been considered an outlier, somehow significantly different from all other animal brains in its configuration and structure.  This is to an extent true.  The brain structures of various orders of animals can be quite evolutionarily distant from each other, so the brains of elephants, whales, rats and gorillas are structurally different.  But our brains are much the same configuration and structure as other primate brains, gorilla and chimpanzee and orang utan (Herculano-Houzel, 2013).  It’s just that they are much bigger, and this increased distance from one place to another across the brain leads, for reasons of energy economy, to an increase of localised connectivity on the outer layer of the cortex, the formation of “small world networks”.   Inevitably all this increased neural bulk leads to an equivalent rise in energy consumption.  Our brains consume a fifth of all the energy that our resting bodies, the collective of our mitochondria, produce. When we parted company with chimpanzees between perhaps eight and five million years ago, evolution took them along one path, us another.  Their success went along with big body size and big body, powerful muscle energy consumption, and a concomitantly relatively unevolving, unincreasing brain.  We went along a riskier route.  We developed the increasing brain size, and partially compensated for its energy needs with a relatively puny body (which is not to say that our bodies are negligible, far from it.)  But there is still no such thing as a free lunch, and the big brain had to do something to pay its way from day to day, something that ape brains couldn’t do. What was that something? The big brain did not arrive just like that, not there one millennium, there the next.  It evolved over probably  eight million years since our last common ancestor with the chimpanzee (the fossil evidence for this period is sparse, the calibration of the biological clock not yet determined).  The modern chimpanzee brain has about six billion neurons.  Roughly three million years ago the brains of the man-ape australopithecines were up to about thirty five billion neurons, and around one and a half million years ago the nearer-human Homo erectus had reached about sixty two billion neurons.  Our kissing (and not just kissing) cousins the Neanderthals raised the neuron score to between 79 and 90 billion, and 90 billion is about where we are today(Herculano-Houzel and Kaas, 2011). The energy cost of procuring nutrition to fuel these almost hundred billion neurons had become huge over our millions of years of evolution, and the big brain had to be doing something, and more and more of it, that put food in the mouth; and it had to be an immediate something. An empty belly does no wait for millennia of evolutionary change to feed it.  It needs feeding now. Two good suggestions for what supplied the extra nutrition are, complex tool use, and fire.  Sharp-edged stone tools to cut up meat, thus obviating the need for big teeth and massive jaws and jaw muscles, and fire to cook it with, would go a long way to compensating for the metabolic costs. Okay, so the answer is easy. The big brain had to be able to invent the things that it so clearly did, fire, weapons, cutting and shaping tools, hafted axes and picks; aeroplanes; quantum physics. Invent is the word that weakens the conventional analysis. If we look at the emergence of any morphological locus, external to the organism, vital to more energy-efficient food processing, let us say the cutting edge (which can utilise the already multipurpose and in situ hand and arm to do the job of big teeth and massive jaws), then that cutting edge emerged very slowly.  Indeed long before the beginning of its evolutionary development it was already sparsely present in the landscape.  Capuchin monkeys bang stones on stones with a motivation not wholly understood, (they lick the pulverised dust, apparently) and produce adventitious flakes that you or I could use to cut with, but they don’t  (Proffitt, 2016). Frost and glaciation do the same with flint, so it’s difficult to tell the difference between a flint geofact, produced by nature, and a flint artefact produced by a monkey or hominin. The earliest, roughest worked blades, from the site at Lomekwi 3 in West Turkana, Kenya (Harmand, 2015) are now dated possibly as far back as 3.3 million years ago, contemporaneous with Australopithecus afarensis. None of this fits in with “invention”, the cartoon character in animal skins sitting outside a cave, a speech bubble over his head with first a light bulb and then a graphic of a flint knife. Yet the prevalent use of the word “invent” in thousands of academic papers on hominin evolution suggest that this is what their writers really think actually happened. Nothing in nature, including that bit of nature which is our species, is ever invented.  When Archimedes leapt from his bath ( well that’s what the neighbours said) shouting “Eureka” because he’d finally come to a conclusion about why some things float and others sink, he hadn’t invented a single thing.  He was at the time one of the world’s leading engineers and naval architects.  For him ships, floating craft going back maybe sixty thousand years, their properties and qualities, were a given from the world. He’d been familiar with them since he was first apprenticed.  That ships should float, and reciprocally should not sink, was his job.  The margin between the two was a preoccupation. Archimedes’ breakthrough was his synthesis of bits of human knowledge acquired from uncountable generations.  He recognised a process, that when a human body is immersed in a bath it displaces its own weight of water, just about; and a human body floats in water, just about.  He recalled that if he dropped a lump of lead into the bath, it sank (and being so heavy must displace less than its own weight of water).  If he dropped a cork into the bath, it floated.  And what does floating mean?  It means that something is supported by the water, some of it below the surface and some of it above.  And that the water displaced by a floating cork, of equal weight to the cork, has less volume than the cork itself.  This synthesis was an act of genius, but it was synthesis of what was already there.  It had nothing to do with a sudden lightbulb switching on in the head.  Invention, the imagined material product of pure human thought, is a Cartesian delusion.  It has no place in an account of hominin evolution. The emergence of the first worked stone tools, extrapolated from the archaeological evidence, happened like this: Australopithecus afarensis individuals or a contemporary species were already using found blades, geofacts or other adventitious flakes, to cut flesh, and they were already, as apes and monkeys do, using stones as hammers to crack seeds and nuts.  Using a stone as a hammer, as with a nut on an anvil stone, will if mis-struck produce similar adventitious flakes.  And here was the holotype of human competence.  Australopithecus afarensis individuals recognised the chance products of their hammering as blades of the same type as the found blades they were already using, which monkeys and apes had never done.  These 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 blade 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<.  And among the things that were spatio-temporally contiguous to >flakes that were also cutting tools<, but were not >flakes that were also cutting tools<, were a >hammer stone<, recognisable and distinguishable from all in the world that was not a >hammer stone<, including a >cutting tool<; and the same goes for the >anvil stone<. This is the human genius.  Chimpanzees can enact it in the context of the already evolved human extended phenotype, but it seems they can’t perform autogenic acts of recognition, what Iain Davidson (Davidson, 2013) characterises by the sequence distraction (attention moving away from the object blade) and “re-engagement where you left off”, which necessitates not only a durable passive registration of the object in the brain, that which triggers simple recognition; but a replicatable registration of the object in the brain which triggers anticipation of the object being present even when it 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 work this act of durably registered recognition and anticipation over three million years ago.  But even if, as was the general view up to last year, the earliest worked tools were the product of the bigger brained Homo habilis seven hundred thousand years later, but still two and a half million years ago, that puts the cognitive distinction between ape and human at long before the emergence of Homo sapiens. 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 hardwired stimulatory pathway, collecting as in a hominin picking up a stone good for cutting and carrying it home, 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 spatio-temporal 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. That sounds a simple operation, but there’s an instructive video of a young capuchin monkey that knows, by observation, that you can get at the kernel of a nut with a hammer and anvil but goes through a series of ineffective operations, such as holding the hammer in one hand, putting the nut on the anvil, and then hitting the anvil with the other, empty, hand.  Adult chimpanzees, as we know with the Panda oleosa nuts in chapter 12, crack nuts expertly, incidentally demonstrating the technique to their young, who pick it up eventually, especially when they learn to use only their front feet.  They clearly recognise the type hammer stone and anvil stone, and have a durable registration of the spatio-temporal relationship between the two, since they will collect hammer stones before they set off for the Panda oleosa tree.  But they have never, as far as is known by human beings, got as far as cutting, because they don’t recognise adventitious flakes. The unique hominin 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 and YouTube https://www.ucsd.tv/search-details.aspx?showID=25398 .  It constitutes anticipation, or foresight. The “cultural” evolutionary parting of the ways with the other apes, whether if occurred with 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 later become the >cord<, the >awl<, the >chisel<, the >bowl<, the >basket<, the >spear<, 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 spatio temporal relationships, or actions. There was never, with ape or human, a first of anything, cutting flake or cord.  All were on an evolutionary continuum.  The typological loci, cutting flake or cord, were always derived from previous in-the-world existence, actual flint tools or sharpened sticks or strands of bark, and the collective of all these things in the world was as much the human extended phenotype as were the web, the nest or the dam the extended phenotypes of the spider, the bird and the beaver.  But as a result of the newly emerging competence, the ability to recognise and use an increasing number of things-in-the-world, this extended phenotype could carry on extending indefinitely, and indeed it has, weighing in at today’s thirty trillion tons ( give or take the odd steel girder, skyscraper, burgeoning African, Chinese or Indian city).  And as it extended it provided more and more efficient nutrition, first purely proximately as in hunting and gathering, sharing and cooking, then in more complex interdependencies, as between the vineyard and the cathedral, or the clock and the factory, or Facebook and a contemporary hominin’s economic function. And, the core of this thesis, the brain, which could continue to expand and consume energy as the extended phenotype proliferated, was the environment in which the extended phenotype evolved.  And the proliferating extended human phenotype was the environment in which the human brain evolved.  And when I say evolved in both cases, it seems to be lacking in parsimony to say that the brain evolved by a process of Darwinian evolution: observed phylogenetic heritability, incessant replication with fidelity, an envelope of fractional variation, selection by external factors; and then to say that the extended human phenotype did not evolve according to exactly the same process; particularly as their co-evolution, what is absolutely explicit in the above, is a process of obligate symbiosis.  The one could not have evolved alongside and in step with the other in any other relationship. To ignore as a first assumption that the human extended phenotype was not evolving according to the Darwinian model therefore seems irrational.  But of course there are complications, not least of which is that stone blades do not reproduce according to any biological pattern.

Homage to Pitt Rivers

The anti-evolutionary and a-historical naivety of the belief that the field of cultural evolution was “established” in 1981 needs some correction.  This morning Alex Mesoudi announced https://bit.ly/2NFOMhK that “with Marc Feldman he also founded the field of cultural evolution. Pretty impressive.”  He was referring to the 1981 publication of Cultural Transmission and Evolution: a quantitative approach by L L Cavalli-Sforza and M W Feldman.

Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers’ On the Evolution of Culture (Pitt-Rivers, 1906 [1875]) was the first extant published work to apply Darwin’s theory not to the evolution of the human organism but to the evolution of humanity.  I quote him at some length, partly because what he has to say is as relevant today as it was towards the end of the Nineteenth Century, about the way we think of ourselves as a species and about the way we interact with each other, with other species and with our planet.  But also these fragments conform to a general pattern of evolution, that nothing arises spontaneously out of thin air or some medium even less substantial.  Everything to do with life, genotype, phenotype, extended phenotype; egg or sperm, sparrow or sparrow’s nest; is a pattern replicated with fidelity, always with some miniscule, or sometimes gross, variation.  Nothing is suddenly new.  Everything has a history, and all histories meet in the naked singularity or whatever it was that was the beginning of the universe we find ourselves in.

This applies to ideas as well as the collective of Life.  An idea has no discrete, isolatable existence.  There is no idea that is not compiled from physical things, loci in the space-time continuum, such as a cloud, or a breeze, or a planet, or a Higgs particle, or an angel.  How we conceive of these things is still to be explored, but an idea without them would be a nothing, a non-existence, therefore not much good as an idea.

If we consider the idea of evolution in detail we can see that it was structured by things, animals and plants; and by patterns, replications and repetitions, in animals and plants; and in an increasing perception that the God story did not account for new knowledge about the age of rocks, the age of fossils, the sheer diversity of vertebrate life which, two by two, could never have been collected and fitted into Noah’s ark, however many children Noah had on the job and however big the ark; and, within the patterns of replication which were perceived as a type, each type of animal seemed to be adapted to a specific sort of environment, so that a mountain leopard and a forest leopard seemed to be of an overall type, but different according to the conditions in which they lived; and all this puzzle, if looked at under the template of the God story, didn’t fit at all, so what to do? what to think?  a dilemma which haunted Philip Gosse, a brilliant naturalist whose illustrations served Darwin’s generation as evidence of a diversity of life way beyond Noah’s (and therefore Jehovah’s?) ken, and yet was a devout member of the Plymouth Brethren, a fundamentalist Christian sect.  From all this in-the-world material, scattered as far and wide as the eye of any naturalist or natural philosopher could see, a new theory of an origin of species outside the mere six thousand or so year old Garden of Eden was materialising from a million or a trillion scattered parts, a new kind of ant found in a Latin American rainforest, the fossil of a fish that seemed, according to the new geology, a hundred million years old, the relationships of populations of Tilapia fish in African lakes, the relationships between human types, and the discovery by Johann Fuhlrot, in 1856 of a skull , one of a few during Darwin’s lifetime, that seemed to be neither human nor ape but we now know as our close relative with a sexually transmitted presence in our own genomes, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis.

Enough.  All the content of evolution was already in the world, and Charles Darwin was the best collector, the best anthologiser, the best assembler and coordinator into a manuscript of all this huge distribution of matter that we call knowledge.  He seemed to be uncomfortable with it, he knew it would upset a polity which was, and still is, part theocratic; and upset his devoutly Christian wife and many others who he liked and admired, like Robert Fitzroy, captain of the Beagle, who initially accepted Darwin’s views but then himself married a religious wife and reverted to the doctrine of the Established Church.  But Darwin felt compelled to publish because the idea of evolution was all about the place, and if he didn’t somebody else would, and he felt a certain responsibility, which he negotiated with Alfred Wallace, to what had been his life’s work; and the theory seemed to him to be a good approximation to what was the case.

And in the quotations below Pitt Rivers, an energetic and most accomplished exponent of On the Origin of Species, demonstrates in On the Evolution of Culture that this idea too has been around for one hundred and forty three years as I write, and I am inventing none of it, merely, as he did, collecting, anthologising, assembling into a manuscript that which is all around me.

Pitt Rivers:

…all that comes under the head of culture must be included amongst the physical sciences.”[pg 63]

These words and these implements are but the outward signs of symbols of particular ideas in the mind…It is the mind we study by means of these symbols…But of the particular molecular changes or other processes which accompany the evolution of ideas in the mind, we know no more than of the particular molecular changes and other processes which accompany the evolution of life in nature, or the changes in chemistry. [Pg 64]

[Darwin’s] principles of variation and natural selection have fairly established a bond of union between the physical and culture sciences which can never be broken.  History is but another term for evolution. [Pg 65]

Modification of words, like modifications in the forms of the arts… obtain acceptance through natural selection by the survival of the fittest. [Pg 68]

…we see how the earlier palaeolithic forms [of tools] originated.   They were not designed outright…but arose from a selection of varieties produced accidentally in the process of manufacture.

In tracing these successive forms one is almost tempted to ask whether the principle of causation lay in the flint or the flintworker… so fully do they bear out the statement of Dr Carpenter and other physiologist, that nothing originates in the free will of man [Pg 83]

In the same way that we saw that the forms of the palaeolithic flint implements were suggested by accidental fractures in the workshop, so the several forms of the Australian wooden implements were suggested by the various forms of the stems and branches out of which they were made. [Pg 88]

Many other examples might be given to illustrate the continuity which exists in the development of all savage weapons; but I only ask you to glance at the sequence shown in this diagram and the preceding ones in order to convince you of the truth of the statement which I made at the commencement of this discourse, that although, owing to the complexity of modern contrivances and the larger steps by which we mount the ladder of progress in the material arts, their continuity may be lost sight of, when we come to classify the arts of savages and prehistoric men, the term ‘growth’ is fully as applicable to them as to the development of the forms of speech, and that there are no grounds, upon the score of continuity, history, or the action of free will, to separate these studies generically as distinct classes of science. [Pg 92]

It is, I venture to think, by classifying and arranging in evolutionary order the actual facts of the manifestations of mind, as seen in the development of the arts, institutions, and languages of mankind, no less than by comparative anatomy, and far more than by metaphysical speculation, that we shall arrive at a solution of the question, to what extent the mental Ego has been, to use Professor Huxley’s expression, a conscious spectator of what has passed.

I will summarise two of his other insights.

He suggests that mental activity is automatic, determined by our “congenital nervous organism”, but that we can select from the objects it generates, the selector being the “mental Ego”, Thomas Huxley’s “conscious spectator” of all that has passed.

He sees the emergence of stone cutting tools not as “invention” or acts of innovation: “…we see how the earlier palaeolithic forms originated.  They were not designed outright…but arose from a selection of varieties produced accidentally in the process of manufacture.”

He sums up:

My object in this discourse has been not, as I fear it may have appeared to you from the brief time at my disposal and my imperfect treatment of the subject, to extol the material arts as being intrinsically of more interest or importance than other branches of culture, but to affirm the principle that it is by studying the psychology of the material arts alone that we can trace human culture to its germs.

This is a far more likely model than that at Figure 8 the carver suddenly decided, out of the blue and with no precedent, to invent a stone votive offering that just chanced to be so much in the decayed [Pitt Rivers’ word] shape of a funerary urn, the lines of its lid and its eyebrows transposed it is true, but still very much there.

“The figures on Plate V are all taken from Dr. Schliemann’s representations…The two first figures, it will be seen, are clearly intended to represent a human face, all the features being preserved. In the two next figures the mouth has disappeared, but the fact of the principal feature being still a nose and not a beak, is shown by the breadth of the base and also by the representation of the breasts. In the two succeeding figures the nose is narrowed at the base, which gives it the appearance of a beak, but the fact of its being still a human form is still shown by the breasts. Had the idea of an owl been developed through realistic degeneration in these last figures, it would have retained this form, but in the two succeeding figures it will be seen that the nose goes on diminishing.
In the remaining figures, some of which are (12-16) of solid stone, not earthenware, and are believed by Dr. Schliemann to be gods, it is clearly shown by the rude scratches representing the eyebrows, and their want of symmetry, that this degeneration of form is the result of haste.
What then are these solid stone objects? I cannot for a moment doubt, from their resemblance to the vases, from the marks denoting the junction of the cover with the vase, and from the representations of handles, that they are votive urns of some kind, similar to those Egyptian stone models of urns represented in the two figures above. Urns of this kind were used by the Egyptians to contain the viscera of the mummies; but with the cheaper form of burial, in which the viscera were retained in the body, stone models of urns, of which these figures are drawings from originals in the British Museum, were deposited in the graves as vestiges of the earlier and more expensive process; these objects therefore cannot be idols, but votive urns. The fact of human remains having been found in some of the human headed urns, and the hasty scratches on the stone models, show that they are merely models appertaining to the conventionalized survival of some earlier or more elaborate system of urn burial.”


Pitt Rivers demonstrates how the process of evolutionary change in the human extended phenotype, of which the throwing stick and the funerary urn are a part, is at least consistent with various populations of that material culture.

I will just note that Pitt Rivers’ view of evolution, particularly his dismissal of “metaphysical speculation” and his suggestion “that nothing originates in the free will of man” are deeply unpleasing to the stated intentions of the organisation that is the main income stream of such metaphysical speculation as it is articulated to and within academia today, and that this partial articulation has channeled the work of the late Cavalli-Sforza into the oligotrophic backwater where it now finds itself.

The stated intentions of the John Templeton Foundation are, “To advance human well-being by supporting research on the Big Questions, and by promoting character development, individual freedom, and free markets. The Foundation takes its vision from its founding benefactor, the late Sir John Templeton, who sought to stimulate what he described as “spiritual progress.”