No bowl can be repicated by a dead potter

A ceramic bowl seems more closely related to a beaker and a pitcher than to a flint handaxe

“Cultural evolution” is a problematic phrase.  It suggests that culture evolves.  Evolution is a theory, and that theory itself evolved (because I think culture does evolve) in the context of the diversity of biological life.  Darwin’s theory accounts for that diversity.  The theory has three necessary components, replication, variation and selection.

It has been a central dogma of academic cultural evolutionists, at least in this millennium, that cultural entities, whatever they may be and at whatever scale, do not and cannot replicate.  Thus, within the terms of any syllogism derived from the above, culture cannot evolve in any Darwinian sense.

This seems a reasonable approach.  It is clear that a bowl does not get together with another bowl, share information with it and as a result produce a little bowl, or a whole litter of little bowls.  The same goes for buses.  Take any entity in the extended human phenotype and, unless it is a form of biological life, such as a chihuahua or a goldfish, it will not replicate in the biological mode.

However, it seems equally unreasonable to suppose that every bowl ever made over the last seventy thousand years came into being by mere chance, that every potter today  just happens to slap some clay onto the wheel and with their hands mold it into a bowl as an entirely stochastic outcome, a matter of unique happenstance; that this process is totally unrelated to the one by which they made an almost identical bowl three minutes before, and have been making such bowls since they were apprenticed to a master whose bowl-making forebears went back many generations.

The more likely explanation is that an account of why people make bowls should include the fact that they have been making bowls for tens of thousands of years, and while there is almost limitless variation in bowls, it is variation between close limits.  These limits have blurred boundaries, but the majority of examples, in the case of bowls a huge majority, will be in the middle of the bell curve, and very few at the indeterminate boundaries between either a bowl or: a plate, a dish, a beaker, a cup, a mug, a jar, a pitcher, a vase, a cauldron.

Substance is not important to a bowl, normally it is ceramic but it can be onyx or plutonium or wood.  Bowls can have two handles or none, and the handles can be vertical or horizontal, but if a bowl has only one handle, vertical, it tends to be a cup or a jug, unless the sides (or side, since it is continuous) are vertical from lip to base, in which case it is a mug.

A central point is that we know what a bowl is when we see one, almost instantaneously, without the need for lengthy inner debate over definitions and boundaries.  And if we read the word bowl in a sentence we do not have to pause in our reading, consult Wikipedia, pore over a hundred illustrations of bowls and of those things that might be bowls but are not, are beakers, pitchers… when we read the word bowl we recognise on the instant what bowl is as our eyes move on over the sentence and across a full stop and into the next sentence because, if we didn’t, reading would be a much slower process than it is.

The word bowl signifies something that is not any particular bowl, not one the size of your thumb nail carved from amethyst or a massive clay almost-a-tub to brew beer for a feast.  It is a discrete type.  Just as to the chimpanzees of the Tai forest a hammer stone is a discrete type, within limits of heft and weight and shape, not a fucking great rock, not an ineffectual pebble, the young chimpanzee has to learn these discriminations in order to feed independently on the seeds of the Panda oleosa tree.

On a simplistic but informed calculation there are more than 35,000 nouns, referring to things, in English.  These things may not exist in a proximately perceptible discrete form, as for instance dragons or cherubim, or indeed God, but nonetheless they have a range of registrations in the world, as pictures, or verbal descriptions in books, or representations in film and other media, and registrations in the brains of human beings, as in mine when I wrote the word dragon.  These registrations are all material, durable, perceptible with the senses, except those in your own brain, and those in the brains of others, which are only communicable by Dawkins’ “rapid muscle contraction”.  I only know what  cherubim are from pictures and their contextualisation in hymns and other Abrahamic texts, but in that sense I do know what they are.  I’m not sure I could distinguish them from seraphim if one confounded my scepticism and suddenly appeared in front of me, but I certainly know the difference between a cherub and an archangel.

However most nouns refer to actual, what we call real, things, bowls and tables and knickers, condoms and missiles.  And in English there are more than 35,000 of them, probably; 35,000 discriminations between things, a lot of them real, actual, apparent in the world.  Compared to the number of stars in the sky, 35,000 is a paltry number.  As an array of things defined by mutual exclusions, as in the list of bowl, dish, beaker, cup and so on, each one itself only and not any of the others (we’ll forget for the moment the complication of nested hierarchies of categories, such as “crockery” which includes all the foregoing table- and kitchen-ware) we have a field of significant complexity.

This complexity is within our brains, which we will have to deal with at some point.  But it is not in the things in the world, actual bowls, because bowls don’t cause us any confusion.  A bowl, 999 times out of 1,000, is either a bowl or it isn’t.  I choose a bowl because it is primordial.  The bowl is the simplest form of pottery, and may have emerged more than 70,000 years ago.  This does not mean it was “invented” on  a Tuesday (counting back from our calendar) morning in 68,000 BCE.  The idea of “invention” or “innovation” in this sense only exists in the fancies of magical thinkers who assert that everything that humanity has achieved has been the product of pure creative thought, and everything else in our extended phenotype at that instant of invention was merely incidental and irrelevant furniture supplied by an invisible Management.

Innovation or invention have no place in evolutionary accounts.  Lightbulb moments; a human being dressed in skins sits pondering, what to carry liquids to the mouth with, or to keep liquids handy for consumption, or to boil roots and fibres and meat in, what? what? they ponder.  What indeed?  Ah!!!  [Perfect bowl flashes up cartoon-wise in brain].  I have it!!!  And she goes off to finds some mud, and she fashions it into the first bowl in the universe, or on this planet at least..  Her troop are a bit sceptical at first, and with good reason, because the first versions go squidgy and collapse as soon as they are filled with liquid, but pretty quickly, before the thing goes extinct, she invents glazing and firing and that’s how bowls came to be.

This is of course a Just So Story.  The fact that water could be contained against gravity was manifest way back in Earth’s history, it’s just that there was nothing capable of perceiving and subsequently recognising it.  In the landscape in which the human and chimpanzee lines evolved away from each other there were puddles, and depressions in rocks where water was held after rain, and bowls carved into stone by waterfalls; and there were gourds and coconut shells and mollusc shells; and there was the shape of two hands held palms upwards, ulnar edges pressed together, curved into a bowl so that water could be carried from stream to mouth, as God pointed out to Gideon as a sign of a soldier good for defeating the Midianites, as against one who did the more hygienic thing of sucking it straight from the surface.

So there was no shortage of typological cues for bowls, but how the first bowls came to be made we can only guess.  Certainly humans could have been carrying water and maybe milk and blood about the place in natural containers, mostly gourds, long before that time, so the notion of utility was already ingrained.  It is likely that wet clay or mud already had recognised and prescribed functions, maybe for sealing stone hearths, or making chambers in hearths suitable for various kinds of cooking.  Once the pleasure of squidging around with clay was established, and this pleasure is not lost on modern children, or even adults if we get the chance, the morphology and musculature of the hands will be inclined to produce a ball, we all do it almost naturally, the instruction in a recipe “roll it into a ball” is something we can follow without much extraneous help, unlike “knit two purl, one plain”.  Press your two thumbs into the clay ball, move them around the inner circumference that has emerged and, lo, you have a bowl.  It’s not necessarily how it happened, but it is a plausible account.  And it certainly happened somehow.

Another primitive method of bowl making is to roll the clay into a rope and then, on a circular clay base, wind it around and around the edge, higher and higher.  This also certainly happened, and still happens today, though it usually makes crude and structurally unsatisfactory pots.

The bowl itself will certainly have had some function, as being a useful container to bring milk, blood, water or beer to the lips, two-handed.  But this is not as crucial a function as that of the pitcher, for bringing water from its source to the home, whatever the  home was at the time, cave, skin bivouac, that night’s hearth on the savannah.   The virtue of a pitcher is that like a gourd its mouth is relatively narrow and its belly large, such that when it is full its centre of gravity is low and the surface area of potential slop when you are carrying it is small, but a pitcher can exaggerate these virtues and increase in size until weight inhibits further expansion.


Why there seems to be a replicator somewhere

It is not in principle difficult to see how the pitcher line drew apart from the continuing line of bowls, minute transition by minute transition, without there ever having been an innovative moment when the bowl became the pitcher, if that was the direction of evolution.  A problem with archaeology is that just because you find a pitcher which is older than any bowl yet found, it doesn’t mean there are no older bowls that can be found if you look in the right place.  It would seem likely that the bowl came first, but then one discovers that with birds the spherical nest came first, the cup nest evolved from that.  It is not impossible that the bowl evolved from the pitcher, or they both evolved from an intermediate more generalised lump of clay, the ball with the thumbed depression; one line grew taller and narrower, one squatter and wider mouthed.

But what is fairly certain, in the sense of a thousand times more likely than any other account, is that there are unbroken lines, potter to potter and bowl to bowl, between the first ancestral bowls and the handcrafted bowls that the global affluent of today might decorate the surfaces of their homes with.  I wanted to say, than the one you drink soup or eat your porridge out of, but these have gone through an evolutionary change since the time of Josiah Wedgewood, and are now in the main made by machines.  Technology and industrialisation have led to a production process in which each item does not have to pass through human brain and muscle to be replicated; does not have to be literally manufactured.  As a result, replication of the sub-type within the type is much more exact.

In the early stages of the evolution of a type, variation is within the limits of what Claudio Tennie calls the Zone of Latent Solutions.  I prefer to call this the Zone of Latent Potential, since “Solutions” suggests that evolution is initiated by a series of “Problems”.  Whereas the way I see it, when fish with big swim bladders and powerful caudal fins crawl out of the water into the mud where luscious insects are there for the taking, some go back to the water and some keep going (in evolutionary time, not over the course of five minutes).  The ones that keep going do not, in their fishy brains, flag up all the problems of terrestrial as opposed to aquatic life and start working on ways to solve them.  The ways to solve them emerge over time and generations through evolution, from variation brought about by sexual reproduction, genotypes, phenotypes, and the selecting environments of hot sun, mud, water’s edge, air and plentiful nutrition, and of the organism itself.

Mud balls with thumbed depressions in them do not have immediately apparent genotypes or phenotypes, but they are undoubtedly selected, generation by generation of bowl/pitcher from the same potter, generation by generation of pots from different, temporally sequential potters; selected by a wide environment of organisms with useful hands and faces slung below large craniums, and having a need for liquid, which is abundant in their world, especially in the form of water, but water is tricksy stuff, stable in large agglomerations such as pools, springs, lakes, rivers and the oceans, but highly shapeshifting in the presence of gravity, clouds and wind and fire, sun and frost; and in its admixtures, as in the cooking pot and with other substances, or as with the clay itself, or pounded with roots and seeds into a paste which many millennia onwards might evolve into filo pastry.

In this Zone of Latent Potential the limits on variation for ceramic technology are the limits imposed by nearest related types.  At a very big-pixel approximation, the first ancestor, the clay ball with a thumbed depression, may have no close kindred manufactured types from which it is usefully differentiated, so only gross distinctions might be made, such as it is “not a flint blade”, or “not a wooden spear”, or “not a hide poncho”; but it can perhaps be more closely defined by its difference from the gourd or the scallop shell.  At that point the thumbed clay ball is still the whole type.  But once it divides, into for instance bowl and pitcher, a bowl becomes most proximately defined by not being a pitcher, and vice versa, and at that point the Zone of Latent Potential is no longer the thumbed ball of mud, but the set of all bowls (or the set of all pitchers), present and historical, within the ceramic horizons of the potter and the users of pots.

In the earliest stage of the evolution of a manufactured entity the defining distinction is between the archetype, a thumbed clay ball, and other archetypes such as the flint tool (which may already had a proliferation of sub-types).  In the later stages of the evolution of a type the variation is within all the sets of sub-types within the limits of the type.

I say ancestral bowls in the knowledge that proto-bowls may have evolved many times through brain, muscle and mud, and their lines become extinct either because the human line that produced them disappeared, or the environment changed, or for some other reason.  In the Roman Catholic church there is a belief in Apostolic Succession, that Jesus laid his hands (or maybe one hand, I don’t know) on the head of Simon called Peter in blessing, “On this rock” &c, and Peter laid his hands on the heads of others, and this succession carried on to this very day, so that every Catholic priest, even the most corrupt and abusive sinners, have a direct line of physical, material contiguity with the Son of God, and therefore with God himself via the still not entirely resolved conundrum of the Trinity.  One has only to imagine a Catholic priest of one’s acquaintance, and then see him standing in a very long daisy chain, each pair of hands upon the head before them, and at the far end Jesus Christ with his hands upon the Head of Peter, and one has a powerful model of a space-time continuum, a line unbroken even at the molecular level.

The same space time continuum exists between you or me and our last common ancestor, who will have been one of our many ancestors.  Charles 2 of England occurs in so many of our [English] ancestries, possibly both yours, if your ancestry is Afro-Caribbean, or from a Polish shtetl if you’ve been in England more than a generation, or even if your putative forebears have lived for uncounted generations in a Cumbrian hamlet; and mine; because that English king may have been one of our 4,096 (my rough calculation) ancestors living in around the 1660s.

Up to our new epoch of genomics all ancestry, human and animal, has been somewhat putative, maternity is ascertainable, paternity not so much, the flip side of the more random disposition of spermatozoa; in many species, including wasps and ducks, mechanisms have evolved in the female to sequester sperm in various compartments and choose which to employ for fertilisation of her eggs.  That is the situation in which the male ruddy duck has developed a penis as long as its body, and this penis is itself part of the environment in which the female’s unconscious act of selection takes place.  Though the basic ground plan of biological evolution, ReplicationVariationSelection, is blindingly simple, the actual process can be dizzyingly complex.  This is just as well, because the same applies to cultural evolution.

So one can in the biological case see a space time continuum, sperm to egg to egg to sperm, we needn’t go into more contextual details, which results in our present organisms—and potentially onward.  And we can envisage this contiguity, this absolutely necessarily physically unbroken contiguity, as a space time continuum right back to where at some point what was up to then geology became life, or maybe Life.

Life gave rise to extended phenotypes, those of the spider and the ant, the bird and the beaver, and that of a line of apes descended from our last common ancestor with the chimpanzees.  And it was in amongst that extended phenotype, envisaged as a space-time continuum, that the first bowls appeared via the brains and muscles of ancient humans, and went into other human brains, through the eyes and nerves and muscles, as the morphology, the feel, the function, and into the ears, as pedagogy, as words that modulated the muscle function of another, or instructed them to look at a particular character of the artefact, recognise it, pay attention to it.

And this receiving organism might in turn have developed a complex and dynamic internal registration of what a correct bowl was, derived mainly from the correct bowls-in-the-world within its experience; and it is possible that it itself developed the complex interplay of muscle contraction which would produce more correct bowls; it in turn would have become an expert potter.  Thus we can envisage bowls-in-the-world traversing a space-time continuum as emitted light, as the atomies of a type, and entering the brain of this potter and thence, as mass and form perceived via eye and nerve and muscle traversing its conversion from lump of clay to a precise and symmetrical hollow curvature, emerging through this human organism as yet another bowl-in-the-world.  With the best potters it will be close to a perfect replication.  The less competent the potter, the more dysfunctional, the less acceptable is the emergent pot likely to be.

The fact that the pot travels into the apprentice’s brain as light and touch and feel and, secondarily, as sound, does not mean that there is a break in the continuum between pot and pot.  I recognise my children and grandchildren as light and sound and touch and feel, and my memory of them must constitute a physical space-time continuum.  If this were not so I would not recognise them when I saw them.  In fact when certain parts of the brain do not function correctly, the continuum is broken and people cannot, for instance, recognise their children or life partners (or anybody else).

For once an interrupting change is made,

The individual being is decayed

Dryden, in his translation of Lucretius’ De rerum natura encapsulates a scientific truth asserted by Anaximenes in the fifth millennium BCE, that the universe is a physical continuum.  Our conception of this continuum has been made immeasurably more complex with relativity and quantum physics, but it still applies to animal brain processes.  A bullet through the brain exemplifies it well.  No bowl can be replicated by a dead potter.

Thus the continuum we are envisaging stretches from the first bowls that have travelled from bowl  to human replicator to bowl  to human replicator to bowl  to human replicator ever onwards to bowls that exist today, and hopefully will go on doing so for some time yet.

The emergence of the potter’s wheel, whereon the lump of clay moved on a centred circle, much improved the accuracy of replication.  Before that, the potter had either to move their body around the forming pot, or rotate it with their hands, which could do any simple simultaneous shaping only statically relative to the emerging pot.  But once it is spinning under your hands then the distance from curved fingers and palm to clay for any succession of revolutions can remain constant, and thus the diameter and curvature be symmetrical.

The Zone of Latent Potential (ZLP) for the evolutionary period after the emergence of the potter’s wheel is now composed of a set of differentiable, by potters and pot-users, types within the set of all existent pots, rather than the indefinite expansion to the physical, or categorical or typical, limits in the ZLP of a lump of clay.

From what the potter’s wheel evolved I have no idea, but it was unlikely to have been the first rotating entity in the hominin universe.  Their relationships to bowed drills and fire-sticks, to querns and log rollers, to bull-roarers and spinning seeds, might be fertile ground for cladistic analysis in the future.  What information has the windmill carried across the millennia from the sycamore seed?  Discuss, with evidence, you lucky post-grad student.

Heat and fire technology is very old.  I learnt as a child, without tuition, that the end of a stick burnt in a campfire while you brew your unpromising soup of nettles and ramsons, can, by rubbing off the charred wood once it’s cool, be reduced to a tapering and hard point suitable for bringing down, were they to be present in a temperate northern climate, a kudu or a bison; and my grandchildren, more particularly the boys who seem to have had a more compulsive interest in stabbing and missiles generally, learnt the same, equally contingently.

Again, whether the process of firing clay to harden and even fuse it into stonewear, evolved from the clay oven, or from the clay nozzles fitted to the ends of the two wooden pipes of a bi-pot balanced valveless bellows to sit next to the glowing charcoal of a small smelting furnace, or from some other contingency of fire and clay, is a matter for speculation informed by archaeological evidence which has either been retrieved or is in principle retrievable.

The most parsimonious conclusion to all this is that information is being passed from pots-in-the-world, through human organisms, to result in more pots in the world virtually identical to their predecessors.  This fidelity of replication may not be true of artistic potters.   But in Handmade on the Silk Road  the Iranian potter who was its subject said these three things:

  • That with sufficient skill you could make clean pots that were exactly like each other.
  • That with his hand he could feel whether it was too narrow.
  • That the skill of making pots had been in his family for many generations — his father said more than a thousand years.

Somewhere in that lot there is a replicator.  We only have to find identify it.


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 Darwin is unpopular

I’ve noticed recently that a few more people have been following this log, for which I am sincerely grateful.  The book I originally drafted on the evolution of Homo sapiens was, I decided when I’d finished the eighth draft, badly pitched in many senses.  The major thing I realised in writing it was that most people, even university graduates, were rather, or sometimes profoundly, uncomfortable with the whole idea of evolution.  I had thought that this discomfort was only felt by religious people, but a study commissioned by the London Natural History Museum (google NHM Evolution a public engagement literature review) suggests that it is much more widespread than that.  I have started writing the book again in this context and need to concentrate on that.  So rather than try to conscientiously blog at the same time I’ll upload under-edited posts (which should of course for the reader’s sake be broken up into at least five sections) as they come along and ask for the indulgence of anybody who’s interested.

An excursion into Darwin’s theory of evolution

In 1858 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species which put together all this evidence for the theory of Evolution, “descent with modification”, in one revolutionary codex.  It was the “with modification” that disrupted things.  What Darwin’s theory meant was that all life was descended from some primitive form of first life, because geology suggested that Earth had been through a long period when there was no life at all.  Once life had emerged, modification had ensued, and each modified descendent form had branched and branched until we have arrived at the number, now diminishing at an accelerating rate, of species in the world today.

Darwin’s theory is still in some dispute.  Just because a human being today is a scientist, this does not mean that they are immune to the same kind of conflict as Philip Gosse.  There are some scientists, though not many, who still see human beings as articulated to, and of the same quality and ability, as the God who created them.  This tradition goes back through the philosopher Descartes and though it would be fun to rubbish Descartes (as Thomas Hobbes said, a much better mathematician than a philosopher) that is better left to another occasion.  More urgently I want to get down what I think is an accurate summary of Darwinian evolution, just to clarify where I stand.  It is this:

observed phylogenetic heritability, incessant replication with fidelity, an envelope of fractional variation, selection by external factors.

I originally wrote it to fit into the 140 characters that were, oh those succinct times, the limit  of a tweet on Twitter.  However I think it is robust and comprehensive, if at the expense of elegance.  It will be explored in greater detail as we go along.  There’s just one other thing that needs to be clarified about evolution.  It is not necessarily a progress from primitive towards perfection, or simplicity to complexity.  It is not a step by step journey towards any ultimate goal.  It is true that there are much more complex life forms in the world today than there were half a billion years ago, so increasing complexity was one result of evolution.  But the most simple forms of definite life, bacteria, have continued to evolve, spectacularly faster than we do, through the billions of years of their existence.  More than half the cells within the boundary of our skins are bacteria, we could not live without them, and therefore they are part of us, and just as evolved as we are.  And evolution can result in loss of complexity as well as gain, because complexity has its energetic downside, you pay for carrying about with you what you do not strictly need.  Barnacles, static creatures clinging to rocks, are filter feeders, they do not chase anything, they ingest whatever is edible that drifts past their fronds.  They do not need eyes.  They once had eyes, because their freeswimming larval forms have eyes, but as soon as they hunker down on rocks they reabsorb these spurious luxuries and put their constituent molecules to better use.

Of course life did start with the simplest of cells, bacteria, with no nucleus and little internal machinery, though bacteria are geniuses at rapidly evolving innovative chemistry, which is why we are so dependent on them.  Relatively soon after the terrestrial transition from geology to life, another life form branched off the bacterial line.  These were archaea, much the same as bacteria in complexity but with marked differences in detail.

Bacteria and archaea reproduce, as all cells do, by dividing themselves in two. At some point a bacterium somehow got inside an archaea membrane (Lane, The Vital Question, 2015).  Rather than both dying, the two kinds of cell were able to cooperate, and both went on reproducing by division, the bacteria doing so inside the archaea, and the archaea dividing their freight of bacteria between their two daughter cells.  The containing membrane of the archaea provided the bacteria with an environment which gave them all the conditions for sustaining life, and in return the bacteria supplied the archaeal cell with energy; they became mitochondria.  This relationship of mutual support is called symbiosis, and where one symbiont is inside the other it is endosymbiosis.  And as this complex endosymbiotic cell divided and divided ad infinitum (replication with fidelity) there was inevitable variation.  If the variation was gross and the daughter cells malformed, or the bacteria within them were nonviable, they died, but if variation was slight, they might survive.  Thus there emerges a population of not quite identical but viable individuals, in this case individuals of our bacteria/archaea endosymbionts.  Some of these would be ever so slightly better adapted to their environment than others, their ability to ingest nourishment for instance might by very marginally enhanced.  The population is now divided into variant M ( vM, ever so slightly more successful feeders) and variant L ( vL ever so slightly less successful feeders).  Nothing much might happen over noticeable time, but by a statistical creep the marginally more efficient feeders, vM, by virtue of higher energy input and thus a faster cell division rate, would begin to outnumber the less efficient, vL; nothing drastic, the vL would be fine, they’d reproduce, just not quite as quickly as their vM sisters.  And these minute cells can reproduce very quickly, a matter of hours not days.  So before you know where you are it’s not half the population but three quarters that are the marginally more efficient vM.  At this point things speed up, still a creep but a faster creep, and of course by the time the vMs have reached 99% of the population it’s all over for the vanishing sliver of minority vLs.

At this point the vM type has moved to fixation.  At a larger scale, the fractional variation in gene expression which resulted in our original variants has disappeared with the less successful type’s extinction.  The genes that resulted in the better nutrition, these genes being expressed in every individual of the vM type, were now fixed in the species.  The variant genes of the vL type were as if they had never existed.

This process was not inevitable.  If the environment had changed, if available nutrients had altered, the previously less successful vL variant, if now genetically better equipped to ingest the new nutrition source, would start to reproduce faster than the up to now nutrition-optimising vMs.  It is the environment that is doing the selecting and, because the nutrition source has now changed, the environment is selecting, still ever so marginally, for vLs.  If this continues, it will be the vLs that move to fixation, and the vMs to extinction.

This is a very simple account of Darwinian evolution; replication, variation, selection.  There are all sorts of limitations, conditions, modulations of this fundamental pattern, as one would expect.  But there is one thing that’s worth emphasising now.  It is a very gradual, very gentle, and in the main very slow process.  It is pretty quick for bacteria, and at its slowest for the most complex animals, such as ourselves.  But it goes on the whole time, inevitably, particularly once sex comes into the picture, which it did very early.  It’s not perceptible in our species because for most of the time the selecting environment is constant, and viable variation very slight and, beyond that, sex irons out a lot of variations.  Nonetheless, each of us has a unique genome, the collective of information, coded in DNA, in the nucleus of every cell in our bodies.  Thus, paradoxically, we have potentially infinite variation within an extraordinarily stable system.  We have changed little over the last 200,000 years.  There is more genetic variation between various groups of chimpanzees in central Africa than there is between human beings from different continents today.  Since all chimps “look much the same” to us—they don’t of course, as five minutes watching them at the zoo will prove— while each human being seems obviously different from every other, this may be a surprise, but it is beyond doubt so, and how it is so is the subject of whole books, so I’ll leave it there.  However the case of quasi-infinite variation of expression within a finite and stable system is not unique to the human genome, or that of any other life form.  A language is the same.

So back to our population of archaea cells with bacteria inside them, our endosymbionts.  Their environment selected for their survival, we have no idea how because we were not there.  Certainly they did not replace their ancestral bacteria and archaea, but lived alongside them, first as one individual, then two, then four, and as we know if you follow that kind of duplication for a bit you soon outnumber the stars in the sky.  But the selecting environment does not allow that to happen.  The fact that the one survived at all looks like an enormous bit of luck, and the same goes for her daughters.  But our existence, the fact that each cell in our bodies has a nucleus and is fuelled by mitochondria, descendants of bacteria, demonstrates that they did survive, and spread across the planet.  And as they did so they evolved.

The environment for selection of a cell is not just the external environment, but the environment inside the cell itself.  It is not just a matter of all the variables outside its membrane, nutrition, light, temperature, chemical composition, other cells.  The selecting environment for a population of bacteria reproducing in a matter of minutes rather than hours inside an archaea is the archaea itself.  This environment will select for all sorts of simultaneously emerging variations in the bacteria as they evolve towards mitochondria, the power cells of the evolving endosymbiont.  And part of the selecting environment for the enveloping archaea will be the bacteria within it.  One of the characters that such an environment will select for is the archaea’s ability to use the bacteria’s energy output while minimising its parasitism.  Part of this parasitism is the tendency of the bacterial genes to hi-jack the local environment and minimise the effects of the archaeal genes.

This cooperation was crucial to reproductive survival.  It was selected for by the failure of cells that did not manage to cooperate. It has been achieved in the cells of our bodies and in all cells descended from this endosymbiont, which is to say all life still amongst us, amoeba to zebra, other than the bacteria and archaea, the prokaryotes.  In the cells of all eukaryotes the mitochondria have lost all but a very small number of their genes, their DNA.  Actually lost is the wrong term.  The original and evolving bacterial DNA has been confiscated by the evolving cell nucleus; not literally of course, though the effect is the same, but by a very slow, minute characteristic by minute characteristic, evolutionary process.

The name given to these endosymbiont cells is eukaryote.  The endosymbiosis of the two simple prokaryotes, bacteria and archaea, evolved into the eukaryotes, complex cells with a nucleus containing the genes, and mitochondria to provide power, and internal membranes and all sorts of amazing and fiendishly complicated internal machinery; the kind of cells we are made of.  When the cell divides, the nucleus with all its genetic material divides, and so does the rest of the cell, its outer membrane deforming into two separate envelopes, each with its own nucleus and, outside its nuclear membrane, its complement of half the original mitochondria.  The egg from which you came is such a cell, the sperm is not.  The sperm cell carries no mitochondria.  So all mitochondria come only from your mother, all the way down the line from the last common ancestor of all human beings alive today, and way, way beyond that.  And it means that if your mother has no daughters, or no daughters who reproduce, then her mitochondrial line will become extinct.  This worrying fact can be ameliorated by the knowledge that all women on earth have mothers and always have had.  Local mitochondrial extinction is neither here nor there.

That was all a long way round making the point that evolution is not always a journey towards complexity.  Not only did barnacles lose the eyes they had, but as eukaryotes in the main became more complex, one line became less so.  Archezoa, a group with a name confusingly close to archaea, branched off the line of eukaryotes fairly early on in its evolutionary proliferation.  In fact so primitive were they that they were thought to have branched off before the stable eukaryotic type evolved.  Giardia is an archezoa that causes a particularly persistent and unenviable diarrhoea.  They do not use oxygen for respiration as other non archcezoal eukaryotes do.  Instead they use a method of anaerobic fermentation.  They have no mitochondria, and it used to be thought that they were some sort of missing link between the prokaryotes and the eukaryotes.  Then it was realised that they had the relics of mitochondria, difficult to spot in one so small but undoubtedly there.  They were eukaryotic by descent, just as we are, but in the snug dark and nutrient rich environment of the gut they could survive with minimal energy, unlike ourselves or humming birds.  Again, carrying around what you don’t need is a waste of energy, and energy is necessary for reproduction.  As in the increasing complexity of evolving eukaryotes, so in the simplification of giardia. What gets you by is the way you go .  They could get by as simpler beings, and the simpler you are the faster you can reproduce.  Mitochondria are hungry little cells.  In the vM population of giardia they wasted and shrank, in the vL population they continued with their spurious demand for energy which could not thus be put into reproduction.  vM moved to fixation, vL to extinction, and modern giardia have barely recognisable relict characteristics which were once mitochondria.  Environments, in this case the warm and oxygen-poor dark of the gut, do not select for perfection, they select for what worked at the time.

So that’s evolution, a selection of alternatives, usually very small alternatives.  Genes are not like words, each one mapping onto a discrete thing, like the word brick maps on to the small rectangular usually reddish blocks that a lot of buildings are made of.  Genes are actually composed of nucleotides, chemical links across the double helix of DNA.  They have something in common with Morse code.  Morse code is a series of dots or dashes, or shorts and longs, or zeros and ones.  A unique combination maps onto a letter, and thus in a chain onto words, language.  The genetic code has four nucleotide basis, and their combinations in unique sequences map on to various amino acids, the building blocks of the proteins that comprise the cells that comprise us.  A gene is thus not a discrete thing, but a sequence, a locus capable of affecting the production of a protein.  But a gene operates in an evolutionary environment, from nano-second to nano-second.  The most immediate part of that selecting environment is the long cord of genes with all its protein infrastructure and paraphernalia called the chromosome, and whether a gene actually gets to initiate the protein that it is “for” depends entirely on what else is going on along the chromosome, and what else is going on in the wider world of the chromosome depends on its immediate environment of molecules and ribosomes; and we are not even out of the cell yet, which is affected by the collective of all the other cells that make up the individual organism.  And outside the organism is the world and the universe.  The expression of a gene might be dependent on the light of the sun.  As a Frenchman said to me (he was joking), “Please stand elsewhere, you are hinterfering with my bronzage”.  So a gene is not an agent which says, “Do this”, and it shall inevitably be done.

Genetic determinism is a nonsense.  Religious people who wish to retain some space for the supernatural so that it can coexist with the science myth, but who have no evidence for their case, resort to that ploy of criminals and fools, smearing the opposition.  Their chosen Satan is Richard Dawkins, who has done more to advance the cause of evolutionary science than any other communicator of this or the last century.  Richard Dawkins, they say, is the arch-evangelist of genetic determinism, the belief that every human being is a robot whose every characteristic and every action is pre-determined by their genetic make-up.  The fact that Dawkins says, and has always said, exactly the opposite deters them not a jot, for religious truth rises far above mere evidence.  But Dawkins wrote,

The belief that genes are somehow super-deterministic, in comparison with environmental causes, is a myth of extraordinary tenacity, and it can give rise to real emotional distress.

(Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype, 1982, 2016) (p16).

What part of this the collective of the religiose don’t understand this is unclear, but perhaps the works of Richard Dawkins are so diabolical that they are prohibited to Believers.

He continues over eight pages to describe, as I have done much more superficially above, all the interdependent factors that modulate or prevent a gene’s agency.  It is clearly impossible, given the environment in which it operates, that a gene should “determine” anything.  All it can do is to provide a statistical basis for something else, the production of a protein, taking place.  The fact that genes and their environment operate together to produce consistent results, for instance that you will have two eyes, one each side of your nose and, separate genes, they shall be whatever colour they are, demonstrates that the statistical likelihoods are weighted in certain directions, and just as well.  But there is no gene “for” anything, whether musical or scientific genius, or for religious behaviour extended into lies and idiocy.  (That is not an attack on religious belief.  It is an attack on the all too easy perversion of religious belief into authoritarian propaganda.)

Within the science myth, sub-section evolution, we humans are descended from the first population of eukaryotic cells.  That line of descent, by replication, variation and selection, is unbroken, continuous.  It is not just a formal continuum but a material continuum, without the smallest break in space-time.  It is a physical chain through which every cell in our body is directly in touch with the transitional agglomeration of chemicals between non-life and life more than three and a half thousand million years ago.  That space time continuum of interacting molecules is mind-boggling.  It traverses bacteria, the first eukaryotes, primitive worms, the first animals with backbones, the first animals with lungs, mammals, the ancestor of us and chimpanzees and, late in the day, Homo sapiens.  Like the giardia and the common cold virus and the jaguar, we are the survivors of an evolutionary process.

So that’s the part of the science myth that explains how life came about as a result of the geological conditions of our planet, and how we came about as a result of life, without any supernatural intervention, no woman being created by some capricious sky-being out of a man’s rib.  And most people who have been through a formal education go along with it, at least at a very superficial level.  But it is rare and unusual to understand the process in any detail.  It is hard work to understand that there is a significant difference between “giraffes developed long necks so that they could reach leaves at the tops of trees” on one hand, and on the other “in a certain woodland environment where there was a variation in neck length within a population of short necked browsing proto-giraffes, those that had marginally longer necks could get more to eat and thus put more energy into reproduction, so increasing as a fraction of the population relative to their shorter necked relations.  By a slow statistical process the shorter necked form decreased to extinction.  This process was repeated until the weight, ungainliness and energy demands of an even longer neck outweighed any advantage.  This was the optimum neck length, a range obviously, not a precise length in millimetres.  And if the trees for some environmental reason got shorter, then necks would get shorter too, because of the energetic burden of a long neck where it has no function would also, all other things being equal, lead to extinction of that variation”.  The laboriousness here is a bit of a pain.  No wonder people prefer the simple version.

But the simpler version is totally wrong.  It is a magical, not a scientific account.  It confuses function and purpose.  Evolution has no purpose, because evolution is not an agent, it is a process, a pattern, no more.  It is a mere pattern in which an environment external to whatever is evolving selects, among variants, according to function; e.g. the function of being able to reach higher leaves.  Evolution has absolutely nothing in common with the God of the creator-god myth.  God, if he existed would be… well to be honest I’m a bit hazy as to what God would be if He existed, He has so many billions of versions, each, where He is not defined as being conveniently beyond any human apprehension, surprisingly like the individual believer’s conception of their ideal selves.  But He comes across in general as a material being, in the Pentateuch He appears to Eve and Adam in human form, in medieval illustrations as a man dressed as bishop; and somewhere in the Bible a man goes into the tent of a patriarch, I can’t remember who, Abraham or Isaac, and says God is outside, he’d like a word with you.  This is a being within whom a purpose can be located, an autonomous, bounded agent.  Evolution is no such thing, it’s a pattern, merely a pattern, but one of profound significance.

To understand this pattern needs a little application, but only a little.  Compared with quadratic equations or the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, especially Jesus Christ’s multiple relationship to God the Father, evolution is easy.  But the other thing is, human beings don’t like it, especially the hairy apes bit and all that, as an explanation of their own origins.  Human beings tend to recoil from such unflattering derivation.

There’s been a study into this.  Chris Stringer and his colleagues were puzzled to realise that the Natural History Museum exhibition of human evolution was not engaging museum visitors to the degree they had hoped.  They commissioned a survey to find out why this might be.  One of the conclusions that the resultant report came to was that there is something about the way we human beings think about ourselves which makes us uncomfortable with scientific explanations of how we came to be that way.  Over the years, even with close friends, friends who would by and large think of themselves as untainted by superstition or religious or magical thinking, there is a feeling that how human beings came to be this way is not a proper question to be asking.  Impatience, tetchiness is a common response, along with the implication that the answer is so obvious that anybody who goes out of their way to question it is just being difficult, even extreme.  To them, the answer is obvious.  At some point in the distant past human beings had big brains where there had been no big brains before, and these enormous brains produced massive cognitive breadth and depth, social intelligence, intellectual ability, innovative skill, imagination and foresight.  These humans lived in a natural environment which set them a whole lot of problems:

How do you kill animals heavier and more powerful than you are?

You invent the spear.

With your comparatively small teeth and jaw, how do you separate meat from the carcass?

You invent the flint blade.

How do you cook this meat, making the energy it contains more readily available to your enormous and unusually hungry brain?

You invent fire, and the cooking pot.

How do you join animal skins together to make garments to protect you against the elements?

You invent the needle and thread.

What don’t you understand about that? they demand.  What’s you problem?

My problem is that it is immensely simplistic.  It’s a respectable view:

A complex meme… arises because some person knuckles down, racks his brain, musters his ingenuity, and composes or writes or paints or invents something.

(Boyd, 2005) (quoting Steven Pinker 1997)—and not with total approval.

The term meme is so vague as to be useless except to describe something briefly in fashion on the internet.  Steven Pinker is no fool.  His dismemberment of the religiose application of the notion of group selection (Pinker, 2012) is a masterpiece.  But the idea of a “he” (this was 1997) knuckling down more than one and a half million years ago, mustering his ingenuity and inventing the Acheulian hand axe (how long does an act of invention take? a split second, as in a flash of inspiration?  Ten minutes?  Half a lifetime?  Half a million years?) or suddenly, three hundred thousand years ago, inventing the Mousterian mode 3 blade, surely that paints a highly unrealistic picture.  Pinker’s explanation jumps straight into a moment in history when “man” was fully formed, as he might see it; a very Renaissance sort of man, a painting here, a sonnet there, a sonatina for the lute before dinner, the application of the square root of minus one to a knotty mathematical problem in that clear hour before dawn when all good men knuckle down to a bit of serious ratiocination.  It’s an explanation that entirely ignores the history of the previous six million years.  The Acheulian hand axe was not invented, it emerged from found stone cores over thousands of years, and evolved into a beautiful all purpose tool, as we have seen.  But the animals through whose central nervous system and muscles and hands the hand axe evolved were not our kind of human beings at all, they were a distinct species, Homo erectus, smaller brained and hairier, who became extinct at around the time the earliest Homo sapiens were becoming apparent in the archaeological record.  The narrative of creativity and invention in the god-like mode is very appealing to our vanity, but it is a magic formula, not an explanation, and it pays no attention to the facts of archaeology, palaeontology and deep time.

The London Natural History Museum report on evolution attributes such fantasies to psychological essentialism.

The term ‘psychological essentialism’ refers to an apparently hard-wired set of intuitive human beliefs about organisms:

  • that certain categories of organism are ‘real’ rather than human constructs
  • that these natural categories possess an underlying causal force (essence) that is responsible for members being the way they are and having so much in common.

These have been described as ‘a fundamental component of human cognition’

(Gelman and Rhodes, 2012).

I don’t subscribe to this way of putting things.  Steven Pinker is a cognitive psychologist, and cognitive psychologists put, as one can see, a huge amount of occult “explanation” into hard wiring, which suggests that beliefs are determined by biology, in just the same way as the power to invent or compose a symphony is, they assert, determined by biology.  If taken to its logical conclusion, this view would suggest that the Large Hadron Collider, the most complex machine yet built, or the Mahishasuramardini relief on a cave wall in Mahabalapuram, are inevitable, predetermined outputs of the biology of Homo sapiens; as would be everything else anybody has ever produced, the cup of coffee you might be drinking, the gadget from Amazon that has just arrived and is waiting to be unpacked downstairs.  That is one hell of a lot of things to be pre-determined by the hard wiring of the brain.  But it is an inevitable consequence of the “every entity in human culture is created by the power of thought” hypothesis.  Or if it is not created, then it must have been discovered, again by the power of thought.  It, let us say a Mousterian type 3 blade or the Wright brothers’ first flying machine, cannot have been in the world already, because in that case it would not have needed to be produced out of thin air by the power to thought.  So if it is discovered, but not already in the world, then its previous existence must have been in some supernatural form (because nothing in nature, not even a quark or a Higgs particle, can exist without physical extension).  This supernatural form must be something like a Platonic type or ideal form, of a tetrahedron, say, or a table, or a flint blade, so that everything which has come into physical existence as a result of human agency already has existence as a Platonic type; millions upon millions of Platonic forms.  That must be nonsense.  Take a simple form, a circle.  If it exists as a type, and existence must have material extension, then a circle, the Platonic type, must have material extension somewhere.  It has been impossible so far to explain where in the universe this material extension of the type, circle, might be located.  Therefore the likelihood that there is no such place, while not absolute, is so close as to be provisionally taken as fact.  If a repository of all such types was today located, a type-warehouse with coordinates somewhere in the universe, then we’d have to think again (and in a different context that’s exactly what I’ll do).  For now, what a circle has been since the beginning of space-time is a zone of latent potential in a four dimensional universe with a three dimensional plane (time is a constant factor of existence, which is why the plane is not 2D).  Even this potential is slightly fuzzy, as π is an irrational number.  In all final analyses we have to put up with a marginal fuzziness.

The whole “creative power of thought alone” notion is nonsense.  It is an irrational, self-flattering dream.  On a more practical level, to assert that the thing, let us say a flint blade, is preceded by the idea of the thing, the idea of the flint blade, is historically wrong, as I will make clear, and anti-evolutionary.  Its foolishness is tied in with the idle academic’s notion of “symbolic thought”, which appears to suggest that the condition of, say, a beautifully made and polished hand axe being symbolic of high status was derived from a perceived problem of needing something to symbolise high status, and a polished hand axe being produced from the power of thought to fill the gap.  Whereas, in this case as in all cases, representation is derived from association, which requires two things already in the world.  If some early hominin did carry home the Makapansgat pebble, it did so not because it thought, fuck me, that stone is symbolic of a human face.  She thought either, this stone is a human face, or this stone looks like a human face; association, not symbolism.  Many mammals, even tendentiously some molluscs, are capable of recognising faces.  A circle and three dots is all it takes.  The wonder of the hominin and the Makapansgat pebble was that, having recognised it, it took it home.  There again, even some birds are attracted to functionally useless stuff and pick it up and take it home.  “Symbolic thought” is just a mantra, a vacuous trope replicated with fidelity by sociologists and anthropologists.  It is antithetical to any kind of evolutionary thinking.

But actually, according to the quote from the NHM report above, anti-evolutionary thinking is exactly what human beings are inclined to welcome, and experience tells the same story.  People become impatient, even angry with the evolutionary account of humanity because it does not accord with what people feel themselves to be, an essential creator-type, without need of further explanation, like God.

Why is a species that prides itself above the other animals for the supremacy of its rationality, so universally thoughtless about its own nature?  The explanation I would go with, rather than psychology and essentialism and  hard wiring and fundamental components of human cognition, is like this.

The human brain is quite probably the most complex organ in the Universe.  If you compare us to animals that even conceivably have a fraction of the knowledge and application of knowledge that we human beings have, chimpanzees, dolphins, crows, then the extent, the capacity, the sheer mass, the intricacy, the beauty and grandeur of our knowledge exceeds that of the whole animal kingdom by as much as the Milky Way, nay the whole universe exceeds the infinitesimal smallness of the Solar System (for even the universe is an expression of our minds; if we did not exist, in what sense would it exist?).

This is true, if rather over-excitedly put.  And the nature of our delusion is quite simple.  We humans, I, you, fall into the trap of mistaking this entire universe of human knowledge for our own individual achievement.  We conflate the total accumulation of human culture with what goes on in our individual little skulls.

This is a simple but basic error, easily demonstrable.  The proof that starlight is bent by the Sun’s gravitational field is part of human knowledge.  Not only do I personally not understand the major part of that bit of knowledge, but I had nothing to do with it’s emergence through Faraday and Maxwell and Einstein, nor with the process of its proof by practical experiment; nor, if before it was proved somebody had suggested that I come up with the procedure and physical apparatus necessary for its proof, would I have been able to respond with anything but slack-jawed idiocy.  Nor on another level, if I were suddenly to leave my world for that of a Neanderthal family, would I have the knowledge to survive unless they helped me.

In short, my and every other human being’s ignorance and stupidity should be calibrated against the sum of human knowledge, not casually assumed to contain it.  By this measure, we are not a fraction as bright as we think we are.

I think this is why almost all human beings are disturbed and irritated by the evolutionary account of our emergence.  We, quite rationally given the apparent facts, cannot accept a pedestrian, reductionist (all science is reductionist in explication) account of how we came to be human.  Our status, while of course we no longer believe, most of us, in the God who created heaven and Earth in seven days, can only be in the image of such a God, because the Earth is as it is today, and we created it.

My account, yet to come, ascribes to us only one ability which is not shared by at least some other groups of animals.  Many of the abilities that sociological cultural evolutionists ascribe to human beings are in fact shared by mammals, birds, some fish and even insects.  There has been virtually no focus on what it is that makes us unique.  Yet sociologists, psychologists and theologians happily buy into the myth of our being, each precious individual, not only the fount but the sacred vessel of all knowledge.

Thus there is to date no useful or credible account of the evolution of Homo sapiens.  Magnificent work has been done on the evolution of our skeleton, our muscles, our immune systems, our teeth.  Magnificent work has been done on the classification and historical sequence of tools and implements of wood and stone and antler and bone, of clay and fibre, hide and fire.  Palaeoarcheology is a fully developed science.  But it is not interested in “culture”.  And those in academia who are interested in what they call cultural evolution show scant understanding of evolution, little curiosity about the role material culture, and all culture is material, played and plays in the evolution of our species.

My aim is to produce a model that has something in common with the evolution of the eukaryotes.  Clearly sticks and stones do not evolve into spears and blades inside our skins.  Nonetheless I will try to demonstrate beyond all reasonable doubt that we human beings are not merely an evolved organism, and that spears and blades are in no way incidental by-products of that evolved organism, but that throughout our history, from last common ancestor with the chimpanzees to now, the two parts of us, organism and material culture, have evolved in symbiosis according to exactly the same pattern as the bacterium which one day, or night, inadvertently got inside an archaea and became the symbiont from which we are all descended.



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.

That Homo sapiens evolved as the obligate symbiosis of organism and extended phenotype


Hominin evolution has not been fully explained.  Material evidence of the evolutionary paths travelled by the hominin organism increases by the week, but accounts of how the content of hominin cognition developed have not yet produced any visualised 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 this level of irreducibility, 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, 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 culuture I call the lep.

This 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 evolutio; 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 3my old 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 has been called the technosphere (Zalasiewicz, 2016); 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 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.

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.

A thought experiment: 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.  If every atom of the hominin EP were to be annihilated on the instant, relict humanity would be reduced to apehood in days.  Our persistence as a species is entirely dependent on the hominin EP, which includes all domesticated species of animal and plants.

So, two axioms: 1)The hominin extended phenotype has information for any information-accepting and processing system, human or non-human.  2) 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 view), 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 size.  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 passing; 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, 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 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 dimensions as cyberspace.  The nodes that define the space are every material occurrence of the hominin EP, and their persisting registrations 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 time of 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, largely 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 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 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 instance, 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 as 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 transposed 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 hominin component.

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.

Another worked example; the question is, “What was the process  of replication, variation and selection by which the burin evolved?”  The following answer is purely diagrammatic, it does not pretend to be a literal history.  A burin precursor can be simplified as a rectangular lithic flake with a short edge retouched so it slopes.  This  tool is one of the upper Palaeolithic tool types and is replicated with fidelity over millennia.  Occasionally in its manufacture a shoulder might be  struck off by mistake at the acute angle.  This mistake was a variation upon the type burin precursor, a rectangular scraper or blade.  It would be uneconomical to reject this broken ‘second’ as mere waste, since it will still have some residual use as a kind of chisel.  It is at some time discovered that the miniature transverse edge that results from this mistake can be used for engraving and scouring square-sided grooves in hard materials such as antler or bone.  The variant is recognised as a sub-type, >precursor with missing shoulder and resultant spall<.  This recognition of the spall becomes a lep spall.  This is selection by the wider environment, proximately the organic material which the spall would cut, without which the spall would carry no useful information to the knapper.

The inadvertency of striking off the shoulder to produce a spall develops into a deliberated strike.  Skilled flint knappers recognised the dynamic relationship between hammer stone and flake blade that produced the spall, and thus the burin.  They start deliberately striking burins, rather than recognising them on the odd occasion when they fortuitously occur (nothing is ever “invented”). The resultant now preconceived tool becomes a type in its own right, a lep, burin.

The phylogeny of a burin is clear.  It is derived only from its precursor.  It is not derived from a flint projectile point, or a quern, or a stone wall.  And it fulfils the conditions of observed phylogenetic heritability, continual replication with fidelity, an envelope of fractional variation, selection by external factors.

Where there had been one lep, there were now three, distributed between replicating objects in the world, blades, spalls, burins, and persisting as discrete dynamic encoding structures in hominin brains.  And the whole process conforms at every level with the necessary conditions of Darwinian evolution, within a context of obligate symbiosis, from which the burin fortifies its persistence by having a place in this paper, and human beings, through the bone needle, got warmer and better-fitting clothes.

The same goes for my watch.  The evolution of complex machines requires further explanation.  It is dependent on reticulation and intromission.  I conclude with a short observation on the bicycle, which is descended from the hobby horse, diagrammatically a beam supporting two in-line wheels at either end, but with no drive chain.  This is a four wheel cart, morphologically  squashed laterally as far as it will go without vanishing into two dimensions.  The drive chain is an intromission.  One component is the chain ring, a large cog turned by a crank.  The mechanics of a crank depend on rotation about a fulcrum, and far back in the phylogeny of a crank we can see the first trimmed branches stuck under a large stone, or into a fissure in a promising slab of rock, and acted upon by one or more hominin organisms, their efforts synchronised with rhythmic grunts ancestral to the word, in English, and its attendant lep (because verbs too are leps derived from a dynamic relationship of their respective nouns)  “Heave!!!”

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