Reply to Igor Nikolic

This is proximately addressed to Igor Nikolic,  @ComplexEvo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Evolution as a black box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 21: Ping, maybe

What’s a ping?

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

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

Here are a few propositions about pings:

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


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

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


A dog and a cat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Why does culture sometimes evolve via sudden bursts of innovation?

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

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

Here is another paragraph.

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

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


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

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

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

Pings expanded

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

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

‘It’s a ciongolo.’


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But before that,


On the power of pings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The red mesenchymal cell and the red gravid proglottid…

Feel free to improvise.

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



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

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

Humans: how and what we are

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

Homage to Pitt Rivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pitt Rivers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will summarise two of his other insights.

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

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

He sums up:

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

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

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


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

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

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

The evolution of preference

(This is the continuation of a Twitter discussion with @RafalMista , whose is the opening quote.)

I’ll concentrate on “If there is a feedback between preferences and musical variants (transformed by preferences which are transformed by available repertoires of musical variants etc.)…”

I think we have to distinguish between various theories, e.g. the Darwinian theory and the CES theory which, as Nathalie Gontier says, has yet to be formulated.  Per Darwin, musical variants can be melody, harmony, rhythm  and timbre among others.  A preference in a group is an observed tendency to, where there is a choice, do one thing and not the other, as play a syncopated rather than a non-syncopated triplet.  That is an act of selection, which in a human being can only get out of the brain by muscle contraction, as Richard Dawkins notes in The Extended Phenotype.  What I think you refer to as a cultural preference is not a unitary thing.  A village band might consensually dislike syncopation but the clarinet player may slip a bit in nonetheless.  The bandmaster frowns, but the clarinetist does it again at a dance and the kids cheer.  That is an act of selection by the kids which may become ancestral to a new variant of the tune.  Here at a stroke the trope “preference” disintegrates into what is actually happening.  There is replication with fidelity (the band plays the tune with no syncopation time without number), there is variation within a very limited envelope (the clarinet player syncopates a triplet), there is selection (by the cheering young people at the dance), the clarinet player is encouraged to do it again at the next dance, at the third dance he is forbidden to do so by the bandmaster, he doesn’t syncopate, the kids jeer, the fourth time he does it again, cheers, the syncopated triplet moves towards fixation as an acknowledged variant.  Maybe the bandmaster induces a split, taking the older non-triplet-syncopating conservatives with him.  The syncopaters are the ones employed for dances, the non-syncopaters give sparsely attended concerts for a few elderly villagers. The syncopated version has now reached fixation in that village.

“I’ve read how people couldn’t dance to music played by a band from another village, as they had strong local preferences.”  Perhaps they couldn’t dance because their dances (learned patterns of muscle contraction) didn’t fit the music (learned patterns realised by rapid muscle contraction of the musicians).  This is an entirely different use of the vague word “preference”.

I think “perceptual niche” is a good term. But it refers to a limitation, a confinement to a narrow range of auditory experience of replication and selection delimited by the music that lies within that range—niche music in fact.

Sperberian tropes seem to me to belong to a world of make-believe.  With Darwinism, Modern Synthesis, there has always been a conflict for those non-materialists who practise, or pretend to practise, science, but also believe in some sort of reality beyond science, to which science has no access.  That’s fine, but the attempt to try to reconcile science and any form of “spirituality”, when the literal big money is behind the “spirituality” is pernicious, because it deliberately distorts science.

That’s why if it would save a lot of confusion if evolution meant Darwinism (MS).  Anything else might more properly be called metaphysical culturalism.

In search of the replicator

Thonged sandals, and a bit more


Figure 1 Yuya’s sandals; Grass, reed, papyrus

10.184.1a, bYou look at this pair of thong sandals and you just know that they weren’t invented by someone in the previous few days or even years.  By the time sandals looked like this, they had been around a long time  And these sandals themselves clearly aren’t brand spanking new;  a bit stained, one thong slightly split, the straps a little cracked and battered.  Lovely detailing of the woven and bound sole though.  They’ve seen a few years, probably.

Actually quite a few years.  These sandals, (property and image The Metropolitan Museum of Art NY, US) are nearly three and a half thousand years old.  They were made, in Egypt, centuries before the Trojan War, before Achilles and Hector and Odysseus, before, at least mythologically, King Agamemnon had a priest slit the throat of Iphigeneia, his and Queen Clytemnestra’s daughter, so that Zeus, thus rewarded by the virgin’s wine-dark blood jetting onto a stone altar at Aulis, would send a breeze to speed the Achaean fleet to Troy.  In fact when these sandals were made Zeus himself was a very small-time god worshipped by a few goatherds on an obscure mountain in Arcadia.  Chariots had very recently arrived from the distant East, driven in lethal warfare through the ranks of North African and Anatolian infantry by those who also brought with them the ancestor language of Persia, Northern India and Europe, including the one in which this is written.

That’s how old these sandals are.

Josef Seibel sandalsThe sandal (Fig. 2) I have just taken off my present day feet look structurally much the same.  Mine were industrially assembled but the attachment of the thong to the sole has been redone by a craftsman in town.  He was able to do it because he was born and learned his trade in India, where the tradition of sandal making goes back at least five thousand years, long before the circa 1390 bce origin of Yuya’s  or Tjuyu’s elegant pair above.

Here (Fig. 3) is a pair that is a couple of hundred years older.  They look more homely and less elegant, more for slopping round the home in, but the structure seems the same.  This is the first time I have given any thought to the construction of sandal-ware, so I give an observational and speculative account; that is to say, founded in ignorance, but using my acquired knowledge of things in theDT310791

Figure 3 Sandals ca. 1580–1479 B.C.; Papyrus reed Metropolitan Museum of Art

world to work out, from a two-dimensional image on a screen, more or less how these sandals were made by an Egyptian crafter three and a half thousand years ago.  I dwell on this slightly, because it is a crucial feature of the overall hypothesis, that a huge amount of what we consider to be “mind”-based human knowledge is actually information inherent in things, not “minds”; things like these pairs of sandals which are a sector of the space-time continuum at the moment located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue, New York.  What information does this image of a pair of sandals give us?

They have a base for the human sole to rest upon, a strap across the human instep, and a thong that goes bP1010626etween the human big toe and its neighbour, and joins the base to the strap.  The base, in English, takes its name from the bottom of the human foot, and is itself called the sole.  (This is an aesthetic not an analytical observation, but just look how much the ghost of the sole is imprinted on the sandal.)

The Museum’s note says these (Fig. 3) sandals are made out of papyrus, which I know is a reed.  Unlike Yuya’s they are made from just one plant, so we can assume that the more structural bits, the bits that supply necessary rigidity, are made of stiff woody papyrus stem while the rest, the bits that require pliability and tensile strength are made of papyrus leaf.  We know that dried leaf is fragile, and we also know that papyrus was used to make paper, so we can assume that the leaf was treated in a way that preserved its longitudinal tensile strength (I’m thinking bamboo leaves here) and flexibility.  On the other hand, while the strap almost certainly has a leaf covering, the binding and weaving material of the sole could be split stalk.  (I could easily find out on the internet, but I’m confining myself to information that comes to me from the time of construction across the 3500 years to now via an LED screen.  The image on the page here is too small to see much, but if you go to it is wonderfully enlargeable.)

The sole takes its shape from the human sole, the human footprint.  In fact the image is of a footprint about 3.7 million years old, before our ancestors ever began to recognise and replicate the earliest stone tools.  In the sandal this shape is established by a perimeter of three bundles of stalk, inner, middle and outer.  The middle bundle is about twice the diameter of the outer.  The bundles are compacted with some filler material, a glue with a mineral matrix, to stop them sliding against each other and abrading, and then bound with the tensile material, leaf or split stalk.  I cannot see what keeps the bundles in the same plane, stops them sliding round each other, but the centre of the sole is clearly a framework of fairly rigid members, woody stalks, running side to side, about twenty three of them.  The bottom of the thong must be bound to one of them.  These transverse members, or beams, also form a warp for the woof of tensile material that, along the longitudinal axis, binds them together.  The visual information of how the beams are bound to the perimeter bundles is not available from the image, but clearly some complexity on the underside, some combination of weaving and binding, of compression and tension, is keeping the whole sole together, giving it its unique structural integrity—I mean unique to the sole.  The structural integrity of a willow fish trap or crab-pot or log basket, weaving and binding, is also unique to each type of artefact, though the structural principles, ultimately dependent on the laws of physics, are common to all.

The thongs seem on first examination to be so different as to be hardly a pair.  That of the right sandal (on our left) is delicate and slender, the left one is more bulky and functional.  However it seems that much of the right is missing; there is a broken stub of structural material emerging from under the strap, bound by an annulus of tensile material, as on the left.  So we can assume that the left sandal is much nearer the original condition, which we can infer was like this.  The thong core is a semi-rigid member, a bundle of longitudinally laid—what?  The material does not have the rounded integrity, the woody stalkiness of the perimeter framework of the sole.  Its surface is much the same as the broad leaf which overlays and encircles it and continues upwards to bind it about the strap.  But the bundled material is more stalkily discrete seeming, narrower and more longitudinally structured than the leaf, one feels that the broken ends would be stiffer and more resistant, passively aggressively so, to the fingertip.   This bundle is a beam, or at least a hemi-beam, not a cord.

How it is attached to the sole is beyond me.  There is a leafy binding round the transvers sole beam, but I cannot see how that is attached to the main thong bundle.  This is the point where thong sandals suffer the greatest strain.  It is the point at which my modern Joseph Seibel sandals first failed, where the cotton inter‒toe thong pulled away from the micro-cellular polyurethane sole, and the focus of repair by the craftsman who I only know, through my grandsons, as Raj’s dad in town.  So this opaque attachment on the three and a half thousand year old sandals has to be strong and, since it is still intact, we must accept that it was so.

The strap is a forward-leaning half hoop, and the bulkiest part of the superstructure.  It looks as if it is composed of wrappings of leaf, like a good cigar, for smoothness and give, for comfort for the instep.  But it is certain that inside the leaf covering is an infrastructure, the superstructure’s armature, the three footed, three holed topology of strap and thong; the same topology as that of a tripod standing on the ground, or a girl standing leaning her back against a tree, or a tee-shirt.  I mention this distracting and initially puzzling fact just to keep in touch with a more general truth, that whatever human artefact we try to account for, the account must fit the basic laws and conformational invariances of nature.

So inside that leaf-wrapped and padded half hoop of the strap there is a bundle of stiff but pliable probably stalky material to establish its shape.  It is clear that this curved former is somehow bound into the perimeter of the sole, and into the former of the thong, but information as to exactly how is not available to the eye.

What the sandal says about evolution

That’s it, that’s your three and a half thousand year old pair of sandals.  And there are some points to be made.  The first is the most important.  These sandals were not “invented” on one otherwise dull Tuesday afternoon in Early New Kingdom Egyptian Thebes in 1527 BCE.  They were, at the moment of their particular construction, the projection into the now (the then now) of a succession of sandals that went back into a past beyond recall, but of which there was a distributed record in all the sandals at that moment still existent.

The second point relates to the BBC’s documentary Handmade on the Silk Road. The Persian potter who was the subject of one episode 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

The third point merely emphasises that replication can continue for a long  time.  It is quite likely that if we could go back those thousand years, which in evolutionary time is but the blinking of an eye, the ancestral potter we found there could say exactly the same thing, and with equal truth, as his greatn grandson.

But it is the first point that is most significant.  For any craft, the traditional form, as embodied by contemporary production, is the nearest to perfection, and perfection is what the serious crafter aims to achieve.  Therefore fidelity of replication (of the type, not all pots must be the same) is an imperative.  “That with sufficient skill you could make clean pots exactly like each other” is the measure of the craft.

Evolution tends to be seen as about change, and indeed change comes into it.  But the structural core of evolution is replication with fidelity.  In biology, the information at the most irreducible locus of reproduction and development is in the genes, more properly in the chromatin, and the most complex strategies have evolved to maintain the fidelity of its replication, and the fidelity of its expression in the phenotype, ours as much as any.  Our individual survival depends on a very precise line of development in the journey from gamete to corpse, and any departure from that line probably leads to some sort of failure, disease, malfunction, malformation, putrefaction, cancer, mental illness, senescence, disintegration.  What ultimately defines and holds that line is the genes.  The picture is slightly confused because each of us is so clearly so different from every other one of us.  How can you talk of fidelity of replication when all we see is multitudinous difference?  But that’s the result of sex.  Our chromosomes are composed of sets of genes, alleles, that come randomly (mostly) from sperm and egg.  Each allele, let us say one that codes for one kidney protein at a certain developmental instant, may come from your mother or your father.  It is this diploid shuffling which produces difference.  But it is at the level of the genes in the allele that replication with fidelity must take place to produce the viable, healthy organism.  If the allele is messed up, and it codes for the wrong protein, or doesn’t code for any protein at all, the result may be a diseased kidney, or a kidney that never functions.  A foetus with a non-viable kidneys is itself non-viable.  That’s a simplified view, but it is the bottom line.  Our existence depends on replication with fidelity.

The same goes for viable sandals.  Thus, sandals were not invented, they were replicated, according to type, with fidelity.  This happened over durations of time beyond the recall of the sandal-makers.  And the information about the structure of sandals is not located in the dead brains of dead people, or any coded record of sandal-making they have left behind.  The information about the structure of sandals is in the sandals.



You might reply, this could well be so.  But, and it’s a big but, just because you can look at an image on a computer screen and infer, to an extent, the structure of a pair of three and a half thousand year old sandals, that doesn’t mean that you could construct, with the remotest degree of fidelity, a pair of sandals.  And I would agree, emphatically.  And here we must talk abut complexity.

P1010622I can make a flint micro-tool capable of, between the finger and thumb of a surgeon, delicately slicing through through the surface of an eyeball (I’m guessing here, I’m not going to try it).  It was easy, I found a small nodule in the flint gravel outside the garage door, I rested it on the concrete of the garage floor and I gave it an indiscriminate wallop with my old Stanley hammer.  This flake was among the results.  But whereas a Neanderthal crafter could make a beautiful, many faceted Acheulian axe or a Levallois cutting tool, I couldn’t.  Maybe with demonstration and practice I could, but without devotion and the “ten thousand hours” of practice, which is not going to happen, I would always be a bodger.

But even the most beautiful stone tool, a work of art, is simple.  It is made out of one substance, it is innate in that substance, as my potentially eyeball-sliceing flint proves, and it is of the simplest topological form, morphable from the sphere.  It was only when a hole in the axehead evolved to accept a haft of wood that it moved to the next topological form, the dough-nut, or toroid.  A torid is a sphere with one hole in it.  A hole is a gap through which finger and thumb will meet.

Now look at our sandals again.  Though papyrus is one plant, from the sandal constructor’s point of view it divides into different materials with different properties, gradations of leaf and stalk, as we have seen.  As for the topology, these sandals have hundreds of holes.  The structural topology, sole with perimeter and twenty three beams, plus the three holes of thong and strap, has according to my reckoning twenty seven holes.  But then we have the weaving and binding.  In weaving you have a warp and a weft.   The warp is a series of parallel cords strung between two beams.  Let us say the warp has one hundred cords.  There are a hundred holes, the spaces between each cord, bounded at each end by a beam.  The first cord of the weft, woven through the warp, doubles the number of holes to two hundred, the next trebles it to three hundred, and if there are a hundred cords in the weft you have a hundred times a hundred, or ten thousand holes.

Clearly the number of holes is not itself a measure of complexity in terms of construction.  Weaving a third or a ninety-ninth cord into the warp is no more complex than the first.  But with the possibility of variation of the texture, colour, substance of the cord, which produce pattern, complexity is inherent in the art and craft of weaving.  The art and craft emerges from the materials that are woven, in this case the stalks and leaves of the Papyrus reed, which have to be selected, collected and  prepared.

A reed bed of papyrus is to the eye and brain a complex pattern of verticals moving in the breeze, maybe dazzling in the sunlight against the glitter of the river and the blue of the sky.  But we must approach it with the attention of the practised sandal maker in whose brain there are already durable registrations of the dynamic relationships between each discrete material type that is derived from leaf and stalk, and the rest of the sandal structure—the semi-stiff woody part that is bundled to make the perimeter of the sole, the beams which build its base and are the warp for the leaf weft, the broad leaf that makes the fan-shaped centrepiece over the junction where thong meets strap.  These registrations meet, in the visual centres and across the brain of the crafter, the various parts of the reed coming in through the eyes and recognised as concordant, as aspects of the same thing, stalk bundle, beam or fan.  And then through coordinated muscle contraction these parts are collected, maybe as a whole plant, but not any whole plant, just the ones that show the best relevant qualities.  And then these plants are taken to the crafting place, the workshop, where there are the necessary and correct tools, for cutting, splitting, stripping; and work surfaces, and bowls for soaking, and fixed pegs for bending, or whatever is necessary.  And maybe all this is done by the sandal maker, or by a harvester who sells the raw material to one who prepares it and sells it to the sandal maker, or perhaps all three work in a co-operative that collectively makes and sells sandals and shares the reward, or in a workshop complex where they are slaves, ultimately their bodies and their product owned by a plutocrat or by Pharaoh himself, we have no means of knowing.

All these parts of the sandal, the sickle for harvesting reed and the flint or metal tools for its preparation are necessary parts of the construction of the sandal.  At any time in the production of anything that we might recognise as a sandal these parts go back into time way before the recallable.  Manufactured cutting tools go back at least a couple of million years, but adventitiously struck flakes that will cut go back many millions more before that.  Cord, string twisted and counter-twisted vegetable fibre, wild liana or narrow strip of hide, are unlike stone, they are organic stuff that rots so we do not know their pre-history, when they first occurred, but weaving itself goes back into the very distant past.  Woven sandals are clearly related in the processes of their origin to the wicker baskets and fish traps, shaped and woven from willow or hazel, that may have preceded them by tens of thousands of years.  But their deep ancestry goes back millions of years before that.


The Hominidae family, Orang utans, Gorillas, Chimpanzees and Humans, split from the Gibbon family around twenty million years ago.  All these apes save Humans weave nest-like beds each night to sleep in in the tops of trees.  Chimpanzees (David R. Samson 1, 2014), as well as simple single strand weave, use basket weave where two or more twigs of the weft cross below and then above two or more twigs of the warp.  They are very particular about choice of materials.  In the groups studied, although Ugandan ironwood only occurred as about ten percent of the chimpanzees’ forest environment, they chose it as nest material around 75% of the time.  This wood not only has the twigs with the highest tensile strength, but the leaves grow closest together, offering padding and insulation.  Weaving, a process which achieved a high level of complexity in pre-industrial times, does not need any human mind, any kind of “rational” insight or pre-conception to account for it, in fact it precludes such metaphysical agency merely by being part of the ape repertoire millions of years before we emerged as part of the ape collective.

Something else has been emerging into plain sight, maybe has been totally obvious all along.  A thong sandal is not a unitary, indivisible entity that could either evolve as such, or be invented as such.  A thong sandal is a locus of space time which one can trace back along a virtually infinite bundle of evolutionary pathways, only one of which is the evolution of types of footwear, though that in itself would be diverse and productive.  There is also the evolution of the tools necessary for the curation, harvesting and manipulation of the component materials, the evolution of the plants that provide those materials, the evolution of the dynamic relationships between these materials and the evolving hominid neuro-skeleto-muscular organism, and the evolution of the environment in which all this took place, the matrix of multiple hominin organisms and their accumulating extended phenotype, their stuff, material culture.  All these necessarily precede the emergence of the woven thonged sandal.  Every emergence of material culture is dependent on its antecedents.  There is nothing in your house which is not divisible in just the way of the sandal into multiple ancestries which go back beyond recorded human history.  It’s what Nick Lane, in purely biological context, calls “the chimeric origin of complexity”.

26.8.146Thus while a woven thong sandal is definitely a thing, in that it is differentiable from a clog, or a gentleman’s brogue, or my Josef Seibels, or these solid gold sandals of the same epoch; or from a bowl or a chariot; it is also an assemblage of proliferating other things of other types, weaves and bindings, cords and beams; just as a human being is differentiable from all other animals, chimpanzee, or scorpion; or from a shirt, or a hat, or a house.  But nonetheless a human being, an evolved entity, is also composed of a proliferating number of differentiated evolved cells, and those cells are composed of differentiated evolved components, mitochondria, membranes, nuclei, DNA and RNA, ribosomes, each with an ancestry which, visible or not, goes back beyond the transition between geology and life.

So while it is quite natural to say that the thonged sandal evolved, just as it is to say the human organism evolved, if we are looking for a precisely focussed locus of replication (and I am) then we must look into the divisible detail of the sandal, just as we, as a species, looked into the divisible detail of biological organisms in order to recognise the gene.  But before I continue that search, there are a few other important points that arise from the sandal.

If it walks like a duck…

Just because something looks like a duck it is not necessarily a duck.  An actual duck, lured down to the water’s surface by the appearance of a couple of others of its species in there by the reeds, and greeted not by friendly quacking but a percussion of the air and a blast of shot which is marginal to it and merely breaks a few wing quills, should learn that lesson, and that duck should in future be more careful to distinguish between a duck of flesh and blood and a plastic decoy.  Nonetheless in general, if something walks like a duck and talks like a duck it is an economical path towards what is the case to, as a first approximation, assume that it is a duck.  Only if it starts to dance a polka or quote the poetry of Rumi should one begin a reassessment, both of the objective form of whatever it is that looks like a duck, and of one’s own perceptual apparatus in connection with, for instance, what one has been ingesting in the proximate past.

In the same way evolution looks like something.  If we accept Darwin’s  theory at all, we assume, merely on the grounds of appearance and behaviour, that a dog is descended from a wolf and not a pig.

But what are sandals descended from?  We must remember the chimeric origin of complexity.  This applies to our species as much as to sandals.  It used to be assumed that we “anatomically modern humans” were descended from a clear line of ancestral hominins, each human feature, domed brain case, prominent chin, evolving alongside the rest in a single species the members of which were much alike.  But Chris Stringer has been saying and writing for years that we are descended from various populations across Africa, each with some “primitive” and some “modern” features.  And then, it seemed all of a sudden this year, this multi-evidenced hypothesis has become the conventional view.  We are the descendants of diverse hominin populations, some with chins but undomed skulls, some with domed skulls but no chins, some with brow ridges, some without, some with big fibre abrading molars like chimpanzees, some with little delicate teeth and weak jaws.  These populations tended to live in isolation, but genetic evidence shows that they sometimes met and interbred, and the eccentric characteristics were distributed by sex, possibly allied to drugs and rock and roll, and then groups became isolated again, and met again, and so on.  Our ancestry is highly reticulated, a network not a tree, with recent intromissions, the transfer of new genetic material between apparent species, from Neanderthals, who we think far more highly of now we know that part of them is part of us.

The same seems to go for sandals.  The soles of Yuya’s  have the same basic structure as a chimpanzee’s bed, a woven platform in the middle and an encircling perimeter.  But it would be a mistake to assume that therefore the sandal is descended from the bed; or even from the shoe.

Function is what something does in the world, but doing something does not suppose agency, if we associate agency with some kind of intention.  We are in a difficult area here.  As human beings we can do things on purpose, or by mistake.  Purpose suggests that before we started doing the thing we had a conscious registration in the brain, vision and action, of what it was we were about to do.  That is what I understand by purpose, and in that purposeful sense, I have agency.  So does a dog when it drops a ball at your feet, to be thrown.  Or a cat when it stands at the closed door, looking meaningfully at it and perhaps meowing.  Where this having a purpose emerged in evolution is open to debate.

A rock that has lain for aeons on a cliff edge that over the course  of a few seconds gives way so the rock plunges into the valley below, causing considerable damage to vegetation and indeed other rocks, does not have agency, and certainly not a purpose.  One could not even say it had a function, because a function implies an action within some replicatable pattern, while the action of the rock was unpredictable and random.  And a rock half buried in the earth beneath a tree, which existed, had extension, took up space, but had no other perceptible function, may at some point become the anvil for a chimpanzee to crack the seeds of the Panda oleosa nut, and at only that point assume a function.  In this sense a function is a derivative of evolution. The rock, to the selecting factor, the chimpanzee, was one of many variants distributed around its environment, and it was only endowed with a function by being selected, and then used, for cracking nuts.  The same goes for the hammer stone—different type, mass and shape—also selected by the chimpanzee as a conveniently situated example of a type.  The precise selected stones, hammer or anvil, were not replicated, as a flaked stone tool might be replicated, but they nonetheless had information for the chimpanzee, that they were the right type for the function being selected for.  When an anthropologist, sitting under a Panda oleosa tree, notices a large stone with a particular shape and mass, bits of seed cortex scattered about the place and  three stones to one side that would comfortably fit the hand of a local ape, they will  that assume that these three stones have been through the brain of a chimpanzee, that that chimpanzee will have spotted them, recognised them, by muscle contraction  collected and assembled them, and that, by this act of collection, the chimpanzee has made manifest its recognition of a type, hammer stone, even though it probably didn’t have a name for it.  Even if collection is not conceded to be proto-replication, it is I think unarguable that it not only precedes it, but is a necessary step in the emergence of active replication, as in striking one chosen stone with another in order to make it better for a function such as cutting.

Replicated objects have at least three functions, the physical, the relational, and the aesthetic.  The physical is the function of a hammer stone, to hit things with.  The relational is the function of “with” at the end of the last sentence.  It could be argued that “with” is not an object, but “with” has physical extension, as a written word, as here (“here” is another relational object) or as a spoken word, or as a registration, in whatever form it takes but inevitably material, in the brain.  Its existence is distributed between these three modes, but if they ceased to exist, the object “with” would cease to exist with them.  The third function is aesthetic.  We tend to dismiss it from analytical discourse as a gratifying incidental, whereas in fact the perception of satisfying surface, hue and form is at the core of hominin evolution, as I either have argued or hope to.

Back to the sole.  It is a testable hypothesis that the sole is ancestral to all footwear.   The functions of footwear are at least three: to protect the foot from insult from below, to keep it generally protected from cold, wet, mud and dust from above; and to display status, judgment and discrimination superior to those who go barefoot.

Figure 5

earliest show 21449.adapt.676.1From what can be inferred from ancient foot bones, it is possible that the evolution of shoes goes back more than forty thousand years, but organic material decays, and the earliest extant shoe is about five and a half thousand years old.  The information latent in Gregory Areshian’s image from the National Geographic (Ravilious, 2010) is that it was constructed in this way.  The person who the shoe was to fit stood on a bit of leather, thus defining the sole.  The leather was then cut in two places, drawn up over heel and instep, and the edges laced together.

The type “whole cut”, up-and-over moccasin shoe has been replicated with fidelity for five and a half millennia, and you can buy Armenian opanke shoes on-line.  But the shoes worn by the “Iceman” hunter who emerged from a melting glacier in the Austrian Alps in 1991 and who lived around the same time, were already more like an industrial standard modern shoe.  The up-and-over shoe involved the cutting of hide, and the cutting off of waste material.  This waste material had shape and form.   It would have been discarded around the emerging shoe and the actual or virtual foot in suggestive ways.  Division of a plane rectangle into various shapes prompts the reverse process, the reassembly of the shapes into the plane rectangle.  Children learn this with simple geometrical jigsaw puzzles.  The off-cuts from the manufacture of an up-and-over shoe would not reassemble into another shoe, or anything like one, but they might well stimulate, over the years and centuries, a bit of playing about, a bit of ludic rearrangement. The emergent forms into which these offcuts could morph were latent in the context, in the visual field, in the shaped pieces of leather waste and the already employed dynamic relationships between already existent shoes, cutting tools, cord and hide and human hand and muscle.  The plan form was the sole, the form up from which the rest of the shoe was pulled and shaped, and this became a discrete foundation upon which a shoe could be constructed from panels.  We don’t and never will know in detail how this happened, but we can be in no doubt that it did.  “Each base [of the Iceman’s shoe] was made from brown bearskin; the side panels were deerskin; and inside was a bark-string net, which pulled tight around the foot” (Ravilious, 2010).  Assembling a shoe from separate panels allowed more precise forming, and also for different materials with different properties, thicker and tougher for the soles, more supple for the sides and insteps, midway for the vamp, the part covering and protecting the instep.  I have an industrially made tough budget shoe here which seems to be make of eleven panels and a sole.  Expensive shoes seem to have less.  There is one on the internet—it costs several thousands of pounds— which seems to resolve into sole, single upper round from toe to the heel, a panel for the laces and two for the ankles; four panels as against eleven.

It seems the oldest footwear ever found is from around eight thousand years ago, in a cave in Missouri, and it is a sandal.  Though ancient beyond recall it was already complex.  This is from the archaeologists’ report at the time of the find:

“The sole is warp-faced interlacing. The vamp is not interworked and is made from lengthwise elements.  The toe is pointed, and the round-cupped sling heel is formed from twisted lengthwise elements.  the sandal also has a pad or lining.  The tie system consists of side loops and a braided cord that criss-crosses through the loops and over the foot and is secured at the ankle (O’Brien, 1998).”

This sandal had not been just invented in the week before its manufacture.  It was derived from a mesh of long-existent crafts.  Already, in around 6000 BCE, shoes were such as could be classified by modern archaeologists as “four sandals and 13 slip-ons”.  That is why, as a first step, it is easier and more precise to study the evolution of physical characteristics, like the woven or knotted or wound cord, rather than of types, such as sandals.

PadukaSo, to return to where we started, the thonged sandal, the pointy one made of papyrus, favoured by the Pharaohs Yuya  or Tjuyu .  The thong element, fixed to the sole below and the strap above, is a rigid member.  In India an ancient and most simple type of footwear is the paduka, a wooden sole with a mushroom-shaped peg that fits between the big and second toe and locates the foot relative

Figure 6 By Pebble101 – Own work, CC BY 2.0,

to the footwear.  As the foot leaves the ground, the mushroom-cap that tops the peg takes the weight of the sole on the two toes, but the heel falls away.  The foot accelerates forward, and the paduka is held by inertia into the space between the toes.  Then the foot decelerates and stops as it rolls to the ground, heel first.  The paduka still has mass and momentum and as there is nothing between the tips of the toes to hold it, it carries on and lands some way in front of the foot.  This is inimical to dignified or functional walking.  To counteract this tendency and hold the sole against the foot, the walker flexes the toes against the front part of the sole and using the peg as a fulcrum lifts the heel, holding it securely against the human sole so that normal walking may continue.  In this operation the peg acts purely as a tension member.

All this theoretical stuff is, as most of what goes on in life, entirely opaque to and unanalysed by the human walker, who sorts it all out at the level of the bones, muscles and CNS without giving it a second thought.

In the 21st Century we are familiar with images of accelerated change.  Freeze frame technology speeds up all sorts of natural processes.  The sun does a quick inverted swoop across the sky, clouds race, belly, darken, rear up, disperse, night follows day, all in a matter of seconds. In the course of a minute a tree will bud, burst into leaf, into blossom, the blossoms fall, berries swell and redden, the leaves wither and fall, the twigs stand bare against the winter sky.  The arctic ice cap will contract and expand over and over again, a year in a minute, though no longer expand as much as it contracts.  A caterpillar becomes an opaque spindle that unfurls into a butterfly as we draw and expel three breaths.  At the beginning of the last century this was a cinematic illusion which seemed real magic to many.  Today it is almost a cliché.

PR img-5If we had the data, the archaeological evidence, we could do the same with the evolution of the flint blade, or the leather shoe, or the woven sandal, and watch their changing forms flow across the centuries in a matter of minutes.  Indeed Augustus Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers suggests exactly that process of one thing morphing into another, in his seminal The Evolution of Culture and Other Essays (Pitt-Rivers, 1906 [1875]).  Pitt Rivers was the first to publish the hypothesis that human material culture evolved; that forms and types were ancestral to subsequent forms and types.  The hypothesis is represented in the illustration below.

He starts with the simple stick at the centre, and each radiation represents an evolutionary line to which the stick is ancestral.  It is easy to see that with enough intermediary examples one could produce a freeze-frame film of a stick morphing into a BIRD CLUB or WAR PICK OR MALGA.  This possibility is amplified in the illustration of “A chronological depiction of Stone Age and Iron Age implements ranging from as early as 1,4 million years ago (Early Stone Age) to as recent as 500 years ago (Iron Age)” at the National Museum, Bloemfontein SA.

Figure 7

Bloem museum exhibition

To the right are the oldest stone tools, so time moves leftwards.  Handheld chopping, digging, bashing stones shrink to a size appropriate to more subtle and complex manipulation by finger and thumb.  Types proliferate, substance alters from stone to metal.  Again the implication is that with enough data there are many, many freeze-frame films to be made from this material.

But, while it certainly seems from all this that a first approximation to what is the case is that a spear is derived from a stick and an arrow from a spear, that a boomerang is also derived from a stick, that a cup is derived from a bowl and not a bowl from a cup, that a surgeon’s scalpel is derived from a flint blade and not vice versa, and that boats went from tree-trunk to dug-out canoe to dhow and there was no likelihood of somebody looking at a dhow and saying, you know what, a tree-trunk would be a jolly good idea, because tree trunks were already in the landscape everywhere there were trees and had been for a lot longer than there were human beings, and this would be pointed out fairly promptly to the “inventor” of the tree trunk.

I dipped into a book, briefly, by one of the more imaginative and mystical “Cultural Evolutionists” of our day who asserted that there had been nothing in principle to prevent some late Paleolithic genius, musing in their cave, coming up with the idea of a nuclear reactor.  One immediately knows that there was precisely zero chance of such an occurrence, so what can this eminent academic been thinking of?  I guess what he, it was a he but I can’t remember who, was working towards in his Cartesian befuddlement was the notion that this Paleolithic genius possessed a “mind” that was in principle, given the human and material context in which the first nuclear reactor emerged, capable of being a functional part of the collective of then existent people, things and processes which produced it.  Even so he, it was also a he I’m afraid, would have needed to have the relevant cultural formation, the same socialisation and education as the rest of the Manhattan Project team.  In other words he wouldn’t be a Paleoithc man sitting in a cave at all.  He would be a fully integrated contemporary mid-twentieth century American.  So the only question at issue is whether there existed, let us say forty thousand years ago, a, or several, or thousands of human beings with brains with this potential.  And the response must be, who knows?   It is an idle question.  We know little enough about how our brains do the things they do, such as mediate the evolution of nuclear reactors, even today.

Meanwhile we have, in the emergence and development of our extended phenotype, what looks like evolution.  We who think Darwinian evolution is the case accept this of animal species.  The giraffe and the okapi are distant cousins genetically, mutual nearest relatives today.  The okapi is in appearance much the same configuration as any other short-necked browsing ungulate, antelope or deer.  And just about between okapi and giraffe, neck-wise, is a seven million year old fossil of a Samotherium major.  The okapi’s neck bones are squat, the giraffe’s are long and slender, and the Samoerium’s were between the two.

So we evolutionists discern this.  The okapi and giraffe are descended from a common, conventionally necked ancestor.  One branch, the okapi, stuck to the forests and and browsed the shrubby undercover at head-height.  It could bend its head down and stretch it up but the most economically available fodder was more or less in front of its nose.  The giraffe on the other hand lives in the woodland savannah and gets its living from the higher parts of trees which other browsers can’t reach.  There are several modern species of giraffe, but the optimum neck length for each is limited by energetics; too long and there are structural costs with the bones and muscle, thus more nutrition is needed and in addition the whole organism becomes increasingly unstable (watch a giraffe drinking), but if the neck is too short, available fodder decreases.  The particular type of wooded savannah in which the giraffe lives selects for neck-lengths among variants in the population, keeping them at around the optimum.

But how do we know that  an animal much like an okapi evolved into a giraffe.  The fossilised bones of the intermediate species tell us precisely.  If we had enough fossils of other intermediates, quarter, two thirds of the way between an okapi and a samotherium, and again between  a samotherium and a giraffe, and could progressively fill in all the gaps, we could make a freeze-frame film of the skeletal journey beween giraffe and its common ancestor with the okapi.  In fact the samotherium is not the direct ancestor of the giraffe, its exact line became extinct.  And it has to be remembered that very few dead animals become fossilised, otherwise we would find fossilised bones wherever we dig.  But somewhere in the universe there will be all the molecules of the bones of all actual giraffe ancestors.  We cannot possibly re-assemble them, but it is possible that some other fossilised intermediate will show up, and this piece of evidence become another frozen frame in the film connecting the two.

In this kind of case we don’t need proof, because there is nothing to prove.  The cervical vertebrae of okapi, giraffe and samotherium all exist.  What we are establishing is a general theory that predicts a pattern, that within a time frame A to B, before A no okapis or giraffes existed, only an animal ancestral to both, and by B both okapi and giraffe existed, and between A and B examples may be found of animals with neck lengths somewhere between those of the modern okapi and the modern giraffe.

When creationists say that evolution has never been proved it is not clear what kind of proof they are looking for.  There are many kinds of proof.  Even mathematical proofs do not always have the same form.  Proving to a distant and sceptical insurance company that your house has been destroyed by an earthquake is not the same as proving that earthquakes, within a range of variables, destroy houses.  Proof can rest on prediction—that a dynamic relationship between X and Y under a limited range of circumstances is always followed by Z, as in 2H+ O2  →  2H20.  On  theother hand, if one morning you find a toad in your medicine cupboard and also there is an earthquake in the course of which your house falls down, you (normally) assume that the destruction of your house was caused by the earthquake, not the toad in the bathroom cupboard or any putative witchcraft practitioner who put it there.  If you are standing in the rubble and an agent of the insurance company shows up, looks at the mess and, despite the fact that what was you house is surrounded by hundreds of other piles of rubble that were also recently houses, demands proof that your house in particular was destroyed by the earthquake, and did not for instance spontaneously fall down all of its own accord five minutes before any seismic activity was recorded, you would have to rely, as would a court, on likelihood.

We human beings employ, consciously or not, Ockham’s razor, which says that the simplest account that is consistent with what is the case (the house has fallen down) is the most likely to be the most correct.  The toad in the medicine cupboard hypothesis requires another account to make it worthy of consideration; a sketching in of the mechanism by which a toad in the medicine cupboard might cause the destruction of a house in a way that the quaking of its foundations did not.  This might lead to a hypothesis that the toad caused the earthquake.  The hypothsiser would then have to account for the fact that in your town hundreds of other houses were destroyed at the same time as yours, none of which, to anyone’s knowledge, had toads in the medicine cupboard, or even had medicine cupbards.  “Well”, the hypothsiser might adjoin, “the toad doesn’t have to be in the medicine cupboard, it could be…”  This is what William of Ockham meant by multiplicanda entia sine necessitate, the proliferation of sub-explanations in order to justify the initial explanation, rather than accepting the simple version, that your house fell down during an earthquake because of the earthquake.

Darwin’s theory of evolution—replication, variation, selection— fits the case better than any other.  My Bahá’í friend subscribes to the God did it hypothesis, but then you have to prove the existence of God and, there being no evidence, that leads to an unending series of confabulations totally contrary to the parsimony of Ockam’s rule—though there is little doubt that William took the existence of God as axiomatic.   Plant and animal breeding works in much the same way as natural selection, but with human organisms as a major part of the selecting environment.  And evolution can take place in observable time, as recounted on page (?), the Alaskan island sticklebacks (Lescak, 2015).  Presumably, if you knew all the variables in the gene pools and the selecting environments of these sticklebacks, it would be possible to predict the evolutionary outcome.  In practice, the variables are inumerable, the evidence already lost, and thus computation not even theoretically possible.  On the other hand, and significantly, we can bundle variables into heuristically manageable sets and, operating with these, make a fair approximation of evolutionary outcomes.  Thus, where there is a variability in the salinity of pools, one would expect alterations in the functions of the kidneys and the molecular pumps in the gills, and would look there for evolutionary changes.  If you found these changes you would assume that they had been selected from variations present in the founder stickleback population, variations that had clustered around the optimum for their original brackish environment.  This evolutionary step would likely result in a loss of phenotypical adaptability to various levels of salinity, which would be redundant, and therefore relatively costly, in the context of a freshwater terrestrial pool.

This is the level at which Darwin’s theory works.  It fits the case, and it is predictive within limits.  .  This does not mean that it is the absolute and unmodifiable truth, but it is the best we have.  In practice, Darwin’s theory is so much more testable against and concordant with the evidence, so much more powerful in its simplicity than any alternative that at the moment there is not rival in sight.  It does not specify nor need genes, though genes are undoubtedly the case, and if it is demonstrated, as it may be, that there is an epigenetic mechanism by which phenotypically acquired characterstics can be inherited by downstream generations, that does not destroy, or even disrupt, Darwin’s theory.  It may rupture the Weissmann barrier, it may cause Richard Dawkins to eat his hat, though I wouldn’t myself hold such a great populariser of rigorous science to his undertaking, but Darwinism will not be affected.

Apparently the use of the word theory gives some creationists comfort.  “It’s only a theory, it’s not a fact”.  This is to misunderstand the particular use of the word theory.  A theory is an account of what is the case, as in E=mc2.  It is a formulation that is concordant with what is the case insofar as it complies with the strictures of the preceding paragraphs.  The Theories of Gravity, Special and General Relativity, and of Evolution, are going to be modified and modulated as long as the overall coherence of the human extended phenotype remains intact.  Newton’s account of gravity has been superseded in some particulars, but it is not wrong, any more than the samotherium was wrong because it was not a giraffe.  Newton’s theory still accounts for the orbit of the moon around the earth, and the planets around the sun.  It just ignores relatavistic effects, of which Newton knew nothing, nor could he without the work of, among others, Faraday and Maxwell, which took place long after his death.

But just because the way that shoes and sandals, or blades, or modified sticks (the billiard cue, the selfie-stick) change through the ages looks like evolution, that does not mean that it is evolution.  For me evolution is the most likely explanation by some orders of magnitude.  The “rational mind” or an innate faculty that out of “thought” or “creative” or “innovative” or “inventive” energy produces from a vision of the future new types that are independent of the information latent in all the material culture that exists at that date do not sit well with Ockham’s Razor.  But in order to give evolution a chance I must show that, and by what mechanism, things-in-the-world, stone, stick, passenger jet, are replicating.

Before that there is just one other significant point to be made.  Broadly speaking, biological evolution takes place in populations, not in individuals.  This does not mean that populations rather than individuals evolve, but that for selection to take place there must be a gene pool distributed among the collective of phenotypes which constitutes the population, so that there are alternatives to choose between.  At the gene level the alternatives are alleles.  An allele is where two alternative genes (one from the egg or one from the sperm) fit the same site in the chromosome, and only one can occupy it.  If in a species of bird the allele for blue outer tail feathers gets to occupy the outer tail feather site on the chromosome, the outer tail feathers will be blue, and If the allele for green outer tail feathers gets to occupy the outer tail feather site, the outer tail feathers will be green.   Most genes do not have alleles in this sense.  The genes for ribosomal DNA are fairly invariant through the history of Life.  Ribosomal DNA is absolutely fundamental to the translation of a gene into a protein.  It is not to be messed about with.  The colour of tail feathers is important to sexual selection, but it is not fundamental to the viability of the organism.  This is a simplistic account, but with broad brush strokes represents the case.

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

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


Two significant experiments

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

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

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


This suggests that a lot of the evolution of our culture, the human phenotype, happens without our being conscious of it, without our foresight and planning.  Foresight and planning require that we have a clear and accurate vision of the way our culture should be in the future.  But culture evolves in ways that we might, if we could have foreseen them, tried to prevent or ameliorate.  The socialised manufacture of of global warming that degrades our planetary environment to the extent that it can no longer support a significant fraction of its previous biome is just one example.  The effect of cell phones on human behaviour is a more particular case.  When 1G cell phones first emerged in the 1970s they were to a large extent ridiculed and resisted.  “This coolness arises…partly from the incredulity of men, who do not believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.” (Machiavelli, [1513] 1993)  The object, the cell phone, is the direct cause of new and extraordinary behaviour, like people standing in the street apparently shouting at thin air, or in a situation where in earlier times they might have chatted with the bodies around them, laughing or arguing and articulating with hands, shoulders, eyes, now sitting in a line, still and mute and head down and fixated on an unfleshed world beyond their little screens; or parents walking along the road, deep in what is to their infant is mere undircted jabber, while the infant might be looking for verbal and conceptual occupation; none of these outcomes were conceived, any more than the actual almost miraculous scope of the 5G phone, with its four and a half billion transistors, was foreseen in the Seventies of the last century.

You might say, but look, human flight, space travel, all sorts of things were imagined long before they were realised.  Yes they were, but only in terms of whatever existed at the time, never in terms of the emergent form.  Leonardo foresaw a flight machine, but not the Wright biplane, let alone the Boeing Dreamliner.  Rockets have whooshed into the sky towards, though not very far towards, the moon and stars for the last seven hundred years, but nobody foresaw the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket vehicle which launched the Parker Solar Probe this week, the satellite payload of which will have to reach 700,000 kph in order to enter a close orbit with the sun.  The work on the emblamatic “rocket science” (that so many things are not), carried out by the Nazi Werner von Braun in Germany and the USA, was a crucial intermediary between the first Chinese arrow boosters and the current most sophisticated space launch vehicles, and the makers of the emergent rocket proplled arrows in the 14thC clearly had no pre-vision of the United Launch Alliance Delta IV, any more than I did when reading about Space Captain Dan Dare in The Eagle comic in the 1950s.

Not only do human beings have no  vision of the future as it varies from the present, but often a very imperfect understanding of the now in front of their eyes.  This was demonstrated by an experiment (Derex, Bonnefon, Boyd and Mesoudi (DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/GE7CS, no other reference) which Maxine Drex presented at the Tartu conference 2018.  This paper has not as I write been published so the following is from the abstract and from memory.

In the experiment the initial participants were presented with a ramp, a hub with four spokes at the cardinal points of the compass, and four weights one of which could be placed at a number of determinate points on each spoke.  It was a transmission chain experiment, and the task was to determine the optimum placing of the four weights for the shortest possible rolling time between the top and a set point on the ramp.  Each initial paricipant was given five trials, and the results of the last two, both the placing of the weights and the average speed, were passed on to the next participant in the chain, which was five participants long.

By the end of the chain the time taken for the centre of the hub to pass the finishing line had decreased, tending towards the optimum.

In a second version of the experiment, the participants were allowed to pass on not only the data for their last two results, but also their hypothesis about the optimum placing of the weights.

The additional information, the hypotheses, made no significant difference to the outcome.  In fact Maxime said that a) some of the hypotheses were very weird indeed, and that b) it was not formally possible to work out a solution without knowing the diameter of the hub and the distance between start and finish on the ramp.

So no participant had a formally coherent, verbally expressible hypothesis about the system that was of use to the next person in the chain.  And yet along the chain performance improved towards the optimum.

The title of the paper was Causal understanding is not necessary for the improvement of culturally evolving technology, and the experimenters were focussed on establishing whether this was true.

Clearly the participants had to have had some degree of causal understanding of the system, otherwise their choices would have been entirely haphazard.  They might have understood that the weight placed at the outer end of a lever moving downwards will have more axial force than one placed at the inner, hub end of the lever; while not understanding that placing a weight at the outer end of the lever increases the moment of inertia of the whole wheel, which has a negative effect on its acceleration.  So what the participants lacked was an exhaustive, coherent and unified theoretical understanding, such that could produce by means of calculation the optimum result without physical trial.  They had partial, particulate understanding, but not total understanding.

The breakthrough result of this experiment is that it demonstrates in a clean, uncluttered setting that the solution to problems can evolve where two dimensions interact; the accumulation of particulate causal understanding, and feedback, that is to say selection, from the proximate environment, in this case the experimental apparatus.  The reciprocal of this relationship is also the case, but that is to over-complexify things at this point.

To generalise, human collectives (here modeled in the transmission chain) can have a distributed particulate understanding of a system.  The serial nature of the experiment, first one participant and then the next, delivers the misleading impression that the emergence of the near-optimum result is achieved in a series of, admittedly cryptic, logical steps which themselves are based on the logic inherent in the partial and particulate knowledge of causation in the transmission chain.  But this would be to suppose that by chance each chain of five participants was ordered 12345 in a sequence whereby the small discrete logical sequences of their particulate understanding met as it were end to end in a superordinate logical sequence, one set of axioms and their conclusion, though only part of the problem, leading neatly to the next.  This so unlikey as to be hardly worth testing, which is lucky, because to test it you would have to run each chain 120 timesin all their possible sequences, inducing in each participant a precise and total amnesia about the previous sequence before starting the next.

This strongly suggests that, though time is a necessary dimension in which the experiment took place, the functional causal understanding is distributed in a way indifferent to time sequence, as it were in a three dimensional space in which the direction of time is irrelevant as far as running order, and therefore order of bits of understanding, is concerned, but crucial for the sequence of instances of selection by the apparatus.

Put at its most plonkingly obvious, for the solutions to move towards the optimum, it is not the causal understanding of any individual brain which is necessary for this movement, but the causal understanding of the collective of the five members of the chain, as selected by the apparatus.

For something to be selected upon, there must be discrete variation, as with alleles on the chromosome.  At the particulate level of analysis, at whatever scale one can posit alternatives, the participants must be choosing between one thing or its alternative, the things or their alternatives being possibly arranged in multi-dimensional interactive hierarchies.  This is the kind of thing the human brain does, and is extremely good at.  The fact that the experimenters themselves do think it worth of note demonstrates that the process is almost totally opaque to the functions of the brain that constitute what we each refer to (in English) as I or me.  I will come to this “self” in time.  Meanwhile the objective situation remains, that neither the participants nor the experimenters had any idea of what the process of selection was, nor what at the particular scale the alternative units of selection are.  So that’s the big question: in the evolution of human culture, what are the discrete objects constituting the collective upon which selection is made.  It’s another way of saying, we are in search of a replicator.

That is the huge value of the Drex&c experiment, that it tacitly frames that question with relentless inevitability.

That inevitability is born out “in the field”.  Chris Buckley’s and Eric Boudot’s The Evolution of an Ancient Culture (Buckley, 2017) describes and examines the evolution of looms in East and Southeast Asia.  The scope and depth of this study is to me awe-inspiring.  I hope it will be seen as one of the great landmarks in the study of the evolution of the material culture of Homo sapiens.  I will quote the parts that are most relevant to our purpose, and comment on them, but these quotes give little indication of the range and complexity of the cladistic and phylogenetic analysis.

It is not necessary for a novice weaver to have a general understanding of how the loom works (a ‘theory of the loom’) in order to begin weaving.

This makes the point I have already made with the apprentice brick maker, that you learn by doing, not by theory.

In the case of the complex frame looms and patterning devices used in [Southwest China], weavers are unable to recreate these devices from memory, and only a small proportion of talented weavers appear to understand in detail how they work. A carpenter can help a weaver to make a copy of a loom, but only if an existing model is available.

This emphasises the amount of information inherent in the object, the thing-in-the-world.  I guess demonstration of “understanding in detail how they work” was dependent on the presence of the loom, and was of the “this does this which leads to that” basis, with hand gestures the eye movements of the explainee could follow, and not a purely verbal account in the absence of a loom.  “Weavers are unable to recreate these devices from memory” substantiates the general point, that all our knowledge of our material culture depends on its persistent presence in the world, and if it were all to disappear on the instant, our “knowledge” would vanish with it.

For example, in one village in Guangxi where a particularly complex loom with a pattern-recording system is employed, only one weaver could be found who had the skill necessary to construct a patterning system for a new motif [13]. It appears that the level of skill needed to modify or renew a patterning system has always been relatively rare, with most households relying on hand-me-down pattern systems that have been in use for several generations.

My knowledge of weaving goes little further than the enormous-pixel particulate understanding of “there is a warp and there is a weft.”

Buckley loom with pattern drumHowever, as (Buckley, 2017)’s illustration shows, evolved looms are a lot more sophisticated than that.  The patterns woven are beautiful as well as complex, and are recorded in the toroidal “drum” hanging from a beam at the top.  I have absolutely no idea how this works.  What can be advanced from the evidence as a first assumption is that if all these drums, the physial loci of the pattern-making system, were simultaneously lost, they could not be recovered from particulate understanding of the system remaining in the collective of human brains.  They would be extinct.  The most it appears that the particulate understanding of a rare expert can achieve is “to [exercise] the skill necessary to construct a patterning system for a new motif”.  It would be of huge interest to know how new drums do emerge, which they evidently do, or at least did before being swamped by industrialisation.  It is possible, for instance, that none was ever constructed all at once and as a whole.  The armature around which they are constructed is presumably a simple given and relatively easy to assemble, whereupon patterns might be added one at a time, by the above expert, whose existence was crucial, as and when required, until the drum became full or worn out; and each drum was possibly unique in its particulate configuration.  These developing pattern drums contained and could transmit the particulate understanding, how to construct the patterning system for a new motif, which was all that was necessary for the emergence of a new drum.

The outstanding characteristics of the transmission processes are a lengthy apprenticeship that encourages ‘over-learning’, the orientation of older weavers towards detecting and correcting errors (deviations from tradition practice) and the codification of complex tasks into ritualized procedures. All of these features tend to increase the fidelity of transmission and discourage innovation.

Here we have the ground state necessary for evolution, replication with fidelity over time, with the margin of minute variation which is available to selection kept to a minimum.  The dangers of “innovation” and “invention” are apparent.  If an autocrat dictated that all present pattern drums were to be destroyed by fire and replaced with a model invented by one of his favourites, and it was discovered a little way down the line that the new model had severe limitations, in fact was rubbish, the old pattern drums would be unrecoverable.  Thus

Our analysis of the transmission processes of traditional weaving cultures, however, shows that actual behaviours are mostly concerned with reducing errors and discouraging innovation.

In both the Derex, Bonnefon, Boyd and Mesoudi experiment, and Buckley and Boudot’s paper, two big rivers meet; data from things-in-the-world, and a process of selection upon particulate information which is replicated with fidelity but has an envelope of fractional variation; data and Darwin.

The task still remains, to identify the replicator.