Paul Smaldino, models and @CESConf2017

It has been clear to me for some years  that  the publication of Peter J Richerson’s and  Robert Boyd’s Not by Genes Alone (Boyd, 2005), while a great boost for the notion of cultural evolution, was a disastrous block on any progress in the field.

I have the book open here, Chapter Three.  The first heading is Culture Evolves.  That’s okay as a belief, (one that I wholeheartedly share) but as a rigorous statement it is a portmanteau of all the errors.  It is along the same lines as Life Evolves.  What constitutes life is a much argued question with many fine distinctions, perhaps the  best to do with entropy, and the only thing about life that can be said to evolve is the concept itself.  Otherwise we are talking about combinations of stuff evolving, probably in alkali deep ocean vents; hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, iron, sulphur.  The same is true of culture.  Culture is a great, diffuse, cloudy phantasm, not a thing, not stuff, and culture therefore does not and cannot evolve.

The next heading is Culture is (mostly) information in brains.  If by culture B&R mean information in brains, this is so, if  circular.  If by culture they mean everything that has exited a human brain as muscle-contraction that results in the accumulation of the extended human phenotype, which is what I mean by culture, then the statement “Culture is (mostly) Information in Brains” is not only untrue, it is profoundly misleading.  It excludes the present thirty trillion tons of the technosphere, the extended human phenotype, without the evolution of which the evolution of the  hominin organism to its present condition would not have happened.

Finally we have two totally contradictory headings; Cultural evolution is Darwinian and Replicators are not necessary for cumulative evolution.  The first I hold to be true, and the second is nonsense.  The evolution of human beings is necessarily interdependent with the evolution of their extended phenotype, and it is at least parsimonious to assume that where mutualism exists the organism and its extended phenotype evolve by the same process.  And Darwinian evolution cannot happen without replication.

It is the widespread acceptance by cultural evolutionists of “replicators are not necessary for cumulative evolution” that is the sealed chamber that cultural evolution as an academic discipline has been wandering around in for the last two decades.  The blunt assertion of a dogma that is in total contradiction to the evidence of the extended phenotype is accepted unquestioningly by a whole generation.

The results are clear.  In the past couple of decades the academic study of cultural evolution has produced no single model of any use or value (I exclude linguistics here.  Culture and language are interactive, but they are not the same thing).  And this brings us to Models Are Stupid, and We Need More of Them, Paul E. Smaldino .  It is succinct and definitive, and everybody interested in cultural evolution should read it.

Towards the end of this pre-publication book chapter, Smaldino gives an example of a useful model:

“Charles Darwin, to give an extreme example, laid almost all the foundations of modern evolutionary biology without writing down a single equation. That said, evolutionary biology would surely have stagnated without the help of formal modelling. Consider that Darwinism was presumed to be in opposition with Mendelian genetics until modellers such as R. A. Fisher and Sewall Wright showed that the two theories were actually compatible.” Models Are Stupid, and We Need More of Them, Paul E. Smaldino

Smaldino observes that in much scientific progress there is a process, and the quote above is exemplary.  The process starts with a verbal model.  On the Origin of Species is just such a model.  It is compiled in natural language, of words, and relates to what can be perceived by the senses of most human beings.  It relates to plants and animals, things that we look at and touch; and the way they change over time.  And within that verbal model, where the meaning is distributed around a huge collection of things, the beaks of finches and the tumbling behaviour of certain pigeons and the fossilised skeletons of creatures which did exist but have not existed for millions of years, there is the potential for another kind of definable structure which is both simpler, in that the number of terms is hugely both generalised reduced, and more complex, in that the practice of understanding it itself takes specific time and effort.  This model, pared of all natural detail, presented only in symbols, is the formal model which, in the Darwin case, R. A. Fisher and Sewall Wright distilled from Darwin’s words.  The relationship between Michael Faraday’s verbal and visual model of electro-magnetism and James Clerk Maxwell’s mathematical model was of the same concordance.

Not all grand theories are built on verbal models.  Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity was derived from a second order modelling, the slight discrepancy between Newton’s mathematics and James Clerk Maxwell’s.  From Einstein onwards verbal models all but disappear from cosmological physics, leaving only maths.

But cultural evolution has not yet reached the Darwin stage, and sorely needs a verbal model, one that does not have a special, solipsistic, merely circularly validating vocabulary, but something that could be intelligibly, and with a straight face, reported in the serious newspapers of the world.  Or rather cultural evolution had entered the Darwin stage more than a century ago, but was suddenly closed off from scientific discourse by Boyd and Richerson’s  Replicators are not necessary for cumulative evolution in 2005.  Exactly why this happened itself demands a cultural evolutionary explanation for which this is not the place.  The Restless Clock (Riskin, 2016) gives an excellent historical framework on from which such an explanation might be derived.

I started writing this as Paul Smaldino was participating in the highly successful inaugural meeting of the Cultural Evolution Society in Jena.  In the pre-publication chapter he says generally of the formal model: “The precise specification of parts and relationships is what defines a scientific question and separates it from wishy-washy pseudotheory that is unfalsifiable and distracting“ (Popper 1963; Gigerenzer 1998; Smaldino in press-a).  To be honest I had expected the Jena conference to produce little precise specification of parts and rather a lot of wishy-washy pseudo-theory that was unfalsifiable and distracting.  And there was some of the former, the old-guard of the American Evolution Institute being wheeled out to chant the dogma of group selection and the theology of “prosociality”.  But I was surprised and much cheered by a lot of what went on (accessible to me only by tweets, but tweets can say a lot).  It’s too early to be sure, but there are signs that Cultural Evolution might be shaking off the shackles that Boyd and Richerson imposed and working towards a determination to produce a verbal model.  I can’t resist a bit of a poem from the very early Enlightenment:

Forsake thy cage/ Thy rope of sand/ That cunning thoughts have made/ And made to thee good cable/ To enforce and draw/ And be thy law/ When thou didst wink and wouldst not see.                                                                                               The Collar, George Herbert

Three quoted tweets from the CES conference:

“What biological/mental phenotype underlies the phenomena of human groups?”

This question conveys a sense of the kind of lazy pseudo-theory that cultural evolution has been contaminated with these last two decades.  I could analyse it, or rather reduce it to its opaque soup of second-order tautology (because first order tautology relies on the equivalence of two meanings, whereas even the hoped-for meaning of “mental phenotype” or “phenomena of human groups” are absent; but what’s the point?)

“cultural evo doesn’t have it’s Watson & Crick yet” OR Maybe we do but they’re still looking for their Rosalind Franklin   ?? #CESConf17 Limor Raviv? @Limor_Raviv Sep 13

Exactly.  Franklin, Watson and Crick gave us the double helix, something as verbal and visual as Faraday’s lines.  So we, or at least some of us, are looking for a verbal model, or one perceivable by the senses.

“MH: Every artefact entails a sequence of prior events. Chunking & chaining these facilitates cultural modification, accumulation #CESconf17”

“MH: what cultural performances can we extract from a bone needle? Artefacts not just material: are embodied, enacted, developed #CESConf17”

And thus Dr Miriam Heidel, oh the joy, the sheer poetry, guides us out of the darkness towards the inception of a verbal model.

I say inception, but of course it’s been about for a long time.

The dates 1791-1882 cover the lives of Faraday, Darwin and Maxwell, and we can add a fourth of the same epoch, Augustus Lane-Fox, a.k.a. Pitt Rivers, 1827-1900.  Pitt Rivers produced a model of the evolution of human material culture which can be succinctly represented thus:

This suggests at least two things; first that a lot of hominin culture exists, has extension, outside hominin brains; and second, that this culture which exists outside brains evolves.

The first suggestion is non-controversial.  Human material culture alone exists outside human brains to the extent of the present thirty trillion tons of the technosphere.

The second suggestion seemed obvious to Pitt Rivers, who lived in the same intellectual milieu as Darwin.  He saw, or imagined, a phylogenetic pathway through these projectile points.

I’m not suggesting he was absolutely right.  The illustrated data is clearly untrustworthy, assembled in a certain order merely to prove a point (ha ha).  But that is not a reason to discard his intuition, that in some way material culture, which I think it is more demanding of careful study to call the extended human phenotype, evolved according to Darwin’s model.

Certainly it is safe to assert that leaving this extended phenotype out of our considerations of human culture is rather the same as arbitrarily excluding Faraday’s model from Maxwell’s equations, or Darwin’s model from Mendel’s genetics.

There is an additional reason to include the hominin extended phenotype in any model of cultural evolution, and it is this.  The modern school portrays cultural evolution as a-historical.  It bases its notions on a snapshot of the way it perceives human beings as being today.  This snapshot is composed of non-modellable fictions, abstract conglomerates of “behaviour” abstracted from its material matrix (how do you make a cup of coffee without a cup, without coffee, without a heat source?); beliefs, traits, prosociality, norms, biases.  The intention behind this obfuscation, subconscious or not, is clear; to remove human beings from nature, and put them back as the creatures of the Pentateuch, as the sole beneficiaries of the Cartesian rational soul.  Fair enough, if you’re that way inclined and have the money.  But that was a historical phase, and it’s time to leave it behind us.

Once Homo sapiens is restored to history and history to Homo sapiens we can ditch all the grandiloquent metaphysical guff and get back to studying hominin evolution, including that of the ever-proliferating extended phenotype.  If we are to assert that that did not evolve alongside and through the hominin organism, then we have to come up with some pretty good, and at the moment absent model of how it came into existence.

I repeat Dr Haidle’s magnificent tweeted wisdom:

“MH: Every artefact entails a sequence of prior events. Chunking & chaining these facilitates cultural modification, accumulation #CESconf17”

“MH: what cultural performances can we extract from a bone needle? Artefacts not just material: are embodied, enacted, developed #CESConf17”

This is the future.


Why extended cultural evolution is a mirage


This is a picture of cultural evolution.


Figure 1.


This is not a picture of cultural evolution


Richerson phoney graph

Figure 2.   BEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES (2016), Page 1 of 68 doi:10.1017/S0140525X1400106X, e30


…although this is also a picture of cultural evolution.


rate change tool variety UCSB

Figure 3.

The difference between Figures 1. and 3. on the one hand, and Figure 2. on the other, is that 1. and 2. are pictures of things, of a clay tablet with hieroglyphics on it, or of types of tool.

Looking at the three images as images, one might initially think that Figure 2. and Figure 3. have more in common with each other than either has with Figure 1., because 2. and 3. are graphs and 1. is a photograph.  And that is true.  But it is in the case of what each represents that the deeper difference lies.

The photo first; it’s obviously of a thing, a thing in the world, a clay tablet, with what has been the signal for existence since the first millennium BCE; extension.  Extension means a thing has qualities that we can perceive with our senses (and how else can we perceive anything?); a thing with extension can be seen, often heard, touched, counted, photographed, weighed or in some way measured.  It also has a specified identity.  It can be a clay tablet or a stone tool or a tunneling  electron microscope or a Higgs particle or a gravity wave.  The last two are perhaps the most difficult things to weigh or measure in the universe, and it can only be done indirectly because neither is directly perceivable to our senses.  But it is only by seeing or weighing or measuring things, even if only indirectly, that we can know that they exist.

So that’s extension, and it is only with things that have extension that science can work.  The extension of a thing is an actual physical fact, the room it takes up in the dimensions of spacetime.  Nothing that does not have extension can exist.

Figure 3. represents things with extension.  Clearly it doesn’t represent everything individually, in this case every stone tool that has ever been made.  It represents what we mean when we say “stone tool”, a type of thing which is different from everything that is not a stone tool, a hammer made of metal for instance or an elephant.  You know without pausing that this…



…is a stone tool, and not a metal hammer or an elephant.  And Figure 3. represents not just the type, stone tool, but the types within the type: stone axe, blade, chisel, stone projectile point, and more.  So 3. is a graph of a complex category of things with extension in spacetime and how that category increased in content over time.

Now look at Figure 2.. It certainly is a representation of categories, though you could not call them types: religious, political, ethnic, nations/provinces.  The first thing that should make us suspicious is that these labels are not even in the same grammatical category.  The first three are adjectives, the fourth consists of two nouns, the first predicated on ethnicity and polity, the second on lines on a map.  If this had been presented to me by an undergraduate I’d have suggested to them that a graph has to plot like with like, and then sent them away to think about a very basic lesson in organisation of emiprical data.  You cannot have a graph for example of [incidence of knife crime in a community] plotted against [virtuous]. That is plainly absurd.  So to present a graph of four variables, three of which are described by adjectives and one by a noun, is already beyond the possibilities of a two dimensional representation.  But there are further catastrophic errors.  The first is that the terms, let’s take “religious”, are totally underspecified, they have no precise referent.  The term could refer to a religious person, festival, rite, ceremony, statue or other things that have extension, some of them like rites and festivals very complex extension, and they are hard to weigh or measure but you can certainly see or hear them.  However, with the word religious we are only presented with the ghosts of an uncountable number of measurable entities, all lumped under one label in a graph; a label which is something that has no extension, religious; an adjective.  An adjective can only gain extension by being coupled with a noun, as in [religious painting].  This overspecified term “religious” as a function or variable has absolutely no place in mathematics, statistics or science.  Exactly the same applies to the categories “politcal” and “ethnic”.

Thus figure 3. represents a “res non entia”, a thing which does not exist.  It is a deception, a fraud, a pretense of clear thought where clear thought is emphatically absent.  Whether the producers of such mirages are sincere, and deluded, or as some have suggested have merely cynically carved out a niche for themselves in academia, in which they can pay the mortgage and put food on the table for the family (admirable in themselves) we can never know and it doesn’t matter.  But such perversion of a field of enquiry, that of cultural evolution, does matter.  It occupies  and then poisons the field where a proper scientific theory of the evolution of human beings might emerge, and that is a crime against truth.

It, what I shall for the moment call Cultural Evolution (Ext. Synth.), has another grave disadvantage.  In science, smoke and mirrors can produce nothing of interest.  The Findings and Conclusions of Cult. Evo. (Ext. Synth.) are , in every case that I have come across, circular.  They start with an underspecified proposition, do some fancy statistics, and conclude with the same underspecified proposition.

I repeat what Daniel Kahneman says in Thinking Fast And Slow; “People can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers”.

In science, you perceive (with the senses) in the world (as did Faraday) and then a mathematician explores the maths that is concordant with your perceptions (as did Maxwell).  Cult.  Evo. (Ext. Synth.) must  come to its senses.


Cultural evolution is Darwinian, not a Sociology Just So Story


In every case of biotic obligate symbiosis between an organism and its extended phenotype, the evolving extended phenotype is a significant part of the symbiont’s evolutionary environment.

That statement sounds like gobbledygook, so let’s clarify a few terms.  Obligate symbiosis in biology means when two types, usually two different organisms, are totally dependent on each other; like us and our gut flora.  Each without the other would die.  Extended phenotype is everything outside the organism that the organism produces, for instance a bird’s nest.

The obligate symbioses of web spinning spider and web, of bird and nest, of beaver and dam, of coral polyp and reef, could never have evolved into its present complexity, or indeed at all, in the absence of web, nest, dam or reef.  It is even more obvious that neither web, nor nest, dam nor reef could have evolved without the concomitant organism of spider, bird, beaver and coral polyp.

So the question arises, if evolution of its extended phenotype is so clearly a necessary condition of the evolution of each of these obligate symbionts in the natural world, why is exactly the same not true of the line of evolution in the natural world that led from early hominins to homo sapiens?  I can think of only two possible answers.

The first is, it isn’t true because Homo sapiens does not have an extended phenotype.  Nothing exists outside the envelope of our bodies that has in any way been mediated by the brains and muscles of our species.  That may be true, but if so we must find another way of accounting for the thirty trillion tons of the technosphere that has brought about the mooted new geological age of the Anthropocene; all those houses, cups, knives, factories, cathedrals, mosques, steel, plastic bags, aeroplanes, disposable coffee cups, smartphones, concrete; like I say, 30,000,000,000 tons and rising exponentially.  If human brain and muscle did not produce them, what did?

The second answer is more an explanation of why we don’t believe that our extended phenotype has anything do with who we are.  Human beings, like all animals, are very conformist.  We do what others do and we believe what others believe.  And very often what others believe is not in fact the case.  As Daniel Kahneman says in Thinking Fast And Slow, “People can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers”.

Since Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 we, the “universally educated”, have notionally subscribed to the hypothesis that we humans are not the Abrahamic God’s special creation but, like all the living world, organisms that evolved over more than three billion years from one prokaryotic common ancestor.  But 1859 was only around a century and a half ago, and the deepest held human beliefs just don’t change that quickly.  Added to which even the most educated people have no idea of the simple ground plan of Darwinian evolution, and that seems to include an awful lot of academics who practise the narrative arts of sociology, anthropology, psychology and history.  So the latent and opaque belief that emerged probably within the last ten thousand years is still with us in all its archaic glory.  It still says, in a roundabout and obscure way, that we are creatures formed in the Creator God’s image, and that the technosphere, let us say the Taj Mahal or the Large Hadron Collider, are not a result of our evolved symbiosis, but are spontaneous products of our “creativity”, the secondary, material outcome of our “thought” and “reason” and “imagination”.  Most academics in the field of human evolution are alongside Yuval Harari when he writes, in his world-famous history book Sapiens, that the whole technosphere is a result of a genetic mutation around seventy thousand years ago, which resulted in a miraculously transformed brain, the Cognitive Revolution, the “fully modern mind”, and the thirty trillion tons of the technosphere.

I, and very few others in the narrative arts, in fact very few others outside evolutionary science, do understand the ground plan of Darwinian evolution which is, in a nutshell; observed phylogenetic heritability, incessant replication with fidelity, an envelope of fractional variation, selection by external factors.

And, rather than the miracle working of sociologists and cognitive evolutionists, I propose the following narrative, which depends not on one single huge genetic leap from animal to human, but on the evolution of the hominin organism and its extended phenotype in tandem over three million years.

It starts a few million years after our evolutionary line separated from the chimpanzees, the time when the notional first hairy Australopithecus to have in its apish brain an ability not only to recognise, when it saw one, a stone suitable for hammering, as apes do, but also to recognised a stone suitable for cutting, as apes don’t seem to; and beyond that could maintain in the architecture of its brain this registration of difference when it looked away from the stone suitable for hammering, or the stone suitable for cutting.  What is more, it could retain that difference through periods of distraction, not for minutes but for days.  It is in the space of that difference that over the thousands of millennia of evolutionary time, meaning emerged.

And as evolutionary time continued its slow pace, and hammer stones were used in more diverse ways, the descendants of those hairy organisms began to recognise not merely found cutting stones, but stones that were suitable for cutting that resulted from the impact of one hammer stone on another passive stone.  And, the final bit of slow, slow evolution that separates hominin from hominid, they not only recognised the moment of percussion and its immediate effect but, as with the recognition of difference between a stone used for hammering and a stone used for cutting, they had a durable registration in the architecture of the brain of the spatio-temporal relationship of the kinetic striking stone and the inert stone that was struck and from which fell flakes, stones good for cutting.  And they could retain this brain registration through episodes of distraction.  That is to say, they could remember it.


And that emergent ability became the obligate symbiosis of human organism and human extended phenotype; eventually of Homo sapiens and the technosphere. The primitive, emergent technosphere of hammer and cutting stones became a significant part of the evolutionary environment of the human being.

That is the most significant, and the most crucial and necessary basis of the emerging science of  cultural evolution that we need to grasp.



Cultural evolution is true; so what?

If we are obligate symbionts, organism plus extended phenotype, so what?  What earthly difference does it make to anything?

It explains an aspect of the otherwise puzzling lives of human beings; how insentient things enhance our inherent stupidity (we have highly intelligent qualities as well, of course).

We walk down the street.  We pass people apparently shouting intimate details of their private lives to the empty air.  Twenty years ago we would have perceived them as insane.

Someone has driven a large vehicle to the end of a narrow, rocky track.  They sit in the cab staring around them helplessly.  They curse, obscenely, syntactically, at length, apparently threatening the destruction of some invisible spirit.  Twenty years ago we would have thought they were deranged.

Two primping idiots, each the very acme of the faults of our species, threaten quite plausibly to destroy the other’s population, and severely damage Earth in the process.  Jenghis Khan might have been impressed with the weapon that backed up the threats of these feeble monsters, but Jenghis, whose own contextual extended phenotype not only rained death on nations, but also became a great civilisation, might have been concerned about the pea-brained nihilism that had its finger on the button.

The mobile phone, GPS and thermo-nuclear missiles are all realisations of our extended phenotype.

Jerry Coyne here promotes an interesting discussion of free will.  I think that the question itself is meaningless, an unfortunate outcome of Reformation theology when the question was raised, if God is omnipotent and omniscient, then he will know everything that is ever going to happen; so everything Is predetermined.  So what’s the point?

In the absence of a creator god, the question disappears.  However, while the symbiosis of organism and extended phenotype which is us is far too complex for any imaginable determinism, it is a little careless to entirely ignore the influence of the extended phenotype, the technosphere, on our lives and the life of our species.

Cultural evolution: the Darwinian hypothesis


The current consensus on what constitutes cultural evolution is itself evolutionarily descended from Cartesian Dualism, the division of the human being into a machine body and a rational soul that has a strong affinity to a creator god.  Once this is implicitly achieved, the academic consensus can join a project which “supports research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will, including projects using tools from anthropology, psychology, biological sciences, neuroscience, archaeology and paleontology [sic]”.

Here I suggest a much less ambitious model of human evolution, including cultural evolution.  It is a model that is monist and materialist, naturalist and Darwinian:


  1. The technosphere, all current thirty trillion tons of it, exists. Knives, cups, paperclips, la Giaconda, Shakespeare’s first folio, the Taj Mahal, Timbuktu, Miles Davis’s entire discography, the Large Hadron Collider, are all part of the Technosphere. The Technosphere is composed of every material thing (including the square root of minus one) that has been into the brain of a human organism, mainly via light and sound waves, and out again via muscle contraction.  Everything we know is part of the technosphere.
  2. In the same way as the spider’s web is the spider’s extended phenotype, as is the bird its nest and the beaver’s dam, the technosphere is part of the extended human phenotype(EHP).
  3. In the biological world, the extended phenotype evolves alongside, and in obligate symbiosis with, the biological organism. A bird without its nest could not reproduce, a web-spinning spider without its web would starve.  Without our extended phenotype the thermodynamic drain on our big brains would be fatal.
  4. The most effective account of the development of the Homo sapiens organism is the Darwin Hypothesis: observed phylogenetic heritability, incessant replication with fidelity, an envelope of fractional variation, selection by external factors. Given that all other extended phenotypes, spider’s web for example, evolved inseparably with the spider organism, parsimony would suggest that the technosphere evolved inseparably with the hominin organism.  Since the two are absolutely mutually dependent, the relationship is one of obligate symbiosis. This should be an initial assumption, and only when it is disproved should it be rejected.
  5. This assumption does require that insentient objects evolve. However, there is no sentience in the Darwin hypothesis.  RNA evolved, but is not sentient.  Nothing has foresight or insight into its evolutionary future.
  6. The hard question then emerges, what is the locus of replication with fidelity that is the necessary condition for the evolution of insentient things? Dawkins suggested the meme, but that (along with trait, behaviour, belief, tradition, group &c) is so underspecified and undelimitable that is futile to try and represent it as a locus of replication with fidelity.
  7. Thus we have to introduce something else, something analogous to the gene, that is irreducible at the scale of replication. A gene is clearly reducible to nucleotide bases, to atoms &c, but it is the smallest entity the faithful replication of which makes, or does not make, an evolutionary difference.  We know that the mutation of a nucleotide base is an agent of that difference but as we are only interested, from an evolutionary point of view, in expression, the gene is what we work with.
  8. The irreducible bit of information which we are looking for must have been in evidence in the first primitive stone tools at Lomekwi 3, found objects roughly chipped by hominin hand around three million years ago.
  9. I use as a pattern for the concept of irreducible difference the phoneme in spoken language. Between two phonemes is the irreducible difference in which we recognise the difference between two otherwise identical words, as in pin and bin in English.
  10. The EHP analogue I call the ping. The ping is a simple thing.  It is the irreducible difference by which the Lomekwi hominin recognised the difference between two stones, one of which might be used for a hammer, the other for cutting.  That means that in the architecture of that hominin brain there was some durable registration of the difference between two types, hammer and blade.  That irreducible difference of recognised type is the ping.  Ping: the attribution, by recognition, of a type to an object-in-the-world; thus the attribution of an irreducible difference of type between it and all other insentient objects, as for instance a cup (not a bowl) or the Taj Mahal (not the Great Mosque at Córdoba), is a ping.  It is in this irreducible difference that meaning is located.
  11. The stone, to be coerced into a cutter, however crude, must go into the human brain via light waves and touch, and out again via muscle contraction.
  12. All Darwinian evolution is insentient. Nothing foresees its evolutionary future.  RNA certainly didn’t.  There is no reason why worked stones would not evolve through an indefinite sequence of ping-mediated replication, as Augustus Pitt-Rivers suggested.
  13. The second competence that emerged in hominins was the ability to retain as a durable registration in the brain the kinetic relationship between two (or more) pings, as in an early hominin striking a flake off a flint or me falling off a bicycle. That locus in the meaning-space was, when syntax emerged, occupied by the verb.
  14. What now has to be accounted for is the locus of information that stabilises the type.
  15. I suggest it is the ping as registered in the architecture of the hominin brain. However, the ping is a dynamic entity, incommensurably promiscuous.   How many times does the ping cup, as represented in any human language, exit a Homo sapiens brain and enter another Homo sapiens brain every twenty four hours.  And yet that ping has immense stability.
  16. The ping cup gets its stability from the type cup, and the type cup is a derivative of all the cups-in-the-world that have ever existed, though clearly ones that exist now have greater influence than the first cups to emerge. The thing in the world is an important source of stability for the ping.
  17. At the same time a cup in the absence of a perceiving organism contains no information, about its type or anything else. The ping as durable registration of irreducible difference (as between a cup and a mug or a cup and a bowl), can only become information when it enters the human brain.
  18. A first assumption must therefore be that the information needed to replicate a cup must be distributed between the thing and the ping. There cannot be a ping cup without a brain, nor can the brain register a ping cup without the existence of cups in the world.
  19. The ping is the irreducible locus of cultural evolution.


I have just read When Bad Begins by the great Spanish novelist Javier Marías.  It is about human behaviour, in practical terms infinitely complex, in experimental terms at present incomputable.  A resort to metaphysics and blind faith, to producing plausible circular truths from implausible functions, such as equating “modernity” with “owning a television set” in order to do the computations which announce that acceptance of homosexuality correlates with modernity… what insight that we did not have already but is also accessible to mere mortals has this kind of complex circularity ever achieved?

The ping model/hypothesis, I know, will initially seem entirely bizarre to the consensual cultural evolutionist;  the concoction of, as one Cultural Evolution Society aficionado put it “a zealot ideologue [sic] masquerading as a scientist” (for the record, I have never pretended to be a scientist).

I also know that this outline raises many questions, all of which I have set out to answer in the seventh draft of a book written, it is my aim, with the same regard for precision as the above summary.  All I can hope is that on or two kind people read each sentence in the above in sequence and with care, taking a moment to clarify its actual referents in the world, and only then refute what is refutable.  For that, even, especially a refutation, I shall be grateful.

You might note that this hypothesis is not an innovation or an invention.  It is not mine.  It is merely the assembly, in logical order, of evidence from innumerable sources, available to all.  That is how cultural evolution works.

“And even if what you have said is concordant with the available empirical evidence,” you may say, “So what?”  That’s for another blog.

Let’s Take The Cult out of Cultural Evolution

This is going to be a long haul.  I am going to demystify and interrogate Alex Mesoudi’s Pursuing Darwins curious parallel: Prospects for a science of cultural evolution  ; not because I have anything against Mesoudi, I like and admire him, but because the paper, and particularly its introduction, is a convenient compendium of the basic errors inherent in any attempt to produce a Darwinian model of evolution in which the replicators, and there must be replicators for it to be Darwinian (see below on (Boyd, 2005)), are fatally underspecified.

I have in the last couple of days read two papers which are exemplary for any of us who attempt to write anything that counts as science.  The first was Language Evolution in the Lab: The Case of Child Learners by Limor Raviv and Inbal Arnon and the second was Evolutionary biologists identify non-genetic source of species variability  .  The first demonstrates, and not being a linguist I put this in very general terms to avoid solecism, the entropic effects of an iterated language learning experiment.  Three variables are used, colour, icon type and plurality.  All terms and methodology are well defined , the statistical analysis properly refutable, and the conclusion is that in both adults and children iterative transmission increased learning ability by increasing underspecification, but that with children there was no increase in structure, though there was with adults.

This is an exemplary paper by two young scientists, highly intelligent and operating within the limits of a productive discipline.  I make this point because so many post-doctoral papers in the field Mesoudi addresses, though appearing to be derived from a productive discipline, actually exhibit a compulsive indiscipline.  is typical of this genre.

The second example is at .  It is a paper of depth and significance by a biologist who has been studying African cichlid fish for 20 years, has been frustrated by the failure to account for differences in cranial structure by genes alone, and has done experiments involving both genetic and behavioural manipulation to show that the genetically derived gaping behaviour of the larvae of some cichlid species leads to non-genetically derived, developmental cranial variation.

Both these papers are within the Darwinian collective, though the first makes no explicit reference to evolution.  I cite them as beacons, in this world of “alternative facts”, of the kind of honest rigour that we should, and must expect of all scientific writing.

I now come to Pursuing Darwins curious parallel: Prospects for a science of cultural evolution by Alex Mesoudi of the Department of Biosciences, University of Exeter.  This again is a highly intelligent and cogent account of exactly what it says on the tin.  It is in this sense that it is exemplary, and so I want to do what I did in the previous post with Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, subject the opening propositions to detailed analysis.  This is the first:

“Both genetic and cultural evolution can be described as systems of inherited variation that change over time in response to processes such as selection, migration, and drift.”

This is true; genetic and cultural evolution can be so described.  But is the description accurate?  First, what is it that “chang[es] over time?  According to the syntax, it’s the system that changes.  This means that genetic evolution is a system that changes over time.  Well of course it does, as does everything in the universe.  But that is not the proximate meaning of the statement, which is that the system of Darwinian evolution, its systematic irreducible structure, changes over time.  Now though many would wish that this were the case, and work hard to make it so (change into the New Evolutionary Synthesis for instance), it is not the case.  The systematic statement of the minimal components of Darwinian evolution, observed phylogenetic heritability, incessant replication with fidelity, an envelope of fractional variation, selection by external factors may change in superficial linguistic particulars [this one is a maximal tweet], but  at the level of compositionality it is uncompromisingly stable.  Thus, put simply, that bit of Mesoudi’s statement is untrue.

Next, “system of inherited variation”; undoubtedly so, both genetic and cultural evolution are systems of inherited variation.  But so would they be in a Cartesian universe where no evolution took place, but instead over the aeons a creator deity personally manipulated variation in the hominin germline at the point of fertilisation; and personally guided the hands, via the brain, to effect every minute variation in flint technology, the Large Hadron Collider and so on.  Here Mesoudi’s encapsulation of evolution is correct, but also allows for all sorts of woo-woo notions such as group selection (for a forensic analysis of which see (Pinker, 2012)).

Mesoudi continues:

“Appropriate differences between genetic and cultural change are taken seriously, such as the possibility in the latter of nonrandomly guided variation or transformation, blending inheritance, and one-to-many transmission. This idea is the basic premise of cultural evolution: Cultural change constitutes a Darwinian evolutionary process that shares key characteristics with the genetic evolution of species. The emergence of this second evolutionary process saw an unprecedented extension of genetic evolution by allowing organisms to adapt more rapidly to, and more powerfully create and shape, their environments.”

Before I start in on this I must acknowledge a debt to Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock (Riskin, 2016), which among many excellences gives an exhaustive history of what is meant by Cartesian.  Very basically Descartes divided human beings into two parts, brute automaton on one side, rational soul on the other; and across the spiritual barrier, the eternal dislocation between the two it was in Descartes’ opinion the pineal gland that provided a makeshift one-way soul to body valve, but that is a small detail.

Mesoudi, and all that he represents, writes in this Weismannean (see Rifkin) tradition, where cultural evolution is represented by rationalist abstractions, traits, behaviours, biases, altruism, eusociality; and human beings are merely statistical loci, a bit like genes, within the actual evolving entity, the group.  The ultimate trajectory leads to a hypothesis where such exclusively  as-by-definition “human” proclivities as morality, imagination and creativity can be represented as osmotically, almost hermetically sealed off from the rest of nature and indeed the universe.  Once separated, these proclivities can be labelled (always by extremely underspecified verbal equivalents — I’ll come back to Peter Richerson equating, for statistical manipulation, “modernity” with “owning a television set”).   Once labelled, “modernity” for instance can be linked, verbally if in no other way, to a variable in a computer programme.  After the computer has done its algebraic work (and it is inside the computer that the validation as “science” takes place), conclusions are drawn.  These conclusions are invariably in one way, forgive me, totally fucking obvious in the first place, and in another way patently untrue , such as “tolerance of homosexuality equates with modernity”.

With that in mind I will anatomise the paragraph above, which I’ll repeat here for convenience.

“Appropriate differences between genetic and cultural change are taken seriously, such as the possibility in the latter of nonrandomly guided variation or transformation, blending inheritance, and one-to-many transmission. This idea is the basic premise of cultural evolution: Cultural change constitutes a Darwinian evolutionary process that shares key characteristics with the genetic evolution of species. The emergence of this second evolutionary process saw an unprecedented extension of genetic evolution by allowing organisms to adapt more rapidly to, and more powerfully create and shape, their environments.”

What is the intention of the first word, “appropriate”, why not just differences?  I think the word is meant to infer “inherent” or “inevitable”, but cryptically means “appropriate to the Cartesian project”.  No scientific concept of evolution will do this, so the meaning of evolution needs to be altered into something more “appropriate”.  And here it comes, straight away, “nonrandomly guided variation”.   All genetic variation is of course non-random, given its context of replication with fidelity in the environment of genes, chromosomes with their huge complexity of epigenetic processes, the cell, the organ, the body, the extended phenotype, the world, the universe.  One nucleotide base amiss is a random effect, but it has no place in evolutionary theory until it is further expressed and selected; as Dawkins affirmed long ago in The Extended Phenotype.  But genetic variation is not “guided”, not at least until there is some credible account of who or what is doing the guiding, a reductionist account which devotees of the New Evolutionary Synthesis scrupulously avoid.  Mesoudi does not name the guiding agent, but whatever it is I can guarantee that, when it is dragged into the light of day, it’s first common ancestor will be the Cartesian “rational soul”.

The term “blending inheritance” is syntactically a loose cannon.  It is not clear to me whether it means inheritance of blending, or whether nonrandomly guided variation or transformation blends inheritance and one-to-many transmission.”  I can anticipate someone saying “lay off it mate, English is not Alex’s first language” to which I reply that I have great respect for Alex Mesoudi, who is only reporting on what is the case, the condition of the mainstream of cultural evolution.  Though I profoundly disagree with what he writes in this context, I know he writes English with precision.   This is politic English, the kind that can never be pinned down, is always open to “My honourable friend misquotes or misrepresents me”.  But I am giving him the respect of believing that if he writes “blending inheritance”, that’s what he means, whatever that may be, and blending is the opposite of reductionism.  Rather than clarifying the entities of which you speak, it chops them very small and whirls them all about so they become invisible.  Then you can do what you like with them.

Further, one-to-many transmission is inherent in biological evolution.  If the Homo sapiens first common ancestor had led only to me I would be a very lonely person.  But this is not what is intended.  What is intended is the ineluctable force of the idea which, enunciated by one leader, can run like electricity into the substance of merged identities, the group, and transform it overnight.  It is the groundwork for the scuppering of individual human agency within the virtually infinite mosaic of extended phenotype evolution, to put in its place the statistical fantasies of brute mechanism, the Cartesian model of group evolution where the rational soul, as long as it is the soul of the leader, has the status of creator God.

“Cultural change constitutes a Darwinian evolutionary process that shares key characteristics with the genetic evolution of species. The emergence of this second evolutionary process saw an unprecedented extension of genetic evolution by allowing organisms to adapt more rapidly to, and more powerfully create and shape, their environments.”

This is where the Cartesian circle is completed by a bit of magic.  “Allowing…organisms…to powerfully create and shape their environments” is a direct contradiction of Darwin’s hypothesis.  According to Darwin (and I have read On the Origin of Species) organisms, including human beings, have no foresight or oversight as to their biological evolution.  It is the process of observed phylogenetic heritability, incessant replication with fidelity, an envelope of fractional variation, selection by external factors that is the process of both biological evolution and, in my opinion, cultural evolution.  Creative niche construction is a Cartesian fantasy.

The term “cultural change” is the ghostly puppet of this fantasy.  There is no doubt that any loosely ascribed aggregate of a loosely described population group undergoes cultural change; change that is expressed, and is perceivable, in beliefs, economic and social behaviour and whatever other dimensions you choose.  But something crucial is missing.  What is missing is the typical local subsection of the extended human phenotype peculiar to the group, the kind of dwellings the actual human components live in, their possessions and decor and weapons, their ritual buildings, garments, slaves if they have them or are them, their chariots or carts or ploughs.  To adequately describe the changing character of any social group — a term that has all the problems of the word species without any of its delimiting definition — without mentioning this extended phenotype would be impossible.

And yet the dogma of the Cultural Evolution Society expunges the extended human phenotype, because the Cartesian project has to be entirely a-historical.  If they accepted that human material culture not only exists, but evolved over time as an absolute condition of the evolution of our human organism,  there would be no place in time or space to introduce the magical Cognitive Revolution or the Rational Soul with its cornucopia of exclusively human qualities.  We would no longer have to assume a serious face as they conjure with such mathematical functions as “modernity”, itself derived from “owning a television set”.  If the Cartesians had to account for millions of years of hominin evolution, the initially incredibly slow development of the extended phenotype in the thermodynamic, energetics context of the gradual and mosaic development of the hominin organism, then they would have to accept that the most stable thing in our history is not the exact conformation of our phylogenetic organism, crucial though that is, but our extended phenotype.  Without it, we would still be apes.  That cannot be denied.  But to look at our history clearly does not allow for the sudden miracle of the Cartesian fantasy, the sudden arrival, according to Yuval Harari a mere ten thousand years before the first Australians arrived on the continent in what we might concede were generically boats, of the “Cognitive Revolution”, that which brought to the Homo brain “creativity” and “imagination”, and according to the Cultural Evolution Society also brought to that brain, and thus into the “group” which was for them the irreducible locus of hominin evolution, altruism, eusociality, and an ontological expression of behaviours, traits and so on dogmatically cleansed of any material presence which could not pass unchanged through the pineal gland, an eye of a needle certainly too narrow to allow the passage of the thirty trillion tons of the current extended human phenotype.

Mesoudi’s opening section continues with some more “blending”:

Theories were often literally Lamarckian, with ideas, artefacts, and words somehow thought to become part of the germ line through repeated use (7). Due to this confusion…

“Idea” is a hugely underspecified word.  “Evolution was Darwin’s big idea.”  “I’ve just had an idea, let’s turn it upside down”.    An “artefact” is material and much more specific but I cannot believe that anybody in their right mind says that artefacts have a germ line.  Most of the planet’s biomass doesn’t have a germ line but still sits happily within the Darwin hypothesis— as in my opinion do artefacts, and all the rest of the human extended phenotype.  A “word” is a material element of the same extended phenotype but, over most of our evolutionary history before writing, its individual materiality has been short-lived.

This kind of blending, of an “idea”, an “artefact” and a “word”, compressing and then subsequently slicing the amalgam, is structurally much the same process as the securitization of mortgage based financial instruments, and ultimately has the same ideological backing.

And here is more smudging:

“It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that a properly Darwinian theory of cultural change was formulated, first by Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (9, 10) and then by Boyd and Richerson (11).”

Boyd and Richerson’s (Boyd, 2005) take on Darwinism Pgs. 8-83 and ff. is more exhaustive and nuanced than this.  They mention Darwinism, but then explicitly exclude any intellectually accessible replicators, analogous to genes, because they are “entities… about which we know distressingly little”.  This leaves, as cultural entities prone to variation and thus selection, their “cultural variants”.  The circularity of this proposition, that variants might be the replicators of variation, leads to a re-iterative infinity.  There is as well the mind-boggling under-specification of a “cultural variant”, as opposed to the reductionist, and therefore intellectually communicable, gene or nucleotide sequence.  Even a gene, as Richard Dawkins painstakingly points out (Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype, 1982, 2016), though totally blanked by the ranks of his fundamentalist Cartesian critics, is a diffuse notion that needs careful linguistic expression (does linguistic compositionality rise to puns?).  Given these factors, I think Boyd and Richerson’s work, valuable though it is, must be excluded from the Darwinian collective.


Enough.  Too much perhaps.  But I do find the success of the Cultural Evolution Society, its recruiting zeal backed by strong finance, its exclusionary dogmatism, disturbing.

All religions in the early stages of their evolution are cults.  They have a containing membrane, and the beliefs and behaviour that pass through it are strictly controlled.  Entry is easy, authoritarian guidance once in is strongly exercised by the application of dogma with punishment and reward, exit strongly discouraged and, if achieved, often traumatic.  I think the Cultural Evolution Society is such a cult.  For cultural evolutionists, faced with the present disintegration of the relative stability of Twentieth Century academia and its cross-fertilisation with neo-liberalism and the gig economy, the potential life-chance rewards of joining the CES are great and the punishment for not doing so is total exclusion from the field of cultural evolution (I should say here that I do not write as a disaffected academic.  I am a happy outsider who other than as a student has never been near an academic institution and, at the age of seventy five, almost certainly never will.)

The struggle continues.  On one side is Cartesian Rationalism; on the other side is Naturalism, the belief that truer descriptions and explanations come from a monist view of the universe; that we may not know what came in the no-time before the big bang, but everything from then on in can be explained in principle, though never in fact, by our understanding of the basic physical fields of the universe.  In the field of cultural evolution, one that is vital to our understanding of ourselves as a species and vital to our anticipation of the present dangers of our evolved thirty trillion ton extended phenotype, Cartesian Rationalism is emperor and priest, a promulgator of self-preserving myth and an enemy of science.


I am writing this because the error in current cultural evolution, as defined in academia, is culpable not in what it says but in what it does not say.  I am anxious that if we do not cease to regard ourselves through a Cartesian and Abrahamic screen, as the instruments of destiny of a first mover or creator god, we and a lot of the more complex biosphere will be destroyed within a century or two.

This is the beginning of my book.


We humans have a comfortable picture of ourselves, built on myth and delusion.  The myth seems very old to us but compared to the time that has passed since we and the great apes parted evolutionary company, or even the time since the dominant myth, the monotheistic myth, emerged, our picture of what we are has lasted only a small fraction of human time.  For tens of thousand of years before the creator God, Yaweh or Bramah or Allah, or just God, began to dominate large tracts of the earth, we humans believed in a more accurate version of ourselves, one where we were a group of animals among other groups of animals, all interconnected within the same web of time and space, each with our own ancestry, our own customs and beliefs, and our own connections to the indefinitely extensive parts of the world and of existence which we could not immediately see or control, the infinite space of spirits and natural forces which were only partially available to our senses through the surfaces and boundaries which contained all of us animals, the sky and the earth and the surfaces of water and rock and the line of the horizon where most distance lay and went on seemingly for ever.  We could partly penetrate these surfaces, or at least some of us could, through trance, drugs and music and art and the suffereing of bodily extremes of heat and cold, mental disintegration and reintegration, hallucination and mutilation of the flesh and all the stuff of shamanism.

And from all this came wisdom and understanding, shaped by constant repetition and adaptation into myths, “songlines”, stories of who we are and where we came from and where we are going, all woven in words and pictures into maps of space and time which could be studied at many scales, the dream time, the season to come, where we head from here, tomorrow, now.  These stories ensured not just our education about the whole universe as we knew it, but that we remained faithful to both the principles and the minute details of that education and tradition, and survived from second to second over big tracts of time, in Africa and out of Africa, hundreds of thousands of years.

Compared with these myths the one true God myth, in a month of human time, is only as old as yesterday.  But it paints a very different picture of who we are.  We are no longer merely a group of animals among many others, sharing the world with them.  We are a unique and wholly detached creation, overlords in the all-powerful creator god’s image, and the world is there to obey and serve us.  And so it has.  We have treated other species not as free-born presences in a mutually necessary relationship with ourselves, but as commodities and slaves.  And we have transmuted the stuff of the world into our own creation, thirty trillion tons of it (Zalasiewicz, 2016), concrete and steel, tarmac and brick, acid, dead bone and offal, steel hulls and wheeled capsules and flying machines, soot and toxic gases, weapons of mass and every other kind of destruction; as well as art and music and theatres and books and films and wine and mosques and all the good things of life.

To belittle our “creation” would seem like puritanical joylessness, and so it would be if that physical mass were not becoming a danger to us as a species, a danger that we collectively are beginning to fear.  Increasing thousands are dying every day in our proliferating cities from poisoned air.  The very thought of the millions of refugees that our excesses have created mean that all but the most confidently comfortable and enormously  rich do not sleep so securely in their beds as they would like.  The ice caps melt, there is increasing turmoil in the atmosphere, the auguries are dire.  Cassandra shrieks night and day.


I did not write this book with a message in mind, it only came to me afterwards and here I am writing it down.  But the message is, and this is the purpose of the book, to argue that we are not creator beings, despite what has emerged through our hands and brains in the last three hundred thousand years or so, all the realisations of human art and science, which are it would be safe to bet among the most wonderful assemblages in the universe.  What we are are is evolved animals, cousins to the apes, but with extraordinarily large and hungry brains, and through these brains and our unique bodies our material culture, so primitive at first, a few sticks and stones, has replicated and evolved into seeming miracles, the Taj Mahal, Angkor Watt, a harpsichord which gives Bach’s Goldberg variations voice.  And all the toxic junk that will kill us.

And the simple message is, we shall only survive if we stop making bad things, poisons, and explosive missiles, prisons for the poor and plastic yachts for grotesques cast in the image of the U.S. President, a man who does us the convenience of signifying in one unique organism all that is, and always has been, amiss with humanity.  We must start to take stock of what we more accurately are, which is the organisms through which the current thirty trillion tons of the technosphere has evolved over the last hundred thousand years; and decide what we want of that technosphere before the decisive moment when we can no longer harness the power of the sun because it is totally blanked out by acid smog and the particulates of war.