How the wolf became the dog


, The domestic dog is one of the most widespread and best understood categories within our extended phenotype.  It is a recently evolved species, within the last forty thousand years and probably much more recently, with a wide variety of sub-types, chihuahua, greyhound, mastiff and so on.  It evolved from a wolf; not the grey wolf that survives today but a sister wolf.  It is without doubt a living thing, and differs markedly from an SUV in that it can replicate, and will, at the drop of a hat, without having to pass through a human brain to do so.  On the other hand it is a useful item for the demonstration of evolution by replication, variation and selection where in certain cases the selection is done within the architecture of the human brain, producing the “breed”, and in other cases the selection is done spontaneously by two dogs without recourse to a human brain, producing the mongrel.  Darwin is interesting on this.  He spends some time in On the Origin of Species discussing the breeders’ art, where the selection does take place in the breeder’s brain though, as he points out, without teleology.  The breeder did not foresee the golden retriever or the toy poodle.  Breeders noted small variations (so small that Darwin confessed that he couldn’t see them at all) in conformation of head or legs or any other bodily part.  Of some of these minute variations they approved, and of others they disapproved, and they chose for the mating pursuant on the next generation  a dog and a bitch with the most marked, though minute, characteristics that they wanted.  Thus the move from putative general ancestral type to Jack Russel or Labradoodle is a gradual one.  As an expert in the “fancy” (the collective of pigeon aficionados) said to Charles Darwin, “feather patterns I can do in five generations, beaks take a little longer”.  And Darwin himself said that an acceptance or denial of his theory of evolution had no bearing at all on the expertise of an individual breeder.  Some of the most successful couldn’t explain what it was they were doing in the simplest terms.  Whether it’s a dog or projectile point in a slow transitional series across thousands of years from leaf shaped to tanged and barbed, the process is the same.  And thus whether the entity making the transition is a life form or a lump of insentient mineral makes no difference insofar as the precise process of its evolution is concerned.

A dog is an instance of something else that characterises our extended phenotype.  Its evolution from wolf to hunting aid for  Homo sapiens was within a certain ecology.  What this was we don’t know in detail, but it would have had intraspecific, developmental and functional elements.

The developmental first.  The Russian geneticist Dmitry Belyaev was interested in the inheritance of fur colour in Silver Foxes.  When he started his long experiment, Stalin was dead, but the atavistic simplicities that seem to underlie the flowering of dictatorships lingered.  Stalin had favoured the theories of Trofim Lysenko, who believed that characteristics acquired during a lifetime could be inherited; that weeds are spontaneously transmuted into food grains, and that genetics was a fake science.  Thus, anybody who advanced Darwinian or geneticist ideas was an enemy of Stalin and of the Soviet state.  Dmitry’s much older brother had done just that, and was executed without trial in 1937.  Stalin died in 1953, but Mendelian genetics was not permitted in the Soviet Union until 1964.

By 1959 Belyaev had observed that some silver foxes in captivity, in fur farms, were naturally tamer than others.  Darwin, who in 1859 did not know that genes existed, and referred in his theory to the loci of heritability and variation as “unknown factors”, had written in the On the Origin of Species that he suspected that the evolution of some characteristics caused by some of these “unknown factors” would be chained to other characteristics through the same “unknown factors”; or in genetics terms, that some genes operated in concert with other genes, so if you get the effect of one you get the effect of the whole suite.  Dmitry Belyaev applied this to silver foxes, and surmised that the genetic substructure of tameness, and thus domestication, might correlate with certain physical characteristics.  In 1959 he began his series of experiments in which he selected for breeding, from a pool of thirty male foxes and a hundred vixens, only those who in very brief and sparse windows of contact were tolerant of, or even attracted to, human presence.  This experiment lasted the final twenty six years of his life, but that was a ridiculously short time in which to imagine that a process of evolution, replication, variation, selection, could take place.

Take place it did, nonetheless.  Darwin had noted that domestic animals tended to have such characteristics as floppy ears, curly tails and spotted coats that were absent in their wild forebears, and by the time that twelve generations of Belyaev’s selective breeding had reproduced, the tame silver foxes were not only tamer—the corticosteroid level in the their plasma had fallen to half the level in a control group, and after 30 generations the level had halved again[Wikipedia]— but, as Darwin had seen already, their coats became patchy, their ears floppy, their tails more curled in a ways that “tend to make animals appear appealingly juvenile to humans”.

Thus it seems likely that some animals have become tame or domesticated because long before they did so such developmental potentialities for variation have been established in their genetic and epigenetic structure.  If we are to avoid teleology —that these animals had these potentialities so that they could be domesticated and serve mankind— then we must suppose that this range of developmental potentialities, from calm, accommodating and deferential to aggressive, stressed and unpredictable, had some function that allowed for a stable complexity of social structure in the wolf pack.  Note here that the pack is an environment in which selection among variable characteristics takes place, and that those selected are linked to certain behaviours.  Within the pack the tractable and cooperative, and the aggressive and dominant, are kept in a balance by selection, and this optimises predatory and reproductive success.

A brief aside here.  It has recently been observed that the same species of bird will, in times of plenty, feed the offspring that squawks the most and therefore is most in need, but in times of famine will feed the biggest. There is a general rule of reproductive success and maximum proliferation of genes here.  If there’s a lot to eat, feed the whole brood.  If there’s a dearth, feed the one most likely to live.  The fact that in British working class homes in my lifetime, the labouring man got the meat if there was any, the children got the potatoes, so patriarchally appalling in our eyes, no doubt had its roots in the same imperatives of nutritional economy.

The size of a wolf pack will depend on the availability of prey.  The availability of prey will depend on absolute numbers of prey animals, and on competition from other predators, both conspecifics in other packs[1], and other predatory species.

Too much expression of the dominant and aggressive characteristics, and alpha wolves of both sexes spend too much time strutting their stuff and fighting.  Hunting and rearing young become secondary, and such a pack might well fail entirely and vanish.  Too much mutual tenderness, care and sympathy would be fine as long as prey was abundant, all young fed, the weaker cherished (as in the bird in time of plenty).  But even in the best of times such a pack would expand until it started to deplete its resources, at which point the diminution of resources, because they too have to reproduce, becomes exponential.  The TLC-driven pack would try to spread the rapidly diminishing nutrition evenly among the young, and they’d all die.

The simplest model of this is James Lovelock’s  and Andrew Watson’s Daisyworld, a planet whose surface is covered with daisies whose flowers can be black or white.  Theses daisies thrive at an optimum temperature, but sunlight is variable.  When solar radiation levels are high, black daisies fold their petals, white daisies open and reflect the light back into space, preventing the planet from overheating.  When solar radiation levels are low, the white daisies fold their petals and the black ones open to the sun, absorbing heat and raising the ambient temperature.  That’s it.  Homeostasis; the tendency of a system to preserve a constant state.

In this case the constant state is a balance between the size of the wolf pack and its nutrition resources.  The pack size increases when food is plentiful, and decreases in time of dearth.  The selection takes place at the level of the genes and epigenetic processes that allow variation between TLC and aggression.  In the optimum circumstances the pack increases with TLC, this causes dearth, the residual aggressive individuals bully the softy TLC individuals into subservient cooperation; that is they are allowed to hunt, which is to their own advantage, because lone wolves are less successful hunters, but they are not allowed to breed within the pack, and if they do, their offspring are killed.

This leads to an excess of aggressive-dominant individuals.  There is no way the TLC lot can survive in this environment.  Food is scarce, the alphas use the TLCs’ hunting skills but do no allow them to feed adequately, and because the aggression of the alphas prevents them from hunting efficiently anyway, the level of nutrition is ever decreasing.  The desperate TLCs are driven off the kill.  They either fight, and die, because they’re not so good at fighting, or they flee to the wolf-wilderness, the debatable lands of the territory.  Where they will hear each other, smell each other, meet each other.  And because they are naturally cooperative, they will form a hunting group pair, threesome, and in time a pack, that is much more cooperative and efficient than the relict alpha population, staggering around on their last legs, famished but still snarling at each other rather than getting on with useful work.  But within the new TLC population will still be genes of dominance, ready for selection when food grows scarce again

I have no idea whether this scenario is in any way representative of the real world, as I have just made it up.  I merely put it forward as a model that can be tested in the field, in the way that no group selection model ever can, because the locus of selection for, say, a putatively causal norm is never given.

The central point (though I hope others of value have been made) is that within individual wolves, and incidentally foxes, there is a developmental factor, the potential for genetic and epigenetic variability, that can be, and apparently has been, in the last 40,000 years, and probably much less, expressed as a bias towards co-existence with Homo sapiens.  Cooperation with humans was a potential present in the wolf organism.

Wolves that were proto-dogs were so because they were tolerant of, and over generations even attracted by, human beings.  But it takes two to tango, and it’s not so clear what humans saw in the proto-dog.  Maybe it is the human, particularly the juvenile human, tendency to neophilia, to explore new things.  The other day I watched a documentary about a small surviving group of Amazonian hunters who captured, this was the focus of the programme, a huge anaconda, and let it go again, because it was ancestral, and they derived their strength from it.  These people were part-modern, they had mobile phones, the chief hunter, at the peak of the ritual capture, whipped from his loincloth sterile gloves, a small specimen flask and a scalpel and did a swift biopsy on the serpent’s tail, explaining that it was to send away to ascertain what effect the burden of crude oil in the waters of the Amazon was having on its health.

But they were also hunter gatherers with the cosmology of hunter gatherers.  Animals and the spirits of animals were part of this cosmology, as were the relationships between humans and animals.  At some point in the filming, back at the family settlement, a tapir wandered up.  A tapir is an at first surprising but endearing cross between a big smooth-haired black pig and an elephant, in that its nose is a short broad expressively wiggly trunk.  This tapir was not a pet, not domesticated, the hunters explained.  It lived in the forest.  It just visited.  The kids gave it some fruit, which it ate calmly.  Then it lay down, rolled on its back, and grown men and children tickled its tummy.  You could see what the tapir got out of this.  You could sympathise, in the literal sense, with what the humans got out of it.  The whole tapir visit was clearly a pleasant event, and gave hunters and their children a space for mutual enjoyment and communication, an opportunity that the ritual lifting of the entirety of a thirty foot very much alive and indignant anaconda  off the ground among the roots of a forest swamp did not provide.  I couldn’t attempt to put that into scientific or reductionist language, but I guess that the tapirs were tolerated in the boundaries of the village in a way that jaguars and snakes were not, and this one made friends with the children first, in their neophiliac phase of development, and the kids introduced it to the adults, and this whole sequence, one could put it at the most vague, improved their quality of life, not just making them happier, but allowing for a small benign space for innovation of the kind of which Charles Dickens’ Mr Squeers did not approve.

The early relationship with dogs cannot be explained so glibly.  Function must play a part.

The problem of explanation is one common in evolution.  It’s the transitional stage.  Once a complex system with two initially discrete components, as it might two hunting parties, one composed of dogs and one of humans; or indeed the system of a large-brained species such as humans co-existing in mutual dependency with their clothes, homes, tools, utensils and weapons; once this complex system is up and running, it is easy to see how it works.  The intraspecific bit of the taming between dog and human, the combination of two mutually accommodating species that both gain advantage from each other, most certainly happened, since here we are together.  How the competition and mutual hostility between wolf and human made the transition to cooperation is harder to work out.  It has to be speculative, therefore a model to explore rather than an assertion of fact.

The speculation has a limited development space.  It must not be teleological. There must be a functional advantage to both.   The possible time frame for the domestication of the dog coincides with the major wave of Homo sapiens spreading through Asia and Europe.  The transition took place in a cold landscape where the principal prey animals of both wolf and human, by biomass, were caribou.


As has been mentioned, the domestic dog is not descended from the modern grey wolf, they are both descended from a common ancestor, of which at the moment we have no direct evidence; so the behaviour of the modern wolf is the nearest evidence we have of how the wolf ancestor to dogs might have behaved.  And at the (S)bit level, that is the irreducible difference between dog and wolf, a sharp distinction has been drawn over the evolutionary history of the taming; dog is archetypal friend to man, wolf archetypal enemy.  This is marked in Eurasian folk literature and is with us to this day.  Nordic humans still kill wolves because wolves are to be killed.  A respected Swedish biologist and wolf expert, Olle Liberg, an old friend from Africa in the 60s, surprised me one day with the wolf fur trimming of his parka hood, especially as we were at the seaward tip of south Skåne and he was lamenting the death of a lone male wolf that had journeyed down Sweden from the Arctic only to be slaughtered on a golf course by the good bourgeoisie who knew their atavistic duty.  Then how come you are wearing wolf fur? I asked.  He was scornful of this insipid English perception of contradiction.  The wolf concerned was Polish, and there was no contradiction between employing all one’s intellectual resources in preserving a species and benefitting from its organism.  The opposite, in fact.

In the climate of the Palaeolithic when dogs emerged, the principle prey by biomass, and by use (meat, fur, antler), the caribou, migrated long distances between winter and summer feeding grounds, and humans as a result did the same.

Both wolves and humans are social hunters.  That is to say there is a complex of interdependent roles.  And many features of their total hunting repertoire would overlap.  They seem to be in direct,  stable opposition and competition, as the man wolf archetype suggests.  In order that cooperation should emerge from this close competition, there must be an overall energy saving, which might be smooth or might be lumpy, that is it might bring in absolutely more energy for less effort, or it might raise the level of dangerous minima, times of potential extinction of the group through famine.  Either way, and we don’t know, the taming must move towards a least energetic state compatible with homeostasis for the human/proto-dog combination, which is lower than the equivalent for each group on its own.

Wolves optimally hunt large mammals.  When the caribou are on the move, which they are most of the time, they follow them and watch for signs of weakness or panic.  They then run down chosen victims, which may change according to the course of the hunt.  They take various roles, chasing, heading off, distracting, bringing down, and killing.  They will utilise contingent bits of landscape, rocks, trees, cliffs, small round boulders over which the caribou are ill-equipped to run and become easily exhausted, gullies and uneven ice to check and turn and the prey with as little energy expenditure as possible.  The hunt economy, as well as minimising energy expended in running, can have bigger deficits.  The killing of a large mammal is a dangerous moment and wolves can easily be fatally wounded or killed by hooves or antlers which, if the pack is at an optimum size, is itself a serious energy depletion.

Upper Palaeolithic humans hunted, I guess, in much the same way.  There would have been a big overlap in technique.  So one must look at what specialisms each species brought to the deal.

Wolves had superior speed, wider field of vision, faster vision processing and better topographical navigation systems based on this speed, and also, possibly, better and faster-acting protocols for cooperation across short time durations.  (Their visual processing was not nearly as versatile as that of humans, who at that time could carve an image of the hunt on a sliver of prepared bone).

What wolves lacked was efficient killing ability, which was a danger area for them.  Otherwise they seem, as a species, well set-up; although the strain related to our dogs became extinct, the present grey wolf survived those thirty or so thousand years.

And what do humans bring to the deal?

Wolves and caribou have around the same to speed.  Humans are the slowest runners.  Caribou protect themselves by keeping close to other caribou.  If threatened by the presence of a wolf pack their first  tendency is to move away, but they do so en masse, they are much bigger than wolves, in summer they have sharp hooves and they have big antlers.  A caribou can kill a wolf (our own red deer in our national parks can kill a human being, and do).  A wolf getting too close to a fleeing herd is liable to get a broken jaw or leg, soon fatal.  They have to wait for exhaustion, panic, and spatial vulnerability to make things easier.

What all three species have in common is the ability to cover ground fast, around the same speed, over long distances.  Performance wise they are all in the same sort of envelope, except that the human top speed, and I’m talking Usain Bolt here, is ten miles an hour slower than wolf or caribou.  A human being is not likely to catch a caribou with its bare hands.

What humans bring to the deal is their extended phenotype.  There are two parts to this that are relevant, technology and cosmology.

By the time of the mutual taming, our species had a lot of evolved extended phenotype.  It had enough art, painting, ceramic and stone and bone sculpture and relief work, music from bone flutes, even landscapes carved on bone that look like large scale maps, to provide an exhibition at the British Museum in 2013.

And they had weapons that could kill at a distance, the kind of thing that would be very useful to a wolf because it minimised the danger of the kill.  First, humans had an evolved physiology that could whip the hand up to speeds approaching ninety miles an hour.  Then they had projectile points stuck on sticks hooked to throwing sticks, which amplified the speed of missile launch.  You didn’t need to get within the reach of antlers and hooves in order to kill.

In addition to this humans had their cosmology.  This, the evidence is wide-ranging, was not just a bed-time story they told to the little ones.  As has already been suggested with the Australian songlines, cosmology was an evolved historical record, composed not of kings and battles but of, at the finest grain, (S)bits; rocks, swamps and clouds, rain and stars, animals, insects, plants and rivers, fire, human beings, spirits, weapons, paintings and work in fibre, sculpture and aerial maps, canoes and kangaroos, each stable in the metaverse, and in and out of human brains in huge numbers of combinations and alliances, modulations of the total meaning space that has found homeostasis in a multi-media narrative.  It is an epistemological account, if lacking in detail, an account of how they knew things, how things and (S)bits evolve across the metaverse and in our individual ideoverses, not as lone things, as a kangaroo or a caribou or a wolf or a projectile point, but in huge intermodulating complexes, reomes.

This cosmology is not just an evolved historical record.  It is the ancient and durable account of how things are and how they work, and therefore it is an analytical and predicative instrument.  It has survived because it is a record of how to survive, not for an hour or a day but over tens of millennia, in an environment, rich in nutrition it is true, but with hostile maxima and minima of weather and nutrition which will kill, in days or sometimes in hours, a group without the knowledge of the Songlines.  Sure other technologies can be imported over time and other cultures can thrive, cattle production, mineral and fossil fuel extraction.  Technologies more productive by orders of magnitude can be introduced but, on the downside, these are that part of the Homo sapiens extended phenotype that is rapidly destroying Australia with fire and extinction.  This is not an apocalyptic yap.  It is an assessment of what seems to be the case.  The ones who survive such a catastrophe may be the ones who have a deep-time map of whatever may be left.

And that, mutatis mutandis, is what the humans will have brought to the deal with the wolves.  Wolves are opportunist hunters, following the herds, approaching them, making them anxious, pursuing them to panic, exhaustion and chaos, isolating and killing.  Man 30,000 years ago did much the same, but the evolved cosmology gave him a space-time chart that was with him always, a map of the land and the seasons.  If, at that time, you asked a wolf when the caribou would start to move north, or how long they would move for, or where they would stop and turn again, a wolf wouldn’t know what you were talking about.  A Palaeolithic human would not answer you in a way which was familiar.  They would regard the wolf with an entirely different intellectual apparatus.  The animal’s ontology would come across as ambivalent.  It would be in some senses an enemy, but in others a figure of respect.  The relationship was likely to be “totemic” and “shamanistic”, that is to say with some putatively phylogenetic overlapping history between man and wolf.  With the Amazonian tribe who captured the thirty foot anaconda, their relationship with anacondas was that they shared descent, and they got their power from it.  Its capture and safe release was a locus of the transfer of this power.  It is hard to see a direct functional advantage for the human beings in this live let-live arrangement, especially as all the humans had relatives who had been killed by anacondas.  But an evolutionary explanation is probably possible.  It would be along the lines that the cosmology— in the same sort of pattern as Daisyworld and my suggested account of homeostasis within in the wolf pack— expressed the best homeostatic balance for the entire ecology, in which the anaconda was the most powerful entity, and in which the mighty hunter of peccaries and monkeys thrived because of the power it got from the serpent.

The kind of possible functional connection is also clear.  Those humans could have cleared their area of anacondas, their biggest peril along with jaguars.  In the 1960s when crocodile skin was fashionable for handbags and shoes, hunters severely depleted the crocodile population of tributaries of the Nile.  As a result the population of Nile perch, on which the crocodiles largely fed, increased exponentially.  As a result of that the tilapia population, on which the human bank dwellers largely depended for protein, declined equally exponentially.  What should have been an advantage for humans, the virtual absence of a fearful predator, turned into a disaster, the mortality from kwashiorkor— protein deficiency — far exceeding the former deaths caused by crocodiles.

As we are talking about the dog-ancestor wolf here, not the modern grey wolf, there is a bit of latitude in describing the way things might have been.  But one can infer from the modern wolf that the relationship of human and wolf was dual.  Honour, respect, correct manners and close cooperation were features of both societies.  And both were hunter-killers.  The old dog-ancestor wolf and Eurasian upper Palaeolithic humans would have existed in the same tundra landscape, among the same fauna; not just caribou but hare, fox, elk, bison and mammoth.  In winter the humans and caribou are clad in the same skins and two-layer fur, a fine thick undercoat next to the skin (for the humans this would be a second skin), and an upper layer of long hollow fibres, like quills.  The wolf hair is of the same two part type, the outer guard hairs particularly good at shedding ice, which is why the human hunters may have wolf pelt trims around the borders of their hoods, like my Swedish friend, to avoid their breath freezing out on the fibres.  Thus, more or less uniformly insulated in fur from the freezing air, this triarchy moves across the space time-continuum, wolf, human, reindeer, a stereotypical Christmas card or, since that particular tripartite deity was not to appear for another twenty or so millennia, a boreal universal White Moon Amanita card.

Which is all well and good, but it doesn’t account for how the dog came to be.

So: the function of the big human brain is to accumulate for yourself and your descendants as much extended human phenotype as possible.  The EHP thirty thousand years ago was large, but hardly the minutest fraction of what it is today.  Yet it is a feature of the architecture of the human brain in a healthy ecology that it registers and processes everything available.  It is unlikely that the architecture of the notionally Amazonian anaconda-descended human brain, which is employed in everything that that fraction of humanity makes and does, is somehow emptier and less active than mine, who sit in a chair all morning and buy food in shops.  We may feel, because we are more informed by quasi-infinite feeds of news, opinion and information generally, that our brains have and use massively greater capacity than the hunter gatherers’, but I mix with modern humans on a daily basis and I’m pretty sure this is a delusion.  It is true that the content of my ideoverse and the content of the ideoverse of a Palaeolithic caribou/reindeer hunter would be very different.  Their insentient material culture, stone, bone, antler, wood and hide and amanita, meat and fire and spears and berries dried, masks and other objective loci of rites, would take up a lot of meaning space, but so would the landscape and its inhabitants.  Animals would play a big part, particularly those they hunted and those they hunted alongside.  Wolves were (S)bits but they were also a cosmological reome, a metaversal conformation of tooth and fur and speed and ferocity, but alongside that also a confirmation of well ordered life in lupine camp and in the hunt.  They would  already have had a considerable presence in the paleo-meaning-space long before some of them became dogs.

Still, how?

There are various notions.  The first is that wolves kind of hung around camp fires and humans tolerated them so long as they didn’t come too close because to continually chase them off was a waste of energy.  Wolves have long canine teeth evolved to rip the perineum out of large mammals so that they bled to death, but they also have molars and jaws powerful enough to crack their main bones and get out the marrow.  But humans used stone tools for the same purpose, so the likelihood of humans tossing the wolves whose eyes glowed with the reflected gleam beyond the firelight the odd bone to keep them happy is slight.  I can see the picture, but I can’t see how we move on from there.

There is the neophiliac plasticity of young of both species which might attract them to each other, on the same lines as the tapir became a sporadic part of village life with the anaconda people.  It is plausible.  It has a lot of anecdotal stuff going for it.  I read this very morning of a study of how humans play with dogs.

[huffington post ]

It seems that dogs are pretty happy however human beings play with them, but humans have a better time the more they get down and dirty with dogs.  Male humans tend to act with dogs the same way they tend to act with other males, basically involving a ball, a lot of ball projection by the human and a lot of fetching by the dog (okay, the similarity is not perfect).   But females, children and males undelimited by real-man genes, like to tussle, wrestle and tug o’war with dogs, as well as cuddling with them.  Dogs are the same.  Professional dog handlers and trainers also interact physically with dogs more than the average dog owner.

My son’s somewhat wolf-like mongrel will leap into his arms in a welter of mutual adoration and gesticulation that goes about as far as the mutual regard of two respectable male pillars of the community will allow.  My daughter’s bitch, politely referred to as a Rotherham terrier, will seek out her knee to lean her cheek on when the emotional austerity of a home which houses four males becomes too much.  So all looks possible for the playful meeting of adolescent human and wolf, play-fighting in the snow, chasing bones.

Except that I don’t think their parents would have allowed it.  I think both sets of offspring would be severely discouraged from playing with alien and dangerous neighbours, however much you might respect them for certain qualities you have in common.  Wolf pups and children, however much freedom they were given to play, however much cheek they were permitted to adults that would not be tolerated in low status adults themselves, would have been guided into superordinate protocols upon with the homeostasis and survival of the group depended.  These would have prioritised not getting killed or injured, and watching and learning so as to become an actively and appropriately useful co-operator in the optimally functioning group.  It would not have included hobnobbing with trans-specific bad influences.  I guess the caste prejudice might have been stronger on the wolf side than on the human.

Other-species familiarisation with the human organism is not unknown.  There is sequence on You-Tube.  Two elderly men, tourists not scientists by the look of them,  are sitting on the edge of a camp somewhere in the central African rain forest.  Two mature male gorillas shamble up with three adolescents.  They approach the men.  The adults stop about three metres from the men, and squat.  They allow the adolescents to go forward, touch the men, feel their clothes and skin, take off a hat to look underneath.  After a couple of minutes the adults grunt and gesture.  The adolescents go back to them and make as if to walk off down the path but one of the adults, with the polite arm gesture of an official who points out that the exit to an art gallery is not the way you came in, diverts them off the path and into the forest.  The End.  It’s lovely to watch, and makes you proud to be a hominid.  What it means scientifically, on You-Tube, is less certain, but as I’ve already suggested, while anthropomorphising other species can be overdone, theriomorphising humans is probably corrective.

Adventitious correlation of hunting practice is not unknown in nature. With wolves and humans, both species hunt, and in a manner that is concordant.  What is more, young wolves, or at least young grey wolves, when they are first taken on a hunt, just watch from a distance, and only gradually physically explore the roles of fast runner, balker, distractor, topography exploiter, perineum ripper and, if particularly large and powerful, muzzle clamper and suffocator.  We can assume that the same pattern applied to humans, though anthropological evidence would suggest that, unlike with wolves, hunting was a male only occupation.  Extended phenotype was to blame, perhaps.  Once the by then obligate clothing had emerged (unnecessary in the African cradle of Homo sapiens, indispensable in the ice-age tundra), and cooking, and fire, somebody had to manage the complex technology of domestic life.  There is an argument that early man, as a sex, traded meat for copulation.  The evidence of my grandparents’ generation suggests rather that they traded meat for a share in the outcomes of the technology of home, even when home lacked a roof, and may well have had to earn sex in much the way we do, by charm and status, good grooming and good humour, and excellent manual skills.  A big penis, valuable as a display item where the mean temperature is 25οC, is less so in the icy wastes under a couple of inches of hide and fur.  Of course nowadays the technology of the home is, hopefully, as much the burden of men as women, at least in northern climes.

So there in the tundra, still, we have the caribou and, following them at a short distance, the wolves and the humans.  If increasing anxiety, then fear, has accelerated the caribou herd to a headlong rush, and two predators in its path check this charge slightly, causing an energy draining eddy in the caribou ranks, this small loss for the collective prey, gain for the collective predators, will be one small factor in the economy which, when finally summed, will lead to the outcome, a kill or not a kill.  It doesn’t much matter in the heat of the moment whether the diverters are wolves who have cut across the rocky shorter distance between two points to get in front of the herd, or humans who have used the larger spatio-temporal metaversal map at their disposal to take a short cut at dawn in the expectation that that was the way the caribou would go.  It might even be a man and a wolf who had got there at the same time by their different journeys and could see advantage in each other’s presence as long as each kept a seemly distance.  If we can imagine a proliferation of instances like this, where certain roles are confined to one species, and others distributed among both, we get a pattern of the hunt with men and dogs which emerged millennia later.

There is still the problem of the kill.  If one of the advantages of wolves hunting with men was that men with projectiles could kill at a distance and this saved the wolves the risk of physical damage by hoof or antler, then for cooperation to be of any use the men would have to share the kill with the wolves, and this seems unlikely.  It would only be in the pre-kill stages of the hunt that the interspecific fluidity of certain roles would benefit both, and each would make their separate kills.  But there might have been occasions when, with a group of caribou cut off from the main herd and corralled not only by relatively static men with spears but behind them fast moving wolves casting a virtual net across lines of escape— a map capable of realisation in the human metaverse— the kill would be enhanced, a slaughter, a pile of dead; hecatombs for the sacrifice.  And evolved in the cosmology of the men was already a totemic wolf worthy of respect, probably one with a mythically shared phylogeny with men, though not perceived as such in the Darwinian sense, more in the sense of the Amazonian hunters who were descended from the ancestral anaconda.

In this situation, some sort of deposition of the surplus kill, that benefitted the wolves, might seem politic.  It would be better determined in a cosmological context, for several reasons.  First, it would probably be unpopular at a demotic level: “You’re not giving our meat to them fucking vermin, mate.”  The average shaman probably wasn’t possessed of by any means the dullest intellect of the group, and their ideoverses would have developed along a phylogenetic continuum that was at variance with that of the, let us happily stereotype, the gorilla-muscled spear chucker, the one who if he was teleologically endowed enough could invent American Football on the spot.  Within the average shaman’s ideoverse there would long have been a reome where proto-votive offering was foregrounded because it had a totally opaque but functional differential advantage.

[Can’t remember here what I’ve already said about TRB Neolithic axe depositions and Yup’iks’ bladder ceremony, but if nothing, must be before this.]

The second reason is that protocols for rewarding the wolves for their part in the hunt would be more long-term functionally effective if they were ritualised.  Most animals and birds are genetically biased towards ritual behaviour, display, mating, taking over at the nest, and such evolved behaviour is the material spatio-temporal locus of all intraspecific interaction.  It can also arise interspecifically, though usually in displays of aggression.  In fact ritual behaviour has evolved from hardwired signing behaviour, the twitching tail, the angle of the ears, that has become part of a usually intraspecific process, what we would call in natural language a social process, such as mating, or greeting.  I read a long time ago an account of an incident where a man who worked with non-wild wolves was talking about wolf etiquette.  One day he’d gone into the enclosure of a big male wolf with which he got on well.  He had gone in to fix a loose fence rail.  He had just bent down to see what needed doing when he was knocked off his feet with tremendous force by a forty five kilogram bolt of fur muscle and bone.  The breath knocked out of his body, doubled up on the ground, he expected the worst, but when he opened his eyes he saw the wolf stalking back to the place where it was doing whatever it had been doing before.  He realised his error.  Carrying tools, absorbed in his task, he had forgotten to make the physical, up close greeting ceremony with this male with a very high sense of self-regard.  He staggered to his feet, went across and did so, and the wolf reciprocated as if nothing disorderly whatsoever had transpired a few moments before.  Protocols, protocols.  Look at our great statesmen on public occasions, and remember baboons.

I’m not suggesting anything teleological.  I’m not suggesting that the shaman might have overridden demotic short-term speciesism because he could foresee that ritual deposition of votive flesh would be long-term functionally better than random chucking of scraps, which produces ambiguity and no dog-trainer would approve of.   I’m merely suggesting that such ritual behaviour would have evolved, with maybe the shaman and his tendency as a significant locus, because its long-term functionality was a differential advantage to both species.

And thus today all well brought up dogs cohabiting with well brought up humans are still ritually fed.  “Sit.  No, no sit. SIT…Oh, alright then.”

This seems to me the most probable way it happened, but there’s no data to work with, so I’m not sure.


[1] Attempts have been made to demonstrate the group selection hypothesis, that competition between such groups as wolf packs is the principle locus of selection of the behaviours that are expressed by the variable characteristics discussed above.  The results of these attempts are hard to justify, and the project seems to result from the amenability of the group selection hypothesis to the practice of abstruse mathematics, unarticulated to any but the most blurred variables (a behaviour is an example), which look impressive on the page.  This heavily funded school of thought also allows a large measure of promiscuous teleology to be disguised in mathematical formulae, and thus leaves space, for this seems to be at heart a religious venture, for the Hand of God as the ultimate mover.  Steven Pinker’s essay “The False Allure of Group Selection” is a masterly essay that says all that needs to be said on the subject.



Cultural Evolution and the Cartesian Divide

When I blog I tend to refer to the “Cartesian divide” and the “Cartesian rational soul” as if they were on the tip of every cultural evolutionist’s tongue.  Clearly they’re not, but  Descartes was, rightly, a hugely influential mathematician and, as Hobbes said, a rather worse philosopher, by which he also meant a bad natural scientist.  Here he was also hugely influential, and his philosophy continues to evolve around us, perhaps an even worse influence now than it was in the Seventeenth Century, so we need to talk about it. Continue reading

Paul Smaldino, models and @CESConf2017

The Cultural Evolution Society has recently held a highly successful meeting in Jena.  Paul Smaldino, who was there, had previously published online (August 12, 2016) a draft of a chapter to appear in Computational Models in Social Psychology, “forthcoming in 2017 from Psychology Press” .

I started writing this as the CES conference was in progress.  I have been blocked from the CES twitter account for writing Let’s Take the Cult out of Cultural Evolution , possibly deservedly so; the temptation of the title led me on, and clearly a large majority of the Jena attendees were in no way participating in anything cultic.  But thankfully I was not blocked from the twitter feed of the conference itself, which proved to be illuminating, and often in a good way.  I quote:

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

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

If those who went to the conference, and particularly the young post-docs who might look forward to a career in Cultural Evolution, took back to their workplaces the significance of those three tweets, then Cultural Evolution might develop a space in which to freely evolve, rather than the Faraday cage of unanchored statistical procedures which constricts it at the moment.

Hang on a minute.  I am not at all against statistical procedures, or formal models, or the place of mathematics in science.  Back to Smaldino.  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 latter, the old-guard of the American Evolution Institute being wheeled out to chant the dogma of group selection and the theology of “prosociality”.

The results of this dogma 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).  I have no idea whether Paul Smaldino shares my view, and I’m sure he’s be too diplomatic to say, but for me at least Models Are Stupid, and We Need More of Them contains an implicit criticism of the majority of papers on the evolution of hominin culture written in  the last twelve years; an arbitrary date, but that of the publication of Not by Genes Alone (Boyd, 2005).

Towards the end of the chapter, Smaldino gives an instance 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.

Smaldino observes that in much scientific progress there is a process.  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 both generalised and 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 the electro-magnetic field 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, formal model, the slight discrepancy between the mathematics of Newton and James Clerk Maxwell.  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 the section heading Replicators are not necessary for cumulative evolution in Not by Genes Alone (Boyd and Richerson 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 from which such an explanation might be derived.

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 for human cultural evolution, or one perceivable by the senses.

I repeat:

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

And thus Dr Miriam Haidle guides us out of the Faraday cage of free-floating statistics 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 in a Darwinian process.

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.  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 analysis 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 Evolution Institute and John Templeton Foundation school of Cultural Evolution portrays humanity as a-historical.  It bases its notions on a snapshot of the way it perceives humans as being today.  This snapshot is composed of non-modellable conglomerates of “behaviour” abstracted from its material matrix (how would you make a cup of coffee without a cup, without coffee, without heat?); beliefs, traits, prosociality, norms, biases; all floating free of any historical anchorage, devoid of millions of years of pre-literate hominin material history.

The intention behind this obfuscation, subconscious or not, is clear; to remove human beings from nature, and put them back 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 with its magical mathematical metaphors 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 thirty trillion tons of the stuff came into existence.

That’s the challenge.

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 underspecified 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.