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.


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