Why extended cultural evolution is a mirage


This is a picture of cultural evolution.


Figure 1.  http://www.sciencealert.com/scientists-just-solved-a-maths-problem-on-this-3-700-year-old-clay-tablet?utm_content=buffereaab4&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer


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.  http://www.anth.ucsb.edu/faculty/stsmith/classes/anth3/courseware/LithicTech/10_Summation.html

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.



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