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.


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