Tartu CE: a commentary

From 6 to 8 June I attended the Applications in Cultural Evolution: Arts, Languages, Technology conference organised by the University of Tartu, Estonia.  It was a brilliant event, both relaxed and intense, in a university on a tree-covered hill in the middle of an old and beautiful city in midsummer in a country where there was still light in the sky at midnight.  Oleg Sobchuk and Peeter Tinits did a fine job, many thanks.

Public interest in Cultural Evolution is not universal—if even locatable.  The news media constantly run stories on the latest findings of palaeontology, biology, medicine, cosmology, particle physics and even the evolution of once-living things, especially dinosaurs, but Cultural Evolution seldom (ever?) makes science editors prick up their ears, pay attention and amaze the media-devouring world.  So one of my intentions in going to the conference was to find out what, that might fascinate the intellectually curious at large, were the cutting-edge discoveries of those who led the field.

The conference started with Jamie Tehrani’s keynote address, an assured and urbane run-down on the state of play of the phylogeny of folk tales.  Tehrani also drew attention, during the panel discussion, to Chris Buckley’s The Evolution of an ancient technology , perhaps the most significant study of the phylogeny of a technology and the cognitive-skeleto-muscular processes through which it evolved since  Augustus Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers’ On the Evolution of Culture (1875).

Tartu is not, as Arizona will briefly be, the centre of the Cultural Evolution universe, but the general absence of the NAMES IN BIG LETTERS on Mason Youngblood’s co-authorship network had an upside, it gave the young and dynamic a chance to strut their stuff, which they did with panache.

I learnt many interesting and potentially productive things.  I learnt from Erik Gjesfeld that the degree of innovation within a technology at one time is predicted by the diversity of the material expressions within that technology at an immediately preceding time.  Thus the data from a given technology—he focussed on the automobile industry—is congruent with the middle term of the standard pattern of evolution; replication, variation, selection.  This may seem unremarkable, but I felt that at Tartu evolution, in any Darwinian sense, was rather the elephant in the room, something acknowledged in passing with a bit of arm waving familiarity but never directly addressed.  Gjesfeld kind of bracketed it by inference, but rather than foreground say the evolution of the Ford Mustang, maybe with  bit of phylogeny of forms and parts, he chose to concentrate on rates; things representable by graphs; to quote his abstract, “to examining macroevolutionary patterns of technological change by using a Bayesian modelling approach to estimate rates of diversification within various technological systems”.  This struck me as running round and round the elephant at a distance rather than risking moving into its personal space. Nonetheless his paper contained much information that would have populated an evolutionary template had such a procedure been thought appropriate.  Phylogeny was particularly inferred.  I can’t remember if Erik said it or whether it was just implicit, but my note says “Mustang did not turn into van.”  I am a simple soul, and like to work from clear image to abstruse calculation, rather than the far more difficult task of attempting the reverse process.

I learnt from Natalie Gontier’s keynote address that, “from the applied evolutionary  epistemological perspective, I define evolution as the process whereby units evolve at levels of ontological hierarchies by mechanisms”.  At first sight this looks preposterously circular, and indeed my reactions to her pronouncements fluctuated between outrage and grateful agreement.  What she attempted was to include every current model of “evolution” when preceded by the word “cultural”, and from there derive a definition which would include them all.  This resulted in the term and the definition, evolution, being reciprocally defined by each other.  This can often be a bit of a mistake, but Natalie was very specific.  “If you say a chair evolves,” and I quote her from memory, “then you must tell me where it evolves, when it evolves, and how it evolves”.  I was immediately won over.  Her specifying a material type, a perceptible physical entity, was unusual in Cultural Evolution circles.  It was also concordant with Richard Dawkins’ observation that evolutionary change is limited to a set of substitutions at identical loci.  I forgave what were in my view the solecisms of her address; the total ignoring of the many pages of Dawkins’ The Extended Phenotype that assert volubly that genes are not deterministic, and there is seldom if ever a gene “for” something; and (this is from my notes so I may  have got it wrong) her inclusion of kin selection and group selection under Sociobiology.  In my view, kin selection is, evolutionarily and ontologically, firmly located in Biology, while group selection (see Pinker The False Allure of Group Selection (Pinker, 2012)) should be placed in neo-liberal Sociometaphysics.  However, when we spoke briefly, Natalie’s own opinions seemed to be firmly located towards the centre of the Modern Synthesis and, in my clearly eccentric judgement, well-grounded.

Kristian Tylén’s talk, The Cumulative Cultural Evolution of Symbolic Behaviour was again tremendously productive of ideas.  But again I thought the elephant in the room was avoided, and this avoidance was implicit in the last sentence of his abstract.  “The experimental approach allows us to test concrete hypotheses concerning suggested symbolic functions of the artefacts”.  Why “suggested”?  Is it because, while such processes whereby one hominin may perceive and durably register the drawing by another with the finger of a line in the dust—which Peter I think characterises as the aesthetic stage—may evolve along dimensions through which they “become more salient, reproducible, intentionally expressive and memorizable”, there is no indication of, and no apparent interest in, the point at which they might become symbolic—whatever precise and callibratable meaning is being ascribed to “symbolic”.  If “symbolic” means “denotational”, as his abstract implies it might, then do we not need to find a more precise word than “symbolic”, which traditionally means an arbitrary link between sign and signified, as between fish and Jesus?

Barbara Pavlek’s stand-out paper was the only one that addressed the evolution of material entities, Ionian coins; proposed a precise environment of selection; and as a bonus used information theory (Shannon 1948) to investigate the mode of selection.

I  was delighted to hear, in Daniil Skorikin’s Measuring the ‘Epification’ of Drama, the term “small world property” which in my ignorance, fairly comprehensive, I had only come across in reference to neuron connections on the surface of the Homo sapiens cerebral cortex in (Herculano-Houzel, 2013).

And there were many other such delights, examples of which were Kaspar Kruups sparkling introduction to 4chan, and Karim Baraghith’s “Linking Micro- and Macrolevel Models of the Cultural Evolution of Language: From Graph Theory to Game Theory”.  I will not pretend to know what the “Causal Interactionist Population Concept” is, but Karim did produce a useful general definition of a population, which I wish I had noted in full, rather than my scribbled “Population is where rates of interaction are much higher within the group than outside”.  This is obvious once it has been made apparent, the prime marker of all classic definitions.  It clears up the niggle about “species”.  Maybe of course everybody already knew it but me; but at least one person was impressed.

Karim also raised the question about the whole conference that I have already suggested was the elephant in the room.  It was to the panel in the general discussion, and again I wish I had recorded it properly.  The gist was, “surely when discussing any kind of evolution, in the Darwinian sense when the term is not merely used to denote change, we must identify something which replicates, and that something is always going to be information”.

This was the moment I had been waiting for.  So far the conference had been outputting huge amounts of data and graphs, each episode of which was greeted by “Great talk” and then a niche technical question.  There seemed to be no conflict or disagreement about anything significant, let alone fundamental; not the slightest flicker of dissent, let alone irritation, or anger. But now, I thought, a conceptual fissure is going to open up, with evolutionists on one side, and an academic bureaucracy on the other.

No.  The moment was over in about half a minute.  One of the panellists said that long ago and far away it used to be believed that genes were deterministic, but now there was epigenetics and the Extended Synthesis and all that stuff, so it would be perverse to start worrying about replicators.

As I have already noted, this is a straw dolly set up by anti-evolutionists, and can be dismissed as nonsense by a quick reading of (Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype, 2016) pgs. 299 ff..  Today’s Quanta Magazine has a piece Theory Suggests That All Genes Affect Every Complex Trait.  Nobody in their right mind suggests that any gene is deterministic, but likewise nobody in their right mind denies that the irreducible locus or replicating information in life forms is the nucleotide sequence.  Otherwise why do we bother with genomes?

And that brings me to the core of my unease with Cultural Evolution as represented by the Tartu and other much more expensive and grandiose conferences.  But before that, an example.

At the last coffee break I had a chat with a couple of guys, one of whom was one of the surprising number of mathematicians who have joined cultural evolution academia as high level operatives, as the people who do the maths that appears to make Cultural Evolution respectable.  The development of mathematical concordances with physical data is a noble calling, as cosmology, astrophysics and quantum mechanics testify.  But, I said to them, what seems to happen in the case of Cultural Evolution is that an anthropologist or sociologist or archaeologist will come up with real-world data, often of great potential in the evolutionary sphere; ignore that potential; and instead submit their data, often through surrogates, to a Bayesian or other modelling approach; and come up with graphical representations of exactly what they had deduced from the data and expressed verbally in the first place.  The derived graph is merely an alternative representation of the, to descend into the demotic, absolutely fucking obvious.

That’ s what I said.  The two looked at each other and shook their heads, obviously wondering how to correct such pitiable stupidity and ignorance.  “No it’s not,” they said kindly, “it’s an explanation.”

Determined to proceed along the path of stupidity and ignorance, I disagreed.

“Give an example,” they said.

Possibly the clearest and most interesting paper of the whole conference, because it raised so many questions, was that by Maxime Derex, from an experiment and findings by Derex, Bonnefon, Boyd and Mesoudi, an august line-up if ever there was one.  I won’t try to describe it here, if you were there you’ll know what I mean and if you weren’t I’ll only confuse you.  It involved a ramp, a hub with four levers at the cardinal points of the compass, and four weights one of which could be placed at a number of determinate points on each lever.  It was a transmission chain experiment, and the task was to determine the optimum disposition of weights for the shortest possible rolling time between start and a set point on the ramp.

I described to the other two what I thought were the set-up and parameters of the experiment.  More pity.  No it wasn’t they said.  Okay, what was it?  The first gave his version.  No it wasn’t said the other,  it was like this.  We looked at each other in silence.  Luckily at that point Maxime Derex himself came past.  “Oi”, we said.

Maxime elucidated apparatus and findings with great clarity.  What emerged was that the information available to the subjects in the transmission chain was inadequate to determine what was the best distribution of weights.  To do that one would have to know the diameter of the hub and the length of track over which its descent was being timed (I think).

Nonetheless, along the transmission chain the dispositions of weights moved to the optimum, whether or not those in the chain merely passed on their last two results, or were allowed to pass on their theory also (the contributory effects of the cumulative theories more or less flatlined).

The graph did not give an explanation of these results.  What the experimenters seemed to be interested in was not an explanation of the mechanism which ultimately produced the graphical curve of improvement to the optimum.  This was a surprising curve given that Maxime said that the subjects came up, when questioned, with some very strange and erroneous theories.  Thus this experiment could so obviously be a perfect model for an investigation of— Pitt Rivers’ term— the evolution of culture.  But that seemed to have been irrelevant to the experimenters.  What they had deduced, and graphically represented, was that “social learning” played very little part in the improvement; which is a valuable conclusion, but still secondary to the superordinate question, which is “What in this case, in Gontier’s interrogation, is evolving, when is it evolving, and how is it evolving?”  And the follow-up question, “If this is the evolution of culture, then what is Cultural Evolution?”

The impression that the Tartu conference left me with was this.  Here is a huge amount of valuable data produced by a number of talented and highly intelligent people.  And for some reason it is not being used.  Instead it is being ritualised and emptied of its potential for extension by spurious mathematical performances.

There is no elephant in the room.  The empty space is indeed an empty space.  The alternative to ritual mathematicisation would be to relate all this data to a general theory of the evolution of hominin culture, or indeed hominid culture.  But there is no such theory.  Natalie Gontier and Alex Mesoudi (13 June 2018.DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2018.0712) make this absolutely clear.

And why there is no such general theory is in itself a huge puzzle.  One that such bright young things as were at the conference should set out to solve.  With or without their supervisors’ approval.  And here would be some real work for the best mathematicians.  Cladistics and onwards.

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