In search of the replicator

Thonged sandals, and a bit more


Figure 1 Yuya’s sandals; Grass, reed, papyrus

10.184.1a, bYou look at this pair of thong sandals and you just know that they weren’t invented by someone in the previous few days or even years.  By the time sandals looked like this, they had been around a long time  And these sandals themselves clearly aren’t brand spanking new;  a bit stained, one thong slightly split, the straps a little cracked and battered.  Lovely detailing of the woven and bound sole though.  They’ve seen a few years, probably.

Actually quite a few years.  These sandals, (property and image The Metropolitan Museum of Art NY, US) are nearly three and a half thousand years old.  They were made, in Egypt, centuries before the Trojan War, before Achilles and Hector and Odysseus, before, at least mythologically, King Agamemnon had a priest slit the throat of Iphigeneia, his and Queen Clytemnestra’s daughter, so that Zeus, thus rewarded by the virgin’s wine-dark blood jetting onto a stone altar at Aulis, would send a breeze to speed the Achaean fleet to Troy.  In fact when these sandals were made Zeus himself was a very small-time god worshipped by a few goatherds on an obscure mountain in Arcadia.  Chariots had very recently arrived from the distant East, driven in lethal warfare through the ranks of North African and Anatolian infantry by those who also brought with them the ancestor language of Persia, Northern India and Europe, including the one in which this is written.

That’s how old these sandals are.

Josef Seibel sandalsThe sandal (Fig. 2) I have just taken off my present day feet look structurally much the same.  Mine were industrially assembled but the attachment of the thong to the sole has been redone by a craftsman in town.  He was able to do it because he was born and learned his trade in India, where the tradition of sandal making goes back at least five thousand years, long before the circa 1390 bce origin of Yuya’s  or Tjuyu’s elegant pair above.

Here (Fig. 3) is a pair that is a couple of hundred years older.  They look more homely and less elegant, more for slopping round the home in, but the structure seems the same.  This is the first time I have given any thought to the construction of sandal-ware, so I give an observational and speculative account; that is to say, founded in ignorance, but using my acquired knowledge of things in theDT310791

Figure 3 Sandals ca. 1580–1479 B.C.; Papyrus reed Metropolitan Museum of Art

world to work out, from a two-dimensional image on a screen, more or less how these sandals were made by an Egyptian crafter three and a half thousand years ago.  I dwell on this slightly, because it is a crucial feature of the overall hypothesis, that a huge amount of what we consider to be “mind”-based human knowledge is actually information inherent in things, not “minds”; things like these pairs of sandals which are a sector of the space-time continuum at the moment located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue, New York.  What information does this image of a pair of sandals give us?

They have a base for the human sole to rest upon, a strap across the human instep, and a thong that goes bP1010626etween the human big toe and its neighbour, and joins the base to the strap.  The base, in English, takes its name from the bottom of the human foot, and is itself called the sole.  (This is an aesthetic not an analytical observation, but just look how much the ghost of the sole is imprinted on the sandal.)

The Museum’s note says these (Fig. 3) sandals are made out of papyrus, which I know is a reed.  Unlike Yuya’s they are made from just one plant, so we can assume that the more structural bits, the bits that supply necessary rigidity, are made of stiff woody papyrus stem while the rest, the bits that require pliability and tensile strength are made of papyrus leaf.  We know that dried leaf is fragile, and we also know that papyrus was used to make paper, so we can assume that the leaf was treated in a way that preserved its longitudinal tensile strength (I’m thinking bamboo leaves here) and flexibility.  On the other hand, while the strap almost certainly has a leaf covering, the binding and weaving material of the sole could be split stalk.  (I could easily find out on the internet, but I’m confining myself to information that comes to me from the time of construction across the 3500 years to now via an LED screen.  The image on the page here is too small to see much, but if you go to it is wonderfully enlargeable.)

The sole takes its shape from the human sole, the human footprint.  In fact the image is of a footprint about 3.7 million years old, before our ancestors ever began to recognise and replicate the earliest stone tools.  In the sandal this shape is established by a perimeter of three bundles of stalk, inner, middle and outer.  The middle bundle is about twice the diameter of the outer.  The bundles are compacted with some filler material, a glue with a mineral matrix, to stop them sliding against each other and abrading, and then bound with the tensile material, leaf or split stalk.  I cannot see what keeps the bundles in the same plane, stops them sliding round each other, but the centre of the sole is clearly a framework of fairly rigid members, woody stalks, running side to side, about twenty three of them.  The bottom of the thong must be bound to one of them.  These transverse members, or beams, also form a warp for the woof of tensile material that, along the longitudinal axis, binds them together.  The visual information of how the beams are bound to the perimeter bundles is not available from the image, but clearly some complexity on the underside, some combination of weaving and binding, of compression and tension, is keeping the whole sole together, giving it its unique structural integrity—I mean unique to the sole.  The structural integrity of a willow fish trap or crab-pot or log basket, weaving and binding, is also unique to each type of artefact, though the structural principles, ultimately dependent on the laws of physics, are common to all.

The thongs seem on first examination to be so different as to be hardly a pair.  That of the right sandal (on our left) is delicate and slender, the left one is more bulky and functional.  However it seems that much of the right is missing; there is a broken stub of structural material emerging from under the strap, bound by an annulus of tensile material, as on the left.  So we can assume that the left sandal is much nearer the original condition, which we can infer was like this.  The thong core is a semi-rigid member, a bundle of longitudinally laid—what?  The material does not have the rounded integrity, the woody stalkiness of the perimeter framework of the sole.  Its surface is much the same as the broad leaf which overlays and encircles it and continues upwards to bind it about the strap.  But the bundled material is more stalkily discrete seeming, narrower and more longitudinally structured than the leaf, one feels that the broken ends would be stiffer and more resistant, passively aggressively so, to the fingertip.   This bundle is a beam, or at least a hemi-beam, not a cord.

How it is attached to the sole is beyond me.  There is a leafy binding round the transvers sole beam, but I cannot see how that is attached to the main thong bundle.  This is the point where thong sandals suffer the greatest strain.  It is the point at which my modern Joseph Seibel sandals first failed, where the cotton inter‒toe thong pulled away from the micro-cellular polyurethane sole, and the focus of repair by the craftsman who I only know, through my grandsons, as Raj’s dad in town.  So this opaque attachment on the three and a half thousand year old sandals has to be strong and, since it is still intact, we must accept that it was so.

The strap is a forward-leaning half hoop, and the bulkiest part of the superstructure.  It looks as if it is composed of wrappings of leaf, like a good cigar, for smoothness and give, for comfort for the instep.  But it is certain that inside the leaf covering is an infrastructure, the superstructure’s armature, the three footed, three holed topology of strap and thong; the same topology as that of a tripod standing on the ground, or a girl standing leaning her back against a tree, or a tee-shirt.  I mention this distracting and initially puzzling fact just to keep in touch with a more general truth, that whatever human artefact we try to account for, the account must fit the basic laws and conformational invariances of nature.

So inside that leaf-wrapped and padded half hoop of the strap there is a bundle of stiff but pliable probably stalky material to establish its shape.  It is clear that this curved former is somehow bound into the perimeter of the sole, and into the former of the thong, but information as to exactly how is not available to the eye.

What the sandal says about evolution

That’s it, that’s your three and a half thousand year old pair of sandals.  And there are some points to be made.  The first is the most important.  These sandals were not “invented” on one otherwise dull Tuesday afternoon in Early New Kingdom Egyptian Thebes in 1527 BCE.  They were, at the moment of their particular construction, the projection into the now (the then now) of a succession of sandals that went back into a past beyond recall, but of which there was a distributed record in all the sandals at that moment still existent.

The second point relates to the BBC’s documentary Handmade on the Silk Road. The Persian potter who was the subject of one episode said these three things:

  • That with sufficient skill you could make clean pots that were exactly like each other
  • That with his hand he could feel whether it was too narrow
  • That the skill of making pots had been in his family for many generations — his father said more than a thousand years

The third point merely emphasises that replication can continue for a long  time.  It is quite likely that if we could go back those thousand years, which in evolutionary time is but the blinking of an eye, the ancestral potter we found there could say exactly the same thing, and with equal truth, as his greatn grandson.

But it is the first point that is most significant.  For any craft, the traditional form, as embodied by contemporary production, is the nearest to perfection, and perfection is what the serious crafter aims to achieve.  Therefore fidelity of replication (of the type, not all pots must be the same) is an imperative.  “That with sufficient skill you could make clean pots exactly like each other” is the measure of the craft.

Evolution tends to be seen as about change, and indeed change comes into it.  But the structural core of evolution is replication with fidelity.  In biology, the information at the most irreducible locus of reproduction and development is in the genes, more properly in the chromatin, and the most complex strategies have evolved to maintain the fidelity of its replication, and the fidelity of its expression in the phenotype, ours as much as any.  Our individual survival depends on a very precise line of development in the journey from gamete to corpse, and any departure from that line probably leads to some sort of failure, disease, malfunction, malformation, putrefaction, cancer, mental illness, senescence, disintegration.  What ultimately defines and holds that line is the genes.  The picture is slightly confused because each of us is so clearly so different from every other one of us.  How can you talk of fidelity of replication when all we see is multitudinous difference?  But that’s the result of sex.  Our chromosomes are composed of sets of genes, alleles, that come randomly (mostly) from sperm and egg.  Each allele, let us say one that codes for one kidney protein at a certain developmental instant, may come from your mother or your father.  It is this diploid shuffling which produces difference.  But it is at the level of the genes in the allele that replication with fidelity must take place to produce the viable, healthy organism.  If the allele is messed up, and it codes for the wrong protein, or doesn’t code for any protein at all, the result may be a diseased kidney, or a kidney that never functions.  A foetus with a non-viable kidneys is itself non-viable.  That’s a simplified view, but it is the bottom line.  Our existence depends on replication with fidelity.

The same goes for viable sandals.  Thus, sandals were not invented, they were replicated, according to type, with fidelity.  This happened over durations of time beyond the recall of the sandal-makers.  And the information about the structure of sandals is not located in the dead brains of dead people, or any coded record of sandal-making they have left behind.  The information about the structure of sandals is in the sandals.



You might reply, this could well be so.  But, and it’s a big but, just because you can look at an image on a computer screen and infer, to an extent, the structure of a pair of three and a half thousand year old sandals, that doesn’t mean that you could construct, with the remotest degree of fidelity, a pair of sandals.  And I would agree, emphatically.  And here we must talk abut complexity.

P1010622I can make a flint micro-tool capable of, between the finger and thumb of a surgeon, delicately slicing through through the surface of an eyeball (I’m guessing here, I’m not going to try it).  It was easy, I found a small nodule in the flint gravel outside the garage door, I rested it on the concrete of the garage floor and I gave it an indiscriminate wallop with my old Stanley hammer.  This flake was among the results.  But whereas a Neanderthal crafter could make a beautiful, many faceted Acheulian axe or a Levallois cutting tool, I couldn’t.  Maybe with demonstration and practice I could, but without devotion and the “ten thousand hours” of practice, which is not going to happen, I would always be a bodger.

But even the most beautiful stone tool, a work of art, is simple.  It is made out of one substance, it is innate in that substance, as my potentially eyeball-sliceing flint proves, and it is of the simplest topological form, morphable from the sphere.  It was only when a hole in the axehead evolved to accept a haft of wood that it moved to the next topological form, the dough-nut, or toroid.  A torid is a sphere with one hole in it.  A hole is a gap through which finger and thumb will meet.

Now look at our sandals again.  Though papyrus is one plant, from the sandal constructor’s point of view it divides into different materials with different properties, gradations of leaf and stalk, as we have seen.  As for the topology, these sandals have hundreds of holes.  The structural topology, sole with perimeter and twenty three beams, plus the three holes of thong and strap, has according to my reckoning twenty seven holes.  But then we have the weaving and binding.  In weaving you have a warp and a weft.   The warp is a series of parallel cords strung between two beams.  Let us say the warp has one hundred cords.  There are a hundred holes, the spaces between each cord, bounded at each end by a beam.  The first cord of the weft, woven through the warp, doubles the number of holes to two hundred, the next trebles it to three hundred, and if there are a hundred cords in the weft you have a hundred times a hundred, or ten thousand holes.

Clearly the number of holes is not itself a measure of complexity in terms of construction.  Weaving a third or a ninety-ninth cord into the warp is no more complex than the first.  But with the possibility of variation of the texture, colour, substance of the cord, which produce pattern, complexity is inherent in the art and craft of weaving.  The art and craft emerges from the materials that are woven, in this case the stalks and leaves of the Papyrus reed, which have to be selected, collected and  prepared.

A reed bed of papyrus is to the eye and brain a complex pattern of verticals moving in the breeze, maybe dazzling in the sunlight against the glitter of the river and the blue of the sky.  But we must approach it with the attention of the practised sandal maker in whose brain there are already durable registrations of the dynamic relationships between each discrete material type that is derived from leaf and stalk, and the rest of the sandal structure—the semi-stiff woody part that is bundled to make the perimeter of the sole, the beams which build its base and are the warp for the leaf weft, the broad leaf that makes the fan-shaped centrepiece over the junction where thong meets strap.  These registrations meet, in the visual centres and across the brain of the crafter, the various parts of the reed coming in through the eyes and recognised as concordant, as aspects of the same thing, stalk bundle, beam or fan.  And then through coordinated muscle contraction these parts are collected, maybe as a whole plant, but not any whole plant, just the ones that show the best relevant qualities.  And then these plants are taken to the crafting place, the workshop, where there are the necessary and correct tools, for cutting, splitting, stripping; and work surfaces, and bowls for soaking, and fixed pegs for bending, or whatever is necessary.  And maybe all this is done by the sandal maker, or by a harvester who sells the raw material to one who prepares it and sells it to the sandal maker, or perhaps all three work in a co-operative that collectively makes and sells sandals and shares the reward, or in a workshop complex where they are slaves, ultimately their bodies and their product owned by a plutocrat or by Pharaoh himself, we have no means of knowing.

All these parts of the sandal, the sickle for harvesting reed and the flint or metal tools for its preparation are necessary parts of the construction of the sandal.  At any time in the production of anything that we might recognise as a sandal these parts go back into time way before the recallable.  Manufactured cutting tools go back at least a couple of million years, but adventitiously struck flakes that will cut go back many millions more before that.  Cord, string twisted and counter-twisted vegetable fibre, wild liana or narrow strip of hide, are unlike stone, they are organic stuff that rots so we do not know their pre-history, when they first occurred, but weaving itself goes back into the very distant past.  Woven sandals are clearly related in the processes of their origin to the wicker baskets and fish traps, shaped and woven from willow or hazel, that may have preceded them by tens of thousands of years.  But their deep ancestry goes back millions of years before that.


The Hominidae family, Orang utans, Gorillas, Chimpanzees and Humans, split from the Gibbon family around twenty million years ago.  All these apes save Humans weave nest-like beds each night to sleep in in the tops of trees.  Chimpanzees (David R. Samson 1, 2014), as well as simple single strand weave, use basket weave where two or more twigs of the weft cross below and then above two or more twigs of the warp.  They are very particular about choice of materials.  In the groups studied, although Ugandan ironwood only occurred as about ten percent of the chimpanzees’ forest environment, they chose it as nest material around 75% of the time.  This wood not only has the twigs with the highest tensile strength, but the leaves grow closest together, offering padding and insulation.  Weaving, a process which achieved a high level of complexity in pre-industrial times, does not need any human mind, any kind of “rational” insight or pre-conception to account for it, in fact it precludes such metaphysical agency merely by being part of the ape repertoire millions of years before we emerged as part of the ape collective.

Something else has been emerging into plain sight, maybe has been totally obvious all along.  A thong sandal is not a unitary, indivisible entity that could either evolve as such, or be invented as such.  A thong sandal is a locus of space time which one can trace back along a virtually infinite bundle of evolutionary pathways, only one of which is the evolution of types of footwear, though that in itself would be diverse and productive.  There is also the evolution of the tools necessary for the curation, harvesting and manipulation of the component materials, the evolution of the plants that provide those materials, the evolution of the dynamic relationships between these materials and the evolving hominid neuro-skeleto-muscular organism, and the evolution of the environment in which all this took place, the matrix of multiple hominin organisms and their accumulating extended phenotype, their stuff, material culture.  All these necessarily precede the emergence of the woven thonged sandal.  Every emergence of material culture is dependent on its antecedents.  There is nothing in your house which is not divisible in just the way of the sandal into multiple ancestries which go back beyond recorded human history.  It’s what Nick Lane, in purely biological context, calls “the chimeric origin of complexity”.

26.8.146Thus while a woven thong sandal is definitely a thing, in that it is differentiable from a clog, or a gentleman’s brogue, or my Josef Seibels, or these solid gold sandals of the same epoch; or from a bowl or a chariot; it is also an assemblage of proliferating other things of other types, weaves and bindings, cords and beams; just as a human being is differentiable from all other animals, chimpanzee, or scorpion; or from a shirt, or a hat, or a house.  But nonetheless a human being, an evolved entity, is also composed of a proliferating number of differentiated evolved cells, and those cells are composed of differentiated evolved components, mitochondria, membranes, nuclei, DNA and RNA, ribosomes, each with an ancestry which, visible or not, goes back beyond the transition between geology and life.

So while it is quite natural to say that the thonged sandal evolved, just as it is to say the human organism evolved, if we are looking for a precisely focussed locus of replication (and I am) then we must look into the divisible detail of the sandal, just as we, as a species, looked into the divisible detail of biological organisms in order to recognise the gene.  But before I continue that search, there are a few other important points that arise from the sandal.

If it walks like a duck…

Just because something looks like a duck it is not necessarily a duck.  An actual duck, lured down to the water’s surface by the appearance of a couple of others of its species in there by the reeds, and greeted not by friendly quacking but a percussion of the air and a blast of shot which is marginal to it and merely breaks a few wing quills, should learn that lesson, and that duck should in future be more careful to distinguish between a duck of flesh and blood and a plastic decoy.  Nonetheless in general, if something walks like a duck and talks like a duck it is an economical path towards what is the case to, as a first approximation, assume that it is a duck.  Only if it starts to dance a polka or quote the poetry of Rumi should one begin a reassessment, both of the objective form of whatever it is that looks like a duck, and of one’s own perceptual apparatus in connection with, for instance, what one has been ingesting in the proximate past.

In the same way evolution looks like something.  If we accept Darwin’s  theory at all, we assume, merely on the grounds of appearance and behaviour, that a dog is descended from a wolf and not a pig.

But what are sandals descended from?  We must remember the chimeric origin of complexity.  This applies to our species as much as to sandals.  It used to be assumed that we “anatomically modern humans” were descended from a clear line of ancestral hominins, each human feature, domed brain case, prominent chin, evolving alongside the rest in a single species the members of which were much alike.  But Chris Stringer has been saying and writing for years that we are descended from various populations across Africa, each with some “primitive” and some “modern” features.  And then, it seemed all of a sudden this year, this multi-evidenced hypothesis has become the conventional view.  We are the descendants of diverse hominin populations, some with chins but undomed skulls, some with domed skulls but no chins, some with brow ridges, some without, some with big fibre abrading molars like chimpanzees, some with little delicate teeth and weak jaws.  These populations tended to live in isolation, but genetic evidence shows that they sometimes met and interbred, and the eccentric characteristics were distributed by sex, possibly allied to drugs and rock and roll, and then groups became isolated again, and met again, and so on.  Our ancestry is highly reticulated, a network not a tree, with recent intromissions, the transfer of new genetic material between apparent species, from Neanderthals, who we think far more highly of now we know that part of them is part of us.

The same seems to go for sandals.  The soles of Yuya’s  have the same basic structure as a chimpanzee’s bed, a woven platform in the middle and an encircling perimeter.  But it would be a mistake to assume that therefore the sandal is descended from the bed; or even from the shoe.

Function is what something does in the world, but doing something does not suppose agency, if we associate agency with some kind of intention.  We are in a difficult area here.  As human beings we can do things on purpose, or by mistake.  Purpose suggests that before we started doing the thing we had a conscious registration in the brain, vision and action, of what it was we were about to do.  That is what I understand by purpose, and in that purposeful sense, I have agency.  So does a dog when it drops a ball at your feet, to be thrown.  Or a cat when it stands at the closed door, looking meaningfully at it and perhaps meowing.  Where this having a purpose emerged in evolution is open to debate.

A rock that has lain for aeons on a cliff edge that over the course  of a few seconds gives way so the rock plunges into the valley below, causing considerable damage to vegetation and indeed other rocks, does not have agency, and certainly not a purpose.  One could not even say it had a function, because a function implies an action within some replicatable pattern, while the action of the rock was unpredictable and random.  And a rock half buried in the earth beneath a tree, which existed, had extension, took up space, but had no other perceptible function, may at some point become the anvil for a chimpanzee to crack the seeds of the Panda oleosa nut, and at only that point assume a function.  In this sense a function is a derivative of evolution. The rock, to the selecting factor, the chimpanzee, was one of many variants distributed around its environment, and it was only endowed with a function by being selected, and then used, for cracking nuts.  The same goes for the hammer stone—different type, mass and shape—also selected by the chimpanzee as a conveniently situated example of a type.  The precise selected stones, hammer or anvil, were not replicated, as a flaked stone tool might be replicated, but they nonetheless had information for the chimpanzee, that they were the right type for the function being selected for.  When an anthropologist, sitting under a Panda oleosa tree, notices a large stone with a particular shape and mass, bits of seed cortex scattered about the place and  three stones to one side that would comfortably fit the hand of a local ape, they will  that assume that these three stones have been through the brain of a chimpanzee, that that chimpanzee will have spotted them, recognised them, by muscle contraction  collected and assembled them, and that, by this act of collection, the chimpanzee has made manifest its recognition of a type, hammer stone, even though it probably didn’t have a name for it.  Even if collection is not conceded to be proto-replication, it is I think unarguable that it not only precedes it, but is a necessary step in the emergence of active replication, as in striking one chosen stone with another in order to make it better for a function such as cutting.

Replicated objects have at least three functions, the physical, the relational, and the aesthetic.  The physical is the function of a hammer stone, to hit things with.  The relational is the function of “with” at the end of the last sentence.  It could be argued that “with” is not an object, but “with” has physical extension, as a written word, as here (“here” is another relational object) or as a spoken word, or as a registration, in whatever form it takes but inevitably material, in the brain.  Its existence is distributed between these three modes, but if they ceased to exist, the object “with” would cease to exist with them.  The third function is aesthetic.  We tend to dismiss it from analytical discourse as a gratifying incidental, whereas in fact the perception of satisfying surface, hue and form is at the core of hominin evolution, as I either have argued or hope to.

Back to the sole.  It is a testable hypothesis that the sole is ancestral to all footwear.   The functions of footwear are at least three: to protect the foot from insult from below, to keep it generally protected from cold, wet, mud and dust from above; and to display status, judgment and discrimination superior to those who go barefoot.

Figure 5

earliest show 21449.adapt.676.1From what can be inferred from ancient foot bones, it is possible that the evolution of shoes goes back more than forty thousand years, but organic material decays, and the earliest extant shoe is about five and a half thousand years old.  The information latent in Gregory Areshian’s image from the National Geographic (Ravilious, 2010) is that it was constructed in this way.  The person who the shoe was to fit stood on a bit of leather, thus defining the sole.  The leather was then cut in two places, drawn up over heel and instep, and the edges laced together.

The type “whole cut”, up-and-over moccasin shoe has been replicated with fidelity for five and a half millennia, and you can buy Armenian opanke shoes on-line.  But the shoes worn by the “Iceman” hunter who emerged from a melting glacier in the Austrian Alps in 1991 and who lived around the same time, were already more like an industrial standard modern shoe.  The up-and-over shoe involved the cutting of hide, and the cutting off of waste material.  This waste material had shape and form.   It would have been discarded around the emerging shoe and the actual or virtual foot in suggestive ways.  Division of a plane rectangle into various shapes prompts the reverse process, the reassembly of the shapes into the plane rectangle.  Children learn this with simple geometrical jigsaw puzzles.  The off-cuts from the manufacture of an up-and-over shoe would not reassemble into another shoe, or anything like one, but they might well stimulate, over the years and centuries, a bit of playing about, a bit of ludic rearrangement. The emergent forms into which these offcuts could morph were latent in the context, in the visual field, in the shaped pieces of leather waste and the already employed dynamic relationships between already existent shoes, cutting tools, cord and hide and human hand and muscle.  The plan form was the sole, the form up from which the rest of the shoe was pulled and shaped, and this became a discrete foundation upon which a shoe could be constructed from panels.  We don’t and never will know in detail how this happened, but we can be in no doubt that it did.  “Each base [of the Iceman’s shoe] was made from brown bearskin; the side panels were deerskin; and inside was a bark-string net, which pulled tight around the foot” (Ravilious, 2010).  Assembling a shoe from separate panels allowed more precise forming, and also for different materials with different properties, thicker and tougher for the soles, more supple for the sides and insteps, midway for the vamp, the part covering and protecting the instep.  I have an industrially made tough budget shoe here which seems to be make of eleven panels and a sole.  Expensive shoes seem to have less.  There is one on the internet—it costs several thousands of pounds— which seems to resolve into sole, single upper round from toe to the heel, a panel for the laces and two for the ankles; four panels as against eleven.

It seems the oldest footwear ever found is from around eight thousand years ago, in a cave in Missouri, and it is a sandal.  Though ancient beyond recall it was already complex.  This is from the archaeologists’ report at the time of the find:

“The sole is warp-faced interlacing. The vamp is not interworked and is made from lengthwise elements.  The toe is pointed, and the round-cupped sling heel is formed from twisted lengthwise elements.  the sandal also has a pad or lining.  The tie system consists of side loops and a braided cord that criss-crosses through the loops and over the foot and is secured at the ankle (O’Brien, 1998).”

This sandal had not been just invented in the week before its manufacture.  It was derived from a mesh of long-existent crafts.  Already, in around 6000 BCE, shoes were such as could be classified by modern archaeologists as “four sandals and 13 slip-ons”.  That is why, as a first step, it is easier and more precise to study the evolution of physical characteristics, like the woven or knotted or wound cord, rather than of types, such as sandals.

PadukaSo, to return to where we started, the thonged sandal, the pointy one made of papyrus, favoured by the Pharaohs Yuya  or Tjuyu .  The thong element, fixed to the sole below and the strap above, is a rigid member.  In India an ancient and most simple type of footwear is the paduka, a wooden sole with a mushroom-shaped peg that fits between the big and second toe and locates the foot relative

Figure 6 By Pebble101 – Own work, CC BY 2.0,

to the footwear.  As the foot leaves the ground, the mushroom-cap that tops the peg takes the weight of the sole on the two toes, but the heel falls away.  The foot accelerates forward, and the paduka is held by inertia into the space between the toes.  Then the foot decelerates and stops as it rolls to the ground, heel first.  The paduka still has mass and momentum and as there is nothing between the tips of the toes to hold it, it carries on and lands some way in front of the foot.  This is inimical to dignified or functional walking.  To counteract this tendency and hold the sole against the foot, the walker flexes the toes against the front part of the sole and using the peg as a fulcrum lifts the heel, holding it securely against the human sole so that normal walking may continue.  In this operation the peg acts purely as a tension member.

All this theoretical stuff is, as most of what goes on in life, entirely opaque to and unanalysed by the human walker, who sorts it all out at the level of the bones, muscles and CNS without giving it a second thought.

In the 21st Century we are familiar with images of accelerated change.  Freeze frame technology speeds up all sorts of natural processes.  The sun does a quick inverted swoop across the sky, clouds race, belly, darken, rear up, disperse, night follows day, all in a matter of seconds. In the course of a minute a tree will bud, burst into leaf, into blossom, the blossoms fall, berries swell and redden, the leaves wither and fall, the twigs stand bare against the winter sky.  The arctic ice cap will contract and expand over and over again, a year in a minute, though no longer expand as much as it contracts.  A caterpillar becomes an opaque spindle that unfurls into a butterfly as we draw and expel three breaths.  At the beginning of the last century this was a cinematic illusion which seemed real magic to many.  Today it is almost a cliché.

PR img-5If we had the data, the archaeological evidence, we could do the same with the evolution of the flint blade, or the leather shoe, or the woven sandal, and watch their changing forms flow across the centuries in a matter of minutes.  Indeed Augustus Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers suggests exactly that process of one thing morphing into another, in his seminal The Evolution of Culture and Other Essays (Pitt-Rivers, 1906 [1875]).  Pitt Rivers was the first to publish the hypothesis that human material culture evolved; that forms and types were ancestral to subsequent forms and types.  The hypothesis is represented in the illustration below.

He starts with the simple stick at the centre, and each radiation represents an evolutionary line to which the stick is ancestral.  It is easy to see that with enough intermediary examples one could produce a freeze-frame film of a stick morphing into a BIRD CLUB or WAR PICK OR MALGA.  This possibility is amplified in the illustration of “A chronological depiction of Stone Age and Iron Age implements ranging from as early as 1,4 million years ago (Early Stone Age) to as recent as 500 years ago (Iron Age)” at the National Museum, Bloemfontein SA.

Figure 7

Bloem museum exhibition

To the right are the oldest stone tools, so time moves leftwards.  Handheld chopping, digging, bashing stones shrink to a size appropriate to more subtle and complex manipulation by finger and thumb.  Types proliferate, substance alters from stone to metal.  Again the implication is that with enough data there are many, many freeze-frame films to be made from this material.

But, while it certainly seems from all this that a first approximation to what is the case is that a spear is derived from a stick and an arrow from a spear, that a boomerang is also derived from a stick, that a cup is derived from a bowl and not a bowl from a cup, that a surgeon’s scalpel is derived from a flint blade and not vice versa, and that boats went from tree-trunk to dug-out canoe to dhow and there was no likelihood of somebody looking at a dhow and saying, you know what, a tree-trunk would be a jolly good idea, because tree trunks were already in the landscape everywhere there were trees and had been for a lot longer than there were human beings, and this would be pointed out fairly promptly to the “inventor” of the tree trunk.

I dipped into a book, briefly, by one of the more imaginative and mystical “Cultural Evolutionists” of our day who asserted that there had been nothing in principle to prevent some late Paleolithic genius, musing in their cave, coming up with the idea of a nuclear reactor.  One immediately knows that there was precisely zero chance of such an occurrence, so what can this eminent academic been thinking of?  I guess what he, it was a he but I can’t remember who, was working towards in his Cartesian befuddlement was the notion that this Paleolithic genius possessed a “mind” that was in principle, given the human and material context in which the first nuclear reactor emerged, capable of being a functional part of the collective of then existent people, things and processes which produced it.  Even so he, it was also a he I’m afraid, would have needed to have the relevant cultural formation, the same socialisation and education as the rest of the Manhattan Project team.  In other words he wouldn’t be a Paleoithc man sitting in a cave at all.  He would be a fully integrated contemporary mid-twentieth century American.  So the only question at issue is whether there existed, let us say forty thousand years ago, a, or several, or thousands of human beings with brains with this potential.  And the response must be, who knows?   It is an idle question.  We know little enough about how our brains do the things they do, such as mediate the evolution of nuclear reactors, even today.

Meanwhile we have, in the emergence and development of our extended phenotype, what looks like evolution.  We who think Darwinian evolution is the case accept this of animal species.  The giraffe and the okapi are distant cousins genetically, mutual nearest relatives today.  The okapi is in appearance much the same configuration as any other short-necked browsing ungulate, antelope or deer.  And just about between okapi and giraffe, neck-wise, is a seven million year old fossil of a Samotherium major.  The okapi’s neck bones are squat, the giraffe’s are long and slender, and the Samoerium’s were between the two.

So we evolutionists discern this.  The okapi and giraffe are descended from a common, conventionally necked ancestor.  One branch, the okapi, stuck to the forests and and browsed the shrubby undercover at head-height.  It could bend its head down and stretch it up but the most economically available fodder was more or less in front of its nose.  The giraffe on the other hand lives in the woodland savannah and gets its living from the higher parts of trees which other browsers can’t reach.  There are several modern species of giraffe, but the optimum neck length for each is limited by energetics; too long and there are structural costs with the bones and muscle, thus more nutrition is needed and in addition the whole organism becomes increasingly unstable (watch a giraffe drinking), but if the neck is too short, available fodder decreases.  The particular type of wooded savannah in which the giraffe lives selects for neck-lengths among variants in the population, keeping them at around the optimum.

But how do we know that  an animal much like an okapi evolved into a giraffe.  The fossilised bones of the intermediate species tell us precisely.  If we had enough fossils of other intermediates, quarter, two thirds of the way between an okapi and a samotherium, and again between  a samotherium and a giraffe, and could progressively fill in all the gaps, we could make a freeze-frame film of the skeletal journey beween giraffe and its common ancestor with the okapi.  In fact the samotherium is not the direct ancestor of the giraffe, its exact line became extinct.  And it has to be remembered that very few dead animals become fossilised, otherwise we would find fossilised bones wherever we dig.  But somewhere in the universe there will be all the molecules of the bones of all actual giraffe ancestors.  We cannot possibly re-assemble them, but it is possible that some other fossilised intermediate will show up, and this piece of evidence become another frozen frame in the film connecting the two.

In this kind of case we don’t need proof, because there is nothing to prove.  The cervical vertebrae of okapi, giraffe and samotherium all exist.  What we are establishing is a general theory that predicts a pattern, that within a time frame A to B, before A no okapis or giraffes existed, only an animal ancestral to both, and by B both okapi and giraffe existed, and between A and B examples may be found of animals with neck lengths somewhere between those of the modern okapi and the modern giraffe.

When creationists say that evolution has never been proved it is not clear what kind of proof they are looking for.  There are many kinds of proof.  Even mathematical proofs do not always have the same form.  Proving to a distant and sceptical insurance company that your house has been destroyed by an earthquake is not the same as proving that earthquakes, within a range of variables, destroy houses.  Proof can rest on prediction—that a dynamic relationship between X and Y under a limited range of circumstances is always followed by Z, as in 2H+ O2  →  2H20.  On  theother hand, if one morning you find a toad in your medicine cupboard and also there is an earthquake in the course of which your house falls down, you (normally) assume that the destruction of your house was caused by the earthquake, not the toad in the bathroom cupboard or any putative witchcraft practitioner who put it there.  If you are standing in the rubble and an agent of the insurance company shows up, looks at the mess and, despite the fact that what was you house is surrounded by hundreds of other piles of rubble that were also recently houses, demands proof that your house in particular was destroyed by the earthquake, and did not for instance spontaneously fall down all of its own accord five minutes before any seismic activity was recorded, you would have to rely, as would a court, on likelihood.

We human beings employ, consciously or not, Ockham’s razor, which says that the simplest account that is consistent with what is the case (the house has fallen down) is the most likely to be the most correct.  The toad in the medicine cupboard hypothesis requires another account to make it worthy of consideration; a sketching in of the mechanism by which a toad in the medicine cupboard might cause the destruction of a house in a way that the quaking of its foundations did not.  This might lead to a hypothesis that the toad caused the earthquake.  The hypothsiser would then have to account for the fact that in your town hundreds of other houses were destroyed at the same time as yours, none of which, to anyone’s knowledge, had toads in the medicine cupboard, or even had medicine cupbards.  “Well”, the hypothsiser might adjoin, “the toad doesn’t have to be in the medicine cupboard, it could be…”  This is what William of Ockham meant by multiplicanda entia sine necessitate, the proliferation of sub-explanations in order to justify the initial explanation, rather than accepting the simple version, that your house fell down during an earthquake because of the earthquake.

Darwin’s theory of evolution—replication, variation, selection— fits the case better than any other.  My Bahá’í friend subscribes to the God did it hypothesis, but then you have to prove the existence of God and, there being no evidence, that leads to an unending series of confabulations totally contrary to the parsimony of Ockam’s rule—though there is little doubt that William took the existence of God as axiomatic.   Plant and animal breeding works in much the same way as natural selection, but with human organisms as a major part of the selecting environment.  And evolution can take place in observable time, as recounted on page (?), the Alaskan island sticklebacks (Lescak, 2015).  Presumably, if you knew all the variables in the gene pools and the selecting environments of these sticklebacks, it would be possible to predict the evolutionary outcome.  In practice, the variables are inumerable, the evidence already lost, and thus computation not even theoretically possible.  On the other hand, and significantly, we can bundle variables into heuristically manageable sets and, operating with these, make a fair approximation of evolutionary outcomes.  Thus, where there is a variability in the salinity of pools, one would expect alterations in the functions of the kidneys and the molecular pumps in the gills, and would look there for evolutionary changes.  If you found these changes you would assume that they had been selected from variations present in the founder stickleback population, variations that had clustered around the optimum for their original brackish environment.  This evolutionary step would likely result in a loss of phenotypical adaptability to various levels of salinity, which would be redundant, and therefore relatively costly, in the context of a freshwater terrestrial pool.

This is the level at which Darwin’s theory works.  It fits the case, and it is predictive within limits.  .  This does not mean that it is the absolute and unmodifiable truth, but it is the best we have.  In practice, Darwin’s theory is so much more testable against and concordant with the evidence, so much more powerful in its simplicity than any alternative that at the moment there is not rival in sight.  It does not specify nor need genes, though genes are undoubtedly the case, and if it is demonstrated, as it may be, that there is an epigenetic mechanism by which phenotypically acquired characterstics can be inherited by downstream generations, that does not destroy, or even disrupt, Darwin’s theory.  It may rupture the Weissmann barrier, it may cause Richard Dawkins to eat his hat, though I wouldn’t myself hold such a great populariser of rigorous science to his undertaking, but Darwinism will not be affected.

Apparently the use of the word theory gives some creationists comfort.  “It’s only a theory, it’s not a fact”.  This is to misunderstand the particular use of the word theory.  A theory is an account of what is the case, as in E=mc2.  It is a formulation that is concordant with what is the case insofar as it complies with the strictures of the preceding paragraphs.  The Theories of Gravity, Special and General Relativity, and of Evolution, are going to be modified and modulated as long as the overall coherence of the human extended phenotype remains intact.  Newton’s account of gravity has been superseded in some particulars, but it is not wrong, any more than the samotherium was wrong because it was not a giraffe.  Newton’s theory still accounts for the orbit of the moon around the earth, and the planets around the sun.  It just ignores relatavistic effects, of which Newton knew nothing, nor could he without the work of, among others, Faraday and Maxwell, which took place long after his death.

But just because the way that shoes and sandals, or blades, or modified sticks (the billiard cue, the selfie-stick) change through the ages looks like evolution, that does not mean that it is evolution.  For me evolution is the most likely explanation by some orders of magnitude.  The “rational mind” or an innate faculty that out of “thought” or “creative” or “innovative” or “inventive” energy produces from a vision of the future new types that are independent of the information latent in all the material culture that exists at that date do not sit well with Ockham’s Razor.  But in order to give evolution a chance I must show that, and by what mechanism, things-in-the-world, stone, stick, passenger jet, are replicating.

Before that there is just one other significant point to be made.  Broadly speaking, biological evolution takes place in populations, not in individuals.  This does not mean that populations rather than individuals evolve, but that for selection to take place there must be a gene pool distributed among the collective of phenotypes which constitutes the population, so that there are alternatives to choose between.  At the gene level the alternatives are alleles.  An allele is where two alternative genes (one from the egg or one from the sperm) fit the same site in the chromosome, and only one can occupy it.  If in a species of bird the allele for blue outer tail feathers gets to occupy the outer tail feather site on the chromosome, the outer tail feathers will be blue, and If the allele for green outer tail feathers gets to occupy the outer tail feather site, the outer tail feathers will be green.   Most genes do not have alleles in this sense.  The genes for ribosomal DNA are fairly invariant through the history of Life.  Ribosomal DNA is absolutely fundamental to the translation of a gene into a protein.  It is not to be messed about with.  The colour of tail feathers is important to sexual selection, but it is not fundamental to the viability of the organism.  This is a simplistic account, but with broad brush strokes represents the case.

If females within a population choose mates (this may itself be an evolved response with a genetic component) with green tail feathers at a slightly higher rate than they fancy males with blue tail feathers, then males with green tail feathers will reproduce more successfully than those with blue.  The tendency towards green tail feathers moving to fixation is the summation of individual female choices, but results in the fixation of one characteristic-determining allele and the extinction of the other in the whole population.  One of the ways you can now distinguish between this species and one that is evolutionarily close to it is by the green outer tail feathers of the male. This is a simplistic account, but with broad brush strokes represents the case.

In this case the proximate selecting environment is composed of the individual females in the population.  In the case of stone handaxes the proximate selecting environment is the collective population of human organisms.  Each individual human organism can be analytically resolved into tissue, blood, muscle, bone and central nervous system.  In order for a handaxe to be replicated, it must pass into the hub of the human CNS, via the eyes, ears or tactile and proprioceptive nerves, and exit again via muscle contraction as yet another handaxe.  However what is necessary for evolution to happen is a population of handaxes replicated with fidelity but with a sufficient envelope of marginal variation for selection to work on.  This requires  not just one but many human organisms to be producing a large number of more or less identical handaxes.  In other words the information that regulates replication and variation is not located in any one human brain, but is distributed throughout the tradition of handaxe manufacture as it exists in the at-the-time products of handaxe manufacture and the infrastructure of the industry, and in human organisms, including their individual brains, who are the proximate environment of handaxe production.


Two significant experiments

This is the significant conclusion, as yet to be fully explored, of the groundbreaking experiment Investigating the Effects of Social Information on Individual Ability at Refining and Understanding a Physical System, Derex, Bonnefon, Boyd and Mesoudi 2018, presented by Maxime Derex at the 2018 Tartu conference.

This explains how each of us can function perfectly adequately in the immediate environment of our extended phenotype, in my case a small town in middle England, and at the same time understand practically nothing about it.  I doubt if there is a single person in Market Harborough with enough knowledge to singlehandedly produce an LED screen smart TV with all its connective functions, even if they were presented with all the constituent materials in basic chemical form.  I’m slightly doubtful that I could describe in detail the whole electricity generating and distribution system of the UK, let alone single handedly reconstruct it from scratch.  I don’t need to labour the point.  As a collective, including all the works of the dead, we are by our own standards unimaginably massively intelligent.  As individuals we are characterised by our unimaginably massive ignorance of all there is to know.  This explains why, though we think of ourselves as intelligent individuals, we notice that most other people, while they tend to have information that we do not personally have, are, how can one put it?  I think Uncle Galahad in Blandings has it about right.

CELIA:                   (of her fiancé) Of course a lot of people might think of Freddie as fairly ordinary.


This suggests that a lot of the evolution of our culture, the human phenotype, happens without our being conscious of it, without our foresight and planning.  Foresight and planning require that we have a clear and accurate vision of the way our culture should be in the future.  But culture evolves in ways that we might, if we could have foreseen them, tried to prevent or ameliorate.  The socialised manufacture of of global warming that degrades our planetary environment to the extent that it can no longer support a significant fraction of its previous biome is just one example.  The effect of cell phones on human behaviour is a more particular case.  When 1G cell phones first emerged in the 1970s they were to a large extent ridiculed and resisted.  “This coolness arises…partly from the incredulity of men, who do not believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.” (Machiavelli, [1513] 1993)  The object, the cell phone, is the direct cause of new and extraordinary behaviour, like people standing in the street apparently shouting at thin air, or in a situation where in earlier times they might have chatted with the bodies around them, laughing or arguing and articulating with hands, shoulders, eyes, now sitting in a line, still and mute and head down and fixated on an unfleshed world beyond their little screens; or parents walking along the road, deep in what is to their infant is mere undircted jabber, while the infant might be looking for verbal and conceptual occupation; none of these outcomes were conceived, any more than the actual almost miraculous scope of the 5G phone, with its four and a half billion transistors, was foreseen in the Seventies of the last century.

You might say, but look, human flight, space travel, all sorts of things were imagined long before they were realised.  Yes they were, but only in terms of whatever existed at the time, never in terms of the emergent form.  Leonardo foresaw a flight machine, but not the Wright biplane, let alone the Boeing Dreamliner.  Rockets have whooshed into the sky towards, though not very far towards, the moon and stars for the last seven hundred years, but nobody foresaw the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket vehicle which launched the Parker Solar Probe this week, the satellite payload of which will have to reach 700,000 kph in order to enter a close orbit with the sun.  The work on the emblamatic “rocket science” (that so many things are not), carried out by the Nazi Werner von Braun in Germany and the USA, was a crucial intermediary between the first Chinese arrow boosters and the current most sophisticated space launch vehicles, and the makers of the emergent rocket proplled arrows in the 14thC clearly had no pre-vision of the United Launch Alliance Delta IV, any more than I did when reading about Space Captain Dan Dare in The Eagle comic in the 1950s.

Not only do human beings have no  vision of the future as it varies from the present, but often a very imperfect understanding of the now in front of their eyes.  This was demonstrated by an experiment (Derex, Bonnefon, Boyd and Mesoudi (DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/GE7CS, no other reference) which Maxine Drex presented at the Tartu conference 2018.  This paper has not as I write been published so the following is from the abstract and from memory.

In the experiment the initial participants were presented with a ramp, a hub with four spokes at the cardinal points of the compass, and four weights one of which could be placed at a number of determinate points on each spoke.  It was a transmission chain experiment, and the task was to determine the optimum placing of the four weights for the shortest possible rolling time between the top and a set point on the ramp.  Each initial paricipant was given five trials, and the results of the last two, both the placing of the weights and the average speed, were passed on to the next participant in the chain, which was five participants long.

By the end of the chain the time taken for the centre of the hub to pass the finishing line had decreased, tending towards the optimum.

In a second version of the experiment, the participants were allowed to pass on not only the data for their last two results, but also their hypothesis about the optimum placing of the weights.

The additional information, the hypotheses, made no significant difference to the outcome.  In fact Maxime said that a) some of the hypotheses were very weird indeed, and that b) it was not formally possible to work out a solution without knowing the diameter of the hub and the distance between start and finish on the ramp.

So no participant had a formally coherent, verbally expressible hypothesis about the system that was of use to the next person in the chain.  And yet along the chain performance improved towards the optimum.

The title of the paper was Causal understanding is not necessary for the improvement of culturally evolving technology, and the experimenters were focussed on establishing whether this was true.

Clearly the participants had to have had some degree of causal understanding of the system, otherwise their choices would have been entirely haphazard.  They might have understood that the weight placed at the outer end of a lever moving downwards will have more axial force than one placed at the inner, hub end of the lever; while not understanding that placing a weight at the outer end of the lever increases the moment of inertia of the whole wheel, which has a negative effect on its acceleration.  So what the participants lacked was an exhaustive, coherent and unified theoretical understanding, such that could produce by means of calculation the optimum result without physical trial.  They had partial, particulate understanding, but not total understanding.

The breakthrough result of this experiment is that it demonstrates in a clean, uncluttered setting that the solution to problems can evolve where two dimensions interact; the accumulation of particulate causal understanding, and feedback, that is to say selection, from the proximate environment, in this case the experimental apparatus.  The reciprocal of this relationship is also the case, but that is to over-complexify things at this point.

To generalise, human collectives (here modeled in the transmission chain) can have a distributed particulate understanding of a system.  The serial nature of the experiment, first one participant and then the next, delivers the misleading impression that the emergence of the near-optimum result is achieved in a series of, admittedly cryptic, logical steps which themselves are based on the logic inherent in the partial and particulate knowledge of causation in the transmission chain.  But this would be to suppose that by chance each chain of five participants was ordered 12345 in a sequence whereby the small discrete logical sequences of their particulate understanding met as it were end to end in a superordinate logical sequence, one set of axioms and their conclusion, though only part of the problem, leading neatly to the next.  This so unlikey as to be hardly worth testing, which is lucky, because to test it you would have to run each chain 120 timesin all their possible sequences, inducing in each participant a precise and total amnesia about the previous sequence before starting the next.

This strongly suggests that, though time is a necessary dimension in which the experiment took place, the functional causal understanding is distributed in a way indifferent to time sequence, as it were in a three dimensional space in which the direction of time is irrelevant as far as running order, and therefore order of bits of understanding, is concerned, but crucial for the sequence of instances of selection by the apparatus.

Put at its most plonkingly obvious, for the solutions to move towards the optimum, it is not the causal understanding of any individual brain which is necessary for this movement, but the causal understanding of the collective of the five members of the chain, as selected by the apparatus.

For something to be selected upon, there must be discrete variation, as with alleles on the chromosome.  At the particulate level of analysis, at whatever scale one can posit alternatives, the participants must be choosing between one thing or its alternative, the things or their alternatives being possibly arranged in multi-dimensional interactive hierarchies.  This is the kind of thing the human brain does, and is extremely good at.  The fact that the experimenters themselves do think it worth of note demonstrates that the process is almost totally opaque to the functions of the brain that constitute what we each refer to (in English) as I or me.  I will come to this “self” in time.  Meanwhile the objective situation remains, that neither the participants nor the experimenters had any idea of what the process of selection was, nor what at the particular scale the alternative units of selection are.  So that’s the big question: in the evolution of human culture, what are the discrete objects constituting the collective upon which selection is made.  It’s another way of saying, we are in search of a replicator.

That is the huge value of the Drex&c experiment, that it tacitly frames that question with relentless inevitability.

That inevitability is born out “in the field”.  Chris Buckley’s and Eric Boudot’s The Evolution of an Ancient Culture (Buckley, 2017) describes and examines the evolution of looms in East and Southeast Asia.  The scope and depth of this study is to me awe-inspiring.  I hope it will be seen as one of the great landmarks in the study of the evolution of the material culture of Homo sapiens.  I will quote the parts that are most relevant to our purpose, and comment on them, but these quotes give little indication of the range and complexity of the cladistic and phylogenetic analysis.

It is not necessary for a novice weaver to have a general understanding of how the loom works (a ‘theory of the loom’) in order to begin weaving.

This makes the point I have already made with the apprentice brick maker, that you learn by doing, not by theory.

In the case of the complex frame looms and patterning devices used in [Southwest China], weavers are unable to recreate these devices from memory, and only a small proportion of talented weavers appear to understand in detail how they work. A carpenter can help a weaver to make a copy of a loom, but only if an existing model is available.

This emphasises the amount of information inherent in the object, the thing-in-the-world.  I guess demonstration of “understanding in detail how they work” was dependent on the presence of the loom, and was of the “this does this which leads to that” basis, with hand gestures the eye movements of the explainee could follow, and not a purely verbal account in the absence of a loom.  “Weavers are unable to recreate these devices from memory” substantiates the general point, that all our knowledge of our material culture depends on its persistent presence in the world, and if it were all to disappear on the instant, our “knowledge” would vanish with it.

For example, in one village in Guangxi where a particularly complex loom with a pattern-recording system is employed, only one weaver could be found who had the skill necessary to construct a patterning system for a new motif [13]. It appears that the level of skill needed to modify or renew a patterning system has always been relatively rare, with most households relying on hand-me-down pattern systems that have been in use for several generations.

My knowledge of weaving goes little further than the enormous-pixel particulate understanding of “there is a warp and there is a weft.”

Buckley loom with pattern drumHowever, as (Buckley, 2017)’s illustration shows, evolved looms are a lot more sophisticated than that.  The patterns woven are beautiful as well as complex, and are recorded in the toroidal “drum” hanging from a beam at the top.  I have absolutely no idea how this works.  What can be advanced from the evidence as a first assumption is that if all these drums, the physial loci of the pattern-making system, were simultaneously lost, they could not be recovered from particulate understanding of the system remaining in the collective of human brains.  They would be extinct.  The most it appears that the particulate understanding of a rare expert can achieve is “to [exercise] the skill necessary to construct a patterning system for a new motif”.  It would be of huge interest to know how new drums do emerge, which they evidently do, or at least did before being swamped by industrialisation.  It is possible, for instance, that none was ever constructed all at once and as a whole.  The armature around which they are constructed is presumably a simple given and relatively easy to assemble, whereupon patterns might be added one at a time, by the above expert, whose existence was crucial, as and when required, until the drum became full or worn out; and each drum was possibly unique in its particulate configuration.  These developing pattern drums contained and could transmit the particulate understanding, how to construct the patterning system for a new motif, which was all that was necessary for the emergence of a new drum.

The outstanding characteristics of the transmission processes are a lengthy apprenticeship that encourages ‘over-learning’, the orientation of older weavers towards detecting and correcting errors (deviations from tradition practice) and the codification of complex tasks into ritualized procedures. All of these features tend to increase the fidelity of transmission and discourage innovation.

Here we have the ground state necessary for evolution, replication with fidelity over time, with the margin of minute variation which is available to selection kept to a minimum.  The dangers of “innovation” and “invention” are apparent.  If an autocrat dictated that all present pattern drums were to be destroyed by fire and replaced with a model invented by one of his favourites, and it was discovered a little way down the line that the new model had severe limitations, in fact was rubbish, the old pattern drums would be unrecoverable.  Thus

Our analysis of the transmission processes of traditional weaving cultures, however, shows that actual behaviours are mostly concerned with reducing errors and discouraging innovation.

In both the Derex, Bonnefon, Boyd and Mesoudi experiment, and Buckley and Boudot’s paper, two big rivers meet; data from things-in-the-world, and a process of selection upon particulate information which is replicated with fidelity but has an envelope of fractional variation; data and Darwin.

The task still remains, to identify the replicator.


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