Homage to Pitt Rivers

The anti-evolutionary and a-historical naivety of the belief that the field of cultural evolution was “established” in 1981 needs some correction.  This morning Alex Mesoudi announced https://bit.ly/2NFOMhK that “with Marc Feldman he also founded the field of cultural evolution. Pretty impressive.”  He was referring to the 1981 publication of Cultural Transmission and Evolution: a quantitative approach by L L Cavalli-Sforza and M W Feldman.

Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers’ On the Evolution of Culture (Pitt-Rivers, 1906 [1875]) was the first extant published work to apply Darwin’s theory not to the evolution of the human organism but to the evolution of humanity.  I quote him at some length, partly because what he has to say is as relevant today as it was towards the end of the Nineteenth Century, about the way we think of ourselves as a species and about the way we interact with each other, with other species and with our planet.  But also these fragments conform to a general pattern of evolution, that nothing arises spontaneously out of thin air or some medium even less substantial.  Everything to do with life, genotype, phenotype, extended phenotype; egg or sperm, sparrow or sparrow’s nest; is a pattern replicated with fidelity, always with some miniscule, or sometimes gross, variation.  Nothing is suddenly new.  Everything has a history, and all histories meet in the naked singularity or whatever it was that was the beginning of the universe we find ourselves in.

This applies to ideas as well as the collective of Life.  An idea has no discrete, isolatable existence.  There is no idea that is not compiled from physical things, loci in the space-time continuum, such as a cloud, or a breeze, or a planet, or a Higgs particle, or an angel.  How we conceive of these things is still to be explored, but an idea without them would be a nothing, a non-existence, therefore not much good as an idea.

If we consider the idea of evolution in detail we can see that it was structured by things, animals and plants; and by patterns, replications and repetitions, in animals and plants; and in an increasing perception that the God story did not account for new knowledge about the age of rocks, the age of fossils, the sheer diversity of vertebrate life which, two by two, could never have been collected and fitted into Noah’s ark, however many children Noah had on the job and however big the ark; and, within the patterns of replication which were perceived as a type, each type of animal seemed to be adapted to a specific sort of environment, so that a mountain leopard and a forest leopard seemed to be of an overall type, but different according to the conditions in which they lived; and all this puzzle, if looked at under the template of the God story, didn’t fit at all, so what to do? what to think?  a dilemma which haunted Philip Gosse, a brilliant naturalist whose illustrations served Darwin’s generation as evidence of a diversity of life way beyond Noah’s (and therefore Jehovah’s?) ken, and yet was a devout member of the Plymouth Brethren, a fundamentalist Christian sect.  From all this in-the-world material, scattered as far and wide as the eye of any naturalist or natural philosopher could see, a new theory of an origin of species outside the mere six thousand or so year old Garden of Eden was materialising from a million or a trillion scattered parts, a new kind of ant found in a Latin American rainforest, the fossil of a fish that seemed, according to the new geology, a hundred million years old, the relationships of populations of Tilapia fish in African lakes, the relationships between human types, and the discovery by Johann Fuhlrot, in 1856 of a skull , one of a few during Darwin’s lifetime, that seemed to be neither human nor ape but we now know as our close relative with a sexually transmitted presence in our own genomes, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis.

Enough.  All the content of evolution was already in the world, and Charles Darwin was the best collector, the best anthologiser, the best assembler and coordinator into a manuscript of all this huge distribution of matter that we call knowledge.  He seemed to be uncomfortable with it, he knew it would upset a polity which was, and still is, part theocratic; and upset his devoutly Christian wife and many others who he liked and admired, like Robert Fitzroy, captain of the Beagle, who initially accepted Darwin’s views but then himself married a religious wife and reverted to the doctrine of the Established Church.  But Darwin felt compelled to publish because the idea of evolution was all about the place, and if he didn’t somebody else would, and he felt a certain responsibility, which he negotiated with Alfred Wallace, to what had been his life’s work; and the theory seemed to him to be a good approximation to what was the case.

And in the quotations below Pitt Rivers, an energetic and most accomplished exponent of On the Origin of Species, demonstrates in On the Evolution of Culture that this idea too has been around for one hundred and forty three years as I write, and I am inventing none of it, merely, as he did, collecting, anthologising, assembling into a manuscript that which is all around me.

Pitt Rivers:

…all that comes under the head of culture must be included amongst the physical sciences.”[pg 63]

These words and these implements are but the outward signs of symbols of particular ideas in the mind…It is the mind we study by means of these symbols…But of the particular molecular changes or other processes which accompany the evolution of ideas in the mind, we know no more than of the particular molecular changes and other processes which accompany the evolution of life in nature, or the changes in chemistry. [Pg 64]

[Darwin’s] principles of variation and natural selection have fairly established a bond of union between the physical and culture sciences which can never be broken.  History is but another term for evolution. [Pg 65]

Modification of words, like modifications in the forms of the arts… obtain acceptance through natural selection by the survival of the fittest. [Pg 68]

…we see how the earlier palaeolithic forms [of tools] originated.   They were not designed outright…but arose from a selection of varieties produced accidentally in the process of manufacture.

In tracing these successive forms one is almost tempted to ask whether the principle of causation lay in the flint or the flintworker… so fully do they bear out the statement of Dr Carpenter and other physiologist, that nothing originates in the free will of man [Pg 83]

In the same way that we saw that the forms of the palaeolithic flint implements were suggested by accidental fractures in the workshop, so the several forms of the Australian wooden implements were suggested by the various forms of the stems and branches out of which they were made. [Pg 88]

Many other examples might be given to illustrate the continuity which exists in the development of all savage weapons; but I only ask you to glance at the sequence shown in this diagram and the preceding ones in order to convince you of the truth of the statement which I made at the commencement of this discourse, that although, owing to the complexity of modern contrivances and the larger steps by which we mount the ladder of progress in the material arts, their continuity may be lost sight of, when we come to classify the arts of savages and prehistoric men, the term ‘growth’ is fully as applicable to them as to the development of the forms of speech, and that there are no grounds, upon the score of continuity, history, or the action of free will, to separate these studies generically as distinct classes of science. [Pg 92]

It is, I venture to think, by classifying and arranging in evolutionary order the actual facts of the manifestations of mind, as seen in the development of the arts, institutions, and languages of mankind, no less than by comparative anatomy, and far more than by metaphysical speculation, that we shall arrive at a solution of the question, to what extent the mental Ego has been, to use Professor Huxley’s expression, a conscious spectator of what has passed.

I will summarise two of his other insights.

He suggests that mental activity is automatic, determined by our “congenital nervous organism”, but that we can select from the objects it generates, the selector being the “mental Ego”, Thomas Huxley’s “conscious spectator” of all that has passed.

He sees the emergence of stone cutting tools not as “invention” or acts of innovation: “…we see how the earlier palaeolithic forms originated.  They were not designed outright…but arose from a selection of varieties produced accidentally in the process of manufacture.”

He sums up:

My object in this discourse has been not, as I fear it may have appeared to you from the brief time at my disposal and my imperfect treatment of the subject, to extol the material arts as being intrinsically of more interest or importance than other branches of culture, but to affirm the principle that it is by studying the psychology of the material arts alone that we can trace human culture to its germs.

This is a far more likely model than that at Figure 8 the carver suddenly decided, out of the blue and with no precedent, to invent a stone votive offering that just chanced to be so much in the decayed [Pitt Rivers’ word] shape of a funerary urn, the lines of its lid and its eyebrows transposed it is true, but still very much there.

“The figures on Plate V are all taken from Dr. Schliemann’s representations…The two first figures, it will be seen, are clearly intended to represent a human face, all the features being preserved. In the two next figures the mouth has disappeared, but the fact of the principal feature being still a nose and not a beak, is shown by the breadth of the base and also by the representation of the breasts. In the two succeeding figures the nose is narrowed at the base, which gives it the appearance of a beak, but the fact of its being still a human form is still shown by the breasts. Had the idea of an owl been developed through realistic degeneration in these last figures, it would have retained this form, but in the two succeeding figures it will be seen that the nose goes on diminishing.
In the remaining figures, some of which are (12-16) of solid stone, not earthenware, and are believed by Dr. Schliemann to be gods, it is clearly shown by the rude scratches representing the eyebrows, and their want of symmetry, that this degeneration of form is the result of haste.
What then are these solid stone objects? I cannot for a moment doubt, from their resemblance to the vases, from the marks denoting the junction of the cover with the vase, and from the representations of handles, that they are votive urns of some kind, similar to those Egyptian stone models of urns represented in the two figures above. Urns of this kind were used by the Egyptians to contain the viscera of the mummies; but with the cheaper form of burial, in which the viscera were retained in the body, stone models of urns, of which these figures are drawings from originals in the British Museum, were deposited in the graves as vestiges of the earlier and more expensive process; these objects therefore cannot be idols, but votive urns. The fact of human remains having been found in some of the human headed urns, and the hasty scratches on the stone models, show that they are merely models appertaining to the conventionalized survival of some earlier or more elaborate system of urn burial.”


Pitt Rivers demonstrates how the process of evolutionary change in the human extended phenotype, of which the throwing stick and the funerary urn are a part, is at least consistent with various populations of that material culture.

I will just note that Pitt Rivers’ view of evolution, particularly his dismissal of “metaphysical speculation” and his suggestion “that nothing originates in the free will of man” are deeply unpleasing to the stated intentions of the organisation that is the main income stream of such metaphysical speculation as it is articulated to and within academia today, and that this partial articulation has channeled the work of the late Cavalli-Sforza into the oligotrophic backwater where it now finds itself.

The stated intentions of the John Templeton Foundation are, “To advance human well-being by supporting research on the Big Questions, and by promoting character development, individual freedom, and free markets. The Foundation takes its vision from its founding benefactor, the late Sir John Templeton, who sought to stimulate what he described as “spiritual progress.”


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