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James Brody
January 30th, 2005, 10:30 AM
Richerson & Boyd: Lost in the Pleistocene

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The café at Barnes and Noble is moderately full. Very few tables have four guests, more of them have two, many have one, and about one-third are empty. The foursomes do homework together and there's a lot of crosschecking in the foursomes as three copy from each other while the fourth speaks. The rest of us tend to our own dreams but periodically check on the foursomes.

Thus, human evolution...
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Richerson & Boyd (2005), rewrote Culture and the Evolutionary Process (Boyd & Richerson, 1985) but deleted the equations. Their "Dual Inheritance Theory" (DIT) also got favorable attention from Odling-Smee, Laland, and Feldman (2003) and would probably draw applause from Turner (2000) or Lewontin (1998): they picture a dynamic arrangement whereby organisms arrange environments and such arrangements become a platform for further evolution of the organism. Thus, settings and critters refine each other over generations, an idea endorsed by Bak (1996) and Kauffman (2000). Humans, thus, inherit both genes and societies, and, not such a bad thing, Lamarck gets on their bus and rides quietly in the back.

Human Culture: A Darwinian Account for Magnitude and Complexity

We have astonishingly more culture and change it faster than any other species: culture must be reflect a human adaptation. A Darwinian perspective, however, requires that we discover heritable variation, competition, and differences in reproductive success. Since human groups are presumed to have few meaningful genetic differences between them, selection requires finding greater differences by some other means. Culture becomes a magnifier for happenstance and small differences. Congregate living allows more individuals to look for a solution, vary in their discoveries, and pass the successes to the rest of the tribe. Differences thrive between separate villages that share a common ancestry.

Richerson and Boyd's actors, recruited from lots of places, include scroungers and producers, social transmission, biased transmission, guided variation, competition between cultural variants, population changes rather than individual ones, and variation that accumulates over generations: all processes that make connections and modify habits and habitats. Modern kayaks did not arise from an Edison but from generations of tanners and carpenters, tinkers who watched each other and compared notes. Life and babies continue in a play captured by the brainstorming session in Apollo 13 when 15 or more engineers on Earth rearranged bits of the passenger capsule and radioed directions to heaven for improvising a carbon dioxide scrubber.

Culture can, however, be maladaptive if babies are the standard: western culture is associated with population decline since the Victorians. As soon as the babies are fed, we stop making babies! R&B don't have a good explanation for this effect. Sociobiology's concepts of K-selection and r-selection may apply to differences not only between humans and other creatures but also between distinct groups of humans.

Tribal Gossip and Religion

No matter what their theoretical need, R&B feed it a tribe, both a reflection of their creativity and one more measure of the variation in human conduct. For example, they use Indiana farmers to argue that similar genes and settings will support very different behavior. And they remind us that traditional beliefs reappear after the removal of inhibition from centrally-imposed cultures, even after decades of suppression. (Developmental biologists find a similar effect in DNA sequences! See below.)

They treat religion as both an adaptation and a liability in a manner similar to anyone else who finds talking to god to be a human entitlement. A serious mistake! R&B miss seeing religion as simply another expression of flocking, herding, schooling, clumping, or swarming: critters without language do it and humans with or without language also do it and probably for the same payoffs in regard to warmth, safety, mates, territories, and food. Even bacteria do it (Bloom, 2000). Religions merely tell stories about things that we would do anyhow.

Raff's Algorithm and Emergent Networks Make the Pleistocene Irrelevant

Evo-Devo and Raff

Rudolf Raff (1996) a founder of evolutionary-developmental biology (evo-devo), tells us about genetic duplication, variation, inhibition, and compartmentation within parallel developmental cascades, the cascades synchronized by periodic links between them. Any clustered, emergent network shows a similar pattern of connectivity. Environmental stress disrupts newer sequences and older ones, even after five million years, may once more appear intact! Such things are most easily seen in sequences of hox genes but the same ideas appear in Jacob Bronowski's 1977 explanation for the emergence of human thought and Russell Barkley's 1997 revision and application of Bronowski's ideas to human will. (See also Brody, 2005, especially the sections that compare the strategies in genes and human executive functions, our mental behaviors that let us manage other behaviors for long term gains.) Raff's algorithm also fits magnificently the unfolding and refinement of human cultures!

Emergent Networks: The Explosive Growth of Just About Anything

Power laws (Lotka, 1926; Barabasi, 2002) describe organizations that have a few huge players and a huge number of little ones and the scale of variation that dazzles Richerson & Boyd in regard to culture is duplicated any time that occupants and settings assemble and refine each other. Power laws describe cellular metabolism (nearly everything is within three steps of ATP!), neuronal organizations, distribution of wealth, collaborative networks between scientists and other actors, insect societies, and even electric power grids. Power laws, therefore, challenge any surprise about the difference in complexity that we find between human cultures and other organizations.

Richerson and Boyd, unfortunately, repeat Bowlby's Fable about the Pleistocene as our cradle and credit human socialization to rapid climate changes. Emergent networks, however, make socialization an expected outcome rather than a cause and we carried out of the Pleistocene more elaborate versions of whatever we carried into it. Emergent networks also account for the rapid diversification of human culture after the Pleistocene ended.

Emergent networks (Barabasi, 2002; Watts & Strogatz, 1998; Strogatz, 2003) collect and share information are often assemblies of local clusters that work like Steinberg's cartoon of a New Yorker's world view: lots of detail for 9th Avenue, less so for Jersey, almost none for Ohio or Utah, and California hangs out next to Japan (Watts, 2003). Emergent networks happen in clumps that we call friendships, research teams, actors, neural organizations from worms to rhesus, and lexicons. We also find them in groups of dolphins, termites, or power grids.

The small, local clusters of dense interconnectivity that we find in emergent networks (and traditional human families and neighborhoods) allow mutual correction as, like a nest of working termites, each member monitors and imitates his neighbor: a very fine focus is kept on small events. Many clusters, however, are themselves connected to more distant clusters: One member of a cluster's having a friend in Tokyo makes those resources available to the other members of the local cluster. Synchrony appears between distant events. Mothers in Boston, therefore, are quickly aware of E. coli in a San Diego McDonalds. Networks allow for the exploitation of small opportunities but also for the rapid sharing of discoveries. They maintain immediate awareness and intermittent polling of distant happenings as hundreds of thousands of discrete events can be filed and accessed by a path length of a few steps. The girl in a line of 1000 is really in a line of 1-6 but sometimes influenced by a remote friend-of-a-friend. (Sowell, 1987, reviews clusters and winner-take-all organizations, although with a different set of labels, from the time of Adam Smith until our present day.)

Emergent networks of very large numbers of participants, hubs and nodes connected by only a few steps from any one participant to any other, and their great resistance to jamming, are nearly the same regardless of who the participants are. Networks, thus, allow a core organization to take on infinite numbers of small refinements: exploration and evolvability blossom (Raff, 1996; Gerhart & Kirschner, 1997; Kirschner & Gerhart, 1998) and our awe diminishes in regard to the scale and complications of human culture.

There is no need, also, for R&B to reconcile DIT with EP: both stories are true but for reasons that neither suspected. Emergent networks also describe mass phenomena such as KMart, the New Deal, Nazi mobs, or post-911 conduct. Things slow and synchronize as a function of resource loss just as we find in a Bose-Einstein condensate. Chill it down and all the molecules move together just like me and my cat on a cold night. And no surprise and for the same reason, my favorite bookstore serves latté in paper cups rather than ceramic mugs unless you ask for one.

Bottom Lines

Chicago University Press gave me Sterelny & Griffiths, Kuhn, and Raff and retain their standard with Not by Genes Alone. Further, I enjoyed R&B's tribal gossip and lucid presentation, one that did admitted to inconsistencies while explaining them. For example, they credit rapid climate changes as driving human intelligence and culture but those outcomes grew even more complex when there were no more cold-hot alternations! They pass it off as magic from bootstrapping. They have similar problems with culture as an adaptation or a liability.

DIT makes great intuitive sense and parallels work by Odling-Smee and his team. I, unfortunately, must apply Ed Wilson's comment from a conference several years ago in regard to another theory: "You haven't made your case but I hope you're right." (I also suspect that Lamarck might apply not only to culture but also to prenatal events if our mothers turn gene sequences on or off in relation to social disruption and resource availability. "Identical" twins may have identical sequences of DNA but different patterns of activation!)

It is clear that Richerson and Boyd want to explain culture as a unique event but it just ain't so. Evolving organizations in stable settings find efficiencies of time and distance, efficiencies that appear to vary their structure according to resource availability (Brody, 2004; 2005). Exponential growth follows. From this standpoint, culture is by no means a unique event but a means to very popular ends. Even suns are attended by planets and dust!

Thus, we carried out of the Pleistocene age merely fancier versions of the baggage that we carried into it. Darwin's tangled bank is found nearly everywhere and reflects the same order that we could have found in Darwin's neurons and might find in his writing. Emergent networks, power laws, and parallel developmental cascades are now part of biology, sociology, cognitive psychology, mathematics, and statistical physics. Variation and selection play upon a fundamentally simple structure that supports an infinite number of outcomes. The advantages and pervasiveness of emergent networks demand that we consider them as part of our EEA, one more relevant than cats or glaciers.

Physics and sociology now come into HBES! One must imagine Ed Wilson happy...

James Brody

More Reading:

Bak, P. (1996) How Nature Works: The Science of Self-Organized Criticality. NY: Copernicus.
Barabasi, A-L (2002) Linked: The New Science of Networks. NY: Perseus.
Barkley R. (1997) ADHD and the Nature of Self Control. NY: Guilford.
Bloom, H. (2000) Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century. NY: Wiley.
Brody, J. (2005) ADHD: Inhibition, Emergent Networks, and Maternal Investment. In Michelle Larimer (Ed.) Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Research. Hauppage, NY: Nova Science Biomedical Series. 41 pp.
Bronowski, J. (1974) Language in a biological frame. Current Trends in Lingistics. Reprinted in Bronowski, J. (1977) A Sense of the Future. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 132-154.
Gerhart, John & Kirschner, Marc (1997) Cells, Embryos, and Evolution. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Kauffman, S. (2000) Investigations. NY: Oxford.
Kirschner, M. & Gerhart, J. (1998) Perspective: Evolvability. Proceedings National Academy of Science. 95(15), 8420-8427.
Kuhn, T. (1992) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (3rd Ed), Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
Lewontin, R. (1998/2000) Triple helix: Gene, organism, environment. Cambridge, MA, Harvard.
Lotka, A. (1926) The frequency distribution of scientific productivity. Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences 16: 317-323. Cited in Murray, C. (2003) Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts & Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 NY: Harper Collins.
Odling-Smee F.J., Laland, K.N., & Feldman, M.W. (2003) Niche Construction. The Neglected Process in Evolution. Monographs in Population Biology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Raff, Rudolf (1996) The Shape of Life. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Richerson, Peter, & Boyd, Robert (2005) Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. About $30.
Sowell, T. (1987) A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. NY: Quill.
Sterelny, K., & Griffiths, P. (1999) Sex and Death: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Biology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Strogatz, S. (2003) Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order. NY: Hyperion.
Turner, J. Scott (2000) The Extended Organism: The Physiology of Animal-Built Structures. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Watts, D. (2003) Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. NY: Norton.
Watts, D. & Strogatz, S. (1998) Collective dynamics of 'small-world' networks. Nature. 393: 440-442.

Copyright, James Brody, 2005, all rights reserved