June 28, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Key to Evolution of Culture Suggested

Visualize chimpanzees exercising their antics in the jungle: grooming, screeching at one another, chasing off rivals.  Now shift the scene to human activities in a large city: fans cheering their team at a stadium, an audience applauding a concert, kids screaming on an amusement park roller coaster, a congregation singing hymns at church, students taking notes in a university classroom, a crowd cheering a speech at a political rally.  Darwinians believe a chain of biological events in the genes and in the social interactions of our alleged ape-like ancestors produced capabilities that led to the development of our modern human culture with all its rich and varied accoutrements.  Two Spanish researchers publishing in PNAS1 think they know how.  They have suggested a key event that must have been the turning point in the evolution of culture among early hominids: the capacity of parents to approve or disapprove of their offspring’s behavior.

Cultural transmission in our species works most of the time as a cumulative inheritance system allowing members of a group to incorporate behavioral features not only with a positive biological value but sometimes also with a neutral, or even negative, biological value.  Most of models of dual inheritance theory and gene-culture coevolution suggest that an increase, either qualitative or quantitative, in the efficiency of imitation is the key factor to explain the transformation of primate social learning in a cumulative cultural system of inheritance as it happens during hominization.  We contend that more efficient imitation is necessary but not enough for this transformation to occur and that the key factor enabling such a transformation is that some hominids developed the capacity to approve or disapprove their offspring’s learned behavior.  This capacity to approve or disapprove offspring’s behavior makes learning both less costly and more accurate, and it transformed the hominid culture into a system of cumulative cultural inheritance similar to that of humans, although the system was still prelinguistic in nature.

(By negative biological value, they mean that humans sometimes engage in cultural activities that decrease evolutionary fitness for the individual, even though such behaviors might have adaptive value for the group.)  “It is not clear” in an evolutionary sense, the authors admit, “how cultural transmission has improved human adaptability, especially when other primates with well developed social learning abilities show comparably restricted ranges.”  Their interest in the questions of “what types of changes occurred during the hominization process that transformed typical social learning in primates into a cumulative cultural inheritance system similar to that of humans and what was the adaptive advantage that made these changes possible” formed the basis for their study.
    They feel that imitation theory of Boyd and Richardson is incomplete.  Imitation is a necessary, but not sufficient, ingredient to generate culture, they say, because it does not by itself reward innovative capacity.  Their hypothesis adds another ingredient:

We suggest that the transformation of primitive hominid social learning, which was probably rather similar to that of today’s chimpanzees (i.e., based on indirect social learning mechanisms and rudimentary imitative abilities), into a human cultural transmission system required that our hominid ancestors developed the capacity to approve or disapprove of offspring’s learned behavior.  Our thesis holds that the simultaneous presence of both capacities in our hominid ancestors, imitation and approval/disapproval of offspring’s learned behavior, represented a radical change in the rudimentary cultural transmission of first hominids.  Individuals with both abilities, which we call assessors, generated a cultural inheritance system in a strict sense, because by approval/disapproval, they constrained the behavior that offspring incorporated into their repertoire.

The offspring has a lower cost of learning by profiting from the parents’ experience, without having to evaluate all the alternatives.  This speeds up adaptation of the learned behavior faster than natural selection can work.  The authors provide some differential equations to show that their model works better than the old.  But why is the development of culture rare among animals?  They answer with explanations of why the emergence of assessors is rare: it is costly to the parent, and also requires the development of a complex brain with symbolic memory, reentrant signaling, a mechanism for categorizing behavior and a strong link between the cortical and limbic systems, among other things.

The ability to approve or disapprove of offspring’s learned behavior seems completely absent in primates.  Probably the evolution of this capacity would require the previous development of the capacity to conceptually categorize learned behavior.  The conceptual capacity to categorize is defined as the ability to categorize one’s own and others’ learned behavior in terms of values, i.e., positive or negative, or good or bad.

This, they feel, was the beginning of teaching.  Experiments show that chimpanzee parents are unable to categorize their offspring’s behavior as good or bad when taking the offspring’s interest into account.  Human children are very sensitive to parental approval, “whereas chimpanzee young brought up as human children remain quite wild and troublesome.”  Because human children are sensitive to approval and disapproval, they are authority acceptors, and have a tendency to accept social influence.
    The authors feel their hypothesis holds promise for explaining other defining aspects of human social behavior:

Finally, it is worth emphasizing that the hypothesis above about the evolution of culture could have interesting implications on the evolution of other typical traits of the human species.  For example, we have proposed that conceptual classification of behavior in terms of positive/negative (good/bad) involves, according to its natural origin, a feeling of duty toward those positive behaviors, and this behavioral categorization and the feeling of “must” are the developmental roots of the ethical capacity.  We have also shown that the adaptive advantage that implies the improvement of the assessor cultural transmission could be a key factor in the evolution of language.


1Castro and Toro, “The evolution of culture: From primate social learning to human culture,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 10.1073/pnas.0400156101, published online June 24, 2004.

Put this one in the basket of quasi-erudite papers that will be laughed at some day when the Darwinian idol collapses.  Despite the equations, it is a collage of elitist, ivory-tower, pseudoscientific speculation with a sprinkling of magic to hold it all together.  Somehow, somewhere, random mutations appeared on cue to provide symbolic memory, reentrant signaling, a mechanism for categorizing behavior and a strong link between the cortical and limbic systems to allow an ape to express approval to its baby.  Maybe a lucky cosmic ray hit Bonzo and the lights went on.  He mated and learned to shriek disapproval at his offspring.  Simultaneously, the kid got hit with another cosmic ray and understood what disapproval meant.  And so a few million years later, Shakespeare emerged.
    Darwinism will fall as soon as enough bright students, armed with baloney detectors, overcome the fear of big words, abstruse-looking equations and the prestige of big-name journals.  This Darwin-saturated hypothesis is utterly foolish on the face of it.  Its only reason for existence is that Darwinians need something to explain their own brains and desires.  They have sold their souls to Charlie, and since all of reality must fit within his unguided, naturalistic world, they need some explanation – no matter how foolish – for the evolution of everything: even ethics, morals and taste in music.  Like Richard Lewontin candidly admitted, “It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated.”  Don’t ever submit to the initiation rites of the Temple of Darwin, because they cause brain damage.
    Since Darwin Party PhDs usually have skill with language and math, they are especially dangerous, because they have perfected the art of couching balderdash in nearly impenetrable jargon that serves to intimidate science reporters and other dupes.  Let’s remember a basic math lesson: equations are only as good as their assumptions and variables.  Suppose we write: “Let a be natural selection and a’ be population genetics.  Now let b represent Marxist economic policy, and b’ represent the degree of collectivization, and c the hominization rate.  Then letting the population p remain constant for one Milankovitch cycle t, we suggest that the expression
abc(a’bcab’)-ekt / p
yields a stable economy over the lifetime of a hominid species.”  That was all just made up out of thin air.  Does this confabulation of irrelevancies deserve more respect when dressed up in math symbols?  Then why should anyone give a spit when these authors write nonsense like this:

A simple model of cultural transmission that can be applied to assessor hominids ancestors can illuminate previous ideas better.  Let us define the probability that an individual without capacity of imitation acquires behavior i as hiBi, where hi is the probability that an individual discovers the behavior i, and Bi is the probability that the behavior will be included in his repertoire.  If the individual already knows an alternative (behavior j) to behavior i, the probability that behavior i will be included in his repertoire will be equal to hiBij, where Bij is the probability that he chooses i instead of alternative behavior j.  However, if the individual also has the imitation capacity and there are cultural models in the population, the probability of his including i in his repertoire will be h*i Bij, where h*i is the probability that an individual learns either by individual learning or by imitation behavior i, and equals h*i = hi + (1 – hi)a, where a represents the efficacy of the process of imitation, and (1 – hi)a measures the net effect of this process.  Therefore, an increase in the imitation capacity is expressed as an increase in the value of a.

No amount of skill at manipulating math symbols can rescue bad assumptions.  The whole premise of this simplistic hypothesis (that an accidental ability to express favor/disfavor helped hominids evolve culture, ethics and language, resulting eventually in the Bush-Kerry campaign) is that complex, coordinated skills like the capacity for categorizing and symbolic memory “emerged” from random mutation and natural selection.  When, oh when, will we ever get some Darwinist to prove this instead of assuming it?  The null hypothesis of intelligent design should always be favored before yielding an ounce of credence to such a product of cosmic improbabilities.  A corollary of this premise is that all intangibles, including ethics, arts and language, are mere artifacts of biological determinism.  That is not science: that’s philosophy.
    And now, the bottom line.  Why should we care about what a couple of pseudo-intellectual, ivory-tower professors in Spain write in a technical journal only pointy-headed members of a geek subculture would care to read?  You need look no further than their last sentences: “we have proposed that conceptual classification of behavior in terms of positive/negative (good/bad) involves, according to its natural origin, a feeling of duty toward those positive behaviors, and this behavioral categorization and the feeling of “must” are the developmental roots of the ethical capacity….”  They have just used their weird-science fable to preach moral relativism.  Dressed in pseudoscientific garb, it appears more authoritative than sending a nihilist dressed in a red devil costume into the college classroom hissing, “Do what you want!  There is no God!”
    It wouldn’t matter if these pseudo-intellectuals only spouted their philosophy to other members of the Darwin Party, but they have the audacity to call this science.  (Note that this paper was edited by the anticreationist Francisco Ayala of UC Irvine.)  And they have the power, with all the usurped authority and dignity of science, to stand in college classrooms and declare that God is dead, that Darwinism has displaced religion, and that since morals and ethics evolve like everything else in the universe, any sense of right, duty, principle, honor and integrity your parents taught you are just downstream artifacts of mutations that caused some ape in your past to suddenly be able to express “approval” to its offspring.  Don’t tell this to the Marines.  If duty, honor, country are as arbitrary and meaningless as the Darwin Party would have us believe, then terrorists and mass murdering dictators are not doing anything inherently evil, and we have no duty to stop them.
    Connect the dots.  Darwinism has its primordial-slimy fingers all over politics, foreign policy, and what you should teach your kid.

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Categories: Dumb Ideas, Early Man

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