Cultural evolutionary tipping points in the storage and transmission of information

I was intrigued by this paper analysing the evolution of human culture in terms of ‘tipping points’ in our capacity to store and transmit information. It has a different focus but it’s nonetheless entirely consistent with Margaret Archer’s work on culture and could be used to historicise her account. Her approach to culture focuses on the interface between what she terms the cultural system (the logical relations between propositions) and socio-cultural interaction (the casual relations between people). Her central claim is that relations between ideas condition interactions between people and that this socio-cultural interaction leads, in turn, to the elaboration of the cultural system. This account rests on Popper’s notion of World 3:

The objectivity or “autonomy” of such World 3 objects as theories and arguments is especially evident in Popper’s view from the fact that they have logical relations – and in particular, unforeseen implications and unnoticed inconsistencies – that may not be noticed until well after we first consider them, but which were evidently there all the time waiting to be discovered. Naturally, he takes mathematics to illustrate the point vividly, but it is in his view no less evident from empirical scientific theories. The clearest mark of the reality of all three worlds is in Popper’s judgment the fact that World 3 has a causal influence on World 1, and does so only via World 2. For example, the scientific theories which entailed the possibility of nuclear weapons have had an obvious impact on the material world – they have resulted in various nuclear tests, in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and so forth – but only because scientists carried out the mental activity of working out the implications of the theories and applying them.

Popper’s World 3 is often compared to Plato’s realm of the Forms, and Popper himself acknowledges that there are similarities. But he also emphasizes the significant differences between his view and Plato’s, not the least of which is that he takes World 3, despite its objectivity or autonomy, to be something “man-made,” its objects in the strict sense being what the human mind “abstracts” from their World 1 embodiment. Though Popper does not take note of the fact or develop the theme in much detail, this is clearly reminiscent of an Aristotelian or “moderate realist” approach to the traditional problem of universals, as distinct from the “extreme realism” of Platonism. (See here and here for a useful short account of the traditional Aristotelian-Thomistic-Scholastic approach to the issue and its significance.)

On my reading this is fundamentally about information storage. So for instance a book retains the capacity to be understood regardless of whether anyone happens to read it. The information is latently present in the book such that, while it requires a reader to be understood, this reader is making use of a power of the book itself. Human beings objectify thought in our cultural products. What I enjoyed so much about this paper was how much more broadly it made me consider the historical context within which these practices of objectifying thought evolved and how, furthermore, Archer’s account could be elaborated on by considering changes in the structure of information storage, diffusion and retrieval which surely constrain and enable possible patterns of both socio-cultural interaction and cultural system elaboration.

About 45,000 years ago much of western Europe witnessed a proliferation of cave art, personal adornment, and rituals—what archaeologists refer to as the “Upper Paleolithic Revolution” (Bar-Yosef, 2002; Mellars, 2005). The roots of this proliferation appear to lie in migrations of anatomically and cognitively modern humans out of sub-Saharan Africa (Ambrose, 1998; Lahr and Foley, 1998; Ray et al., 2005), where there is intermittent evidence of symbols and personal adornment (e.g., shell beads and engraved chunks of ochre and ostrich egg shells) that in some cases dates several tens of thousands of years earlier (McBrearty and Brooks, 2000; Henshilwood et al., 2002, 2011; Mackay and Welz, 2008). Regardless, there is no denying the explosion in creative expression that occurred in western Europe around 45,000 B.C., coupled with the appearance of such features as long-distance exchange, grinding implements (Wright, 1992), and storage facilities, especially in northern latitudes where underground freezing kept food edible (Soffer, 1989). What caused the explosion? The answer may not be what was in humans’ heads but in how the heads, and how many heads, were interconnected. (Bentley and O’Brien 2012: 23)

A larger local population meant that more people were around to invent new ideas, build on earlier ideas (the cumulative aspect of culture), and, crucially, pass on those ideas before they were lost. This population aggregation provided the critical “ratchet” (Tomasello, 1999) to push culture to a tipping point  (Bentley and O’Brien 2012: 24)

Writing, which began in Mesopotamia roughly during the fourth millennium B.C. (Fischer, 2004), was used mainly as a form of bookkeeping. Later, more-expressive writing then became a specialist endeavor, meaning it was limited to a few, from the priests of Mesopotamia to the scribes entrusted with the Code of Hammurabi (Van de Mieroop, 2004). As writing became a means of creative expression—from the Greek tragedies, to the tales of Chaucer and the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare, and finally to the novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—writing became a means for the few to communicate with many, either through performance or later through readings by literary societies (Bradway-Hesse, 1998). In doing so, this “library” gradually became the hub of culture itself rather than just a means of expressing it. The intricately connected web of broadcast media that we see today is just the extreme of this trend.

Because of writing, the vast amount of specialized knowledge in the world is perhaps a billion times the technological variation contained in a prehistoric hunter– gatherer community (Beinhocker, 2006). This specialization has intensified incredibly, such that only a tiny fraction of people in the developed world knows how to produce food, and modern urbanites can often specialize in quite arcane knowledge that would have virtually no value for survival on one’s own or in the small groups of our ancient ancestors. Culture has, to this point, provided the means for even semi-isolated individuals to maintain a subsistence while simultaneously engaging in other pursuits.

Today, many of those pursuits revolve around the Internet, which in a way represents a return to the past, before mass media, by making local craft traditions and self-expression possible again through uploading personal videos, blogs, pictures, and social-network homepages. Cultural change has accelerated not because of the larger network but because Web 2.0 motivates many more people to create new ideas. The interconnectedness of online endeavors—through blogs and social-network sites as well as search tools such as Google and Bing—has not homogenized culture, as some feared. Rather, it has fractionated it, as like minds find each other to create cultural “niches” that branch off from one another. Interconnectedness, paradoxically, allows groups to differentiate by copying each other, which homogenizes the group but further distinguishes it from all other groups. Instead of family and political ties organizing people in geographic space, it is now ideas and common interests that organize people online. This change in tempo necessarily brings about a change in mode of evolution because modern technology is no longer a set of knowledge that people can teach to the younger generation in the way craftspeople apprenticed their children or teachers taught pupils for millennia. (Bentley and O’Brien 2012: 26-27)

Humans have now created so much knowledge and skill outside their own bodies, in computers and information networks, that that knowledge may soon feed back on its own into this process. Anderson and Abrahams (2009) argue that progress in science requires true outliers—those creative geniuses that fit Thomas Edison’s inspirational one percent. Part of the debate is the mystery over the origin and timing of genius. Gladwell (2008) suggested that some geniuses, such as Cézanne, needed thousands of hours of practice before achieving the height of their skill, whereas others, such as Picasso and Einstein, made (arguably) their most profound achievements at a young age, with very little practice. Similarly, Galenson (2005) divided artists into two groups based on an assessment of when they made their greatest contributions—conceptualists, who are innovative at an early age, and experimentalists, whose innovations come much later, after considerable experimentation and refinement. Regardless, every so often an innovation comes along that is rare enough to begin a new paradigm in the true Kuhnian sense of the term (Kuhn, 1962). As soon as a good new idea is demonstrated, many clamber to copy it and modify it slightly. This alteration may underlie a continual budding-off process as new, more-specialized niches are created and then developed (O’Brien and Shennan, 2010) (Bentley and O’Brien 2012: 31)

First, the pace of cultural evolution has accelerated over time, much of it tied to the ways in which humans have been able to harness and manage information. Second, although it is easy to be persuaded that there was some inevitability or direction to this harnessing and management, it is true only in a retrodictive sense. In other words, we see nothing in the archaeological record that would have allowed us at any point in the past to predict what the future might entail in terms of information management. Third, of the three tipping points we discuss, perhaps the most significant was the ability to store, and tap, information outside one’s own brain, whether that information resides in the heads of others or on a cave wall. Fourth, the emergence of this ability was tied directly to local population size, meaning that more people increased the odds both of new ideas ratcheting up old ones and of passing those ideas on before they were lost. Fifth, tempo and mode are both important components of the myriad ways in which humans have stored and manipulated information, but it is clear that changes in tempo can bring about changes in mode of evolution. (Bentley and O’Brien 2012: 35)


  1. Popper was long one of my heroes, though I am less admiring now. The World 3 business of Popper is not without it’s critics. Although Sir Karl claimed that it is not Platonic (in the non-sexual sense!) and noted in The Unended Quest that the strongest similarity was to Frege or Bolzano. Vol 2 of the Library of Living Philosophers that takes Popper as its subject is loaded with critique (which I haven’t tackled yet). More recent critics take World 1-2-3 as a mere typology. If that’s the case, then it seems that using it, as does Margaret Archer, might be a bit problematic.

    1. I’d be interested to read those at some point – I don’t think the account of the cultural system stands or falls with how Popper is evaluated though.

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