I believe in the blank slate!

By Razib Khan | October 12, 2012 12:21 pm

Well, not really…but in some ways close enough judged against the initial reference point of where I started on certain questions. Dienekes contends:

This will help us understand both: the ancestors of non-Africans did not come forth fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s head, having spent millennia of perfecting their craft and honing their minds by perforating shells and scratching lines in some South African cave. Instead, they may been plain old-style hunter-gatherers who stumbled into Asia by doing what they always did: following the food. At the same time, the UP/LSA revolution may not have been effected by a new and improved type of human bursting into the scene and replacing Neandertals and assorted dummies, but rather as a cultural revolution that spread across a species that already had the genetic potential for it, and was already firmly established in both Africa and Asia.

The former position, that the Out-of-Africa population were genetically endowed supermen who blitzkrieged other humans ~50,000 years ago was probably the most common position ~10 years ago. It’s outlined by Richard Klein in The Dawn of Human Culture. A contrasting argument was put forth at about the same time by Stephen Oppenheimer in The Real Eve. With 10 years of hindsight much of Oppenheimer’s model leaves much to be desired, but the one aspect which I laughed at at the time, but now give much more credit to, is the proposition that the Out-of-Africa migration was an expression of a cultural revolution in a proximate sense, rather than a biological revolution.


To be clear, I don’t have strong or strident positions in any particular direction. I’m not smart enough to know what the data will tell us in the next few years. Rather, I simply have to admit that I think at this point a more rigorous modeling of the origins of culture, and the rate of cultural change, is needed. Much of cultural anthropology consists of de facto political activism, unintelligible interpretation, or pure ethnographic description and comparison. What we need now are explicit models of cultural evolution and emergence, from which we can generated simulations of possible alternative outcomes of the rise and fall of particular lineages.

Though it seems crazy to posit that humans may have had the biological potential for a cultural revolution for tens of thousands of years (and widely dispersed at that) without that revolution occurring, all we have to go on at this point is an N = 1 and our intuition. That intuition has led us astray in the past, so we need a check on that. Simulations may in the future help us evaluate whether a scenario of “slow take off” of cultural evolution is in fact what we’d expect, assuming given biological preconditions having been met. A slow take off model is in fact what seems to be the consensus in regards to what used to be termed the “Industrial Revolution.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Human Evolution
MORE ABOUT: Human Evolution
  • jaysumallah

    I think the slow simmer model might make more sense in light of the Native Americans going from paleolithic to literate, pyramid-building empires. If that was predicated on a biological change, lucky for it to happen in a recently-bottlenecked population that was so distantly related to the Middle-Eastern neolithic revolutionaries.

  • gcochran

    ” it seems crazy”

    Stick with that.

  • Patrick

    @#2 Why does it seem crazy? Culture is fundamentally different from a random walk. There is no reason to expect that given adequate time, the space of all possible cultures will be explored due to random changes in the existing culture because the cultural changes are not random or independent of each other. The Brownian assumptions that we might make when looking at how a particle behaves in solution or how a genome changes over time are fundamentally false when applied to culture. Random walk models are cognitively appealing because they’re simplifying and familiar to people that have scientific training; but we need to be careful not to apply them too easily.

  • Mitch

    #1 There were actually multiple “neolithic revolutions” in different locations.

    For instance:

    The Middle East, China, New Guinea, Mesoamerica, The Andes, and North America.

    Check the map:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Centres_of_origin_and_spread_of_agriculture.svg&page=1

    http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2003Sci…300..597D

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neolithic_Revolution

  • http://dienekes.blogspot.com Dienekes

    Though it seems crazy to posit that humans may have had the biological potential for a cultural revolution for tens of thousands of years (and widely dispersed at that) without that revolution occurring, all we have to go on at this point is an N = 1 and our intuition.

    I’d say that is very likely. For example, modern humans had the capacity to start the Neolithic Revolution circa 40,000 years ago; they were clearly intelligent, innovative, they were using a wide variety of plant and animal species and were even domesticating dogs. But, even though all signs point to them having the genetic capacity for the Neolithic, they did not actualize the Neolithic until ~10,000 years ago. When some of them did, a lot of others picked it up quite easily; no “farming capacity” mutation swept the species in a post-10ka timeframe.

    Similarly, if one looks at Gobekli Tepe or reads a page of Archimedes or looks at the pyramids, one has little doubt that the people responsible were not dummies, and did not lack a capacity for logical reasoning that would have allowed them to understand the workings of a combustion engine or string theory. But these things appeared after years of cultural development, and not because a super-smart mutation swept the species, as evidenced by the fact that e.g., scientists from all continents, separated from each other by tens of thousands of years of evolution, can all be competent mechanics and mathematicians.

  • Bob

    @#2 “That intuition has led us astray in the past, so we need a check on that.”

    No doubt.

  • gcochran

    “scientists from all continents”

    I’m from Missouri.

  • Mike S

    ***But these things appeared after years of cultural development, and not because a super-smart mutation swept the species, as evidenced by the fact that e.g., scientists from all continents, separated from each other by tens of thousands of years of evolution, can all be competent mechanics and mathematicians.***

    What do you think of Ed Miller’s old paper on the evolution of aboriginal intelligence? (I thought this was available on Ron Unz’ free site for periodicals, but they don’t have the winter edition). One of the interesting features is that on psychometric testing do well on measures of spatial memory, and (Klekamp et al.,1994) have a larger visual cortex than Caucasians. Miller concludes that:

    “There has been continuous worldwide selection for intelligence, although its strength may have varied with climate. Intelligence gradually increased, as reflected in the sophistication of the human tool kits. This increase was caused by intelligence increasing mutations, followed by the spread of these mutations. These mutations occurred at approximately the same rate (per million population) on different continents, but in absolute number were most common in the Eurasian land mass with its high population.”

  • Isabel

    ” But, even though all signs point to them having the genetic capacity for the Neolithic, they did not actualize the Neolithic”

    Why would they have? I am not surprised that it took so long to take off, as I can’t see what their motivation would have been. Why grow when you can just gather? The HG life seems easier (by most accounts) and HGs appear to be happier and have more fun/leisure/sex etc…just pointing this out because it may seem obvious from our vantage point that an agrarian lifestyle is “better” but is it?

    Just quickly googled it but whether the change occurred for reasons of changing climate or whatever seems inconclusive…

  • http://jaymans.wordpress.com/ JayMan

    I’ll go with #2… :)

  • John Emerson

    Though it seems crazy to posit that humans may have had the biological potential for a cultural revolution for tens of thousands of years (and widely dispersed at that) without that revolution occurring….

    One of the salient facts about pre-Neolithic studies is the scarcity and irregular distribution of evidence. What I would suggest instead of long stagnation is dozens, hundreds, and thousands of short-lived false starts and partial solutions, most of which left no evidence.

  • Sandgroper

    #9 + a lot of the evidence that might have existed is now underwater and hugely more difficult to find.

  • Onur

    I’d say that is very likely. For example, modern humans had the capacity to start the Neolithic Revolution circa 40,000 years ago; they were clearly intelligent, innovative, they were using a wide variety of plant and animal species and were even domesticating dogs. But, even though all signs point to them having the genetic capacity for the Neolithic, they did not actualize the Neolithic until ~10,000 years ago. When some of them did, a lot of others picked it up quite easily; no “farming capacity” mutation swept the species in a post-10ka timeframe.

    Similarly, if one looks at Gobekli Tepe or reads a page of Archimedes or looks at the pyramids, one has little doubt that the people responsible were not dummies, and did not lack a capacity for logical reasoning that would have allowed them to understand the workings of a combustion engine or string theory. But these things appeared after years of cultural development, and not because a super-smart mutation swept the species, as evidenced by the fact that e.g., scientists from all continents, separated from each other by tens of thousands of years of evolution, can all be competent mechanics and mathematicians.

    Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending refute your claims in their book “The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution“. Evolution is an ongoing process and does not affect all human populations in an equal way. As human races are physically and genetically different, so they are also mentally different.

  • modeler

    N >1

    Others have posted that the neolithic revolution occurred in different places at different times. Also the cultural shift into cities happened in several far-distant places at about the same time (Egypt, Mesopotamia, China), and at different times (Mesoamerica), with much the same outcomes.

    Also, the reverse experiment has occurred. In small populations, skills and culture seem to regress significantly, for instance in Tasmania. The original settlers of Australia clearly had deep-sea fishing technologies to cross into Australia, and as evidenced recently in deep-sea fish bones associated with inland human campsites. They also had other skills such as bows. However, many skills of the Australian aboriginal culture were lost in those that moved to Tasmania. “Guns, Germs and Steel” posited that culture and skill loss occurs as populations shrink and there are not enough specialists to keep the knowledge intact.

    So, one of the many factors of culture is, in my view, population size, which was presumably growing steadily as humans expanded both in and then outside Africa.

  • Eurologist

    There is one transforming/ transformative change that I have always thought to play the major role in the “Upper Paleolithic Revolution.” This is the positive feedback loop of longevity and lower teenage/young adult mortality.

    Teenagers and young adults in all societies have the propensity of killing themselves in moments in which common instincts (show-off, have to win, need to win mate) weigh over ratio (I can mate tomorrow with ten fewer competitors, and I will look splendid for not having gone through outrageously crazy risks, while I still look rather fit).

    When older (>30-35 years) people survive in large numbers, this surely has a huge impact on the survival of younger folks (“don’t ever do that! don’t ever do that again!- and I know what I am talking about”), itself increasing the survival rate of the grandparent generation tremendously.

  • Eurologist

    As to agriculture, I think it is clear that before the post-LGM/ Younger Dryas climatic optimum, in most regions climate was too dry, to cold, and too variable to allow for growing grains or pulses and harvesting sufficient grain, straw, and hay to feed (let alone safely harbor) large domesticated animals.

  • John Emerson

    To go on, for social evolution as for biological evolution change is be stepwise, item by item, and the dramatic new form might seem to appear suddenly but actually the change will be gradual until the entire system is in place. A pretty good argument has been made that not part of the period 1000-1600 AD was stagnant. There was a lot of forward movement with some retrogression mostly caused by wars and disasters, until sometime after 1600 a takeoff point was reached and the improvement (increase in wealth) became dramatic and visible.

    This kind of argument comes up whenever people are talking about Rome, the Muslim caliphate, and especially China, all of which had many of the factors required but didn’t take off.

    In other words, one key element or a restricted number may seem to be “the cause”, but they aren’t the magic bullet; they can only be effective if the pre-existing ensemble is right. Rome, the caliphate, and China had many of the elements, but not the ensemble; NW Europe had the whole thing.

  • RedZenGenoist

    #6 is stark as hell

  • John Emerson

    To go on, for social evolution as for biological evolution change is be stepwise, item by item, and the dramatic new form might seem to appear suddenly but actually the change will be gradual until the entire system is in place. A pretty good argument has been made that no part of the period 1000-1600 AD was stagnant. There was a lot of forward movement with some retrogression mostly caused by wars and disasters, until sometime after 1600 a takeoff point was reached and the improvement (increase in wealth) became dramatic and visible.

    This kind of argument comes up whenever people are talking about Rome, the Muslim caliphate, and especially China, all of which had many of the factors required but didn’t take off.

    In other words, one key element or a restricted number may seem to be “the cause”, but they aren’t the magic bullet; they can only be effective if the pre-existing ensemble is right. Rome, the caliphate, and China had many of the elements, but not the ensemble; NW Europe had the whole thing.

    Given the scarcity of evidence (and social changes don’t necessarily leave artifacts) all sorts of intermediate stages between 100,000 years b.p. and 10,000 years b.p. have probably been lost. The little sketch maps we have of what happened are the best that can be done with current information, but they flatten things out rather violently.

    This is a favorite quote of mine, from a book on Egyptology: W.B. Kristensen once remarked that the supposition that the origin of a phenomenon is simpler and more easily understood than that which proceeds from it, is untenable. Every origin is in itself already a complex phenomenon, sometimes of an even more mysterious nature than that which it is supposed to explain.

  • Colugo

    The bigger picture: Boas was right about the separability of race, language, and culture.

    The bullshit conflation of these of the last three decades is falling apart spectacularly.

    The ‘anatomically modern but cognitively archaic’ model of Klein and colleagues was just bad genetic-technological determinism.

    And the archaics themselves were not cognitively archaic, at least not in the way posited at the time. Mithen, Binford and many others were wrong about the abilities of neandertals.

    We can look forward to Clark, Haidt et al’s speculations on the genetic basis of cultural differences in values joining phrenology and eugenics on the intellectual garbage heap.

    Ron Unz’s demolition of Lynn’s nonsense on the Irish is a model to be emulated.

  • randomite

    “Rome, the caliphate, and China had many of the elements, but not the ensemble; NW Europe had the whole thing.”

    Yeah, someone should have given Rome a good constitution for example.

    “Rome, the caliphate, and China had many of the elements, but not the ensemble; NW Europe had the whole thing.”

    Sophisticated sociology (TM).

  • http://rokus01.wordpress.com Rokus

    Cultural evolution indeed, change is an ongoing process. Often, progress depends on the next change to happen. There is plenty of evidence that cultural change went together with recent evolution and rapid gene flow. A slow start is only natural, but we are wrong to think this makes the continuation of change as natural. Actually, your description: “Much of cultural anthropology consists of de facto political activism, unintelligible interpretation, or pure ethnographic description and comparison” already indicates there must be something wrong about this preposition. I think, each change may be a revolution. I congratulate you for catching up this one :)

  • Richard Sharpe

    Is it possible that behind this little academic spat there is some evidence that different racial groups have different learning styles?

    Perhaps the much maligned Chinese “cram” method is good for them?

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot Steve Sailer

    I could believe it, but what _was_ the cultural revolution?

  • Mike Steinberg

    ***Ron Unz’s demolition of Lynn’s nonsense on the Irish is a model to be emulated.***

    #18, Colugo,

    If you read more critically around the web you’ll find that the Unz demolition has also been demolished.

  • John Emerson

    Richard: Stanford math already has a reputation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Streleski

  • John Emerson

    19: According to what I have said, it would be a long succession of unit cultural changes between 100,000 bp and 10,000 bp (giver or take thousands of years) unattested in the archeological record, with a lot of false starts and dead ends, adding up finally with large-scale sedentary societies.

    It may seem like handwaving or special pleading to rely on lost data, but I am not making any very specific claim about the period leading up to these large scale societies. I’m merely claiming that the unattested events leading up to these societies were much more complex than the little sketch-map explanations we extrapolate from scanty data. And as a corollary, that there wasn’t a single threshold change that was “the cause”, but that there were many thresholds crossed.

    I don’t have “The Horse, the Wheel, and Language” at hand, and I don’t know what the critical consensus is, but what he wrote about the development of metallurgy, based on new finds, filled in the blanks of what had formerly been a very sketchy picture. (I’m specifically thinking of the Sintasha culture, which according to Anthony now plays a key role in human prehistory, where it earlier had just been another local culture and was treated as part of the Andronovo culture.). That’s an example of a kind of complexification of the story that I’m talking about. But you probably won’t be able to do that with cultural changes that do not leave abundant material signs the way metallurgy did.

  • http://lyingeyes.blogspot.com ziel

    The implication I’m hearing from most of the comments is (to caricature it a bit) that a farmer is just a hunter-gatherer who has suddenly found himself standing ankle-deep in a rice paddy or lost amidst grasslands. (Yes, I understand that learning is required as well, but like I said it’s a caricature). But if that were the case, shouldn’t we find that hunter-gatherers today should easily adapt to farming or other less harsh modern lifestyle? but that doesn’t seem to be the case. The disinclination to plow a field – or sit in a cubicle – seems more organic.

  • John Emerson

    Historically there were intermediate forms of shifting agriculture which mix hunter-gathering and easy forms of cultivation (weeding out the useless plants, transplanting and seeding the usable plants, etc.)

  • dave chamberlin

    I could throw out my opinions but who knows, I cetainly don’t. My guess is hybridization between anotomically modern man and neanderthal was a key element to modern intelligence and as Eurologist pointed out stable warmer weather played a huge part in the agricultural revolution.

    The evidence of our past is rediculously scarce. Talk is cheap, I am afraid we have barely scratched the surface in our understanding of the genetics of human intelligence and until we know that and can accurately calculate when and how it evolved these theories are just sand castles.

  • http://incredulidadracional.wordpress.com/ Daniel

    Colugo. #17 Bullshit indeed. To some it seems there isn’t’ a single major historical event that could not possibly be explained biologically, conflating culture and biology. As if this were the only truly naturalistic explanation; culture being a sort of immaterial substance beyond hard science. These intellectually lazy short-cut pseudo-explanations I bet are very tempting to those who take no interest in history.

    I mean, yeah sure lactose tolerance is the key to understanding the fall of Rome, Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Declaration of Independence…. Pinker’s account of the declines of violence could fit in a much shorter book: “genes done it!”

  • http://lyingeyes.blogspot.com ziel

    Historically there were intermediate forms of shifting agriculture which mix hunter-gathering and easy forms of cultivation (weeding out the useless plants, transplanting and seeding the usable plants, etc.)

    Well that sounds a lot like what the Bantu speakers did vs. the San. But we don’t see the San adopting that much – more just being displaced by the Bantu speakeers.

  • Jm8

    @24
    Upper paleolithic technology is also present in South Africa from the 40-50,000′s bc.
    “Border Cave and the beginning of the Later Stone Age in South Africa”
    Paolo Villa Et al.
    http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/07/23/1202629109.abstract

    There is somewhat sporadic evidence of Upper paleolithic like elements earlier in Africa, in places including: Sibudu(likely arrowheads of bone 60-70,000 bc, Katanda(ca. 90,000 bc. bone harpoons), Blombos cave (most recently fat-based paints made with ochre ca. 100,000 bc in addition to the earlier finds ca. 70,000), and Pinnacle Point S.A.(eg: evidence of compound tools with bladelets, heat treating of silicrete to make tools, and the pre-planned gathering of shellfish during the brief, and safe, times of lowest tide ca. 160,000-70,000). There is also some ambiguous evidence of modern-like behavior in the Sangoan and Lupemban cultures

    http://www.livescience.com/16538-oldest-human-paint-studio.html

    Re: pinnacle Point:

    http://www.sciencenews.org/view/feature/id/332828/title/Water’s_Edge_Ancestors

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071017145252.htm

    @25
    The Khoi Khoi, relatives of the San, adopted herding from Cushitic and/or Nilo-Saharan peoples ca. 2,000 years ago.

  • Jm8

    The Ishango and Lebombo bones (tally sticks) of the Belgian Congo and Swaziland, also date to the upper paleolithic at ca. 20,000 and 33,000 respectively.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lebombo_bone

  • Eurologist

    Coming back to #15, I am basically suggesting almost Lord of the Flies vs. a family/group life as we know it. I could make a list of compelling changes a hundred points long, but just envision a life in which pregnancy advice and child birth and child rearing is taught to you by your older brothers and sisters and older cousins, only. So is climate and medical/ medicinal plant knowledge, and everything else. Most (but not all) people when having their first if not second child would have lost both parents by then, grandparents is something almost no one encounters, except for some toddlers.

    Getting beyond this was a true cultural revolution that changed everything.

    Looking back at my life as a teenager, and that of my son, I almost feel we are still programmed to dismiss our parents’ advice – just because we didn’t use to have it.

  • Jm8

    Correction: My responses in post 33 were to posts 30 (David Chamberlin) and 32 (Ziel) respectively.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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