Stuart Kauffman (1999) Darwinism, Neodarwinism, and an Autocatalytic Model of Cultural Evolution. Psycoloquy: 10(022) Origin Culture (9)

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PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 10(022): Darwinism, Neodarwinism, and an Autocatalytic Model of Cultural Evolution

Commentary on Gabora on Origin-Culture

Stuart Kauffman
Bios Group L.P.
317 Paseo de Peralta
Santa Fe, NM 87501


How did the evolving human lineage make the transition from episodic memories to sustained and linked patterns of thinking that underlie the emergence and persistent transformation of human culture? Liane Gabora's clear formulation of this important question leads to a possible solution that addresses head on the crucial issue of how form and structure emerge, and of whether the evolving information be genes or memes. Her approach is worthy of close attention.


abstraction, animal cognition, autocatalysis, cognitive development, cognitive origins, consciousness, cultural evolution, memory, meme, mimetic culture, representational redescription, world-view.
1. Liane Gabora (1998) has offered a radical, and potentially a very important new model of the transition in human evolution from episodic memories to the capacity for a self-sustaining world view. Her approach is the most promising central insight into this issue that I have encountered. Whether her ideas are ultimately established or rejected, they deserve close attention.

2. The background, of course, is the concept of memes, somewhat innocently introduced by Richard Dawkins (1976) as the cognitive analogue of genes. In the simplest view, memes are units of knowledge, know-how, and beliefs which, like genes, descend with heritable modifications. According to a strict neoDarwinian perspective, the fitter memes are selected, and, over time, a population of diverse memes descends in a human community.

3. I will begin with a comment on this restricted meme concept, and the corresponding weakness in neoDarwinian theory. Darwinism, and certainly neoDarwinism, grew as a concept of natural selection acting on heritable variations to weed out the less fit, culling for further amplification of the more adapted phenotypes. Nowhere in the core of Darwinism, and certainly not in NeoDarwinism, is the issue of how forms happen to come into existence addressed. Darwin assumed morphologies, posited descent with modification, and offered the powerful idea of natural selection. Darwin was right about descent with modification and natural selection. However, these concepts do not answer the question of how forms, morphologies, phenotypes, and behaviors arise in the first place.

4. NeoDarwinism arose out of a single central question: Could natural selection, acting on a population of organisms in which two alleles of a single gene afford slight differences in fitness - taken as the propensity to have offspring - actually succeed in substituting a slightly fitter, new allele for the less fit, older allele? The answer, initially posited by Fisher (1958) is Yes. Descent with modification can indeed pull an adapting population to replace the less fit initial allele by the fitter second allele.

5. Now substitute the concept of meme, and the question appears to become whether descent with modification can substitute new, fitter memes in a population of humans. The answer, again, can be Yes.

6. But this is an answer to an impoverished question. Consider the work of Marc Feldman and his colleagues (e.g. Cavalli-Sforza & Feldman, 1981), who examine conditions under which a meme can be passed vertically via family, or horizontally as well by copying mechanisms within an age cohort, and the consequence that mutant variant memes can proliferate in a community. True, but impoverished.

7. Why impoverished? Because the concept of meme, and its descent with modification, is taken as a (or perhaps the) central conceptual contribution to the evolution of human culture. But the conceptual framework is so limited as to be nearly trivial. Like NeoDarwinism, it suffers from the inability to account for the source of new forms, new memes. Moreover, mere descent with modification is a vastly oversimplified image and understanding of how in cultural and technological evolution, new concepts, artifacts, legal systems, modes of governance, and modes of coevolving organizations at different level have come into existence in the past three million years, of how culture continues to transform today.

8. Consider, for example, the Wright brothers' airplane. It is a recombination of four technological facts: an airfoil, a light gas engine, bicycle wheels, and a propeller. The more diversity that exists in a technological community, the more diversity of novel combinations of existing elements are present that might later prove useful in some context. Thus, 200,000 years ago, the diversity of the economic web of goods and services was severely limited. Today it is vast. Two hundred thousand years ago, finding a technological novelty with the stone and bone implements available was hard. Today, with millions of artifacts already in existence, the generation of novel ones is easy.

9. In short, memes do not just descend with modification. A rich web of conceptual interactions is at work as humans happen upon, design, and implement a combinatorially exploding diversity of new goods and services. This web structure of technological and cultural evolution is far richer, and far closer to the truth, than mere meme descent with modification. Indeed, this broader view helps us begin to understand how and why memes recombine and diversify. It is a more generative picture, undoubtedly still inadequate, but far better than a naive copying of neoDarwinism.

10. Enter Liane Gabora, who brazens to ask how humans passed from episodic memory to recurrent streams of thought that could transform into a world view. Gabora argues that earlier hominids had mere episodic memory. Prior to homo erectus, she suggests, a woman seeing a specific tree might be reminded of a similar other specific tree, which might in turn remind her of yet another specific tree. But the very restricted specificity of these remindings tended to prevent the stream of remindings from propagating very far to generate a rich, often recurrent web of remindings. How might a stream of remindings have become rich enough to become a recurrent, hence self sustaining, web of remindings, or linked ideas, the nascent seed of a coherent world view?

11. Gabora kindly refers to my own work (Kauffman, 1993) on the emergence of autocatalytic sets of molecules in a body of theory about the origin of life. But the ideas, at base, are older than my work, and go back to seminal studies by the Hungarian mathematicians, Erdos and Renyi (1959, 1960) on random graphs. A random graph is a set of nodes randomly connected by edges. A fine example is a set of buttons randomly connected by threads. The simple algorithm asks you to pick up two randomly chosen buttons and tie them together with a red thread. Then pick another random pair of buttons and again tie them together with a red thread. Continue in this fashion. Pause every now and then to lift a button and see how many buttons you lift with the first one. Initially, if there were a 1000 buttons, you would find a few connected pairs of buttons and the rest of the buttons would be isolated. As you tie more randomly chosen pairs together, clusters of 3, 4, and 5 buttons emerge. Soon there are a fair number of mid-sized clusters.

12. Now the main insight of Erdos and Renyi is that, when there are a modest number of mid-sized clusters, the tying together of a few randomly chosen pairs of buttons will, at random, have sampled buttons from different mid-sized clusters and have tied these all together into a giant cluster. The giant cluster contains most of the buttons.

13. This sudden emergence of the giant cluster, or giant component, as a few more threads are added, is a first order phase transition. Roughly, as the ratio of threads to buttons increases past a critical value of 0.5, when the number of ends of threads equals the number of buttons, the giant component suddenly emerges.

14. Now Gabora's central idea is nearly in place. She notes that abstraction is a central feature of the human mind. A specific pine tree is also a member of the more general class of all pine trees, and in fact of all conifers, all trees, all woody vegetation, all plants, all living things. Consider a pre-homo-erectus human, capable only of episodic remindings of this specific pine tree with its particular forked major trunk. Now consider the network of remindings triggered in this individual. We can easily imagine that the initial instance triggers a small cluster of connected remindings of similar forked-trunk pine trees. However, the remindings do not yet propagate very far.

15. But, notes Gabora, as the level of abstraction increases to pines, conifers, all woody plants, vegetation, and all living things, the web of remindings grows richer. A specific forked-pine tree may remind one of other conifers, and then other forked and non-forked woody plants and vegetation. Each reminding now triggers a wider set of other remindings. As this happens, streams of remindings, including recurrent cycles of remindings, begin to emerge.

16. In short, the human mind, Gabora argues, passes from episodic memory to streams of concepts, and recurrent patterns of concepts, precisely as its capacity to abstract increases. And this is specifically due

 to the fact that, at higher levels of abstraction, the pathways of
remindings are far richer, ramifying, and recurrent. Moreover, with recurrent remindings, the necessity for coherence in world views begins to glimmer into existence. Properties of this forked pine tree may be general to all woody vegetation. It may be that those shared properties are make woody vegetation useful as, say, firewood, for the construction of a specific artifact. So the emergence of autocatalytic remindings, as abstraction increases, becomes the wellspring and driver of the emergence of coherent world views.

17. I find Gabora's insight ingenious, likely to be right, and surely worthy of investigation. Do small children recapitulate this sequence? Are there corollaries in artifact diversity that can be found in the paleolithic and neolithic records? What of technological diversity and the development of vocabulary in ancient Egyptian, and other early written records? Gabora is on a rich pathway. We would do well to join her.


Cavalli-Sforza, L. L. & Feldman, M. W. (1981) Cultural transmission and evolution: A quantitative approach, Princeton University Press.

Dawkins, R. (1976) The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press.

Erdos, P. & Renyi, A. (1959) On the random graphs 1, vol. 6. Institute of Mathematics, University of Debrecen, Debrecen, Hungary.

Erdos, P. & Renyi, A. (1960) On the evolution of random graphs. Institute of Mathematics, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, publication no. 5.

Fisher, RA. (1958) The fundamental theorem of natural selection. In: The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. Dover, NY.

Gabora, L. (1998). Autocatalytic Closure in a Cognitive System. PSYCOLOQUY 9(67). psyc.98.9.67.origin-culture.1.gabora

Kauffman, S. (1993) The Origins of Order, Oxford University Press.

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