From edition

SYMPOSIUM ON THE QUESTION "HOW IS CULTURE BIOLOGICAL?" ~ Six Essays and Discussions: Essay # 5, by Robert Karl Stonjek, "A Brief but Plausible History of Culture"


I probe the interface between our chimp-like ancestor and the modern human to discover what triggered the explosion in cultural diversity that so comprehensively exceeded the sophistication of the individual humans that created it.

Responses by Joseph Carroll, Diana Kornbrot, and Anja Müller-Wood & John Carter Wood

Rejoinder by Robert Karl Stonjek


Robert Karl Stonjek

A Brief but Plausible History of Culture

Instinct—Problem Solving—Culture

Genetically mediated fixed behavioural patterns (instincts) are common in simple arthropods. The digger wasp, for instance, will starve to death even with food in its mouth if it is frustrated by a researcher (eg Tinbergen) who replaces the cover to the wasp’s burrow each time the wasp removes it. So fixed is its behaviour pattern that it can not break it even to save itself from starvation. [1,2]

The evolved adaptation that breaks this pattern is an ability to match behaviour to the current conditions and modify them if needs be. This flexibility, in its most evolved form, is the sophisticated contemplative consciousness known to humans.

To accommodate evolving neural based adaptability, the innate behavioural patterns become less and less prescriptive until, as in humans, only vague drives and reward feelings remain save for the basic form of the sneeze and similar simple reflexive behaviours. Humans must use their own cognitive abilities to develop the behavioural pattern that will connect innate predispositions, say the drive to reproduce, with the local environment.

But this gulf between the vestiges of instinct and successful behaviour in complex human societies is too vast for an individual human to bridge in a single lifetime—they need help from above, they need culture.

Long before humans switched on a television set, culture had been bubbling away in the human and protohuman lineage. Indeed, even chimps and other primates enjoy a cultural dimension to their lives and this dimension was most probably present in our last common ancestor.

An adolescent chimp approaching the problem of, say, extracting termites from a termite mound may try digging, or waiting for them to emerge and then plucking a single termite or two from the ground and eating it. That chimp may give up and pursue other food sources and, perhaps, return to the termite mound problem periodically to consider a new strategy for extracting the tasty treat from their home beneath the ground.

How much quicker this process becomes when, after discovering the trick of stripping a green stick of its leaves and then poking it into the termite mound, other chimps simply copy this behaviour and pass it on to their young. [3]

The first utility of culture, then, is the accelerated problem solving that is possible: not all individuals must personally solve a particular problem in order to be in possession of the solution.

Non-human primates are limited to immediate utility and concrete examples for each element of their culture—humans are not so constrained and can learn solutions remotely from their application, for example learning in schools. Thus we can draw a line from pre-human culture through to the modern day and see that this early form of utilitarian culture has greatly expanded in scope and complexity.

Culture and Human Uniqueness

Culture differs from species wide innate behavioural patterns in that isolated individuals are unlikely to have those behaviours without exposure to them and can develop similar but atypical alternatives. Regional variations are commonly found, for example chimps in East Africa have a different technique for harvesting termites to those in West Africa. [4]

The capacity to adopt behavioural patterns requires an ability to learn through observation and guidance by conspecifics. Culture needs the consumption and support of conspecifics that also contribute to it, primarily by passing it on to the following generations.

From the first hit-and-miss efforts in old world monkeys to the art and industry of modern humans, genetic predisposition supporting culture has played an increasingly prominent role. Language, for instance, greatly accelerates and enriches cultural adaptation.

Almost all, if not all, of the adaptations that made human culture possible may already exist in non-human primates. But those adaptations appear only sporadically in a few individuals and may appear only intermittently, skipping several generations between expression. It is not inconceivable that, occasionally, a chimp might appear with a human version of the FoxP2 gene, but that chimp has no advantage over conspecifics so there is no selection pressure to drive the frequency of that gene higher.

Thus the discovery of single examples of traits in non-humans that are species wide in humans does not extinguish theories of human uniqueness. It is the species wide distribution and the correct sequence of expression of various traits in the human lineage that has resulted in the greatest differences between humans and other primates.

There is some debate that the larger human brain is the sole difference between human and ape and that if a mechanism for the evolution of the larger brain were to be established then the source of the difference has been discovered. But some microencephalics, with brains smaller than the chimp’s, are capable of consuming and contributing to culture and have a language ability that includes grammar and syntax, vastly beyond that of any known non-human primate even after the most intense lifelong human assisted training. [5]

The Culture of the Abstract

The evolutionary change in human precursory forms that allowed for the explosion of culture and cognitive plasticity began with the ability to handle abstract content in a new way.

Non-human primates can utilise abstract content in a decision making process providing the result maps on to concrete objects or actions that can be executed or observed within the current behavioural episode. [6,7]

Thus a concrete problem may have an abstract step toward a concrete solution. The non-human primate algorithm, then, is [some concrete starting point] is processed to become [some concrete end point] via [abstract elements that can be manipulated]. It is the ‘abstract elements’ that can be utilised in the process of human assisted language acquisition in such famous cases as Kanzi, who was taught to use an abstract symbolic language called ‘lexigrams’. [8]

The major difference in human decision making processes is that the end point may also be abstract and that abstract endpoints can be used as the starting point of subsequent decision making processes. Thus the decision making process can enter endless recursive loops. For Kanzi, for instance, the old non-human primate algorithm remains and so concrete end points are still required despite the use of symbols in intermediate steps.

The next steps in the process are the epiphany and the concrete mapping of abstract results.

The epiphany represents a cognitive event where strong reward feelings are experienced when abstract results to a problem solving process are achieved. Reward feelings for non concrete results appear not to occur in primates, even those that have acquired some degree of human language ability and concrete rewards must accompany achievements that would otherwise only return abstract results eg in game play on a computer, monkeys must receive a food reward when they have played successfully and it is only for the food reward that they will play.

The epiphany indicates that abstract results of decision making processes are treated to some extent like concrete results and so are accompanied by reward feelings and episodic (declarative) memory storage such that that abstract result can be recalled and used as the starting point of a new decision making or problem solving process, immediately or at some later date—the abstract solution is treated as if it had some degree of material existence.


Even the abstract end point of a decision making process is really just an interim step on the way to concrete solutions, at least in principle. In the out-of-reach banana problem, chimps fail to learn the general rule (stack ‘things’ on top of other ‘things’ and then climb up ‘them’ to get the ‘reward’) and have to solve the problem afresh every time the problem solving conditions change.

When a similar problem occurs, humans can readily start at the abstract solution (stack ‘things’ etc) and apply it to the new context. Further, the abstract solution may be refined when no concrete start or end point is in evidence (abstract initial and final condition with ‘epiphany’ reward feelings encouraging the behaviour ie contemplation, meditation, discussion etc).

We know that even chimps can pass concrete problem solving techniques between generations, but how can abstract solutions enter a culture?

‘Symbols’ are concrete objects or actions that represent the abstract content of a partial decision making process. In this form, a decision making process can be shared between individuals who may all contribute to a solution or it can be passed between generations, particularly where the concrete portion of any solution is contextual.

Concrete mapping of abstract concepts is what art and symbolic language are. Consumers of abstract content also experience the reward feelings.

Spontaneous symbol handling is seen in non-humans but is very rare. In a private communication, Frans de Waal told me, in response to a question on fantasy play including symbolic representation in adolescent non-human primates: “I think it is indeed rare, perhaps largely absent except in human-reared chimpanzees. Sometimes chimps fashion a log into a doll (Wrangham), and they may perform a few other symbolic activities, but again, this behavior is rare.”

Symbols make no sense without a lucid conceptualisation of the ‘future’, which, cognitively, is the abstract element between two concrete points, the concrete present and a temporally remote concrete present (the future). Thus abstract problem solving and the general concept of the future require the same cognitive facilitation.

Clothes and tools are objects that are both concrete objects to be used in the present and symbolic representations of future utility (they become abstract solutions to future concrete problems.)


The earliest hominoids, having the advance symbol handling ability, would have been at a disadvantage in the environment in which conspecifics not having those advanced abilities were already successful as any advancement of the type described above comes at some cost eg slower maturation, more time spent in contemplation where pre-existing innate behaviours are available and so on.

The advantage of a symbol handling ability is the rapid adaptation to new environments that tools, clothes and intellectual cooperation, even if extremely rudimentary, can offer. Thus those individuals having the advanced symbol handling ability would be strongly attracted to new environments where, in isolation from the main body of conspecifics, allopathic speciation could proceed.

If the retention of neotenic traits was the vector of evolutionary change then the new variety would have been at a sexual selection disadvantage among the older variety of conspecifics as they will prefer sexually mature individuals. For instance male chimps prefer older females over younger inexperienced ones as there is a greater chance that infants will be properly cared for and so reach maturity and perpetuate the genetic lineage. Neotenic traits would have been readily associated with immature individuals.

First Steps from Bonobo example

De Waal and Lanting on neoteny in Bonobos:

It has been speculated that bonobos evolved through retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood, a process known as neoteny. For example, the smaller skull of the adult bonobo reminded both Schwarz and Coolidge of a juvenile chimpanzee. Bonobos also keep their white tail-tufts, which chimpanzees lose after weaning age. The voices of adult bonobos are still as shrill as those of juvenile chimpanzees, and even the frontally orientated vulva is considered a neotenous characteristic, also present in our own species. Neoteny has been called the hallmark of human evolution: it is reflected in our hairlessness, large brains, and general playfulness. [9]

…and this observation by Savage-Rumbaugh regarding a pail in the Bonobo enclosure:

They used it for holding drinking water, inverted it as a seat, used it as a repository for urine, placed it over the head as a blind, carried it on the stomach as if it were an infant, played with it as a toy, and much more. The neighbouring common chimps had been able to observe all these activities, and we wondered whether they would imitate the bonobo’s antics if we gave them a pail. They didn’t. Instead, they used pails as props in aggressive displays, shaking them in the air, slamming them against the cage sides, and kicking them across the floor.[10]

That Bonobos, particularly Kanzi, have been more successful at learning language than chimps (eg Sherman and Austin—all three studied by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and colleagues at the Great Ape Trust) is instructive. The same kind of neotenous speciation most probably saw the human and ape lineage separate from the last common ancestor. But the exact selection of neotenous traits need not be the same, particularly if the environment was different to that inhabited by modern day Bonobos.

An experiment on the ability of non-human primates to understand the absent referent found that most (but not all) couldn’t do it but human babies had no problem. The absent referent is another example of using abstract concepts as the starting point of a decision making process. [11]

Playing and Symbolic Behaviour

Before language evolved there was a change in the brain, but the change was subtle. Adolescent mammals ‘play’. They gain reward feelings for the abstract representations of the solutions to immediate problems which are also abstract. They pretend to hunt and pretend to catch prey, for instance. At a certain age, around puberty, play is replaced with reality. Taming animals returns some of that play (abstract thinking, symbolic behaviour) to animals and they subsequently act more human-like and less ‘animal-like’ ie less like their native or wild form.

If, for some reason, this ‘play’ ability were to remain active into adulthood then we would have most of what we need to satisfy the above mentioned subtle change. In the playing animal, solutions to play problems enter procedural memory. If the same ability remains into adulthood, the symbolic solutions enter episodic memory. We use episodic memory, memory of past solutions to problems, in order to solve current and future problems. Chimps appear to only use this form of memory for social behaviour such as keeping track of who has groomed whom and only apply it to the present.

If the ability to play became internalised, then we have all of the required symbol handling that I have mentioned above. The change to adulthood only changes the emphasis of the new problem handling ability toward concrete results, even if those results remain in the future (and so are still in symbolic form) such as possible mating success, possible increase in status and so on.

Modern Culture and the Final Step

Freed from concrete, immediately utilisable culture and able to express interim (abstract via symbolic) solutions, the individual’s desire to share their epiphanies and enjoy the reward for doing so would have been enormous. That other people can share in a reward with no exchange of resources would have resulted in a ravenous selective pressure for the required behavioural ability and expanded neural capacity it required.

Any and all forms of expression, gestural, vocal, facial expression, scratching images in the sand, theatrical depictions of events and so on would have been utilised, understood and enjoyed. Only with the Homo sapiens and the emergence of the transcription factor FOXP2 (forkhead box P2) did spoken language overtake all other forms of expression and greatly accelerate human communication ability and the vastly richer culture that exploded from it. [12]

Other culture related genes, such as serotonin transporter functional polymorphism (5-HTTLPR), seem to have brought with it not only a richer emotional dimension to our culture but a range of anxiety and mood disorders that are prevalent among the modern individualistic human. [13]

It’s Genetics All the Way Down

Genetic mediation of behaviour has evolved all the way from prescriptive instinctual reflexes that mandate each and every muscle movement (eg some arthropod behaviour) through to heuristic problem solving (simple thought or learnt behaviour) through to the effective storage and sharing of heuristics or even methods of deriving heuristic solutions (complex human culture that requires a human-like consciousness as an interface).

Though it is from genetically mediated prescriptive behaviour that we have evolved, it is via genetically mediated behavioural heuristics that we achieve it.


[1] Matt Ridley (2003), Nature Via Nurture, Harper Collins, p.49.

[2] J. Henri Fabre (2004), The Hunting Wasps, chapter “The Wisdom of Insects,” as quoted in Clive D.L. Wynne, Do Animals Think? Princeton University Press.

[3] Frans de Waal (2002), Tree of Origin: What Primate Behavior Can Tell Us about Human Social Evolution, Harvard University Press, p.163.

[4] George Page (1999), The Singing Gorilla: Understanding Animal Intelligence, Headline Book Publishing, p. 209.

[5] Ralph L Holloway (1967), “The Evolution of the Human Brain: some notes toward a synthesis between neural structure and the evolution of complex behaviour,” paper presented at the American Anthropological Association meetings, Denver, Colorado.

[6] Clive D.L. Wynne (2004), Do Animals Think? Princeton University Press.

[7] Donald R Griffin (2001), Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition of Consciousness, University of Chicago Press.

[8] Sue Savage-Rumbaugh & Roger Lewin (1994), Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind, John Wiley & Sons.

[9] Frans de Waal and Frans Lanting (1997), Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, University of California Press, p.27.

[10] Sue Savage-Rumbaugh & Roger Lewin (1994), Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind, John Wiley & Sons, p.107.

[11] Ulf Liszkowski, Marie Schäfer, Malinda Carpenter, and Michael Tomasello (2009), “Prelinguistic Infants, but Not Chimpanzees, Communicate About Absent Entities,” Psychological Science 20 (5), 654-660.

[12] Genevieve Konopka et al, (2009), Human-specific transcriptional regulation of CNS development genes by FOXP2,” Nature 462, 213-217.

[13] Joan Y. Chiao and Katherine D. Blizinsky (February 2010), “Culture–gene coevolution of individualism–collectivism and the serotonin transporter gene,” Proc. R. Soc. B 22 vol. 277 no. 1681 529-537.



to Robert Karl Stonjek

1. Joseph Carroll’s Response to Robert Stonjek

Robert Stonjek lays out elements contributing to human cognitive flexibility.  The chief idea, it seems, is that humans do not have “prescriptive instinctual reflexes” but rather “genetically mediated behavioural heuristics.”  He is surely correct in arguing that displacement from concrete tasks in a “current behavioural episode” is at the heart of specifically human forms of cognition.  “Absent referents” include linking the temporal present to past events and projected future events in such a way that no present event is every, for humans, just itself. It is always part of a narrative structure extending over time. The “abstract” relationship of the current event to past and future events is part of the actual feeling of the event. Nothing is isolated. All perceptions and actions are felt as consequences, intentions, hopes, expectations, or fatalities. Absent referents also include other kinds of “abstractions.” They include, for instance, social networks, so that what we do or feel at any given moment has reference to corporate social entities extending outside our immediate range of perception. Santa knows when you are being naughty or nice. Our ancestors turn over in their graves when we violate the traditions of the tribe. Our as yet unborn descendants look back sorrowfully on the shame with which we have imbued their lineage; or bask in the still reflected glory of our accomplishments. We live in the light of ideas, and sometimes die for them—flags, religious icons, la liberté, the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, the Thousand-Year Reich, Jihad, the American Way.

Robert formulates a strong version of human cognitive flexibility: “To accommodate evolving neural based adaptability, the innate behavioural patterns become less and less prescriptive until, as in humans, only vague drives and reward feelings remain save for the basic form of the sneeze and similar simple reflexive behaviours.”  The strong version of flexibility can be sharply contrasted with the strong version of genetically controlled behavior suggested in Lionel Tiger’s contribution to this symposium.  Both are matters of emphasis; so to answer the question, “which is right?” we’d have to move from rhetorical declarations to more particular, precise statements about just how aggressive or insistent certain “instinctual” behavioral impulses might be.

The problem posed in the contrast between the formulations by Lionel and Robert is another version of the problem posed in my response to John Price’s essay: how do we parse, precisely, the relations between the universal level of human nature and the level of cultural differences?  Do cultures only produce functionally insignificant variations on a substantially identical set of motives and feelings?  If so, Lionel’s formulation is closer to the truth. Or do cultures take “vague drives” and transform them into highly particular motives and feelings that differ dramatically from culture to culture?  If so, Robert’s formulation is closer to the truth.

Robert mentions “the drive to reproduce” as an instance in which cognitive flexibility connects “innate predispositions” with “the local environment.” That particular instance allows us to narrow the problem down more. Probably more than half the work done in evolutionary psychology has been devoted to mating behavior. On that basis of that research, we can confidently affirm that “the drive to reproduce” is not just a “vague” drive.  In humans, it is accompanied by a rich array of highly particular motives and preferences that are universal to all cultures. Males prefer young and physically attractive mates. Females prefer mates somewhat older, but not too much older, and they prefer mates with high status and abundant resources. Waist-hip ratios enter into male preferences, as well as the various signs of youth and health: glossy hair, clear skin, supple musculature, regular features, full lips, and good teeth, for instance. We know too that children raised together have genetically transmitted dispositions for incest avoidance. We know that males and females have differing reproductive strategies based on differences in parental investment, so that females strongly value commitment from males and pay close attention to indications of emotional infidelity. Males, in contrast, have roving eyes, delight in the prospect of short-term mating with no commitment, but are also geared not to invest heavily in the offspring of other males, and are thus prone to pay very close attention to indications of sexual infidelity in their long-term partners. We know that both males and females have developed dispositions for long-term and short-term mating and that their criteria for these kinds of mating track with the other dispositions derived from their differing parental investment. The “drive to reproduce” does not of course just involve sex; it also involves parenting, and we know that one of the deepest conserved mammalian traits is the disposition for mother-infant bonding. We know that the human family emerges as a set of compromises between male and female reproductive interests interacting with the constraining forces of a social economy in which large groups of males cooperate and in which individual family units organize around a hearth designed to produce cooked food, food cooked characteristically by females. We know that the whole human reproductive economy involves a uniquely intense period of altricial care of infants, a uniquely extended maturational period for juveniles, and a post-menopausal life expectancy for females.  We know that “reproduction” also involves favoring kin, since kin carry our genes.  Taking just this set of elements—pair-bonded males and females in social networks of cooperative males interlaced with kinship ties—and we can say that the human “biogrammar” isn’t really all that “vague.”  It exercises robust constraint on the symbolic forms produced in part by the “genetically mediated behavioural heuristics” Robert describes.

2. Diana Kornbrot’s Response to Robert Stonjek

The history is plausible and engagingly described. Indeed it is one elegant account of how the human species differs from its close relatives.

There are two strong claims. The first is that human cultural variation has a relatively minor role in simple learning. The second is that culture a prerequisite of complex learning. In my view there are challenges to both claims. Addressing these challenges should inform my key questions

Culture May Differentiate Even Simple Learning

In practice, much cultural variation is associated with group membership and societal role. Acknowledging a ruler with a salute, a curtsey, a bow or a gift is NOT rocket science. Such behaviours are easily learnt by non-human species, and activated in human chosen scenarios. My friends’ dogs offer me their paws with enthusiasm. In other species social life is complex, but gestures of submission and dominance are species wide and not culture determined. An alpha female hyena gets similar submissive reactions from all her group. By contrast, humans show cultural variation in these simple group and role behaviours.

The universal presence of such cultural variation in simple behaviours is surely biological.   It leads to research questions that build on Dunbar’s insights (Dunbar, 1993) relating group size to encephailization (brain size as related to body size) Stonjek makes no specific suggestions. Potential research includes identifying how many different roles occur in different kinds and sizes of groups, e.g. head (chair, president, leader), treasurer, secretary, committee member, foot soldier. Lots of societies get by with just these, but past a certain size, (paid) administrative implementers are always needed. Governments (and their oppositions) seem to need more roles/portfolios.

Culture May Not Be Necessary for Complex Learning

Hunting, navigating and nest building are extremely complex skills. The foraging routes of elephants, the nests of bowerbirds, and the solo and co-operative hunting of lions are extremely complex. They are learnt from con-specifics, but not culture determined. By contrast the biology of humans leads to the acquisition of social and material advantages from complex learning that can only be learnt from cultural groups, which may be age, sex, and dominance specific.

Again Stonjek does not identify a research programme that stems from this biology. Nevertheless, his work suggests research programmes that investigate the conditions that lead to innovation and stagnation in the knowledge and culture transmitted by different groups. As an example, at a micro-level, Smolin provides an hilarious account of the difference in culture (he uses term sociology) between academic research physics communities engaged respectively in string theory and quantum gravity (Smolin, 2006). Another example is current research on the effect of the internet and social networks on human learning (Krotoski, 2010).


Dunbar, R. I. M. (1993). Coevolution of neocortical size, group size and language in humans. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16 (4), 681-735.

Krotoski, A. (2010). Homo interneticus? The virtual revolution Retrieved 21/2/2010, 2010, from

Smolin, L. (2006). The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next. NY: Houghton Mifflin.

3. Anja Müller-Wood’s & John Carter Wood’s Response to Robert Stonjek

We think that Robert Karl Stonjek is right to raise the issue of the unique flexibility of human behaviour and thought patterns and to link them to culture. Stonjek highlights how the ability to culturally transmit learning provided an incredible adaptive advantage, one that explains why we have developed brains that are so large and costly (in terms of energy requirements). We also agree that, while there are precursors to many cultural abilities in non-human primates, they have been developed to a unique extent in Homo sapiens, leading to a distinctive ability for abstract thinking and problem solving.

Nonetheless, we would like to raise a couple of questions. Stonjek’s depiction of the relationship between culture and biology is somewhat ambiguous. Despite an emphasis on a ‘genetic mediation of behaviour’ and attention to specific culture-enabling psychological abilities—the ‘concrete mapping of abstract concepts’, a sense of the future and the presence of ‘reward feelings’ attuned to particular forms of input—he sometimes seems to suggest culture has become disconnected from biology, such as when he states that culture provides humans with ‘help from above’ or argues that culture has led to a diminution of ‘instincts’. These views sound close to a common (though misguided) assumptions in the humanities and social sciences that culture is divorced from the underlying psychology in individual minds that produces it and that humans are instinct-deprived.

Stonjek draws a sharp contrast between ‘fixed’ behavioural patterns and ‘flexibility’ (based upon ‘cognitive plasticity’) as a general psychological ability: ‘To accommodate evolving neural based adaptability’, he argues, ‘the innate behavioural patterns become less and less prescriptive until, as in humans, only vague drives and reward feelings remain save for the basic form of the sneeze and similar simple reflexive behaviours.’ This leaves human beings only with ‘vestiges of instinct’.

Rather than a decline in instincts, we find it more convincing that, as Cosmides and Tooby (1997) have suggested, the importance of culture (i.e., socially transmitted knowledge) to human life requires more rather than fewer instincts (or, more precisely, innate psychological mechanisms). Our evolutionary development led us to inhabit a ‘cognitive niche’, one ‘based on developing an unprecedented new subsistence economics of information and knowledge use, involving, for example, the greater use of lower quality information, the greater use of novel interrelationships among information, and breakthroughs in lowering the coast of acquiring and maintaining large bodies of information’ (Barrett, Cosmides and Tooby 2007, 242). This has depended both on forms of ‘dedicated intelligence’ (which solve particular, evolutionarily recurring problems in predictable, perhaps automatic, ways) as well as ‘improvisational intelligence’, an ability to solve novel problems that human beings seem to have ‘to an unparalleled degree’ (ibid., 243). However, even improvisational intelligence—which could be seen as the basis of the ‘flexibility’ that Stonjek emphasises—‘rests upon a foundation of dedicated intelligences’ such as, to name only a few, object mechanics, tool use, intuitive biology, social inference, and social exchange: ‘These supply improvisational intelligence with many forms of useful inference to link representations together usefully, guiding thought away from vast spaces of barren and useless concatenation’ (ibid., 245-46). We find that such an approach helpfully grounds human psychological flexibility and offers clues as to its inherent tendencies and limits. While the extent of cultural variation is indeed breathtaking, the prevalence of cultural and behavioural universals raises doubts about Stonjek’s suggestion that ‘only vague drives and reward feelings’ remain as the legacy of human psychological evolution. There is flexibility; but only within a framework of possibility. As anthropologist Roger. M. Keesing (1974) put it,

the structure of cultural systems is created, shaped and constrained by individual minds and brains. What forms cultures take depend on what individual humans can think, imagine, and learn, as well as on what collective behaviours shape and sustain viable patterns of life in ecosystems. Cultures must be thinkable and learnable as well as livable. (86)

We have no doubt that Stonjek is aware of this, and our comments may only reflect a debate about the respective degree of importance given to flexibility; nonetheless, we find that attention to the numerous specific innate mental tendencies we possess helps to prevent the otherwise rather vague use of terms such as ‘flexibility’ or ‘plasticity’.


Barrett, H. Clark, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. 2007. The hominid entry into the cognitive niche. In The Evolution of mind: Fundamental questions and controversies, ed. Steven W. Gangestad and Jeffry A. Simpson, 241-48. New York: The Guilford Press.

Cosmides, Leda and John Tooby. 1997. Evolutionary psychology: A primer. <>, accessed 12 February 2010.

Keesing, Roger M. 1974. Theories of culture. Annual Review of Anthropology 3: 73-97.



By Robert Karl Stonjek

Rejoinder to Diana Kornbrot

Culture As a Cognitive Structure or a Collection of Memes

Diana appears to be concentrating on the contents of culture rather than its structural roots, as in my essay. The most basic form of cultural learning is by observation and emulation of behaviours, as in chimps transmission of particular techniques for harvesting termites or cracking nuts.

Behaviours that are learnt from conspecifics are considered to be cultural learning e.g., fishing for termites by chimps is considered cultural. Only when the behaviour is the same for every member of a species and is not learnt from others is it considered innate (instinctual) and not cultural. In other words there are only three sources of behavioural predisposition: innate (unlearned); developed through trial and error learning (by experience); learned from conspecifics. If the behaviour learnt from observing others spreads through a population and especially if it outlives the innovator then it is generally considered to be cultural (knowledge held by a population rather than exclusively by an individual).

Chimpanzees, for instance, can not learn grammar or, if they can, no amount of human effort has yet managed to teach them. Clearly an enabling biological change is required, perhaps via FOXP2 and other language linked genes (note that all other mammals have a version of the FOXP2 gene).

“Culture” can be thought of as having three distinct layers consisting of the “meme,” or specific instances of cultural transmission; the population level culture, such as the culture of a tribe, nation, profession and so on; and the enabling biology that allows a species to develop population level cultures. My essay concentrated on the enabling level of culture and not on specific instances (memes) or culturally derived stereotypical behaviour at the population level.

The Utility of Culture

As mentioned in the essay, if humans had to learn by trial and error or personal experience alone, no human could, in their entire lifetime, ever rise to the level of the competence even of a modern adolescent human. They need to acquire information via culture, which includes all information that is drawn from the general (learned and transmitted between generations) knowledge of a people e.g., mathematics, language itself, all forms of engineering, all forms of government and social organisation and so on.

The extent by which individuals can acquire knowledge on their own is very limited. Trial and error learning is slow, tedious and at times dangerous. Complex behaviour, such as nest building etc as mentioned by Diana is largely innate and not learned. Birds raised with their wings bound can, when released at the time conspecifics learn to fly, take to the air with almost the same competence as their unbound nestmates—this is not a learned behaviour (adaptation and learning is only done with regard to adapting the innate behaviour to each birds particular wings and requires no instruction from others).

It is the area of behavioural plasticity upon which culture can be imprinted that is most dependant on culture to fill the void between an innate drive and success. For humans, simple reflexive behaviour is not sufficient for goal success. Entire strategies, sometimes taking many years (e.g., education and career, marriage and family), requires a level of cultural sophistication well above the single meme a hand shaking dog is capable of learning.

The shared culture is necessary for ever larger groups size, but beyond a certain size it appears to involve the annihilation or absorption of smaller cultural traditions into a single larger one, especially with regard to language, law and religion. We see a common language forming across the entire globe today, for instance, with the use of English as the international language of the sea and air.

It is the ability a new born human and not a new born ape has, to acquire this cultural information and behaviour which was the subject of my essay. It is tempting to think that only brain size limits the chimp’s ability. But as my essay pointed out, it is the type of information, not its bulk, which stops the chimp from acquiring even small amounts of, for instance, grammar (some human microencephalics with chimp size brains can manage it).

Rejoinder to Joseph Carroll

Regarding the Absent Referent

The absent referent, as mentioned in my essay, is present in some but not all chimpanzees. When I privately asked Malinda Carpenter about the age of those who could do it, thinking that it may be a trait lost with maturity in chimps, she told me that one of the chimps that could do it (point to the absent referent) was 6 years old. [1]

Although the absent referent does correspond to many behaviours that appear unique to humans it is not, in and of itself, a behaviour which led to human uniqueness but, rather, was a behaviour that came under strong selection pressure as a result of earlier/other cognitive/genetic evolved changes in humans.

The examples that Carroll gives require advanced imagination and modelling of future events. It is the concern with remote events, whether temporally, spatially or abstractly remote, that makes ready use of the absent referent.

As with most of what we discover about human uniqueness, it is never as fundamental as we at first imagine. This has been the riddle that has never been adequately solved, hence my approach in the essay. There must be at least one unique cognitive ability that humans have evolved, and it most probably has some feature that enables all of the human cultural traits that we observe, i.e., art, religion, language and so on. Despite this, it may also be the case that it does not map onto any singular observable behaviour.

On the Number of Innate Predispositions (Instincts)

When genetically mediated behaviour breaks down to non-prescriptive drives and reward feelings, the behaviours previously under tight control break up into numerous shorter drive-reward routines. For instance in my example of the digger wasp, the entire behavioural episode starting with hunting of prey to the digging of the burrow etc is one behavioural episode which is why the wasp can not change the order in which the behaviours are executed.

Greater flexibility means that each behavioural step becomes a separate event, most probably broken up where innate flexibility occurs anyway. Further flexibility allows each behavioural step to be replaced by some other behaviour that achieves the same end.

Thus for the same behavioural episode in the digger wasp that achieves the preparing for and laying of eggs, a far more flexible creature may have literally hundreds of separate behavioural episodes to achieve the same thing, even if the resulting behaviour appears to be much the same to an observer.

The question is: if a single complex genetically mediated behavioural episode breaks up into numerous shorter episodes under genetic control and each one has some degree of flexibility, is this greater or lesser genetic determination through innate predispositions? I count it as lesser, but Lionel Tiger seems to count it as greater.

Consider, by analogy, my old Amstrad PCW computer (first introduced in 1979) that had just one program. The program had the following functions: Disc Operating System (CP/M) and Word Processor (Locoscript). When you put the disc in the drive, loading was a single event (no hard drive).

The IBM PC, introduced a few years later, required the user to purchase a Disc Operating System (e.g., Microsoft DOS) and a Word Processor (e.g., MSWordStar). After switching on the computer, you loaded the Disc Operating System and then loaded the Word Processor. With the IBM PC you could select the Disc Operating System you wanted to use and then separately select the Word Processor, but the two computers performed the same function and had the same two programs installed eventually, however the PCW didn’t offer any flexibility of choice.

Humans now have numerous shorter “programs” and, although we can choose which program to use, the programmatic categories are still much the same e.g., “Word Processor” for the computer, “Language” for humans.

Thus one of the main differences between the human and other primates is that our software no longer comes in fixed bundles—we can choose. For instance we can choose (or have cultural selection impressed upon us) mating selection techniques, protocols and expressions. But the category “mate selection” is still innate.

I used the expression “vague innate drives” as a kind of shorthand for what I’ve outlined in more detail above. But the difference between Lionel and myself is really the difference between counting the early IBM PC as having two programs and the Amstrad PCW as having one, even though functionally they were much the same.

Regarding the Mating Drive and Preference for Low WHR

The vagueness of the mating drive can be seen by the fact that up to 10% (by some estimates) of humans are sexually attracted to the same sex to some degree, that a significant proportion of couples never have children, that young males engage in sexual liaisons with “cougars” and sometimes marry them, and that farm animals are used as sexual partners more often than we would like to admit.

The vagueness of the drive does not indicate the strength or persistence of the drive but the vagueness of the prescription (which should result in stereotypical behaviour in remote communities if the drive is prescriptive rather than vague).

We know that innate drives can be strong and persistent, but the vagueness I mentioned should be contrasted with the stereotypical producing prescriptive behaviour of strong instinctual control typically found in non-human species. A prescriptive drive prescribes behaviours more tightly than a vague drive by my usage of the terms. A non-prescriptive drive can be strong to the point of overwhelming even though the drive gives no indication of how it can be satisfied. Human behaviour where individuals enter long searches for “love,” “spiritual fulfilment,” “to find themselves,” e.g., by travelling, adventuring and so on and numerous other compulsions that may overwhelm them are clear examples of the strong and persistent drive that manifests with only vague or entirely absent prescription (innate behavioural predispositions or drives that achieve the desired goal). When people search for the “truth,” for instance, they are most liable to search for it in human culture, especially religious, spiritual and philosophical beliefs (for the example given, i.e., the search for “truth”).

Where vestiges of prescription exist, its accumulated presence in many individuals acts like a lens that increases its resolution to a much greater clarity. Thus many culturally derived behaviours may be very close to ancestral species even though they are quite weak in individuals. They are amplified by centuries or millennia of cultural accumulation and may be quite prominent in human culture.

If specific drives, such as the drive to seek out low waist to hip ratios, for instance, is under genetic control in humans then we would expect to find this trait in all human communities across all time. But most tribal communities tested seem to prefer chubby females, as do Tongans and a good deal of the Renaissance art culture. We must be careful not to confound widely adopted modern culture with innate predisposition and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find populations unaffected by modern western culture. But away from mainstream modern western culture, WHR has been tested and failed to show consistency with the modern industrial societies e.g., Hunter-Gatherer tribes tend to prefer chubby females. [2][3][4]


[1] Ulf Liszkowski, Marie Schäfer, Malinda Carpenter, and Michael Tomasello (2009) “Prelinguistic Infants, but Not Chimpanzees, Communicate About Absent Entities,” Psychological Science 20(5), 654-660.

[2] David J. Buller, Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature.

[3] Charles Jencks, “EP, Phone Home”  in Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology, ed. Hilary Rose and Steven Rose

[4] Viren Swami and Martin J. Tovée.Perceptions of female body weight and shape among indigenous and urban Europeans,” Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 48, 43-50.

Rejoinder to Müller-Wood and Wood

Innate Predispositions

With regard to fewer innate predispositions, humans have more only if you consider that the earlier prescriptive form, when broken down into many smaller behavioural episodes, can be interpreted as more (see my reply to Joseph Carroll for more details on this point).

Human Culture

It is a reasonable speculation that there must be more innate predispositions to support human level culture, and as a general view this makes sense. But I am not aware of any innate predispositions enabling the development of culture actually being proposed, let alone discovered and described in detail. Grammar is an innate predisposition proposed for human language ability as chimps do not appear to be able to acquire it. Yet specifying exactly what an innate grammar must be, given variations between languages, has proved to be allusive.

What chimps don’t have, and the reason it is so hard to teach them, say, language, is any desire to learn and to utilise these things—they simply aren’t interested, they rarely ask questions and never ask about the name of anything. Chimps do have a desire to play in adolescence, but this appears to all but dry up in adulthood unless specifically extended through intense human contact. Bonobos are more playful than chimps, but even so do not spontaneously take to language learning and never ask questions, especially where the acquisition of knowledge is concerned.

Humans have a rich cross-modal processing ability which does not appear in chimps. By way of example, consider the chimp predisposition to become excited and give a “food-found call” when a fruiting tree is discovered. This innate predisposition is so strong that when chimps wish to hide their discovery they hold their hand over their mouth to muffle the call.

This behaviour has the following parts: search for a goal (e.g., finding food); discovering the goal and becoming excited (reward feeling in the absence of actual reward, i.e., they haven’t actually eaten any of the food yet); compelling desire (overwhelming for most individuals) to share the discovery with others.

In humans, this same behavioural predisposition is called “an epiphany” and can occur in any domain, most notably with abstract solutions (“eureka!!!”) and to any degree (the grand religious epiphany down to the trivial solving of a crossword question) and in any domain. The same predisposition, that exists in chimps (food finding “epiphany”), appears as numerous separate innate predispositions in humans e.g., the desire to acquire knowledge, the desire to acquire language, the desire to view art, to hear/read poetry, to tell/hear jokes, desire to ask a question and so on. In each case the discovery of “knowledge” is rewarded with a reward feeling and a desire to share the discovery with others.

In infants the “tell someone” part expresses comically when they will tell back to you something which they have just learnt from you—it is the new connection as revealed by the epiphany that they are compelled to share. In adulthood, the anticipation of sharing the new knowledge at sometime in the future satisfies the urge. Chimps have the same predisposition, but it is fixed in just one domain, the food finding behaviour.

In humans, it occurs in all domains, but it is the same (singular) predisposition. The problem is that each discipline searching for its paleontological roots attributes a set of behaviours to their area of study (language, religion, art etc) and this causes considerable multiplication of what is a much smaller set of innate predispositions.

Thus a very large part of the observed multiplication of innate predispositions is actually the same set of predispositions observed manifesting independently in each domain (e.g., in language, in emotion, in problem solving, in art, in religion, in self image and so on). The algorithmic form of grammar most probably exists in chimps but serves some other purpose and can not be utilised for communication purposes – it can not cross the modal (or module) barrier. To find innate grammar, the indigenous form must be discovered and its transformation in cross-modal utilisation must be demonstrated.

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