The collective cognitive niche

Culture as a collective cognitive niche.

I suspect that one of the problems is the idea that “science” – the method of testing causal hypotheses to establish models of reality – is a recent invention. This creates the illusion that all cultures, prior to the European “Enlightenment”, were based on superstitious beliefs.

The data from anthropology has called this into question: even the most “simple” economic systems, such as hunter-gatherer cultures, are clearly based on knowledge of ecosystems that can only have been the result of cumulative observational data discussed and tested over many generations, among thousands of people.

Science is not new – it is an essential cultural process of acquiring accurate knowledge, and it informs the consensus and essential practices within every cultural system. The sustainability of “tribal” and “band” level subsistence economies is not due to ignorance and superstition; nor is it merely due to low population densities.

I have, in fact, wondered if the knowledge – “wisdom” – that characterizes these systems, actually CAUSES low densities; something circumvented in urbanized state level societies.

I could comment on this recent research on causal reasoning in innovator of technology: the example being bowed arrow technology used by the Hadza in this report:

Researchers take aim at the evolution of traditional technologies

by Arizona State University

In the last 60,000 years, humans have emerged as an ecologically dominant species and have successfully colonized every terrestrial habitat. Our evolutionary success has been facilitated by a heavy reliance on an ever-advancing technology. Understanding how human technology evolves is crucial to understanding why humans have enjoyed such unprecedented evolutionary success.

ASU doctoral graduate Jacob Harris, working with ASU researcher Robert Boyd and Brian Wood from the University of California Las Angeles and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, are interested in the role of causal knowledge in the manufacture, transmission, and ultimately, the evolution of technology. Causal knowledge is the ability to predict the effect of an intentional modification of a system, like the design and manufacture of traditional bow-and-arrow technology—the focus of their investigation.

Prior research on causal knowledge has been restricted to theoretical work and experiment studies with student participants. Harris and Wood lived and worked with Hadza hunters for several months and interviewed them about bow manufacture and use. The Hadza are contemporary hunter-gathers who live in north-central Tanzania. There are currently around 1,200 speakers of the Hadza language distributed across a wide region, with local groups varying in the total fraction of their diet that is derived from hunting and gathering. However, even among those groups that forage the least, the manufacture and use of bow and arrow technology is a vibrant and daily practice among men.

The research, published recently in the journal Current Biology, addresses two competing theories in human evolution. The cognitive niche hypothesis proposes that innovations typically arise and are then refined over the course of a single lifetime, rather than generations, and if environments change people rapidly adapt. Proponents of this hypothesis argue that innovation and transmission require causal understanding. The cultural niche hypothesis holds that cultural elements often accumulate and recombine without a causal understanding by those who use them.

Hadza bowyers (bow makers) provide a rare opportunity to evaluate these models in a naturalistic setting involving one of the most significant technologies in human evolution—the bow and arrow.

Harris and Wood interviewed 64 highly skilled Hadza bowyers between the ages of 15 and 77 from five different camps regarding bow manufacture and use. Subjects were asked questions about their bows and asked to predict how minor modifications would affect either arrow speed or noise production. Queries included questions such as, “Will an increase in draw weight (strength of pull) result in the arrow traveling faster, slower, or no change?” and “Will an increase in brace height—the distance from the bowstring to the inside of the bow—result in the arrow traveling faster, slower, or no change?”

“When making a bow, the bowyer confronts a series of complex trade-offs, and his design choices represent one possible solution out of a large number of possibilities,” said Harris. “The Hadza bow represents an elegant solution to an exceptionally complex optimization problem. Their bows are extremely versatile, capable of killing a wide range of prey and functioning in a variety of environments.” Harris conducted this research while a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The research findings suggest that the Hadza study participants are able to manufacture and transmit bow-making technology with only partial causal knowledge. It appears that some of the design choices made by Hadza bowyers are constrained by cultural norms rather than a desire to optimize performance. They also found that causal knowledge does not correlate with age. In other words, individuals don’t appear to acquire a more complete causal schema as they grow older.

“Hadza bowyers construct powerful bows from local materials and use them to hunt a wide variety of prey. Over 95% of Hadza men possess a bow, and hunters use their bows to provide the majority of the meat in their diet and therefore, represent a vital aspect of the Hadza economy,” said Wood. “Hadza men begin using bows at a very early age. Boys as young as three years old mimic the manufacturing behaviours of their elders and begin manufacturing their own bows. By early adulthood they are highly proficient bowyers and hunters.”

There is also no evidence that some individuals are significantly more knowledgeable than others. Prior research reported the presence of socially acknowledged “experts” in areas such as hunting, honey gathering, and arrow making. However, bow-making skill, as perceived by Hadza bowyers, does not appear to be predicated on exceptional cause-and-effect knowledge of bow mechanics.

“The evolution of complex technologies, such as the bow, can occur with only partial causal understanding and has significant implications for our understanding of the cultural evolution of technology. It suggests that the human proclivity to rely upon cumulative culture rather than individual expertise likely has deep evolutionary roots,” said Boyd, professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and research affiliate with the Institute of Human Origins.

“A more holistic understanding of technological evolution is necessary, one that does not view these two competing models as mutually exclusive. In our study, we found evidence to suggest that a complete causal understanding is not necessary, but we also identified key aspects of Hadza projectile technology that were more likely to be associated with causal knowledge,” said Harris.

The researchers will continue their investigation into which aspects of this technology are more likely to be associated with and without causal knowledge and explore the degree to which these are learned though experience and/or through direct (active teaching) or indirect (observation) transmission. Their research will contribute to the development of a more holistic theoretical model that accounts for the relative roles of multiple influences, including culture, causal knowledge, and environmental constraints such as resource availability.

This research was published as “The role of causal knowledge in the evolution of traditional technology,” in Current Biology, Jacob A. Harris, Robert Boyd, Brian M. Wood.

My comment:

This rings true, but then, causal analysis is far less important in producing innovation in an already fully adequate technology than it was in the reasoning behind developing that technology in the first place.

THAT causal reasoning was magnificent- the culmination of observations and on-going analysis and testing that led to the understanding of the negative effects of inducing fear of the human-as-predator. The high flight distances were probably not noticed until the restrictions in the range of both game and people really hit during the African Megadroughts. So, over and over again, between about 150,000 and 70,000 years ago, people found themselves dealing with dwindling populations of larger game species in limited refugia, mostly along rivers and coastal deltas. The effects of predator fear, of human hunters, in addition to the lions etc that were also sharing these restricted ranges, were likely devastating. Today we have, in a sense, rediscovered the potentially devastating effects of predator fear. There is on=going research showing that high levels of fear can reduce reproductive success and produce a syndrome almost like PTSD in wildlife subjected to overhunting and too much daily sights, smells, and sounds associated with creatures they fear – especially humans. For endangered wildlife, all over the world, increased predation can cause extinction. Animals need not be hunted to extinction – they can be frightened into it.

And the hunter-gatherers I was with in the Kalahari knew all this. They knew that frightened animals were more unpredictable, often dangerous to humans out of fear,  and that fear could cause them to abandon their babies. They even knew that “wild” fearful animals would succumb to diseases more often than “tame” animals. Quiet distance hunting technologies that they favoured – mainly the bow hunting with small dart like arrows tipped with an nerve poison, was intended to protect the rest of the herd from the knowledge that the injury to one of their number had come from a human source. The gradual weakening of the animal that was hit, and the fact that it was quietly and unobtrusively tracked, sometimes for hours, after it left its companions, were both based on this knowledge. I remember that the Kua I spoke to, who were seasonally camped closer to water sources dominated by Bantu-speaking farmer/pastoralists, were very disapproving of the loud and frightening hunting practices of the farmers, who used dogs, horses, guns, and sometimes even vehicles, to pursue and kill wild antelope and gazelles. At the sight or sound of humans, the flight distances, of any game remaining near cattle-posts was so great, that the Kua men could no longer use bows and arrows. “They are too far…soon we will need guns too” they told me sadly, “and after that the herds will come here no more.”

This kind of knowledge – the kind that produces paradigms of causality – is not limited to post-enlightenment “scientific” cultural process. It is essential to all hunter-gatherer systems. And don’t get me started on the sophistication of the Kua uses of fire ecology. Looking at minor refinements to bow technology is pretty lame, in my opinion, if these guys really want to understand how human minds and cultures “construct” their niches in nature. Causal reasoning – the construction and testing of hypotheses that we consider the methodology of science, is part of culture: it is not unique to post-Enlightenment culture.

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