I believe in the blank slate!

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.”

Source: Discover Magazine – Gene Expression