Human Evolution – Reconsidered

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Manuscript from January 2017, abandoned after topic became too big

Human Evolution – A Reconsideration

Abstract: Human evolutionary theory remains an awkward theory despite advances from the cultural inheritance channel. Assessing current theory as well as the issues in evolutionary theory itself, the need to enlarge the frame is underscored. A review is then undertaken among different fields that could contribute to human evolutionary understanding to look for novel sources of driving dynamics. From this a double hypothesis on the key role of simple behavioral interactions along with their dynamic coupling to the environment is put forward. This interactional behavioral or multibehavioral hypothesis is then checked against current research and old assumptions. A focus on behavioral interactions is seen to allow two things – an understanding of the driving role of the environment through interactive coupling and a more clear understanding of cognitive and social trends as the emergence of interactive abilities rather than just individual cognitive abilities.

Human evolution has been an uncomfortable fit onto the general theory of evolution since at least Darwin’s The Descent of Man. The genetic continuity from the great apes is conclusive. However, the insufficiency of the genetic avenue is apparent. In the last decades a suite of new ideas around cognition and psychology have culminated in theories of cultural evolution (Richerson & Boyd 2005; Acerbi & Mesoudi 2015; Henrich 2016). Here learning and learning techniques allow another inheritance channel across generations. There remain, however, four big shortfalls in such theories of human evolution. One, cultural evolutionary theory remains outside the mainstream of evolutionary theory and loosely within a debate over whether to extend evolutionary theory (Pigliucci & Mueller 2010; Laland et al 2015). Two, cultural evolution addresses processes up through hunter-gatherer societies but becomes increasingly anecdotal after the Neolithic. Three, public recognition is scant; evolutionary issues are completely absent from the discourses about modern life as the theory is restricted to explaining the past but not the present or the future – for example, where is evolutionary thought around robotics, biotech, or even among futurists. And four, it is no longer the intelligent ape that needs to be explained as sufficed in Darwin’s day but the full scope of the Anthropocene era.

That human evolution might warrant the definition of a new geological age signals that the modifications to one great ape lineage might not be the whole story. The discontinuity of the last few centuries is unparalleled and is only recently seeing attempts to measure it. Consider the discontinuities from the environmental effects of the arrival of humans. The issue is summed up by Ellis: “Even with a population of seven billion, Homo sapiens is not an entirely novel force of nature. But human systems are” (Ellis, 2011p1012). Humans and our domestic animals now represent 97% of the biomass of all terrestrial vertebrates (Smil 2002p187). Our material “metabolism” is enormous; there are, for example, 104 substances produced at over 104 kg per year (Baccini & Brunner 2012p54). Massive environmental change, machines, ultrasociality with language, novel chemical flows, institutions, domestication or directed evolutionary modification of a large portion of species by humans – it would seem justified to keep open the question of what is to be explained. For example, it is not difficult to imagine that biologists in some future era might see the remains of cities, some of which might show material remains over diameters as much as 100 km, as the “organisms” whose origins and ecologies need explaining.

Equally, it would seem justified to review the causal factors that could be in play. Among those weakly linked to evolution, as drivers, are niche construction (Laland & O’Brien 2010), material culture and material agency (Tilley et al 2006), language as co-evolutionary driver (Deacon 1997) with its multifaceted attributes (e.g., Enfield 2013), and cooperation (Tomasello 2009). Among those hardly linked to evolutionary theory are: the new 4E cognitive sciences that include extended, embedded, embodied, and enactive mind (Stotz 2014); institutions and social niche construction (Gerson 2014); joint behaviors (Butterfill & Sebanz 2011); and the unique interactive behaviors of humans (Enfield & Levinson 2006). These research fronts highlight the strong sociality of humans, the distributed nature of cognition, the ubiquity of niche construction, and even the dynamic systems quality of behavioral interactions.

If those are possible, fresh theoretical struts, then it is equally important to look at the current state of evolutionary theory, the cornerstone for any approach to human evolution. What is relevant here is that evolutionary theory itself is under fresh rethinking. The Modern Synthesis faces significant issues for which some think an “extended” theory is called for (Pigliucci & Mueller 2010, Laland et al 2015; Laubichler & Renn 2015) while others think something closer to a replacement is called for (Noble 2015; Reid 2007). The debatable issues in evolutionary theory that are germane to issues in human evolution include: evo-devo (West-Eberhard 2003; Newman 2011; Moczek et al 2015), niche construction theory (Laland et al 2008; Scott-Phillips et al 2013), systems biology (Palsson 2006; Westerhoff et al 2009), symbiogenesis (Kozo-Polyansky et al 2010), major transition theory (Szathmary & Smith 1999), inherent self-organization (Camazine et al 2001; Newman 2011), convergent evolution (McGhee 2011), Phanerozoic earth system (Butterfield 2011), and synergistic selection (Corning & Szathmary 2015). These are relevant since if, for example, as supposed by major transition theory, human evolution is in the middle of a transition, then the not yet understood mechanisms of transitions mean that human evolution has room to be studied sui generis rather than assumed to be a paradigmatic case of species change. Looking at the above list, the potential mechanisms during a transition beyond questions of changing levels of selection (Michod 2011) include synergistic effects, systems dynamics, niche construction theory, and inherent self-organization.

As part of enlarging the frame of what an adequate theory of human evolution should entail, it is useful in light of the above to give criteria that a successful theory would meet. The criteria used here are: that it should be operative into the present state of human civilization, that it should include some accounting of the pronounced modifications of the environment, that it be tied meaningfully to an account of language, and that it should exhibit a strong sense of unity.

Cognitive considerations:

As part of a re-examination consider the changing character of cognitive science. Several strands of current work point towards a distributed view of cognition – including with objects and with others. Mind and cognition have broken out of the brain as the body and the environment are now studied as intrinsic aspects of mind. Embodied mind emphasizes how the body and brain work as a whole system and that motor control and perception evolved together (Streeck et al 2011; Kiverstein & Miller 2015). The enactive view sees mind as the result of the coupling of an organism-system to its environment so that all information “is context-dependent and agent-relative” (Thompson, E. 2007p51). Extended mind (Clark, A. 2008) and ecological psychology (Reed 1996; Chemero 2009) are two strands of cognitive science that are showing that cognition is spread into the objects of the environment. Clark states that “body- and world-involving cycles are best understood, or so I shall argue, as quite literally extending the machinery of mind out into the world–as building extended cognitive circuits that are themselves the minimal material bases for important aspects of human thought and reason” (Clark, A. 2008p.xxvi). These new fields are growing quickly and continue to strengthen the picture of mind as a distributed phenomenon.

In another trend cognitive science and the brain-body circuitry continue to be studied ever more as resulting from complex systems dynamics. Behavior itself is taken to be best understood as a complex system (Nolfi et al 2008; Thompson, T. 2007; Calvin & Jirsa 2010; Huys 2010). Indicative of this line of thinking is the following: “In the dynamical systems (DS) approach to adaptive behavior and cognition, agents and their environments are viewed as tightly coupled DS. ... the nervous system, body, and environment are not three independent components engaged in a synchronic interaction; rather, natural adaptation is the ongoing result of a global, self-organizing process” (Monebelli et al. 2008p182). Significantly, multi-person behaviors are studied as complex systems. Research such as that by Anderson et al (2012) does indicate 1/f scaling, bifurcations, and interpersonal synchrony (also: Kelso 1995, 2012; Jordan 2008; Szary et al 2015), all taken to be suggestive of dynamic systems.

While the distributed and systemic character of human cognition and behaviors has hardly entered the debates about human evolution, two other characteristics – high sociality and cooperation – have been a part of the debates with largely indirect evolutionary roles. Higher sociality has been attributed to driving greater intelligence (Dunbar 2014). And cooperation is seen more as an outcome in human evolution that itself has to be explained (Tomasello 2009; Sterelny et al 2013; Boyd & Richerson 2009). It should be noted that both discussions address a multi-agent phenomenon as either enhancing an individual’s intelligence (i.e. sociality that can handle many relationships) or as multiplying an individual’s power strategically (viz., by cooperative tactics).

There is another tradition for multi-agent behaviors that does not emphasize the enhanced or strategic individual. Joint behaviors capture the study of behaviors that involve others but are usually less than cooperation either in commitment or in having mindreading capabilities (Anderson et al 2012). Similar to the studies of joint behaviors there are related studies under the names of coaction (Wegner & Sparrow 2007), interactionism (Gallotti & Frith 2013; Sandstrom et al 2014), plural activity (Butterfill 2012), and distributive active coordination (Abramova & Slors 2015).

Joint behaviors show up early and incidentally in development such as when young children are seen to engage in joint behaviors such as tidying up toys with a caregiver at a much younger age than they acquire the mindreading type capabilities that are presumably developed during these casual joint behaviors (Butterfill 2012). In evolution joint behaviors are more likely to appear than goal-directed cooperation such as when chimpanzees share food after hunts that “is motivated by undefined social factors...” (Tuttle 2014p312). Children and chimpanzees are behaving jointly, here lacksadasically, without the apparatus and assumptions of commitments and mindreading.

Joint behaviors have been studied as dynamic systems. Marsh et al (2009p1219) describe how in joint action or joint perception two people can become a temporary “perception action system with new capabilities ... [and] ... with a reality of its own ... [so that] ... our actions serve to impact and define the social unit of which we are a part, and in turn our actions are constrained and channeled by participation in this relationship or group.” Similarly, Pezzulo and Dindo have it that: “... the agent-environment dynamics and the agent-agent dynamics are part of the problem-solving strategy ... [so that] ... two agents are coupled at the level of cognitive variables as well as at the physical level of interaction” (2011p626, italics in original). A useful example is provided by the occasions where we encounter someone walking towards us and then go back and forth trying to choose opposite sides to pass before we unlock to pick sides. This (someone else’s example) momentary interaction reveals how even anti-phase dynamics can entrain us even against our objectives and is thus more revealing how transient interaction systems have their own dynamics above the level of the individual.

It is unclear how wide the category of joint behaviors extends. Basic sociality requires some minimal coordination. Joint behaviors also include unequal coordination such as dominance behaviors to force someone to do something (Butterfill 2012p45). What joint behaviors reveal is: that there are many degrees of behavioral jointness between the two extremes of individuals acting alone and cooperation, that these behaviors are reflective of system dynamics among two or more parties, and that jointness often involves people interacting without any assumptions of cognitive levels of awareness. This is a view where behaviors with multiple agents enter into ephemeral systems frequently and under many payoff schemes. Although using the research on joint behaviors to highlight the simple and diverse nature of multi-agent behaviors, the view taken here to include a wide pool of interactions as key to hominin evolution is a prompt to call the latter interactive behaviors as a more inclusive category than is specific to the research.

The importance of interactive behaviors as opposed to individual abilities:

If the category of interactive behaviors is indeed large and if these behaviors show systems dynamics even in ephemeral time spans, then the question is raised of whether current theory has the causality backwards. Instead of smart humans mastering learning or cooperation, it is possible that transient joint systems were a novel niche that induced both learning and cooperation. Put another way, early hominoids are presumed to have been highly social and to have had relatively complex food extraction behaviors, which as a combination results often in simultaneous feeding and social behaviors. In this niche interactive behaviors became ever more common and then the dynamics themselves might result in learning or cooperative payoffs. This can be stated as an hypothesis. Human evolution is accompanied and driven by the growth of interactive behavioral systems from transient to extended whose dynamics include shared learning, cooperative payoff attractors, and such specialty interactive abilities as turn taking (Froehlich et al 2016) and error correcting behaviors (Dingemanse et al 2015). In the mosaic ecologies and under possible environmental stress early hominoid social foragers were interacting to a degree that new behavioral and later cognitive attributes emerged.

To see how simple interactions might underlie other abilities it is worth unpacking the multifaceted and ubiquitous nature of cooperation in everyday life. Classic cooperation is conceived to be a project that multiple people sign onto with commitment for the completion and distributed rewards of the project. But the following types of events could also be described as cooperative:

• Waiting in line
• Moving out of a stranger’s way on a busy sidewalk
• Two people using the common meanings of words
• Observing hierarchies or pulling rank
• Forcing someone to do work
• Acting generously
• Observing rules
• Taking turns in merging traffic
• Boxers in a boxing match

What is needed but will not be attempted here is a phenomenology of cooperation. What the above examples show is that it is a dimension of social life in innumerable, small ways and not just an all-or-nothing commitment by aware agents (Fantasia et al 2014; Ross 2013). It can be distinguished from conventional cooperation by contract as cooperation in a wide sense or wide cooperation. Similarly, learning as an outgrowth of coordination does not color the clumsy interactions going on between early hominoids of different skill levels as learning in the sense of awareness that our modern classroom sensibilities entail. Also by focusing on interactions over learning or cooperation, the systems aspects of behavior are foregrounded with their own dynamics rather than assuming the aware, agentlike aspects.

From this vantage it is useful to try to think of human behaviors that are purely individualistic. It is difficult to find behaviors that are not with others, for others, done in reflection of what others would think, etc. as with the diverse examples of weak or wide cooperation above. In other words human behaviors are almost all social, or interactive to some degree even if not cooperative. On the other hand social behaviors, and not just cooperation, are usually presented in the biased and unneeded vocabulary of individuals – learning, helping, teaching, etc.

If simple, interactive behavioral systems are the ubiquitous substrate of the social and tool-using ground apes, then this niche and these systems are the sites of evolutionary dynamics rather than the specific cognitive abilities of individuals. Such abilities – for example, theory of mind, levels of intentionality, cooperation – are framed abilities of individuals with others. The consideration here of current cognitive science suggests a focus on ephemeral, multi-agent behavioral systems and the genetically or developmentally acquired skills to live within them. This view is consonant with those who see the social-cognitive niche as key for human evolution (Whiten & Erdal 2012) and with the school of interactionism (Sandstrom et al 2014).

To recap and defend the argument, it is worth starting where the complex and social behaviors of apes being selected for foraging and group defense might have led to more interactive behaviors. By “complex behaviors” for apes is meant not only the diversity of tool usages observed in present day relatives (Wynn et al 2011) but also the degree of difficulty of extracting typical food sources. Byrne highlights the complex behaviors of great apes as helping them survive when monkeys have many advantages in the same niche (viz. monkeys can eat unripe fruit): “gorillas, and to a lesser extent chimpanzees, use elaborate, multistage routines to deal with plant defenses; orangutans use complex, indirect routes to reach defended arboreal food, and sometimes make tools to gain access to bees’ nests or defended plant food” (Byrne 2006p493-4).
Moreover the sociality of apes, as for many primates, is not that of “herd animals,” but is that where individuals recognize others as distinct (Byrne & Bates 2010) which allows for more complex social interactions (Sewall 2015). This sociality among hominoids includes “dynamic multiadult social organization (with possibility of fission-fusion communities), increased social cognition relative to other primates, high social reciprocity, local social tradition and innovation...” (Fuentes 2015p307). Seyfarth and Cheney (2015p191) find that among animals who live in groups, “many interactions with the nonsocial environment have a social component.” These same authors find that “measures of cognitive skill in primates are correlated across multiple domains (e.g. behavioural innovation, social learning, tool use and extractive foraging)” (p191).

Consider the following observation of chimpazees in the wild: “While she [chimpanzee named Agathe] eats some honey, her infant, Aphrodite, looks at her and another infant inspects the nest entrance” (Boesch & Boesch-Achermann, 2000p200). Agathe, the mother, is eating honey from a stick that she has dipped into a bees’ nest while her two infants participate as they can which leads often to honey being shared or picked up from spills. It is this type of prolonged interaction that transpires while there appear to be episodic instances of feeding, sharing, learning, or cooperating. This ability of great apes for two individuals to relate to each other and to an object simultaneously is described as “triadic” interactions (Bryne & Bates 2010p819).

Taking this view of interactive behaviors back to the hominin line leading to humans, it is plausible to consider such interactive, social-technological behaviors widespread in early human niches of “hunting, scavenging, gathering, and collecting” (Cartmill 2009p267). The foraging environment drove interactive behaviors (Sterelny 2012p10). Another way to consider this is that diverse environmental behaviors and social behaviors were mutually supportive (Anton et al 2014p10). Cognitively, two other hypotheses are consonant with the mutual reinforcement of social behaviors and skillful practices – the Cultural Intelligence Hypothesis ( Herrmann et al 2007) and the Interactive Brain Hypothesis (Di Paolo & De Jaegher 2012).

The prevalence of interactive behaviors becomes plausibly more significant for fostering learning, cooperation, and interactive skills under the view that these behaviors are dynamic systems. As noted above behavior itself is increasingly modeled by dynamic systems (Nolfi et al 2008; Calvin & Jirsa 2010; Huys 2010; Fernandez-Leon, 2012). Joint behaviors have seen a similar trend (Froese & Fuchs, 2012; Riley et al 2011). Even among monkeys research shows interactive system features where in the kinematics of joint tasks actions have been shown to be less variable, more discernible and “selecting movement trajectories that allow a faster disambiguation of an action from alternative ones” (Visco-Comandini et al 2015p116). Humans “receive both conscious and unconscious social cues from others’ expressions, gestures, postures, actions, and intonation. Thus, they automatically align at many levels, starting from bodily synchrony to similar orientations of interests and attention” (Hari et al 2015p181). Favela and Chemero claim that human social behaviors exhibit “interaction-dominant behaviors” where “the interactions among the components dominate or override the dynamics that the components would exhibit separately” (2016p67).

The above portrait of the social, complex, and systems dynamics of hominoid behaviors is at least suggestive that there was a behavioral matrix in which interactive behaviors could flourish especially under the presumed coordination pressures of foraging, mosaic ecologies, and changing environments presumed to have driven early human evolution. That they were not atypical, as the example of a chimpanzee mother and infants suggests, is not surprising. The point here is that the everyday ubiquity of such interactions among social apes and ourselves deserves recognition as a primary niche in itself with its own selection dynamics rather than just being the negligible background while waiting for novel, cognitive abilities for presumed, aware individuals.

Environmental considerations:

Among other potential causal factors listed above that might be unrecognized in human evolution, several relate to the role of the environment. Ignoring the environment when the environment is changing radically and acceleratedly as in our modern day is an unjustified lapse. Research areas yet to be incorporated in the human evolutionary story include niche construction, material culture studies, the concept of stigmergy, and ecological psychology. These fields are reviewed with an eye to finding out if accompanying factors might also be causal factors.

The standard bearers for niche construction allow that “[e]cological inheritance ... potentially includes human artifacts” (Odling-Smee et al, 2003p252). Niche construction is the point of entry for feedback from the organism’s modification of the environment back to genetic selection (Odling-Smee et al 2003; but see Scott-Phillips et al. 2013). Within the tradition of cultural evolution they are considered as part of the flow of learned cultural products from one generation to the next, i.e., inheritance channels. In this context niche construction has an effect on infant development. Laland & O’Brien have it that “cultural niche construction probably has more profound consequences than gene-based niche construction” (2010p310). To contemplate niche construction for behavioral effects is to probe into an even faster time frame of feedback through the environment.

Within archaeology there is considerable demand to include the effects of made objects on human evolution within the field of material culture studies (Jones & Boivin 2010; Olsen 2010). For behavior itself one speak’s of material agency where an object ostensibly contributes to an action. In this context agency is pictured as distributed among people and objects. Malafouris (2013p17) has: “[m]aterial engagement is the synergistic process by which, out of brains, bodies, and things, mind emerges.” Material culture studies similarly see that “persons make and use things and that the things make persons” (Tilley et al 2006p4). Distributed agency also figures in environmental policy studies (Connolly 2011; Pickering 2008) where material objects can influence events.

The subject matter of material culture studies is the entanglement of objects and people. The creation of objects, their effects, and their modification over time are studied as mutual processes that is confusing because there is no place in our current concept of agency by material effects. Here is a whole field of study on the interworkings of objects and people at the behavioral and cultural transmission level (Hicks & Beaudry 2010; Boivin 2010 [Cambridge UP]) that runs from archaeological remains to iPhones. McGann (2014) finds that architectures structure behaviors within them.

The lesser studied concept of stigmergy is the point of entry for feedback from an organism’s modification of the environment back to behaviors (Camazine et al 2001p23; Heylighen 2016a, 2016b). For human evolution and despite massive and cumulative modifications to the environment by humans, neither concept figures prominently within the theory of human evolution. Pyramids and skyscrapers are orphan phenomenon that merely crown human success. The concept of stigmergy, however, has already pushed into this time frame but with even less attention or connection to human evolution. The classic studies of stigmergy come from the social insects especially the pheromone trails of ants and the nest-building of termites. Here it is the previous work of termites that effects the subsequent activities of the nest mates (Camazine 2003). Drops of mud placed in one location induce other termites to add mud there. Heylighen (2016b) does a good job of generalizing the concept. He distinguishes environmental effects that are performed inadvertently during the course of work activity (e.g., the previous mud) to those that are an added feature of the work (e.g., the ants’ leaving a pheromone trail while returning to a nest site) as sematectonic stigmergy for the former and marker-based stigmergy for the latter. He also distinguishes between synchronous stigmergy that is done at the same time as the behavioral effect on another and asynchronous stigmergy where the behavioral effect is much later than the environmental modification including when the initial, modifying organism is no longer present. The synchronous case blurs with communication and usually employs effects on a transient medium so that environmental modifications decay rapidly to allow for new modifications. All the cases of stigmergy can be employed either from one organism to another or from one organism to itself. The principle in all cases is that environmental modification by one organism effects the subsequent behavior or environmental modification of some organism.

Stigmergy has the appropriate logic but has not been applied to humans. Niche construction addresses the issue but only as feedback at the longer time frame of evolutionary effects. Material agency within material culture studies has much to say about the issue but is confined to specific studies [EXAMPLE HERE] while struggling with the biological or ontological justification (Hicks 2010). Even if several threads point to an environmental component in human evolution, the avenues to approach it biologically are limited. Besides the somewhat orphaned theory around stigmergy several other sub-fields are trying to cope with apparent active environmental effects within biology. In evolutionary development theory (evo devo) the environment is considered a potential avenue to reliably transmit developmental paths across generations (West-Eberhard 2003). For example, Fragaszy et al (2013) show how juvenile chimpanzees and crows use tools left by parents as scaffolds to practice new behaviors. In origin of life studies environmental enrichment is studied for precursor processes to cell formation (Williams & Rickaby 2012). These studies, however, only reveal that environmental processes play roles in other biological arenas without offering theoretical tractable paths. There is also the concept of the extended phenotype (Dawkins 1999) that sees nests and beaver dams as part of an organism’s phenotype. One limitation is that this concept applies to individuals only (or to a species as a pool of individuals) while the supposition here is that many connections exist among interacting individuals. In cognitive science there is also the concept that the built environment acts as a scaffold that, like certain temporary growths in an embryo, are built to help minds especially from one generation to the next (Sterelny 2010).

Feedback loops between niche construction and interactive behaviors:

The extent of the human modified environment is unprecedented except possibly in comparison to the appearance of the oxygenated atmosphere. Leaving it out of an understanding of human evolution amounts to exempting humans from the evolutionary process. It is better then to risk some theoretical bridge to the significant human modifications to the environment than to ignore it. A simple inclusion is similar to stigmergy as the effects on behaviors and as often usefully modeled in dynamic studies as many of the joint behavioral studies suggest. This takes human artefacts out of the received paradigm of human creative products as achievements and places them in the currents of effects on everyday activities with reciprocal relations between builders and participants. There might be limited biological theory of this latter view but there is no biological model for the hubristic former. An environmental hypothesis for humans then is that modified features of the environment effect humans at evolutionary, developmental, and behavioral timescales. At behavioral timescales the modified features – constructed things – are usefully understood as transitions or stabilizations in interactive behaviors. In cases of working alone the behaviors can be seen as extending a behavior like stigmergy with self. They are deployed for and used as components of behavioral systems including especially multiparty behavioral systems. Doing so takes the phenomenon of the built environment out of the extra-biological legacy of go-and-stop agency followed by more go-and-stop environmental determinism. With environmental modifications happening continually from our continual building and moving of things and effects happening from subtle to large scale, the causal continuities can be addressed as whole patterns – for ourselves and for the things we leave around us.

As an example consider the case of a knapped blade left on the ground. Such an occurrence has been appreciated in cultural evolution as a prompt for developmental learning; however, it remains to be understood as an accidental prompt for a behavior (sematectonic stigmergy) or even as having been left by someone as a prompt for a later or someone else’s behavior (marker based stigmergy).

Along these lines consider as above other events that could be construed as cooperative:

• Many drivers’ staying in their lanes on a multi-lane highway
• Using a ritual space such as a church
• Using the furniture in someone else’s room
• Using money
• Leaving a sock on the floor to remind oneself to do laundry
• Building a simple bridge (that others also use later)
• Joining an online conference
• Using smart phones or “technologically mediated social interaction”

Like the previous list none of these are classic cooperation with planning and division of payoff. All of them have an element where a degree of cooperation occurs through environmental prompts. Whether someone is arranging the environment to steer someone else’s behavior with tacit agreement or acting within the possibilities afforded by a previous preparation, all cases arguably qualify as both stigmergy and cooperation. Yet, these latter concepts appear to reflect a contradiction in that stigmergy most often is employed in examples such as social insects where there is no awareness between organisms and in that cooperation is oppositely applied to fully aware humans. This potential gap is best covered by interactive behaviors which overlap both synchronous and asynchronous types of stigmergy and which have a large range of accommodation for others’ behaviors without theory of mind and commitment. The second hypothesis can be stated as: transient and extended interactive behavioral systems of the type evolving in hominoid bands were strengthened, stabilized, and made more extended by niche construction for behaviors. The physical environment became a medium under regular construction to induce and shape interactions. As the environment became an effective stigmergic medium (Heylighen 2016a), interactions increasingly made use of the environment even as they modified it by and for interactions.

The long prehistory of tool usage underscores the active niche construction by earliest Homo. The baseline of extensive tool usage by other species underscores how early hominin evolution involved manipulating aspects of the environment (Wynn et al 2011). But humans shifted from the manipulation of objects to the functional usage of objects in a qualitatively different manner as compared to other recently realized tool users (Reynaud et al 2016). Objects in effect became functionally directed at other objects for the human. Early humans then had a diversity of relationships to and from the environment. They could manipulate many types of things; they could use many things instrumentally as tools; they could construct more and more special types of things; they could be prompted to behaviors by encounters with these objects; and they could transfer the expectations of others to reconstruct probable functional uses. But if under the first hypothesis above interactive behaviors were also expanding in frequency and complexity, then the interactions with objects would have become entangled in the interpersonal behavioral interactions. Alongside the learning transmission of skills related to tools there would have been passive prompts for joint behaviors from objects as well as the possibility of prompts by one or more hominids for joint behaviors by the employment or placement of objects.

What is being broached here can be called the interactionally systemized environment. The environment can be said to be systemized to promote existing interactional patterns. As an hypothesis the claim is that interactive behaviors with built features of the environment resulted in shared affordances that subsequently probabilized new interactions so that the environment became interactively systemized with these interactions. Indicative of this logic Pezzulo (2012) has “...affordances can be considered as enhancing the prior probability P(A) of certain actions in the mere presence of objects” (p110; also Bach et al 2014). As tool-making and niche construction grew so did the employment of environmental features in interactive behavioral systems. Aspects of the environment became interactively systemized. Behaviors had more and more things acting as prompts or stabilizers to previously practiced behavioral systems.

But the significance of features of the environment for humans probably does not stop with the built environment. There are several fields – ecological psychology (Reed 1996; Chemero 2009), common ground from pragmatics (Clark H. 1996; Jones 2016), and extended mind theory (Theiner 2014) – which point to an even more subtle coupling of objects to behaviors, especially interactive behaviors. A more comprehensive look at the relationship between human interactive dynamics not just with the manipulative, positive reinforcement effects of niche construction but with the found elements of the environment is suggested but will not be pursued here as it is not directly relevant to the human evolution process.

The whole argument in perspective:

The above hypotheses can be condensed and restated together. The hominoid line leading to humans flourished in a niche of interactive behaviors that was under selective pressure because of its frequent cooperative payoffs, that resulted in rapid skill transmission (learning), that progressively adapted facets of the environment as components of interactions, and that increasingly modified facets of the environment as components of interactions to the extent that positive reinforcement ensued. It can be called the multibehavioral niche hypothesis. And it can be compared to cultural evolution as per Figure 1.

The figure also summarizes the logic where time and adaptive causality proceed roughly from left to right. The key argument is that multi-party behaviors were both a proficiency and the site for the emergence of joint, ephemeral dynamic systems which resulted in novel effects such as learning and cooperation and which slowly recruited facets in the environment and conventionalized behaviors (e.g., language – see below) as components. Joint behaviors or interactions and the interactionally systemized environment were the substrate in which novel attributes evolved. Cooperation, learning, constructions, and stylized behaviors were attributes of these joint behaviors and this increasingly systemized niche.

The overall hypothesis is really two parts – a statement of the importance of simple interactive behaviors and almost a wager on how to include the environment as a stigmergic medium as a component of human evolution. Both aspects conceive of behaviors as operationally, neurologically, and interactively more subtle than the performance action model so that the subtle dynamics of behaviors found in current research becomes the medium in which renowned characteristics like learning and cooperation arise and in which the constructed environment is recruited into the expanding quilt of interacting behaviors.

How then are prevalent interactive behaviors a driver to important human attributes such as learning and cooperation? Consider first that there are several unique features of humans that are directly derivable as interactive traits. There is the expectation of humans to stare at each others’ faces which is not tolerated by other living great apes (Levinson & Holler 2014). There are the universal behaviors of turn-taking (Stivers et al 2009; Froelich et al 2016) and similar error-correcting procedures (Dingemanse et al 2015; Satne 2014). There is teaching and the detection of the teaching stance (Tennie et al 2009). There is joint attention (Tomasello 2009). There is capacity for intention attribution (Tomasello 1999p21). There is the ability to understand the false beliefs of others. And there are the pronounced abilities of theory of mind and up to four levels of intentionality. The claim is that these multiple abilities were selected within the dense networks of interactive behaviors throughout hominin evolution.

Without being exhaustive this list of unique behaviors has been studied in the last decades to both chart the cognitive differences to our nearest relatives and in some cases as precursors to language or as related to cultural transmission. Here, however, they are presented as needing an explanation of how they arose where the suggestion is that a niche of extensive interactive behaviors with patchy payoffs is sufficient to drive their emergence.

Further, the claim is that extensive interactions in a differentiated and changing environment are enough on their own to foster the appearance of cooperation. The explanation here is similar to earlier explanations such as indirect reciprocity and reputation effects (Boyd & Richerson 2009) or reciprocal altruism (De Waal & Brosnan 2006) especially for hominins with enduring relationships. All explanations here assume that there are secondary mechanisms to capture cooperation once it emerges in addition to possible genetic fixation such as cultural transmission (Henrich 2016p320), successful forms of social organization (Pievani 2011), or the structure of social networks (Fehl et al 2011).

The view of the origin of behavioral cooperation taken here is closest to the enactive view (Fantasia et al 2014) while emphasizing the sheer volume of interactions along with the variety of potential payoff structures in the diverse early hominin niche. The enactivists see that “there are different forms, layers, and aspects of cooperation: embodied, in time, in space, in topic, imitative or complementary, etc” (Fantasia et al 2014p6). And, the view here recognizes that mutualism should be the null hypothesis for cooperation (Sumpter 2010p233) in that the diversity of gains is underappreciated and the costs often exaggerated. This subtlety of diverse payoffs is exemplified in economic theory that recognizes four basic sources for non-zero results: division of labor, different skills, increasing returns at larger scales, and the smoothing of uncertainties over time (Beinhocker 2006p266). Even at a micro scale of everyday interactions these attractors to behavior would have been operative and selecting for behaviors beyond simple reciprocity and the social payoffs. In the context here it is to emphasize that, similar to the enactive view and the short term reciprocity view, the appreciation of the sheer volume of interactive behaviors especially as understood as dynamic systems suggests that the dynamics themselves could drive cooperation as well as the cognitive architecture such as theory of mind and false belief rather than requiring this architecture prior to cooperation in our sense as a transactional agreement.

Similarly, it can be argued that both learning and teaching in our sense of directed action could much more likely have emerged as facets of casual interactions in a world of differentiated skills. And other, non-instrumental interactive behaviors such as singing, laughing, and role playing can be traced back to the prevalence of simple interactions but now for deployment in social bonding (Monster et al 2016) as do simple joint tasks (Wolf et al 2016).

A major leg of the hypothesis is the bottom, green portion of Figure 1, the role of the environment. It allows the massive environmental modifications to be included in human evolutionary dynamics for whose absence there is little excuse (Fox Keller 2005). And it thereby provides a link to the noted dynamics of the environment itself such as the evolution of technology (Dyson 1997; Andriani & Cohen 2013), the technological cascades like ecologies (Rogers 2003), the “chemistry” of the building blocks of technology (Arthur 2009p25), and the conscription of energy and novel chemical elements into the human environment (Williams & da Silva 2006p449). Smil (2002) makes the observation that machines dwarf the weight and carbon intake of humans; against 100 Mt of dry-weight biomass for humans, cars alone are 10 times this (p269). It cannot be overemphasized that at present there is no theory to hold these phenomena except human hubris, i.e. humans created them.

The framework adapted in the hypothesis uses a known biological concept for environment-behavior connection, stigmergy, with the cited prevalence of interactive behaviors to frame a coupling between behaviors and niche modification. That it covers descriptions by material culture researchers, ecological psychologists, and archaeologists as a biological construct makes it a minimally complex hypothesis. And that it requires interactive behaviors to be operative is further support for the important dynamic of these behaviors.

What is Language

This hypothesis touches on the phenomenon of language in a novel way. As it is, the evolution of language (Tomasello 2008; Fitch 2010) as well as its conceptual kinship with cultural transmission (Christiansen 2013) as “tools with rules” (Henrich 2016p231) are current topics of research. As these efforts move slowly forward, other fields of research continue to highlight new, seemingly contradictory facets of language. Consider this cursory list: language is always illocutionary but not always descriptive (Hurford 2007p171); it is pragmatically infused in contexts (Clark, H. 1996; Streeck et al 2011); it is described as niche construction (Aunger 2009; Cowley 2004; Sinha 2015); it is tied to cooperation (Tomasello 2008) or coordination in joint activities (Knoblich & Sebanz 2008; Pezzulo 2012); it can modify the cognitive sense of space (Gianelli et al 2013); it appears to be tied to behaviors even for abstract cognitives (Borghi & Riggio 2009p117; Stout & Chaminade 2009; Anderson et al 2012p720); it can be studied separately as languaging the activity (Uryu et al 2014), or as system of word meanings which are derived either from cognitive resources (Pinker 2007), learned scaffolded regularities (Goldberg 2006), or within complex system dynamics (Ellis et al 2009); it reputedly is tied to local ecology (Nash & Muhlhausler 2014); it carries civility or a ritual function to maintain society as well as meaning or an instrumental function (Anderson 1990 – cited in Nash & Muhlhausler 2014; Carey 1989p18); in extended mind theory it is treated as a “coordination dynamics” where words anchor the complex dynamics across mind and environment (Clark, A. 2008p53; Fusaroli et al 2014); similarly in ecological psychology it has been proclaimed as an “adapting affordance” to accentuate a given affordance (Bardone 2011p93); it can be seen as a public simulation similar to thinking simulation (Tomasello 2014p9); and it can act as social contracts as in declaring one to be a “husband” (Deacon 1997p400, Searle 2010p16).

With this variety in the phenomenon of language, a looming question becomes not just how did language arise but what is language. The current hypothesis claims that social-object interactive behaviors are the primary locus of hominin activity that is evolving and that this entails an interactively systemized environment. This parsing of humans and their environment fits well for all of the above described facets of language. Languaging, the activity, is an interactive behavior while the public staging or language is niche construction actively building and holding the systemized and socially institutionalized environment in place. When the medium is sound, then language is fast stigmergy; when the medium is written words, then language is a stigmergy that endures over longer times. The lexicon and syntax are the conventionalizations honed into brain-learnable efficient constructions that allow repeated interactive functional accentuations to the physical niche and relational modifications to the social niche. They are the marker based stigmergy with a much greater range than the ants’ pheromones.

This view of language is compatible with the notion that it is derived from earlier interactions (Levinson & Holler 2014) or social cognition (Seyfarth & Cheney 2014). It supports the view that languaging is itself a coordination activity with the facets listed above – always illocutionary, tied to cooperation or coordination in joint activities, anchors complex dynamics across mind and environment, or is tied to current pragmatics. It is supported by the many instances above where language performs a niche construction role – niche construction itself, modification of a cognitive sense of space, tied to local ecology, carrying civility or a ritual function to maintain society, adapting affordance to accentuate physical affordances, public simulation, or anchoring social contracts.

Placing language within the matrix of interactions and the systemized environment where current interactions continually modify the systemized environment gives an understanding of language that is not veering radically from external reference to internal cognitive to the obscure thirdness of semiosis. Seeing it as a joint behavior that is mediated by voiced events gives an origin in the hominin joint behaviors while allowing it to seamlessly substitute with gestures, indexes, or the accumulated common ground. Language is coordination by fast-changing niche construction by sounds that are selected for syntactical compatibility, i.e. efficiency. Like the suite of interaction behaviors, language emerged in the joint behavioral environment as a fast niche construction. With language, behavior and niche construction are in very fast interplay.

Language in this view is cognate with what is called institutional niche construction (Powers et al 2016; Slaby & Gallagher 2015). Institutions share with language the niche construction of events and situations but over longer time spans. Searle (2010) addresses this by pointing out how institutional reality and language are both entwined in status functions and obligations by collective intentionality. The powerful role of norms in human societies and the complicit role of language in these is a reminder of the strong, simplifying streamlines applied to interactive behaviors.

Different Assumptions

The hypothesis departs from some older assumptions. The hypothesis is not predicated on individuality as biology has taken as default. Nor does the hypothesis veer over to its opposite as some organicist models have but instead restricts itself to the limited, ephemeral systems that exist temporarily with people in interactions (Sawyer 2005).

It should also be mentioned that this behavioral systems hypothesis that conscripts environmental features does not get caught in the contradictory dilemmas of environmental determinism or free will (Cziko 2000p105; Cziko 1995p117). Representative of the stance taken here and of the shift away from simple dualism under dynamic systems thinking is the following: “If representation is an emergent of interactivity, then persons have agency and cognition as aspects of the same underlying ontology, rather than having those aspects split into two fundamentally different kinds of phenomena” (Bickhard, 2012p108).

Although presenting these hypotheses of the phenomena of interactive behaviors and niche construction for behaviors has been accompanied only by weak or indirect evidence, the assumption of a baseline of individual cognition with no role for human artefacts underlying the evolution of humans has no evidence but is only a legacy assumption from the now weathered assumption of the rational self of modern philosophy (Nagel 2012). It should be incumbent on the legacy position of the individual in a mere observer’s role to the environment to also be stated as an hypothesis to stand against the multibehavioral hypothesis presented here. There is some evidence for interactive behaviors as systems and for the coupling of behaviors with environmental features as above. It is not clear that there is any evidence for strict individuality or for an uncoupled environment.

Human evolution after hunter gatherers

A key objective of the hypothesis here is that it addresses human evolution through the present and does not just explain prehistoric bands with local traditions. It is the inclusion of the modified environment as a component of human evolution that shows the sudden dynamism since the Upper Paleolithic and into the agricultural revolution and then into the industrial era. Only by including environmental constructions as behavioral constraints and as interactive behavioral components within more extensive, emergent behavioral systems can differences within the stream of cultural traits be found. And without differences or new drivers, it is just one cultural group after another. The hypothesis of the interactively systemized environment, it is claimed, provides that growth mechanism for more extensive behavioral interactions.

An important institutional change was the switch to accountable forms of reciprocity (keeping track of trades by some measure including money) as opposed to the demand reciprocity of hunter gatherers (Rousseau 2006). This allowed a compounding of institutional niche construction to allow more extended and chained interactions. Whether it was institutional or physical, the last millenia have seen a steep growth in the behaviorally systemized environment and a concomitant growth of interactive behaviors whether they be the participation of many such as at large spectacles, the chaining of behaviors such as in economic production and distribution links, or the combination in everyday chains of emotional bonding events in societies (Collins 2004).

Not recognizing these extensive trans-individual interactions, however ephemeral, nor the significant effects of the built environment to and from these extensive interactions leaves human evolutionary theory in thrall to older archetypes of the arrival of superior types and without the dynamism to explain the rapid changes after the Neolithic. Including the interactions with the snow-balling modifications of the environmental entanglements to these interactions acknowledges processes that have been studied in many fields even if not yet integrated into the neo-Darwinian synthesis.


Including other fields is both a turn to existing evidence as well as looking for novel dynamics that one would expect if humans are in the midst of a major transition as claimed (Szathmary & Smith, J.M. 1999). Major transitions “... are only understood when the genomic changes are seen as one component in larger system rearrangements that often involve ecological and even chemical or energetic shifts” (Smith, E. & Morowitz 2016p65). Human evolutionary theory should thus be open to finding “system rearrangements.”

This article attempts to move the discussion forward by suggesting other theoretical avenues and by offering an hypothesis. The hypothesis highlights the widespread phenomenon of joint or interactive behaviors and shows how these are likely prior to and sufficient to explain other significant multi-party behaviors such as learning and cooperation. They are an empirical phenomenon that likely underlies the unique human character between fission-fusion dynamics and ultrasociality. They are a candidate to drive the unique evolution of humans.

Interactive behaviors also give a basis to connect humans to their extensive environmental modifications. When features of the environment salient to interactions are modified, they then form secondary paths for interactive behaviors. This human form of stigmergy shows much more variety than that shown in social insects and also operates at multiple time scales and within multiple media. The hypothesis of the interactively systemized environment addresses the human environmental phenomenon as simply as possible by marrying interactive behaviors with stigmergic activities. Without such an hypothesis for the massive human modifications one becomes committed to a two part evolution – before and after humans – where the world of biology has become accomplishments, an ad hoc theory of self congratulation.

Significantly, the voice is a medium for short term stigmergy that allows interactions themselves to be modified in synchronous time by words that also niche construct the social and physical environment in asynchronous time. Human evolution is characterized by the growth of multibehavioral systems even if transient or in serial segments that use and make environmental modifications which further the extent and boundaries of these interactive behaviors.

Together the above human dynamics – extensive interactive behaviors, niche construction, event-mediated niche construction, and institutional niche construction – are features that appear to be driving a new system dynamics in the human social major transition. Not to look for such dynamics as change follows change in accelerating cycles is to leave evolutionary theory out of the present and thereby enable human exceptionalism. Events like the internet age are not just the arrival of a superior ape. Evolution is too grand for a simple story that abets an old myth that we have progressed out it (Ingold 2006). The homo line has been selected and is being selected for these multibehaviors and for these niches rapidly evolving by our own modifications.


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