Here’s where I am.
All theory must be built on physical data, sensorily perceived. Faraday did the experiments, Maxwell
developed equations to describe those data, Einstein explored the equations and
developed his two theories of relativity, these were confirmed by physical
data, sensorily perceived.

As I understand it cosmologists and particle physicists
often observe data, develop a model, and go and bother friendly mathematicians
saying, I know you’re busy, but have you got a bit of theoretical maths that
looks about this shape, and they talk for hours, and the mathematician either
has or hasn’t. If they’ve got a bit of
maths that might fit, the physicist takes it away, tries it out and if it
continues to fit, tries to derive new predictions from it. If further experimental evidence, (physical
data, sensorily perceived) fits with these predictions, then the fit between
maths and data is making progress. This
applies even to the ascertaining of the statistical near-certainty of the
existence of something as totally off the map as the Higgs particle.

Okay, it can be argued that that’s exactly what the large
group of historians, anthropologists, sociologists and others like me who are
exploring the idea of cultural evolution are doing. All I can say is that I read a bit of this
work (not all of it by any means, I’m not a professional) and I don’t think it’s
what a lot of them are doing at all. Put
briefly, they are using quantum physics to prove that the sun shines. People have known the sun shines for
aeons. The clever bit is to derive
quantum physics from the shining of the sun (and other bits of the universe,
obviously).

Recently I was asked to comment on a bit cult evol work by an eminent practitioner. The study proposed
a match between a statistical procedure and a set of sociological observations
which were only data in the sense that the results of opinion polls on voting
intentions are data. There was a kind of
a match because the whole exercise was assembled to portray the match. It was entirely hermetic and
self-referential. I showed the results
to a non-specialist friend. His
observation was crude, but along the lines that this guy is pretending to use
quantum physics to prove that the sun shines.

It must be born in mind that just because a piece of
mathematics looks from a distance, and if you screw up your eyes, like a good fit
for a very loosely worded notion, that doesn’t mean it is. I guess you could use the maths for getting
the Ariane capsule hooked up to the ISS to predict the social attitudes of
various groups to same-sex marriage as long as you knew what those attitudes were
in the first place and were prepared to cut a few corners

The attractor: one of the most memorable lectures I have
been to was by a mathematician describing the Mandelbrot set. Sitting just in from of me was the late great
composer György Ligeti (this was at
the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival), and the lecturer gave us a lot
of information on Mandelbrot and fractals and so on. But he started his lecture with a very simple
bit of equipment, a bowled base, a pylon, a weight with a point on a
line, I can’t remember the details, and demonstrated the relationships of
complex planes, and how they could generate a pattern. I am in no way a mathematician, but what I
took away from the talk was a strong notion of what, in terms of physical data,
sensorily perceived, a mathematical attractor is. Looking now at how the Mandelbrot set is
generated and converted into that
amazing pattern of colour reiteration I realise that my idea of an attractor is
less than primitive, but I can still see in my mind’s eye the in-the-world
existence that underlies all that theory, and its resultant physical expression.

The “attractor” in recent discussion about, let us say, a
formative something or other that has some effect at a distance on the content
and sequencing of stories, let us say Cinderella, is not an attractor of this
type. So what actually is it? And how does it attract something as
amorphous as a story? These are not only
questions that haven’t been answered, I’m not sure that they have even been
properly asked.

What is required is a huge dose of reductionism. It is the only way science works. If those who talk about cultural evolution actually
mean what Darwin meant, then we need at first to be able to describe, in a
replication variation selection way, what Pitt-Rivers demonstrated visually,
the evolution in lithic technology from leaf shape to tanged arrow head. If we are incapable of doing that, then how
on earth are we to deal with something as huge and almost infinitely extensible
as a story.

I read a paper on the cladistics of the Baltic Psaltery
once. It was honest and
illuminating. The writer outlined his
methodology, described where it went, and concluded, fairly quickly, that every
time he tried to abstract a characteristic it shot off into the distance in a
cloud of pyrotechnic bifurcations. So to
speak.

But that is what has to be done. Starting at a very simple level. And it’s not only possible, it’s productive,
and it’s quite fun.

If we don’t mean what Darwin meant, then the whole project
is something else, a branch of sociology, very valuable and interesting, but
only to do with evolution in the sense of “things change” with the rider, we
still don’t know how that happens.
Eusociality! (points gun to own head and pulls trigger). Now, film of one young male chimp smiling and
offering food to another even younger male chimp; we could work on that.

One of the things that puzzles me is the complete lack of
interest on cult evol shown by two friends of a friend, Chris Stringer, and
Professor Howard Morphy, who specialises in Australian Aboriginal art and
culture. I’ve tried to interest both of
them in cultural evolution, but though Stringer has been instrumental in
conferences on it, he’s says it’s a very peripheral interest. I feel the fact that they are not interested
is our responsibility, because if we were doing things right they would have to
be, even though the theory would in some way disrupt their specialisms.

I am concerned about all this because I am at the moment
half way through a book in which I hope to engage the general reader in the “argument
that human culture, which is to say the extended human phenotype, is a subset
of the mass of the universe that has evolved, in the manner described by
Darwin, step by step and alongside and in obligate symbiosis with the human
organism”; and, despite the promise of Mesoudi Whiten Laland 2004, I seem to be
on my own. But I’m having fun writing
it, and I’m still very confident that Darwin works.

I envy you Falmouth.
I come from south of you, just above Cadgwith down on the Lizard. I used to sail at Restronguet club. One of my first loves, when I was about nine,
lived in a laundry near Custom House Quay.
There seems to be a song in that.
Evolution of a song, that would at least be a bit easier than a story.