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
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.
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
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
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
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,
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
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.
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
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
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
• 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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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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