Steve Stewart-Williams on the evolution of the teddy bear

I am now nearing the end of The Ape That Understood The Universe. Steve Stewart-Williams has said what he has to say about the survival of the fittest genes, and is now talking about the survival of the fittest memes. The evolution of culture, in other words.

Here (pp. 227-228) is what SS-W says about the evolution of one bit of our culture, the Teddy Bear:

Language evolution is at least as old as we are, but other arenas for cultural evolution have a much more recent pedigree. One of the most important is the capitalist marketplace. Just as species compete for limited space in the local environment, so too products – from books to fizzy drinks to exercise equipment – “compete” for limited space on supermarket shelves and bestseller lists. This competition may foster the evolution of products exquisitely designed to suck money out of people’s pockets and bank accounts – designed, in other words, to sell. Importantly, business people don’t necessarily need to know why some products sell better than others. They only need to copy the ones that do. To the extent that that’s what happens, the design we find in our products comes from blind selection rather than intelligent design.

An example concerns the cultural evolution of the teddy bear. The first teddy bears went on sale in the early twentieth century. In those days, they had long snouts and long, thin limbs. They were pretty ugly. As the century wore on, however, teddy bears became progressively cuter. Their snouts receded, leaving them with cute flat faces. Their foreheads grew larger. Their limbs grew shorter and chubbier. In a word, they became more neotenous or baby-like. More and more they came to resemble the innate Kindchenschema we discussed in Chapter 4. Today’s teddy bears are, in effect, the answer to the question: What do you get when you cross a human baby with a bear? And they raise a new question of their own: How do we explain the evolutionary trajectory of this enduringly popular children’s toy?

Here’s one possibility. Successful teddy bear makers were sensitive to market trends, and generally copied the designs that sold best last season. But they didn’t copy them exactly. Some happened to push their designs a little further toward our evolved standards of cuteness; some happened to push them a little further away. The former sold better, and the better-selling bears became the baseline for the next season. Little by little, teddy bears drifted toward neoteny. Did successful bear makers know that increasing neoteny was the secret of their success? I doubt it. After all, if they did know, they could have just jumped straight to the most neotenous models. The trend toward neoteny is something that people only noticed after the fact. While it was happening, bear makers simply made more of whatever sold. In a sense, consumers redesigned the teddy bear with their aggregate preferences and purchasing decisions. If your parents bought you a teddy bear, they were contributing to the evolution of this beloved children’s toy. Generalizing the point, any time you or anyone else buys anything, you’re helping to guide the evolution of culture.

For me, the killer line here – the killer meme, you might say – is the bit about how all that is necessary is to copy. You don’t have to know why your product does the job and will consequently be popular, you merely have to know that it does the job and will be popular.

“Mindless” copying is a much under-rated design method.

I was ruminating upon ideas of this sort back in 1988.

Four of BrianMicklethwaitsNewBlog dot com’s greatest hits

Every so often, this blog attracts a flurry of attention from some mysterious other place that I am typically not clever enough to identify, and today this is happening again. The posting that is today attracting a stampede, by my very modest standards, of hits is one I did way back last October, about Jonathan the 188-year-old tortoise, whom I just happened to learn about from this Tweet, by “Anna Berserk”, which included the photo that I stuck up here. All I can tell you about this sudden interest in this old tortoise is that it appears to have happened because of something someone said on Facebook. Beyond that, I cannot even guess.

An earlier flurry of interest was provoked by a November 2019 posting here which featured a picture of what a Ripped piece of paper under the microscope (100x magnification) looks like. I came across this where I come across a lot of stuff I like, which is the Twitter feed of Steve Stewart-Williams.

Another little stampede was provoked by this photo of the damage a tiny speck of space debris can do at 15,000 mph. I came across that photo here.

My favourite of these little stampede-inducing postings was one that featured a lady, Lady Florence Norman, who was photoed riding an electric scooter in 1916. I first encountered her ladyship here.

All of these Greatest Hits of mine featured photos, none of which were photoed by me, and all of which were first seen by me on Twitter. The timing of these mini-stampedes was random, and they often happened, as today, long after I had thought my posting would have been completely forgotten. Make of all that what you will.

Architectural modernism: Its triumph indoors and its battle out of doors

Today I was at the Royal Marsden, having a scan in a device that looked like this:

In other words it looked like a time travel portal in a rather bad movie. That photo’s a bit blurry, but they only allowed me one go at photoing it.

But that’s not my point here. What my point is is a hobby horse of mine, namely, well, … see the title above. The way that Architectural Modernism has totally triumphed indoors …:

…, whereas, out if doors, there’s still everything to play for:

That being my cropped version of an aerial photo of the same Marsden Royal whose insides are entirely tricked out in Modernist Vernacular. I found it hanging on a wall, somewhere inside the Marsden itself. And that’s right. The outside of the Royal Marsden is not Modernist Vernacular. Anything but. It is Victorian Ancient, just as it has always been. But the inside is now entirely tricked out in Modernist Vernacular.

And that illustrates a widely observable contrast in our world, and is why so many Ancientist facades are being held up with metal frames, while behind all that, Modernist interiors are being erected.

There are lots of reasons for this contrast, but the basic reason is that Architectural Modernism works extremely well indoors, but rather less well out of doors.

Actually, that first photo does have something to do with it, as I may or may not get around to explaining, in another posting.

Beard Trimmer in the distance

Incoming from GodDaughter2:

Somewhere just downstream of Tate Modern. That kind of area.

It’s the old Big-Thing-in-the-distance-through-a-gap-in-the-buildings effect, which often happens, as here, when the gap is simply caused by a road happening to go straight towards the Big Thing in question. She knew I’d like this, because when we’ve been for walks in the past, I’ve said “Look at that! Wow!” when seeing something like this. I love the vagueness of the Big Thing bit of the image, in contrast to the definiteness of the foreground anonymity.

The official name for this particular Big Thing is Strata, but GD2 described it today on the phone, when I was thanking her for this photo, as a beard trimmer. So from now on, for me, this is going to be the Beard Trimmer.

No definite information about the camera she used, but almost certainly her mobile. Probably an iPhone.

Note also how the tree does not, because of the time of the year, wreck the view.

The trees of Vincent Square

Yesterday, I did some shopping, and on my way back turned into Vincent Square, basically just to get away from the din of Vauxhall Bridge Road.

And I saw trees, resplendent in the evening sunshine, and in their total lack of leaves to spoil the splendour:

Photo 1 shows the bigger picture, and also what my Samsung Galaxy mobile phone does to vertical lines if you let it. Basically it can’t handle wide open spaces very well. Photo 2 and I’m looking at the branches of the trees rather more closely.

Photo 3 has me flying off at a tangent and bringing back memories of the time when I used to photo all manner of things reflected in car windows.

But then, in Photo 4, we see me noticing the, to me, really strange thing about these trees, which is the way they look the way they do entirely because men with saws decided that this was how they were going to look. Once you see these weirdly shaped branches, ziggy-zagging this way and that, for no apparent reason, yet surely for good reasons, you never look at a tree the same way again. I mean, look at that branch, in the middle there. Whose idea was that? And why?

Sometimes pollarding is rather obvious, once you’ve got your head around the fact of it. But what we are seeing here is so weird, I don’t know if the word pollarding still applies.

What we are not looking at is Nature Untramelled.

Thoughts on giving away the ending … or not giving it away

I am a lazy person. And I just sent an email to my niece Roz Watkins, who writes of crime fiction. Some of this email was personal and private, but a couple of bits seem to me to be worth recycling here, to save me the bother of having to think of something else to put here today:

I do so very much admire the writing you have been doing. The reason I don’t write about it more admiringly, and more often, is that in my part of the internet, we don’t fret about giving away endings! For instance, I am now reading a book about human evolution, to what extent human mental habits are genetically evolved, what sex differences are and are not, and so on. When writing about this book, I do not hesitate to quote any of the author’s conclusions that strike me as interesting. But if I reviewed a book of yours by discussing the convincingness of who finally turns out to have done the deed, naming the murderer, well, … that’s not allowed! So I need to learn a whole different way of writing about books like yours. Basically, I guess, you concentrate on the state of affairs at the beginning, and from then on keep it vague.

And, I realise that writing about famous books from the past is also not like writing about your books when they have only just come out. I’m not going to be denounced if I discuss the details of how Mr Darcy finally marries Elizabeth Bennet, because almost everyone who cares already knows what happened. If you don’t know how Pride and Prejudice ends and don’t want to until you’ve read it for the first time, then it’s up to you to avoid being told.

I think that the Pride and Prejudice point there is an especially good one. Great works of literature, almost by definition, are things we are allowed to discuss all aspects of, including the endings, without being accused of giving anything away. If I tell you the ending of Roz’s latest Meg Dalton book (that’s her lead detective), I’m breaking the rules. But if I reveal that Hamlet dies at the end of Hamlet, that’s okay. If you did not know this and wanted to be surprised by how Hamlet ends, that is entirely your problem. Which means that works of Great Literature become like some of the great facts of our culture, not that different from real events or real arguments about real events. We can freely discuss all aspect of the great works of literature with one another, definitely including the endings. And thorough discussions of great facts, especially how these facts turned out or ended, are, for me, one of life’s great pleasures.

This is one of the reasons I do like (some) great literature. It enables me to have thorough conversations with strangers. I think the social benefits of shared cultural objects are often missed. See also, sport and celebrities. It’s the universality of these experiences that bind us together as a society, however we may disagree about many other things, and for that matter about sport or celebrities.

Great literature is books that are celebrity books.

Another quota advert

Yes. Spent the day chasing details, and keeping half an eye on the Six Nations. In an empty Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, the crowd was not missed much and Wales beat England. Oh well, it’s only a game.

So, another quota advert, photoed very recently, this time for an enterprise which, I am guessing, needs all the help it can get just now:

Something looked wrong about to me about this bike. The handle bars seemed like they had been turned round and are pointing backwards. Then I got it. They had been turned round. They are pointing backwards. Together with the front wheel that is attached to the handle bars.

The Cave website. I see there’s a cafe. Memo to self: Check it out when you know what stops.

What Steve Stewart-Williams said

When I first discovered Steve Stewart-Williams, I simultaneously started reading his book, The Ape That Understood The Universe: How The Mind and Culture Evolve, and enjoying his Twitter feed. I regularly link to the latter on Fridays, my day of the week for writing about and linking to stories and videos featuring non-human animals. But for some reason, I got interrupted when reading this book, and have only now got around to reading it properly. I am about half way through it, as I write this.

I am enjoying it because it says everything I already believe about how my species evolved into what it now is, but much better than I could say it. I am finding out, you might say, all the things I believe about evolution, and about the evolution of the human species in particular. I can summarise what I think of this book in the modern phrase: What he said. Or, even more briefly: That.

The central and recurring argument Stewart-Williams deploys, to explain why the contents of the human mind are just as much a product of evolution as the attributes of the human body, is the fact that all the other animals clearly have mental habits that must have evolved, so why should we humans, who are also animals, be any different?

Were we humans the entirely separate creations, quite unlike mere animals, that old-school Christians used to say we were, then for our minds to be entirely different from those of animals might make more sense. As it is, given that we are products of the same evolutionary process that made all the others animals, the “blank slate” notion of the human mind makes no sense at all.

One thing I did – not “learn” exactly – but hear for the first time from a scientist of human evolution, concerned the aggressiveness of the human male. Many human masculine characteristics have evolved not so much because human females like them, but more because other human males are intimidated by them. Males who defeat other males in competition achieve high status, and high status and the resources that accompany it are what human females especially like, rather than necessarily liking the particular characteristics that achieve that high status. Male aggressive characteristics are, metaphorically speaking, deer antlers more than they are peacock tails. They are at least as much for making human males into top dogs, so to speak, as they are for directly impressing the ladies. I can’t help noticing that some human females are impressed, directly, by male aggression. They like to watch men fighting, for instance. But others are very put off by such behaviour, and especially, of course, if it is ever directed against them.

Just about every lesson Stewart-Williams is trying to teach his readers is a lesson I had either worked out for myself, or something I had sort-of worked out, or something I understood the point of as soon as he said it. The above lesson, about how human male aggressiveness is more like antlers than like peacock tails falls into category three. I hadn’t worked that one out properly, but yes, as soon as I read this I knew it had to be right.

Dragons on the road map

Guy Herbert:

It’s the sort of #roadmap that has “Here be dragons” written all over it, isn’t it?

Yes. My part of Twitter is all: The politicians are tyrannising over us. I wonder. What if they are just scared? Of course, the second does not rule out the first.

Paul poster with shadow selfie

One from the I Just Like It directory:

I photoed this photo, somewhere out east (a photo photoed at the same time was of the Thames Barrier) ten years and seventeen days ago.

I like the movie. I like this advert for the movie. And I like how I inserted a shadow selfie into my photo, of the advert for the movie.