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Conceptual Innovation and Major Transitions in Human Societies - Agenda

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Major Evolutionary Transitions and Applications to Cultural Innovation

Douglas H. Erwin, Dept of Paleobiology, MRC-121, National Museum of Natural History, PO Box 37012, Washington, DC 20013-7012 erwind@si.edu<mailto:erwind@si.edu>

In 1995 evolutionary biologists John Maynard Smith and Eros Szthmary identified seven ‘Major Evolutionary Transitions’ (METs) in the history of life, from the origin of life to the evolution of language. Each transition involves packaging of information in new ways, and a shift in the locus of selection. This work stimulated considerable discussion, particularly on levels of selection, but neglected (to be kind) the environmental context and changes ecological structure involved in most METs. As I will discuss, this suggests the need for a broader view of METs, addressing the triad of environmental context, ecological opportunity and genetic/developmental potential. In this view public goods, those that are non-rivalrous and non-excludable play an important role in generating ecologically and evolutionarily successful innovations. Many cultural innovations in general, and conceptual innovations in particular, involve public goods, and one much different from rivalrous or easily excludable goods.