Conceptual Innovation and Major Transitions in Human Societies - Agenda

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Conceptual Innovation and Major Transitions in Human Societies

Abstracts of meeting presentations

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<>

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 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 the changes in 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, may have been generated public goods. An interesting issue to explore is the differences between cultural innovations driven by public goods differ from those primarily involving rivalrous or easily excludable goods.

Bowls to Gardens in the Emergence of Pueblo Towns

Scott G. Ortman, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Colorado-Boulder

In the 13th century CE several tens of thousands of Pueblo people migrated from their ancestral homeland in the Mesa Verde region Colorado and Utah to their current homeland in the Northern Rio Grande region of New Mexico. The society they created in the century following migration was more agglomerated, stable, prosperous, and secure than anything that had come before. In this presentation I characterize this transformation quantitatively and examine the roles of environment, technology, demography and culture in the formation of Classic Period Rio Grande Pueblo society. I suggest that economic prosperity ultimately derived from new ways of defining groups and their interactions that were invented during the migration period. These metaphors of community recombined existing ideas in novel ways and recruited positive emotions associated with conjugal union and farming success in the service of intra- and inter-village social coordination.