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.

Human Domestication and the Uruk Expansion

Holly Pittman, University of Pennsylvania, Eric Rupley, Santa Fe Institute and Henry Wright, University of Michigan

The Uruk culture of the fourth millennium BCE located in the alluvial basin of the Euphrates, Tigris, Karun and Kareh rivers in what is now southern Iran and southwestern Iran was a seven hundred year long period during which conceptual innovation and major and irreversible transformation in human society occurred. Responding to multiple factors including a shifting climatic regime, around 3800 BCE the relatively evenly spread population of the region began to abandon village communities and to cluster in a few centers (Uruk and Nippur) that took on urban proportions. This redistribution of population led to profound changes in social, political, economic organization of human society and corresponds with the appearance of the technologies of proto-writing, numeracy, and systematic representation. Building on earlier systems of hierarchically differentiated extended family units (Ubaid phase), elites in the new centers reorganized strategies for the acquisition of raw materials (colonial extension), developed new systems of production (mass production of single commodities), identified sources of labor (alienated human labor), and introduced new modes of control (numerals, proto-writing, imagery) to set in motion an irreversible transformation of human society toward a new level of complexity. This contribution will outline this period of human transformation and will seek metaphors to describe it.

What makes human societies grow, or not?

Luis M. A. Bettencourt, Santa Fe Institute

Human societies, like all complex adaptive systems, require energy and other resources to exist. When the resource base expands -- in amount or efficiency -- growth and development are possible and commonly follow. Many conceptual approaches to human social “evolution” start from this perspective and study the characteristics of natural environments that may have been more or less propitious to human social development. But the final and subtler ingredient to this process – and the one that makes humans different from other biological organisms -- is that energy and resources must be obtained on a predictable ongoing basis: A year of bumper crops followed by several years of crop failure can still be catastrophic. Large resource uncertainty is equivalent, in practice, to scarcity.

To deal with the problem of resource uncertainty humans have increasingly gained knowledge and control over energy flows and their scope in space and time. In this way, knowledge (information) begets energy and energy can beget more information that in part, can beget more energy and so on. When this cycle is sustained, growth and (social) evolution follow. When it is broken -- no matter where -- growth is arrested and stagnation and collapse loom large. The tell-tale signs of these processes in action are the arrangements and artifacts necessary to store (encode and retrieve) both energy and information. These two types of (conceptual) innovations have always gone hand in hand: The history of human societies can be told through their co-evolution. At the earliest of times information was, by necessity, contained in the physical environment and in people’s brains and social relations. But the moment that these two functions became externalized and articulated together in terms of artifacts and technologies human cultural evolution took off. (Almost) any major conceptual (and material) innovation in human society can be seen in this light: Ritual, pottery, water works, agriculture, herding, writing, law, markets, fossil fuels, feasts, transportation, maps, modern information technologies, just-in-time logistics. These are all ways to make energy and resource supply not only more plentiful but more predictable and to safely store related knowledge.

After discussing a few historical examples of these processes I present a simple model of these co-evolutionary processes and their implications for growth and development in human societies. I will also argue that anthropological and archaeological evidence for these processes present a unique opportunity for studying growth processes in human societies in contexts that, crucially, are simpler than modern cities and nations.

Bowls to Gardens in the Emergence of Pueblo Towns

Scott G. Ortman, 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.

The Sowing and the Dawning: the Origins of Ancestral Maya Complexity

David Freidel, Washington University-St. Louis and Patricia McAnany, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

While people engaged maize for thousands of years during the Archaic (4-3,000 BC) and it became a supplemental domesticate by the Early Preclassic (2000-1000 BC), people did not commit to maize as the core staple of their diet until the Middle Preclassic Period (1000 BC.) This commitment was rapid and pervasive in Mesoamerica, a region characterized by significant variability in risk factors for this drought and pest sensitive crop. People established the basic cuisine of Mesoamerica in this era: beans, squashes, peppers, avocados, cacao and other tree fruits, in addition to maize. The agrarian lifestyle of Mesoamericans was scheduled by the seasonal cycle of the solar year. The commitment of Mesoamericans, including the Maya, to staple maize was concomitant with the fluorescence of complexity as identified in material symbol-systems, growth of ceremonial centers and sedentary communities, social differentiation, and long-distance trade. People buried their dead as revered ancestors, often with material symbols of their statuses and roles. Emergent complex societies elsewhere in Mesoamerican show ties to the Olmec through the material symbol system and through long-distance trade in imperishable exotic commodities. But while there is evidence of emulation of the Gulf Coast Olmec, the maize god rulers do not emerge clearly until after the fall of San Lorenzo and the rise of La Venta in this region. The contribution of the lowland Maya and other peoples to the consolidation of the maize god kingship remains to be elucidated in the field. By the 8th century BC the institution of maize god kingship is well established in the Olmec region. By 400 BC it is present in the Maya lowlands. By 150 AD it is the basis for a regional civilization, potentially a hegemonic regional state, in the Maya lowlands.