As part of our Cultural Evolution Seminars series, we organise a symposium on cultural evolution at Kungliga Vitterhetsakademien (The Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, Antiquities and History).

Due to space restrictions, the symposium is open only for registered participants.


11.30 Magnus Enquist, director of CEK, opens the symposium
11.45 Laurel Fogarty, University of St. Andrews, UK: Population Size and Cultural Complexity – is Niche Construction the Key?
13.00 Lunch
14.15 Andreas Roepstorff, Aarhus University, Denmark: Evolution of
Cognition, Communication and Culture, the human story
15.15 Joseph Tainter, Utah State University, USA: The Roots of
Complexity: Why Collapse is So Difficult to Understand
16.15 Coffee and tea break
16.45 Open discussion
18.00 Dinner at Vitterhetsakademin



Population size and cultural complexity – is niche construction the key?

Laurel Fogarty, School of Biology, University of St. Andrews, Scotland, UK

The relationship between population size and cultural accumulation has been the subject of extensive debate. Many mathematical models have suggested that population size and density should be strongly associated with cultural complexity. However, anthropological studies have demonstrated a significant association between population size and toolkit complexity in only a subset of cultures studied. I will review the role of cultural innovation in constructing human evolutionary niches and introduce a new model to describe the accumulation of human cultural traits that incorporates the effects of cultural niche construction. I consider the results of this model in light of available data on human toolkit sizes across populations to help elucidate the important differences between food-gathering societies and food-producing societies, in which niche construction may be a more potent force.

These results support the idea that a population’s relationship with its environment, represented here by cultural niche construction, should be considered alongside population size in studies of cultural complexity.

Evolution of Cognition, Communication and Culture, the human story

Andreas Roepstorff, Interacting Minds Centre, University of Aarhus, Denmark

Evolutionarily speaking, humans appear to have emerged to be the niche constructors par excellence; they inhabit niches of a very particular sort that allow to solve problems of interindividual coordination through particular processes, two of which may be mindshaping and material engagement. Like in other species, human cognition has a fundamentally embodied anchoring, which allows for coordination within an organism, and for adaptability to changing environments. However, in humans these processes expand beyond the individual in time and space, in ways that support coordination and forms of collaboration (at least within groups), and that may have even given rise to representational cognition. This appears to generate particular patterns of intergroup diversity, temporally and spatially. That may be a key mechanism in the human potential for rapid cultural evolution and diversification, which appears unique in the animal kingdom.

The Roots of Complexity: Why Collapse is So Difficult to Understand

Joseph A. Tainter, Department of Environment and Society, Utah State University,
Logan, UT, USA

Often the most difficult part of science is asking the right question, and this is true of the study of collapse. Collapse explanations have a long history. Ancestral collapse literature can be traced to about 1000 B.C. in Mesopotamia and China. Yet even after 3,000 years of effort, we still find it difficult to understand phenomena that today we call by such terms as Acollapse or Arise and fall. Failure to resolve a processual question over a span of 3,000 years of effort must certainly place collapse among the great conundrums of historical science. In this presentation I will examine the roots of this dilemma, tracing our failure to understand collapse to the socialization that all scholars undergo. Socialization influences how phenomena are perceived, and the values one assigns to research questions. Biases related to research on collapse make us vulnerable to deus ex machina explanations, and have led to 3,000 years of asking the wrong question.