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I am an Associate Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Human Development, at Tzu Chi University, Hualien, Taiwan.


Tom Abel

Cultural evolution is a unifying theme for much of my work and thought.  I conceptualize evolution within an expanded synthesis that includes thermodynamic self-organization.  The study of cultural evolution, therefore, should be located within study of the self-organization of human-ecosystems.

This interest has led my research in two related directions.  In the first case, I am exploring the structure of ‘culture’, the information produced by people in a hierarchy of forms that include discourse, media, ritual, education, research, law, and others.  In the second case, I am attempting to demonstrate the hierarchical organization of economy, people, and culture that is nested within ecosystems.

In both cases I am expanding upon the work of famed ecologist H.T. Odum.  In the first case I am exploring his general theory of the 'information cycle', an evolutionary-ecological model of the processes of information maintenance and change.  In the second case, I am utilizing the ecological-economics of emergy that he pioneered as a tool to demonstrate the human-cultural-ecosystem hierarchy of which we are all a part.


My latest funded research was an application of H.T. Odum’s 'information cycle' to the study of cultural information in discourse.  This is the second detailed demonstration of Odum’s theory and method to information that is not genetic, but is instead cultural.  And it serves to ‘locate’ the production of discourse within the production hierarchy of Hualien County, Taiwan.

My previous funded research was a study of social structure and hierarchy within Hualien County.  It explored in detail the organization of households into hierarchies of energy capture and convergence within an entire county.  It was the first county-wide analysis of social structural self-organization utilizing emergy ecological-economics.

My work is interdisciplinary, combining anthropology, ecological economics, ecosystems science, evolution, world-systems, and complex systems science.  I use principles and methods from systems ecology, including computer modeling and emergy analysis (an ecological economics) developed by the Systems Ecology program at the University of Florida.

More Pieces

I have explored the cultural evolution of China, from foragers to contemporary states, using systems modelling to generate simple but informative computer models of the pulsing dynamics generated by the consumption of natural resources.  These ideas are all being applied to my related interest in the historical ecology of Taiwan.

My interest in cultural evolution and the evolution of social structure has led me to the study of world-systems (from Wallerstein).  World-systems are a scale of social self-organization larger than individual states, in which states are joined hierarchically into a system of production and control.  I am particularly interested in placing world-systems thought within an environmental framework.

I have worked as a member of an 8-person interdisciplinary team, studying whale watching ecotourism on Taiwan.  My research examined the impacts of ecotourism development on the local people, culture and ecology of the effected areas.  My dissertation research was a similar study of eco-dive tourism impacts on the island of Bonaire in the south Caribbean Sea.

My other major area of academic interest is cognitive science, especially the study of cultural models.  As a graduate student advisor I have assisted one student with an exploration of ‘place identity’ as it represented in cultural models in two communities in southwestern Taiwan.  I am currently advising one student in  an exploration of the place of pigs in the cultural models of Truku  people in the mountains of Taiwan.  Cultural models theory intersects with my current research into cultural information as information cycles.

Finally, an ongoing research focus of mine is our human presence in the biosphere and the energy, material, and information processes that are shaping that presence.  Of special importance are the big, slow curves of natural resource availability, perhaps the most important of which is oil.  Social processes should be understood in light of changing resource flows.  Relating society and the production curve of oil, H.T. Odum made a number of predictions about the past and coming periods of growth, transition ('peak oil'), and descent.  His hope was that humanity could discover a 'prosperous way down'.  With Mary Logan I helped start a blog to explore this topic.  And there is now video (here) of a talk related to these issues that I gave at a great little conference on Architecture and Energy.

I can be reached here:



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