Cultural Evolution and the Emergence of Social Structure

sunlightPrior to the use of fossil fuels, human societies were dependent on renewable solar energy and the work done by geological process, e.g., soil formation and the spatial concentration of minerals.  Sun, wind, rain, are delivered to ecosystems on spatial scales of great dimension, sometimes called landscapes.  Within a particular landscape space in the past could be found numerous chiefdoms or local groups, countless forager groups, several states, or combinations of all of these different sized sociocultural systems.

It seems therefore that the evolution of culture(s) is better assailed at a larger spatial scale that contains cultures and their neighbors.  As the human/nature division has increasingly been scrutinized, environmental social scientists have pressed for the need to thoroughly incorporate human cultures, plural, within a landscape of ecosystems, populated with interacting groups at various scales of sociocultural complexity.  statesThis landscape space should not be defined by cultural boundaries but by the researcher.  Arguments can be made to justify the particular spatial scales of interest, but reasonable considerations should include ocean boundaries, mountain ranges, watershed boundaries, etc.  Such landscape scales can better frame the analysis of cultural transformations over any timescale but especially including the long temporal scales that define the study of cultural evolution.

Cultural evolution is the process through which hierarchical social organization first emerged at some time in the archaeological past.  This research explores implications of conceptualizing sociocultural systems as multi-scaled hierarchies.  One implication is that production subsystems should include the human storages of the households that own/control the subsystems.  A second implication for emergy accounting, is that multiple human transformities and emergy per person values should be calculated for most cultures.  This has implications for understanding inequality and power, as well as facilitation and positive interactions within sociocultural systems.

Level of Integration
Population
Emergy per Person
Foragers (Total Pop)                   50,000 1.2E+17 sej/person
Local Groups (Total Pop)                 200,000 3.9E+16 sej/person
Chiefdoms (Total Pop)              1,000,000 1.7E+16 sej/person
States (Total Pop)            10,000,000 2.9E+15 sej/person
Adding Social Hierarchy
Level of Integration
Population
Emergy per Person
Foragers (Total Pop)                   50,000 1.2E+17 sej/person
Local Groups (Total Pop)                 200,000 3.9E+16 sej/person
Chiefdoms      
    Common                 990,000 1.8E+16 sej/person
    Elite                   10,000 1.7E+18 sej/person
States      
    Common              9,490,000 3.0E+15 sej/person
    Bureucrats                 500,000 5.7E+16 sej/person
    Elites                   10,000 2.9E+18 sej/person

This research distinguishes itself from other models of cultural evolution by its explicit representation and understanding of human groups within environments at the spatial scale of landscapes.  It distinguishes itself from other systems models of “culture” by its explicit representation of sociocultural hierarchy, based on the control of assets.  These two features lead to a re-conception of emergy calculations of humans, one that accounts for their location within production hierarchies.  This approach accords with a pulsing model of cultural dynamics, which is spatially-based, rather than culture-focused.

Related Publications:

l
Abel T. 2007 “Emergy, Sociocultural Hierarchy, and Cultural Evolution”. In Brown M, ed. Proceedings of the 4th Biennial Emergy Research Conference. Gainesville: Center for Environmental Policy, University of Florida.
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