Anthropology: On Becoming Modern

In today’ edition of Science there is a section on human social evolution with 2 articles both suggesting a link between human social evolution and cultural development which is relatively autonomous with respect to biological evolution. One of them, Late Pleistocene Demography and the Appearance of Modern Human Behavior, claims that growing population density can account for the first appearance of ‘modern’ behaviour without appealing to genetic changes or changes in cognitive capacities. In particular this can account for the emergence of specialist cultural areas. Frankly I thought this was an idea Adam Smith came up with in the 18th century and Durkheim in the late 19thcentury. I will need to read these articles to see if they add anything to our existing sociological understanding of these matters. The earlier historical context may well be interesting but I suspect it would be a fairly unproblematic and minor extension of existing sociological knowledge.

Anthropology: On Becoming Modern (Ruth Mace)

Unlike other animals, humans cooperate with nonrelatives in coordinated actions, decorate their bodies, build complex artefacts(useful or otherwise), talk, and divide themselves into linguistic groups. To understand the evolutionary basis of such behaviors, anthropologists must consider not only issues connected to social evolution in animals, but also the implications of the possible coevolutionof genes and culture. Two articles in this issue examine aspects of human social evolution: On page 1293, Bowles(1) investigates the origins of altruism toward one’s own social group, while on page 1298, Powell et al. (2) study the emergence of cultural complexity. Based on empirical evidence and modeling, both studies suggest that the demographic structure of our ancestral populations determined how social evolution proceeded.

Link to articles via Leeds Uni login

Friday 5th June ‘Science in Action’ on BBC World service [summary and ‘listen again’]
“We humans pride ourselves on our culture. Our tools, our ideas and innovations, and our art. They’re all passed on within our societies, and help shape who we are. These so called ‘modern human behaviours’ appeared suddenly around 90 thousand years ago, but at different times in different geographical areas. Something must have been happening to prompt the change – but exactly what has been a mystery. Jon Stewart meets researchers who think they have solved the problem”. [podcast]

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