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Transition and stasis in society and biology – Preliminary readings

Ecological Inheritance and Cultural Inheritance: What Are They and How Do They Differ?

Abstract: Niche construction theory (NCT) is distinctive for being explicit in recognizing environmental modification by organisms—niche construction—and its legacy— ecological inheritance—to be evolutionary processes in their own right. Humans are widely regarded as champion niche constructors, largely as a direct result of our capacity for the cultural transmission of knowledge and its expression in human behavior, engineering, and technology. This raises the question of how human ecological inheritance relates to human cultural inheritance. If NCT is to provide a conceptual framework for the human sciences, then it is important that the relationship between these two legacies is clear. We suggest that cultural processes and cultural inheritance can be viewed as the primary means by which humans engage in the universal process of niche construction.

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Cause and Effect in Biology Revisited: Is Mayr’s Proximate-Ultimate Dichotomy Still Useful?

Abstract: Fifty years ago, Ernst Mayr published a hugely influential paper on the nature of causation in biology, in which he distinguished between proximate and ultimate causes. Mayr equated proximate causation with immediate factors (for example, physiology) and ultimate causation with evolutionary explanations (for example, natural selection). He argued that proximate and ultimate causes addressed different questions and were not alternatives. Mayr’s account of causation remains widely accepted today, with both positive and negative ramifications. Several current debates in biology (for example, over evolution and development, niche construction, cooperation, and the evolution of language) are linked by a common axis of acceptance/rejection of Mayr’s model of causation. We argue that Mayr’s formulation has acted to stabilize the dominant evolutionary paradigm against change but may now hamper progress in the biological sciences.

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How culture shaped the human genome: bringing genetics and the human sciences together

Abstract: Researchers from diverse backgrounds are converging on the view that human evolution has been shaped by gene–culture interactions. Theoretical biologists have used population genetic models to demonstrate that cultural processes can have a profound effect on human evolution, and anthropologists are investigating cultural practices that modify current selection. These findings are supported by recent analyses of human genetic variation, which reveal that hundreds of genes have been subject to recent positive selection, often in response to human activities. Here, we collate these data, highlighting the considerable potential for cross-disciplinary exchange to provide novel insights into how culture has shaped the human genome.

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Niche Construction Theory and Human Architecture

Abstract: In modern evolutionary theory, selection acts on particular genes and assemblages of genes that operate through phenotypes expressed in environments. This view, however, overlooks the fact that organisms often alter their environments in pursuit of fitness needs and thus modify some environmental selection pressures. Niche construction theory introduces a reciprocal causal process that modifies natural selection relative to three general kinds of environmental components: abiota, biota (other organisms), and artifacts. The ways in which niche-constructing organisms can construct or modify the components differ. Modification of abiota, for example, may have different consequences from the construction of artifacts. Some changes in abiota may simply be caused by the by-products of metabolisms and activities of organisms. Alternatively, artifacts may be ‘‘extended phenotypes’’ that demonstrate obvious prior ‘‘design’’ and ‘‘construction’’ by organisms in the service of fitness needs. Nevertheless, adaptation should always account for the reciprocity between constructed niches and the living agents that construct them. Looking to well-adapted nature for inspiration for humanbuilt artifacts must account for this reciprocity between phenotype and constructed environment as well as the novel features of human architecture, including frank intentionality of design and novel culturally acquired knowledge.

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Niche construction theory: a practical guide for ecologists

Abstract: Niche construction theory (NCT) explicitly recognizes environmental modification by organisms (“niche construction”) and their legacy over time (“ecological inheritance”) to be evolutionary processes in their own right. Here we illustrate how niche construction theory provides useful conceptual tools and theoretical insights for integrating ecosystem ecology and evolutionary theory. We begin by briefly describing NCT, and illustrating how it differs from conventional evolutionary approaches. We then distinguish between two aspects of niche construction—environment alteration and subsequent evolution in response to constructed environments—equating the first of these with “ecosystem engineering.” We describe some of the ecological and evolutionary impacts on ecosystems of niche construction, ecosystem engineering, and ecological inheritance, and illustrate how these processes trigger ecological and evolutionary feedbacks and leave detectable ecological signatures that are open to investigation. Finally, we provide a practical guide to how NCT could be deployed by ecologists and evolutionary biologists to explore eco-evolutionary dynamics. We suggest that, by highlighting the ecological and evolutionary ramifications of changes that organisms bring about in ecosystems, NCT helps link ecosystem ecology to evolutionary biology, potentially leading to a deeper understanding of how ecosystems change over time.

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A framework for analysis of multi-mode interaction among technologies with examples from the history of alternative transport fuels in Sweden

Abstract: The relationship between technologies is a salient feature of the literature on technical change and terms like ‘dominant design’ and ‘technology lock-in’ are part of the standard vocabulary and put competition among technologies in focus. The aim of this paper is to provide an account of the wide range of interaction modes beyond competition that is prevalent in transition processes and to develop a conceptual framework to facilitate more detailed and nuanced descriptions of technology interaction. Besides competition, we identify five other basic modes of interaction: symbiosis, neutralism, parasitism, commensalism and amensalism. Further, we describe interaction as overlapping value chains. Defining a technology as a socio-technical system extending in material, organisational and conceptual dimensions allows for an even more detailed description of interaction. The conceptual framework is tested on and illustrated by a case study of interaction among alternative transport fuels in Sweden 1974–2004.

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Questions of Complexity and Scale in Explanations for Cultural Transitions in the Pleistocene: A Case Study from the Early Upper Paleolithic

Abstract: Matching scales of observation and explanation is an essential challenge for archaeology, Paleolithic archaeology in particular. This paper presents a case study from the Early Upper Paleolithic (EUP) in the Eastern Mediterranean to illustrate some of the scalar issues in explaining transitions in the Pleistocene. The cultural sequence at Üçağızlı Cave I documents both continuity and change in a range of behaviors over approximately 12 ky. The sequence spans the transition from one EUP cultural unit, the Initial Upper Paleolithic (IUP) to another one, the Ahmarian. There is evidence for changes in lithic technology and retouched tool forms, human diets, and the role of the site within a regional land use system, but few if any of these changes are closely timed with the shift from one archaeological “culture” to another. In this particular case, local and regional transitions seem to be largely unconnected. However, considering the local situations allows a more precise focus on what the broader cultural transition represents and how it might be studied.

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Modeling Effects of Local Extinctions on Culture Change and Diversity in the Paleolithic

Abstract: The persistence of early stone tool technologies has puzzled archaeologists for decades. Cognitively based explanations, which presume either lack of ability to innovate or extreme conformism, do not account for the totality of the empirical patterns. Following recent research, this study explores the effects of demographic factors on rates of culture change and diversification. We investigate whether the appearance of stability in early Paleolithic technologies could result from frequent extinctions of local subpopulations within a persistent metapopulation. A spatially explicit agent-based model was constructed to test the influence of local extinction rate on three general cultural patterns that archaeologists might observe in the material record: total diversity, differentiation among spatially defined groups, and the rate of cumulative change. The model shows that diversity, differentiation, and the rate of cumulative cultural change would be strongly affected by local extinction rates, in some cases mimicking the results of conformist cultural transmission. The results have implications for understanding spatial and temporal patterning in ancient material culture.

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Emergent Patterns of Creativity and Innovation in Early Technologies

Abstract: Human creativity can be recognised and studied at different scales. The most familiar use of the term refers to the individual act of producing something that is new. The artist painting feverishly in a drafty garret, the inventor experiencing an “ah ha” moment in a cluttered laboratory and the jazz musician on stage absorbed in a solo are the kinds of images that the word creativity prompts in most of us. However, we may also speak of creativity at very different human and temporal scales. Some communities, places and periods seem to be especially fertile sources of new inventions and artistic achievement: the European Renaissance and the Song Dynasty in China are some iconic examples. Others times and places, sometimes termed “dark ages”, seem particularly sterile and monotonous by comparison.

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The energy transition in a climate-constrained world: Regional vs. global optimizationq

Abstract: In this paper we present a stylized economy-energy-climate model and discuss the role of the atmosphere, fossil fuels, and a stock of accumulated knowledge about renewable energy technologies in collaboratively and competitively managed worlds. The model highlights that assumptions about the degree of competition’ and about choices of lumping economic regions, and hence their heterogeneity, strongly affect model predictions about the rate of fossil fuel use and, consequently, the rate of climate change. In the model, decisionmakers (actors) make decisions about investment allocations into the goods producing economy and into carbon-based and non-carbon-based (renewable) energy supply, the remainder being for consumption. Actors are faced with the following dilemma situation. Economic growth requires energy and will therefore accelerate fossil fuel depletion and generate growth in carbon emissions, the latter leading to global warming and climate change induced damages. By developing non-carbon energy sources, which come initially at a higher cost than fossil fuels, growth of carbon emissions can be curtailed. Trying to optimize a consumption-related utility, actors base their decisions on the economically most rational investment portfolio for a finite time horizon. However, in their decisionmaking, they are constrained by the choices of other actors. We consider two prototypical situations: (i) a collaborative environment where all actors strive to maximize a world utility e the global optimum e and (ii) a situation where actors optimize the utility of their own country e a solution that corresponds to a Nash equilibrium. The difference between both outcomes can be used to classify the severity of the ‘tragedy of the commons effect’. We present results about the dependence of the severity of this effect on several key parameters (i) the number of actors, (ii) the heterogeneity and severity of expected climate damages, (iii) assumptions about technology diffusion and (iv) fossil fuel depletion.

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Multi-agent simulation of adoption of alternative fuels

Abstract: We have formalized and parameterized a model for the production of six transport fuels and six fuels blends from six feedstocks through 13 different production chains, and their adoption of by 11 distinct subpopulations of motorists. The motorists are represented by agents that use heuristics to choose a fuel on the basis of three attributes and a social feedback loop. Adoption of specific fuels is mostly driven by price differences, but other factors play a role if prices are similar. The results are not always intuitive and do not always show up immediately. We find that sustained combinations of interventions are required to bring about a transition away from petrol or diesel. Adoption of alternative fuels was most often confined to niche markets with a share of 5% or lower. Only in a single case was a complete fuel transition observed.

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Entrenchment and Scaffolding: An Architecture for a Theory of Cultural Change

Abstract: This paper is about entrenchment and scaffolding, but most of my discussion focuses on these processes in cultural and technological change or evolution. As we argued in Wimsatt and Griesemer 2007, no extant account of cultural evolution casts the net broadly enough to include all necessary elements, so we must begin with a discussion of what is necessary for an adequate theory of culture and of cultural evolution. Theories tend to be either long on Geertzian “thick description”, but described in a way that any kind of scientific account of cultural change would seem to be an offense, or long on biological inspiration, and replete with powerful mathematical
results (e.g., Boyd and Richerson and work inspired by it) but too thin when it comes to admitting phenomena, processes, and entities (such as artifacts and institutions) crucial to a sufficiently rich and dynamical theory of cultural change.

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