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Concept: Sociocultural evolution


Environmental problems have contributed to numerous collapses of civilizations in the past. Now, for the first time, a global collapse appears likely. Overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich and poor choices of technologies are major drivers; dramatic cultural change provides the main hope of averting calamity.

Concepts: Poverty, Culture, Peak oil, Society, Globalization, Civilization, Sociocultural evolution, John Zerzan


The cumulative nature of human culture is unique in the animal kingdom. Progressive improvements in tools and technologies have facilitated humanity’s spread across the globe and shaped human evolution, but the cognitive mechanisms enabling cultural change remain unclear. Here we show that, contrary to theoretical predictions, cumulative improvements in tools are not dependent on specialised, high-fidelity social learning mechanisms. Participants were tasked with building a basket to carry as much rice as possible using a set of everyday materials and divided into treatment groups with differing opportunities to learn asocially, imitate, receive teaching or emulate by examining baskets made by previous chain members. Teaching chains produced more robust baskets, but neither teaching nor imitation were strictly necessary for cumulative improvements; emulation chains generated equivalent increases in efficacy despite exhibiting relatively low copying fidelity. People used social information strategically, choosing different materials to make their baskets if the previous basket in the chain performed poorly. Together, these results suggest that cumulative culture does not rest on high-fidelity social learning mechanisms alone. Instead, the roots of human cultural prowess may lie in the interplay of strategic social learning with other cognitive traits including the ability to reverse engineer artefacts through causal reasoning.

Concepts: Psychology, Culture, Anthropology, Globalization, Archaeology, Indigenous peoples, Observational learning, Sociocultural evolution


This paper presents a literature review that explores the challenges for planning in urban regions in connection with the preservation of ecosystem services. It further presents some best practice examples for meeting these challenges. The demand for the provision of ecosystem services within urban regions changed during the transition from a largely agrarian society to an industrial society and, most recently, to a service society. While in the past, provisioning services such as food production or the provision of raw material, were decisive for urban development, today cultural services, e.g. clear views or nearby recreation areas, have become increasingly important. According to the literature, soil sealing is the greatest threat urbanisation poses towards ecosystem services, as it compromises all of them. Spatially extensive cities with a high building density particularly inhibit regulating services like the regulation of temperature or water surface run-off. Conversely, scattered settlement patterns may lead to very small remnants of open space that cannot reasonably serve as natural habitat, agricultural land or recreation area. The challenges for planning in urban regions are: (i) specifying regulations that define outer limits to the development of each settlement unit; (ii) comprehensive planning with focal points for development, and limiting access and development at other places; (iii) compensating for new soil sealing by restoring nearby sealed areas. The paper presents three best-practice examples that support these principles: designating areas with a particular soil quality that should not be built over; offering incentives for corporate planning in urban regions; and restoring a country road in connection with a motorway construction. Integr Environ Assess Manag © 2013 SETAC.

Concepts: Biodiversity, City, Ecosystem, Management, Regulation, Sustainability, Urban planning, Sociocultural evolution


Conflicts fueled by popular religious mobilization have rekindled the controversy surrounding Samuel Huntington’s theory of changing international alignments in the Post-Cold War era. In The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington challenged Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis that liberal democracy had emerged victorious out of Post-war ideological and economic rivalries. Based on a top-down analysis of the alignments of nation states, Huntington famously concluded that the axes of international geo-political conflicts had reverted to the ancient cultural divisions that had characterized most of human history. Until recently, however, the debate has had to rely more on polemics than empirical evidence. Moreover, Huntington made this prediction in 1993, before social media connected the world’s population. Do digital communications attenuate or echo the cultural, religious, and ethnic “fault lines” posited by Huntington prior to the global diffusion of social media? We revisit Huntington’s thesis using hundreds of millions of anonymized email and Twitter communications among tens of millions of worldwide users to map the global alignment of interpersonal relations. Contrary to the supposedly borderless world of cyberspace, a bottom-up analysis confirms the persistence of the eight culturally differentiated civilizations posited by Huntington, with the divisions corresponding to differences in language, religion, economic development, and spatial distance.

Concepts: Sociology, Culture, Communication, Media, Civilization, Sociocultural evolution, Samuel P. Huntington, The End of History and the Last Man


Six previously undescribed 5,6-seco-tremulane analogues, together with two known ones, were isolated from the culture broth of the medicinal fungus Irpex lacteus HFG1102. The structures of the new compounds were elucidated via extensive spectroscopic methods, including NMR and HRMS spectroscopic analyses.

Concepts: Spectroscopy, Culture, Anthropology, The Culture, Near infrared spectroscopy, Sociocultural evolution, Special Circumstances, Claude Lévi-Strauss


Studies of collective intelligence in animal groups typically overlook potential improvement through learning. Although knowledge accumulation is recognized as a major advantage of group living within the framework of Cumulative Cultural Evolution (CCE), the interplay between CCE and collective intelligence has remained unexplored. Here, we use homing pigeons to investigate whether the repeated removal and replacement of individuals in experimental groups (a key method in testing for CCE) alters the groups' solution efficiency over successive generations. Homing performance improves continuously over generations, and later-generation groups eventually outperform both solo individuals and fixed-membership groups. Homing routes are more similar in consecutive generations within the same chains than between chains, indicating cross-generational knowledge transfer. Our findings thus show that collective intelligence in animal groups can accumulate progressive modifications over time. Furthermore, our results satisfy the main criteria for CCE and suggest potential mechanisms for CCE that do not rely on complex cognition.

Concepts: Culture, Educational psychology, Learning, Knowledge, Problem solving, Key signature, Sociocultural evolution, Leslie White


The evidence for culture in non-human animals has been growing incrementally over the past two decades. However, the ability for cumulative cultural evolution, with successive generations building on earlier achievements, in non-human animals remains debated. Faithful social learning of incremental improvements in technique is considered to be a defining feature of human culture, differentiating human from non-human cultures. This study presents the first experimental evidence for chimpanzees' social transmission of a more efficient tool-use technique invented by a conspecific group member.

Concepts: Sociology, Culture, Anthropology, Civilization, Sociocultural evolution


There is evidence that the sharing of intentions was an important factor in the evolution of humans' unique cognitive abilities. Here, for the first time, we formally model the coevolution of jointly intentional behavior and cumulative culture, showing that rapid techno-cultural advance goes hand in hand with the emergence of the ability to participate in jointly intentional behavior. Conversely, in the absence of opportunities for significant techno-cultural improvement, the ability to undertake jointly intentional behavior is selected against. Thus, we provide a unified mechanism for the suppression or emergence of shared intentions and collaborative behavior in humans, as well as a potential cause of inter-species diversity in the prevalence of such behavior.

Concepts: Psychology, Evolution, Culture, Mind, Thought, Intention, Determinism, Sociocultural evolution


Explaining why fertility declines as populations modernize is a profound theoretical challenge. It remains unclear whether the fundamental drivers are economic or cultural in nature. Cultural evolutionary theory suggests that community-level characteristics, for example average education, can alter how low-fertility preferences are transmitted and adopted. These assumptions have not been empirically tested. Here, we show that community-level education accelerates fertility decline in a way that is neither predicted by individual characteristics, nor by the level of economic modernization in a population. In 22 high-fertility communities in Poland, fertility converged on a smaller family size as average education in the community increased-indeed community-level education had a larger impact on fertility decline than did individual education. This convergence was not driven by educational levels being more homogeneous, but by less educated women having fewer children than expected, and more highly educated social networks, when living among more highly educated neighbours. The average level of education in a community may influence the social partners women interact with, both within and beyond their immediate social environments, altering the reproductive norms they are exposed to. Given a critical mass of highly educated women, less educated neighbours may adopt their reproductive behaviour, accelerating the pace of demographic transition. Individual characteristics alone cannot capture these dynamics and studies relying solely on them may systematically underestimate the importance of cultural transmission in driving fertility declines. Our results are inconsistent with a purely individualistic, rational-actor model of fertility decline and suggest that optimization of reproduction is partly driven by cultural dynamics beyond the individual.

Concepts: Scientific method, Reproduction, Organism, Demography, Sociology, Social sciences, Sociocultural evolution, Modernization theory


As globalization brings people with incompatible attitudes into contact, cultural conflicts inevitably arise. Little is known about how to mitigate conflict and about how the conflicts that occur can shape the cultural evolution of the groups involved. Female genital cutting is a prominent example. Governments and international agencies have promoted the abandonment of cutting for decades, but the practice remains widespread with associated health risks for millions of girls and women. In their efforts to end cutting, international agents have often adopted the view that cutting is locally pervasive and entrenched. This implies the need to introduce values and expectations from outside the local culture. Members of the target society may view such interventions as unwelcome intrusions, and campaigns promoting abandonment have sometimes led to backlash as they struggle to reconcile cultural tolerance with the conviction that cutting violates universal human rights. Cutting, however, is not necessarily locally pervasive and entrenched. We designed experiments on cultural change that exploited the existence of conflicting attitudes within cutting societies. We produced four entertaining movies that served as experimental treatments in two experiments in Sudan, and we developed an implicit association test to unobtrusively measure attitudes about cutting. The movies depart from the view that cutting is locally pervasive by dramatizing members of an extended family as they confront each other with divergent views about whether the family should continue cutting. The movies significantly improved attitudes towards girls who remain uncut, with one in particular having a relatively persistent effect. These results show that using entertainment to dramatize locally discordant views can provide a basis for applied cultural evolution without accentuating intercultural divisions.

Concepts: Culture, Human rights, Film, Globalization, Entertainment, Drama, Sociocultural evolution, Female genital cutting