Does Population Size Explain the Evolution of Complex Cultures?

A crowd of people walking on a city sidewalk.

The idea that the size of a population determines its ability to develop a complex culture has been a growing consensus among archaeologists and anthropologists. (Image: Blvdone via Dreamstime)

The idea that the size of populations determines their ability to develop complex cultures has been a growing consensus among archaeologists and anthropologists. The logic behind this consensus seems to be sound; however, a new study says it is severely flawed.

So using this model, the larger the population is, the higher the probability it would contain an Einstein or an individual with a brilliant idea. But a few problems arise, for instance, what if their custom condemned any nonconformity? Or if this Einstein decided to share within his own family? The brilliant ideas would simply die, without any benefit to the wider population.

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Archeologists have observed a sudden appearance of behavioral modernity, for example, complex technologies, abstract and realistic art, and musical instruments, dated some 40,000 years ago in the Later Stone Age. Searching for answers about the origins of human culture, archaeologists and anthropologists have been looking for an explanation for these and other “cultural revolutions” that led to complex cultures for decades.

Population size does not determine complex cultures.
Archeologists have observed a sudden appearance of behavioral modernity, for example, complex technologies, abstract and realistic art, and musical instruments, dated some 40,000 years ago in the Later Stone Age. (Image: Gruban via Wikimedia)

The logic seems inescapable indeed. The bigger the population, the higher the probability it contains an Einstein. Therefore, bigger populations are more likely to develop complex cultures. However, this consensus view is now under scrutiny, with the publishing of a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Eindhoven University of Technology explained in a statement.

Population size does not determine complex cultures

The researchers included Dr. Krist Vaesen, a technology philosopher from the Eindhoven University of Technology, along with archaeologists from Simon Fraser University, La Trobe University, and Leiden University. In their paper, the researchers contest this demography hypothesis of forming complex cultures by showing a growing body of ethnographic evidence.

In the paper, critical flaws have been revealed in the theoretical models and the evidence behind such demographic interpretations of cultural innovation. The authors suggest that the models only support a relationship between population size and complex cultures under a limited set of particularly implausible conditions.

krist_vaesen
The researchers included Dr. Krist Vaesen a technology philosopher from the Eindhoven University of Technology. (Image: via Eindhoven University of Technology)

A critical analysis of the available archaeological evidence suggests that there is simply no data to conclude that behavioral modernity emerged in a period of population growth, or even that the size of a population directly influences the rate of innovation in a society’s technological repertoire, according to Leiden University.

For around 10 years the predominant theory was that the driving factor would be growing population numbers, now the researchers and their supporters believe that archaeologists need to go back to the drawing board.

Vaesen wrote in a statement:

“The idea behind the demography hypothesis is attractive in its simplicity. But complex questions by definition demand complex answers. For the evolution of complex culture, no satisfying answer is available yet. The question of the emergence of complex culture remains as elusive as ever.”

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