Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory

, Volume 18, Issue 4, pp 309–335 | Cite as

Stimulated Variation and Cascades: Two Processes in the Evolution of Complex Technological Systems

  • Michael J. O’Brien
  • R. Alexander Bentley


Michael Schiffer’s theoretical and methodological contributions to archaeology are substantial. For the last two decades, Schiffer has become increasingly interested in the history of electrical technology, including portable radios, electric automobiles, eighteenth-century electrostatic technology, and, most recently, nineteenth-century electric light and power systems. Schiffer has long held a behavioral view, which focuses analytical attention on interactions between humans and material things, including complex technological systems (CTSs). For Schiffer, two key aspects of the evolution of CTSs are stimulated variation, defined as an increase in invention resulting from changing selective conditions, and cascading, defined as sequential spurts of invention that occur through the recognition of emergent performance problems in a CTS. To attain maximum usefulness, these concepts should be placed in a modern evolutionary framework that correctly identifies, and does not oversell, the role played by cultural selection. Research on individual and social learning provides the critical link between Schiffer’s stimulated variation and cascade models and the diffusion of CTSs.


Cascade model Individual learning Innovation Invention Social learning Tipping points 



We thank Jim Skibo and Jeff Reid for their kind invitation to MJO to participate in the Society for American Archaeology symposium on Mike Schiffer’s work; the Leverhulme Trust (U.K.) for funding the “Tipping Points” program at Durham University; Melody Galen for creating the figures; and a reviewer whose thoughtful comments greatly improved the paper.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of MissouriColumbiaUSA
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyBristol UniversityBristolUK

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