Macroevolution in Human Prehistory

pp 297-316


Material Cultural Macroevolution

  • Niles EldredgeAffiliated withThe American Museum of Natural History Email author 

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Defining “evolution” simply as the fate of transmissible information allows comparisons to be drawn between the domains of biological and material cultural evolution. “Genes” are real corporeal information-bearing entities, whereas “memes” are particles of information known only from specifiable bits of cultural phenomena—including material culture.

Genetically based information transfer is vertical in all but bacterial and certain plant clades; in contrast, information transfer in material cultural systems is both horizontal and vertical. Phylogenetic analytic protocols developed for biological systems generally work poorly for complex material cultural domains—as rampant horizontal transfer between “clades” generally precludes simple resolution of evolutionary trees. In addition, independent solution of design problems in material cultural systems (the “Hannah Principle”; (Eldredge 2006; Tëmkin and Eldredge 2007)) vitiates any exact analogy with biological homology. Material cultural systems and their evolutionary histories are therefore inherently more complex than biological systems.

The dual hierarchies of economics (“ecology”) and genetic information that suffice to describe the structure and dynamical evolutionary process of biological systems are necessary but insufficient to characterize material cultural systems. A dual information/economic system consisting of makers/manufacturers lies between the general economic “marketplace” and information hierarchies in material cultural systems. Using a database of design diversity and history of the cornet—a brass wind instrument—allows comparison with the “sloshing bucket” notion of hierarchy interaction in biological evolution (Eldredge 2003). I conclude that stasis, gradual evolution and “turnovers” are important patterns in material cultural evolution—and that “key innovations” seldom trigger major evolutionary events in either biological or material cultural systems.