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«edited by Michael J. O’Brien and Stephen J. Shennan The MIT Press Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England © 2010 Massachusetts Institute of ...»

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Innovation in Cultural Systems

Contributions from Evolutionary Anthropology

edited by Michael J. O’Brien and Stephen J. Shennan

The MIT Press

Cambridge, Massachusetts

London, England

© 2010 Massachusetts Institute of Technology

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Innovation in cultural systems : contributions from evolutionary anthropology / edited by Michael J. O’Brien and Stephen J. Shennan.

p. cm.—(Vienna series in theoretical biology) Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-262-01333-8 (hardcover : alk. paper) 1. Physical anthropology. 2. Human evolution. 3. Social evolution. 4. Human beings–Origin. 5. Technological innovations. I. O’Brien, Michael J. II. Shennan, Stephen J.

GN60.I56 2010 599.9–dc22 1 Issues in Anthropological Studies of Innovation Michael J. O’Brien and Stephen J. Shennan It would be difficult to find a topic in anthropology that has played as central a role as innovation in attempts to explain why and how human behavior changes. Likewise, it would be difficult to find a topic that has caused more debate and resulted in such a lack of consensus. At first glance, this might seem a little odd, given that the term innovation is used so widely and has what appears to be a straightforward definition: something new and different. Although there is nothing wrong with that definition, it barely scratches the surface of what in anthropology has turned out to be a complicated concept. For example, the definition doesn’t tell us how we would recognize an innovation, nor does it tell us anything about its origin.

Of course, a simple definition shouldn’t be held to such a high standard, but it might be helpful if those using the term for more than casual purposes were specific about such matters. Such has rarely been the case in anthropology, although it hasn’t been for lack of trying. Anthropologists for over a century have recognized the complexity of the conceptual and methodological issues surrounding innovation, especially with respect to units and scale. In short, how do we identify not only innovations but the units involved in the transmission of those innovations? Are they the same units that we can use to measure transmission? Are there different scalesof units, with units at one scale subsuming those below them?

Here we briefly examine those issues, bypassing extended discussion of any single topic and focusing instead on the development of some of our current notions of innovation.

Definitions of this term and its relation to “invention” have varied considerably. Fagerberg (2005), for example, regards invention as the first appearance of an idea for a new product or process, whereas innovation represents the first attempt to put it into practice, which may occur considerably later. Moreover, innovation may be seen not as a “one-off” but as a continuing accumulation of changes (see chapter 9, this volume). Barnett (1953: 7–8), on the other hand, claims to be following popular usage in regarding inventions as physical things, whereas an innovation is defined as “any thought, behavior or thing that is new because it is qualitatively different from existing forms,” which sets the bar quite high 4 M. J. O’Brien and S. J. Shennan with its emphasis on the qualitatively novel. The distinction made by Elster (1986) in his study of technical change corresponds closely to that advocated by Fagerberg, in that innovation is viewed as “new technical knowledge” (p. 93) and invention as the generation of a new idea. Elster also points out that diffusion often involves innovation, as modifications to a product or process are made in response to a new context, whereas substitution, making a change in some process using existing technical knowledge, also easily shades into innovation.

Schumpeter (1934) placed his main emphasis on the qualitative disjunction side— “[Innovation] is that kind of change arising within the system which so displaces its equilibrium point that the new one cannot be reached from the old one by infinitesimal steps. Add successively as many mail coaches as you please, you will never get a railway thereby” (Schumpeter 1934: 64). Schumpeter also gave a role to adaptive technical change and the importance of the accumulation of small changes over time (Elster 1986). Whether such innovations, small and incremental or large and discontinuous, will be successful is another matter again and depends on the various selection and bias processes discussed below.

Most discussions of innovation have focused on the technical dimension, including the organizational aspects of technical processes, as the discussion above suggests. However, there is no reason why fashions should not be included, and here success, in terms of increasing frequency, may be simply the result of the vagaries of random copying (see chapter 8, this volume). Indeed, as contributors to this volume make clear, the issue of innovations in cultural systems is almost unlimited in terms of scope, and we leave it to our colleagues to explore the myriad directions that lie beyond our focus.





Although it is sometimes forgotten, much of what we take for “modern” perspectives is actually built to varying degrees on decades of thoughtful research by our forebears.

We were reminded of this recently while perusing the abundant social science literature on memes, which some social scientists argue underlie the spread of innovations. It would be worthwhile for those interested in memetics to spend an afternoon or two looking at how ethnologists and archaeologists of the first half of the twentieth century wrestled with what culture traits are. The parallels in thought processes, analytical approaches, and even research dead ends are enlightening.

Anthropological Views on Innovation

Innovation was explicit in the nineteenth-century writings of ethnologists such as Tylor (1871) and Morgan (1877), both of whom viewed the production of novelties—new ideas, new ways of doing things, and the like—as the underlying evolutionary force that propels cultures up the ladder of cultural complexity. Innovation was equally important in the work of later cultural evolutionists such as Steward (1955) and White (1959). For them, Issues in Anthropological Studies of Innovation 5 the evolutionary process was less orthogenetic than it was for the earlier evolutionists, with the source of innovation wrapped up in the kind of mechanisms a group needs to meet the challenges of its physical and social environment.

Innovation has also played an essential role in American archaeology (Lyman 2008;

Lyman and O’Brien 2003; Lyman et al. 1997; O’Brien et al. 2005). Culture historians of the twentieth century routinely looked to diffusion and trade as sources of innovations, and hence of culture change, adopting without comment the models of their ethnological colleagues. Sometimes innovations were viewed as having been borrowed, often from incredible distances (e.g., Ford 1969; Meggers et al. 1965). Other times they were viewed as products of what Adolf Bastian referred to in the mid-nineteenth century as the “psychic unity of mankind” (Lowie 1937: 35). These two contrasting processes—diffusion versus independent invention—were at the heart of discussions of cultural relatedness. Thus, Steward (1955) argued that if the ethnologist (or archaeologist) could determine which traits were at the core of a culture and which ones were secondary, then the traits could be used to assess the degree of cultural relatedness between that culture and others. The more core traits that two cultures possess, the more historically related they are. If two cultures hold few or no traits in common, then either the cultures are unrelated or they were once related but at such a distant point in the past that the phylogenetic signal has all but disappeared.

Units of Culture in Twentieth-Century Anthropology

Despite the widespread use of culture traits as measures of relatedness or of functional convergence, there was much less emphasis on trying to figure out exactly what a culture trait is. This raises particular difficulties if our focus is innovation because if we cannot even define the cultural features we are dealing with, deciding what represents an innovation is problematical in the extreme. Researchers universally assume that such traits are mental phenomena that one acquires through teaching and learning, but through much of the twentieth century there were few explicit theoretical definitions of a culture trait (Osgood 1951). This was highly problematic and meant that the units varied greatly in scale, generality, and inclusiveness (Lyman and O’Brien 2003). There were numerous efforts to resolve the difficulties of classification and scale (e.g., McKern 1939; Willey and Phillips 1958), but they did little to resolve the issue.

Biologists might well point out that there are also procedural problems in their discipline, where there is no standard set of characters used in the creation of taxa, but the situation is murkier in anthropology (see chapters 3 and 4, this volume). The one place where anthropologists have made insightful comments is with respect to what early in the twentieth century became known as trait complexes—minimally defined as “groups of culture elements that are empirically found in association with each other” (Golbeck 1980).

Although trait complexes have traditionally been used as another means of comparing cultures, the concept has a role to play in modern cultural evolutionary analysis, if for no 6 M. J. O’Brien and S. J. Shennan other reason than it reminds us that cultural phenomena may evolve as complex wholes, not as tiny parts (Boyd et al. 1997; Guglielmino et al. 1995; Henrich and McElreath 2003;

Pocklington 2006; Shennan and Steele 1999; chapter 14, this volume). Selection can, and often does, act as a tinkerer—and “one who does not know exactly what he is going to produce but uses whatever he finds around him” (Jacob 1977: 1163)—but it is the potential “cascading” effects (Schiffer 2005; chapters 13 and 14, this volume) of that selection that may be important. A key goal of evolutionary analysis is to identify which applies in any given case, rather than making blanket assumptions about the holistic or atomistic nature of innovation and change.

Our point is that novelties are often more than simple character-state changes (Basalla 1988; Reid 2007). This is more or less what Trigger (1998: 364) apparently had in mind when he said that evolutionary archaeology should abandon a “reductionist biological terminology in favor of one that explicitly takes account of the unique, emergent aspects of human behavior.” Of course, the insistence on human uniqueness is overdone; biological evolution has plenty of examples of the emergence of entirely new phenomena (see, e.g., Maynard Smith and Szathmary 1995). Nevertheless, “emergent aspects”—aspects that have irreducible novel properties—are important considerations in any discussion of cultural innovation (O’Brien 2007; Sawyer 2005; Shennan 2002a). Recent evolutionary approaches to culture have had to address the “units of culture” issue head-on, and their contribution is outlined below.

Cultural Transmission—The Spread of Innovation

From the beginning, regardless of how ethnologists and archaeologists viewed culture traits, and irrespective of their arguing over whether a particular trait was transmitted vertically (cultural ancestor to cultural descendant) or horizontally (cultural group to unrelated cultural group),1 there was agreement that traits are learned, not genetically inherited (see chapter 3, this volume). Transmission, particularly between parents and offspring of the same sex (Shennan and Steele 1999), creates what archaeologists have long referred to as traditions—patterned ways of doing things that exist in identifiable form over extended periods of time (chapters 9, 10, 13, and 15, this volume).

It seems naive, given what we know of the archaeological record, not to believe that forms are modeled on preexisting forms. Further, cultural phenomena are parts of human phenotypes in the same way that skin and bones are, and as such they are capable of yielding data relevant to understanding both the process of evolution and the specific evolutionary histories of their possessors.

With the growing interest in evolution that became noticeable in anthropology in the 1960s and accelerated through the 1970s and 1980s (e.g., Campbell 1965, 1970, 1975;

Dunnell 1980; Durham 1976, 1978, 1979, 1982; Rindos 1980), researchers began to Issues in Anthropological Studies of Innovation 7 reconsider the relationship between biology and culture (see chapters 2 and 5, this volume), and nowhere was this more evident than in attempts to understand the role of innovation in the evolution of cultural systems. One area of sustained focus not only in anthropology but in the social sciences in general was cultural transmission (e.g., Boyd and Richerson 1985; Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman 1973, 1981; Cloak 1975; Durham 1991; Lumsden and Wilson 1981; Pulliam and Dunford 1980; Richerson and Boyd 1978, 1992; chapters 7–9, 11, and 12, this volume).



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