Archaeology provides many opportunities for studying innovation and cultural evolution. The results of this work are potentially useful to scientists working on contemporary society and future studies. The purpose of future studies research, in a nutshell, is to provide guidance to those whose task is to change the course of history without disrupting the fabric of contemporary society. It is therefore important to understand how historical systems evolve. Archaeologists, if they are willing to master the technicalities needed to communicate across disciplinary boundaries, can contribute meaningfully to this work. This article, for example, is one of a short series of publications arising through collaboration between two international, trans-disciplinary research projects. One of these, DISPERSE, is a pure archaeology project dealing with landscapes and human/landscape interaction in early prehistory. The other, COMPLEX, is a project searching for pathways to a low-carbon economy in Europe that happens to be led by an archaeologist. COMPLEX is not an isolated phenomenon; it belongs to a growing corpus of 'future studies' research on both sides of the Atlantic influenced by archaeological perspectives.
The cross-fertilisation between archaeology and future studies has been explored in a range of papers, reviews in the 'grey literature' of policy-relevant science and books; see, for example, Winder 1999; van der Leeuw and Redman 2002; Redman and Kinzig 2003; Bodley 2012). Archaeologists bring an important, deep-time perspective to future studies. Those trained in the systems approaches to socio-natural science have a clear understanding of human/environment interaction and long-term environmental change. We also tend to be aware of the difference between ex post (backward-looking) and ex ante (forward-looking) time perspectives and time-asymmetry. These historiographic insights have many practical applications.
One of the great advantages of integrating insights from pure and applied research is that academics, if they are so minded, can raise awareness of problems that are not yet hot political issues. Bertrand Russell did this rather neatly when he wrote: 'A stable social system is necessary, but every stable social system hitherto devised has hampered the development of exceptional artistic or intellectual merit. How much murder and anarchy are we prepared to endure for the sake of great achievements such as those of the Renaissance? In the past, a great deal; in our own time, much less.' Russell (1961, 490).
There is no doubt that human creativity has been a two-edged sword. Compassionate impulses that worked reasonably well on a human scale are increasingly defeated by the constraints and conflicts of interest that characterise modern institutions. The compassionate ape has become the genocidal ape, whose actions have entrained planetary life-support systems. So profound has this reorganisation been, that many scientists believe humans have wrought irreversible changes in the atmosphere, biosphere and lithosphere. We have entered a new geological period, the Anthropocene, with a new possibility space of attractors. Here Russell reminds us that human creativity is also a source of joy and fulfilment. If the price of protecting planetary life-support systems from collapse were that our descendants would evolve into mindless automata with the innovative competence of an ant or a naked mole-rat, how many intellectuals would willingly pay?
The problem we face, then, is that of reorganising human affairs in a way that protects planetary life-support systems without compromising human creativity and cultural diversity. As Russell (1961, 490) mildly observed: 'No solution of this problem has yet been found, although increase of social organisation is making it continually more important.' In order to solve the problem, we need to understand what sorts of attractors our cognitive skills have exapted us to colonise, and to characterise the patterns of intra- and inter-species co-operation likely to bring desired attractors into being.
In an earlier paper on primate/landscape interaction in the Plio-Pleistocene period, for example, we observed that anatomically modern humans have become co-operative resilience feeders, perturbing stable, unproductive ecosystems in a way that drives them to the edge of their basins of attraction so they can exploit the fluxes of energy and resources released as those ecosystems run back into the attractor (Winder I.C. and Winder N.P. 2013). This can be a risky strategy because the perturbations increase selective stress within the ecosystem that can trigger a rapid, 'heroic' dynamic that destroys the attractor completely.
There is scope for equivocation about when our species became resilience-feeders. It is possible to argue that these behaviours are as old as the genus Homo, but unquestionable that the resilience-feeding strategy became much more intensive at the end of the Palaeolithic period. The evidence of resilience-feeding behaviours in the Neolithic, for example, is unequivocal. Agriculturalists in many regions of the world cleared climax vegetation and modified the distribution of plant and animal resources in ways that created qualitatively new ecological attractors. In arid and semi-arid regions, some of those agro-ecosystems collapsed as a result of deforestation, desertification and salinisation, but the Neolithic attractors were resilient enough to support substantial demographic growth.
Shennan et al. (2013) have amassed a large body of evidence for demographic change in the European Neolithic that suggests a cyclical pattern. Instead of the gradual 'wave of advance' across Europe that archaeologists once envisioned, Shennan's group has found evidence that suggests boom-bust cycles that cannot be explained exogenously in terms of environmental vicissitudes. These demographic cycles were not sufficiently deep to re-shape human gene pools in Neolithic Europe. The interpretation of these data is provisional, but they may imply endogenous, culturally mediated phoenix-cycles of institutional collapse and renaissance, comparable to those we have described in our work on the ecodynamics of modern science (Winder N.P. and Winder I.C. 2013).
By the end of the Neolithic our innovative competence had become a destabilising force in its own right as humans began to live in deeply stratified urban units with complex institutional structures, writing and craft specialisation. One of the most significant differences between these urban civilizations and earlier agricultural attractors is that humans had begun to domesticate (i.e. enslave) other humans on a very large scale. Over the millennia, successive innovation-cascades have increased the carrying capacity of the planet from hundreds of thousands to billions, whence the global impact of human activity systems.
The demographies of ancient hominins and modern humans are strikingly dissimilar. There are now billions of humans on earth, organised into large, stable ethnic groups connected by a network of low-level gene exchange. Much of our gene pool has been silenced by natural selection. Modern populations no longer depend on refugial landscapes or face the challenge posed by those genetic bottlenecks. Human gene pools have stagnated to the point where profoundly disabling traits are protected from extinction by laws of large numbers, dominance relations, polymorphisms and behavioural flexibility. There is relatively little evidence of irreversible genetic flow over the last few millennia and none at all in modern populations. Although our gene pools are evolutionarily inert, our institutional structures are more powerful and influential than ever. Institutions have emerged that protect themselves from destabilising innovations by coercing individuals into compliance and vetoing the results of research that suggests the course of history can, and should, be changed.
Modern urban societies provide a vast range of a priori improbable attractors. Anthropologists studying in the history of evolutionary ideas are sustained by taxes taken from people who make plastic whistles for Christmas crackers, priests, real-estate agents and popular musicians. Our species has experienced so many symmetry-breaking events since the end of the Pleistocene that few of us are now capable of getting our own food, clothes and shelter or, indeed, have any need of these skills. Our ability to innovate - to change the course of evolutionary history by changing the way we think - has become the principal driver of human evolution. The challenge for future studies in the 21st century will be to extend our understanding of cultural ecodynamics in ways that accommodate that wondrous complexity.