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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Human Complex Systems


The long-term Evolution of Social Organization


This chapter outlines how the ‘innovation innovation’ transformed the world of our distant ancestors into that in which we live today. It focuses on the relationship between people and the material world, as it is the material world that has been most drastically, and measurably, transformed over the last several tens of thousands of years. In view of what we know about such distant periods, and in view of the space allot-ted to us here, it will not surprise the reader that we do so in the form of a narrative that is only partly underpinned by substantive data. We emphasize this because we do not want to hide from the reader the speculative nature of the story that follows. Yet we firmly believe that, in very general terms, this scenario is correct, and that further research will vindicate us.

We first give examples of the kinds of abstractions, and the hierarchy of conceptual dimensions necessary for prehistoric human beings and their ancestors, to conquer matter, i.e. to conceptually understand, transmit and apply the operations needed to master the making of a range of objects made out of stone, bone, wood, clay and other materials. Some of the abstractions that had to be conceived in this domain re-semble those that Read et al. ( refer to, while others apply to this domain alone, and had to be truly ‘invented’. It is then argued that such ‘identification of conceptual dimensions’ is a process that underlies all human activity, and we look a little closer at how that process relates to invention and innovation.

Lastly, we shift our attention to the role of innovation, information processing and communication in the emergence of social institutions, and in the structural transformation of human societies as they grow in size and complexity. In particular, we look at the role that problem solving and invention play in creating more and more complex societies, encompassing increasing numbers of people, more and more diverse institutions, and an – ultimately seemingly all-encompassing – appropriation of the natural environment. To illustrate this development we will focus on the origins and growth of urban systems.

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