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Culture Evolves Slowly, Falls Apart Quickly

Societies come together slowly, but can fall apart quickly, say researchers who applied the tools of evolutionary biologists to an anthropological debate. …

The study, published October 13 in Nature, was intended to illuminate an issue of contention among archaeologists, anthropologists and historians: whether societies become more complex in incremental steps or sudden bursts, and whether they dissolve in similar fashion.

“The evolution of complex societies since the end of the last ice age has long been a major topic of investigation and debate,” wrote researchers led by anthropologists Thomas Currie and Ruth Mace of University College, London. “These debates have continued largely in the absence of rigorous, quantitative tests.” …

“Political evolution, like biological evolution, tends to proceed through small steps rather than through major jumps in ‘design space,’” wrote Mace and Currie.

However, purely forward-marching models didn’t fit the data. There was evidence of societies marching backwards as well, and this didn’t follow the same step-by-step path. Societies could collapse.

Read the rest @ Wired.

Speaking of collapse, check out Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and the must read Guns, Germs, and Steel.