No strength in numbers after all? Demographic explanations of cumulative culture re-examined

Author(s): Wybo Houkes; Krist Vaesen

Year: 2015


Cultural-evolutionary models of scientific and technological change enjoy growing popularity. This family of mathematical and agent-based models purportedly explains how cultural change results from a ‘demographic’ effect: complex traits accumulate in large groups, and disappear in smaller groups. We use agent-based modelling to reveal hidden contingencies in these findings. We show that the demographic effect is sensitive to assumptions regarding social learning mechanisms and skill distributions, and particular definitions of complexity, for which there are empirically plausible alternatives. Further, we examine in what sense demographic models of cumulative culture, even if exhibiting robust results, can be said to explain particular transitions, e.g., the loss of culture in Holocene Tasmania, the Upper Palaeolithic transition, or the growth of scientific knowledge since the Industrial Revolution. We consider various proposals offered in the philosophy of science, and demonstrate that none of them is satisfactory. From this we conclude that we either need a new account of explanation, geared specifically to cultural evolutionary models, or let go the idea that these models can do much explanatory work.

SAA 2015 abstracts made available in tDAR courtesy of the Society for American Archaeology and Center for Digital Antiquity Collaborative Program to improve digital data in archaeology. If you are the author of this presentation you may upload your paper, poster, presentation, or associated data (up to 3 files/30MB) for free. Please visit for instructions and more information.

Cite this Record

No strength in numbers after all? Demographic explanations of cumulative culture re-examined. Krist Vaesen, Wybo Houkes. Presented at The 80th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, San Francisco, California. 2015 ( tDAR id: 395365)