In an interesting new paper, Krist Vaelsen and Wybo Houkes (V&H) ask if human culture is characteristically cumulative or not, and more particularly, whether there is evidence for this. A variety of authors, many well-known names, respond:
Is Human Culture Cumulative?
The question might sound like a no-brainer. Surely the evidence of cumulativeness is all around us? Well, yes, but V&H are setting the bar higher. They are asking if cumulativeness is a characteristic of human culture, rather than just an occasional occurrence. This is a good question: for a lot of our history (the longest part, measured in hundreds of thousands of years) stone tool sets did not accumulate innovations. Some of these tools (both flaked and polished stone tools) were still in use in Australasia and the Pacific region in recent times, like the one at the top of this post. They apparently served their makers well.
I will not attempt to summarize all the arguments and counter-arguments, rather I make one general observation about the entire discussion. The naive scholar might get the impression that human culture is (in the first instance) a philosophical topic. The discussion is mainly couched in generalities (both the original paper and the responses). Authors take ‘positions’ on various point of view. There are pleas for more ‘real world datasets’ but little detailed discussion of actual datasets that could answer the questions raised by V&H (Ceri Shipton’s excellent evidence-based discussion of hunter-gatherer toolkits stands out as the exception). The facts discussed are mainly of the ‘stylized’ variety (to use Richerson and Boyd’s expression).
V&H’s excellent questions can be answered to a large extent. Detailed, non-WEIRD studies of human cultural change over a large scale and long time period, spanning the range from simple to complex (the latter characteristic being objectively measurable) do exist. For example:
The Evolution of an Ancient Technology
What are the conclusions? Simply put, V&H are right in one of their key points. Human culture is sometimes cumulative, but not always. Some simple technologies have survived virtually unchanged since Neolithic times (or earlier). Some lineages did accumulate complexity, with demonstrable continuity with the earliest forms. Some lineages even lost complexity. This aspect is driven by other factors (societal, economic), it is not an intrinsic property of cultural change.
Cultural change is a complex empirical question, that can only be answered satisfactorily with high quality data. The kind that takes years of fieldwork and years of coding work to accumulate.