Field of Science

Human Cultural Transformation Triggered by Dense Populations

Biologically,modern humans first appeared 160,000 to 200,000 years ago. But the transition to complex human societies, with art, music, advanced tools, occurred a good deal more recently, and moreover, occured at different times in different parts of the world. An article in June's Science magazine (see a less technical write-up here) argues, based on historical evidence and computer simulations, that in each case the transition was triggered once the population density had reached a critical threshold. At this threshold, there is sufficient interaction to allow for complex ideas to be passed down through generations, enabling rapid cultural evolution.

This highlights an interesting evolutionary tension: as I've written before, evolutionary theory tells us that cooperative behaviors are more likely to evolve (biologically speaking) in populations that are dispersed over space rather than densely packed. But I'm beginning to think that cultural evolution may be different enough from biological evolution to require its own body of theory.


  1. I wonder if in more densely populated human environments a new fusion of competition and cooperation needs to emerge to catalyze a cultural evolutionary leap. Thinking out of the box, In our post-modern cultural environment we have taken cooperation to an amazing and unprecedented extreme as human rights and free civil society structures demonstrate. Nevertheless, maybe for a step forward in our complex cultural system, we need to integrate that cooperation into a deeper moral context that actually implicates individuals, compels them to take greater responsibility, while not compromising their autonomy or capacity for individual agency as a citizen. This reflection comes more from a social science / humanities / religious studies perspective, but I would fascinate to hear your comments...

  2. Hi Ben!

    In any system there is a tradeoff between autonomy and interdependence. It looks as though we humans have been on a course of increasing interdependence since our history began. Interdependence lets us do some pretty amazing things--starting with the cultural transformations discussed in this article, and continuing to our present age of globalized economy and society.

    But of course there are different kinds of interdependence. Taking an optimistic view, one could say that over the past 300 years our interdependence has become increasingly democratic-that is, more of a web of connections between equals and less of a forcibly maintained hierarchy.

    I think there's some great theoretical work to be done on highlighting the differences between democratic and hierarchical interdependence, and how these differences affect a system's behavior.

  3. Cultural Evolution and Biological Evolution are distinct because they have very different mechanisms and processes. The Complex-Systems Theory of Culture is the only published scientific theory that explains cultural evolution (Gehlsen, 2009 – find this book on Amazon). This theory explains why a certain “threshold” of population density is necessary before complex societies can emerge. Social Complexity was the first topic engaged during the synthesis of this new theory.

    The Complex-Systems Theory of Culture is used to engage current topics in culture at:


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