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.
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