I recently came across a post over at GNXP on the rise and crash of civilizations. It's a really interesting discussion on a new paper by Currie et al. (2010), Rise and fall of political complexity in island South-East Asia and the Pacific. Here is the abstract:
There is disagreement about whether human political evolution has proceeded through a sequence of incremental increases in complexity, or whether larger, non-sequential increases have occurred. The extent to which societies have decreased in complexity is also unclear. These debates have continued largely in the absence of rigorous, quantitative tests. We evaluated six competing models of political evolution in Austronesian-speaking societies using phylogenetic methods. Here we show that in the best-fitting model political complexity rises and falls in a sequence of small steps. This is closely followed by another model in which increases are sequential but decreases can be either sequential or in bigger drops. The results indicate that large, non-sequential jumps in political complexity have not occurred during the evolutionary history of these societies. This suggests that, despite the numerous contingent pathways of human history, there are regularities in cultural evolution that can be detected using computational phylogenetic methods. [My emphasis].
I don't have much to add on the subject as I think Razib covered most of the relevant points, plus I haven't even finished reading the paper yet (I'm hoping to get back into research blogging later this week). I will, however, post one of their figures that shows the dynamic between the rise and fall of political complexity, and how it shows regularity (btw, RJMCMC means Bayesian reversible-jump Markov chain Monte Carlo... if that helps you in any way):
It is well documented that Thomas Robert Malthus' An Essay on the Principle of Population greatly influenced both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace's independent conception of their theory of natural selection. In it, Malthus puts forward his observation that the finite nature of resources is in conflict with the potentially exponential rate of reproduction, leading to an inevitable struggle between individuals. Darwin took this basic premise and applied it to nature, as he notes in his autobiography:
In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work.
The interaction of demographic and evolutionary processes is thus central in understanding Darwin’s big idea: that exponential growth will eventually lead to a large population, and in turn will generate competition for natural selection to act on any heritable variation which conferred a greater fitness advantage. Under these assumptions we are able to interpret the evolutionary record of most species by appealing to two basic causal elements: genes and the environment. As we all know, in most cases the environment generates selection pressures to which genes operate and respond. For humans, however, the situation becomes more complicated when we consider another basic causal element: culture. The current paper by Richerson, Boyd & Bettinger (2009) offers one way to view this muddied situation by delineating the demographic and evolutionary processes through the notion of time scales:
The idea of time scales is used in the physical environmental sciences to simplify problems with complex interactions between processes. If one process happens on a short time scale and the other one on a long time scale, then one can often assume that the short time scale process is at an equilibrium (or in some more complex state that can be described statistically) with respect to factors governed by the long scale process. If the short time scale and long time scale interact, we can often imagine that at each time step in the evolution of the long time scale process, the short time scale process is at “equilibrium.” A separation of time scales, if justified, makes thinking about many problems of coupled dynamics much easier.
When examining the dispersal of Pleistocene hominins, one of the more fascinating debates concern the patterns of biological and technological evolution in East Asia and other regions of the Old World. One suggestion emerging from palaeoanthropological research places a demarcation between these two regions in the form of a geographical division known as the Movius Line. Specifically, the suggestions that initially led to the Movius Line were based on observations of differing technological patterns, namely: the lack of Acheulean handaxes and the Levallois core traditions in East Asia.
Since Hallam L. Movius’ initial proposal, the recent discovery of handaxes within East Asia have led to suggestions that the Movius Line is in fact obsolete. Suggesting this may not in fact be the case is a recent paper by Stephen Lycett & Christopher Norton, which highlights three central points coming from a growing body of research: 1) "several morphometric analyses have identified statistically significant differences between the attributes of specific biface assemblages from east and west of the Movius Line"; 2) "The number of sites from which handaxes have been recovered in East Asia tend to be geographically sparse compared with many regions west of the Movius Line"; 3) "‘handaxe’ specimens tend only to comprise a small percentage of the total number of artefacts recovered, a situation that contrasts with many classic Acheulean sites in western portions of the Old World, where bifacial handaxes may dominate assemblages in large numbers".