Complexity, simplicity, and cultural evolution

Recently I’ve been reading through review literature in geography and anthropology on human adaptation to the environment, and on how these disciplines have in the twentieth century absorbed an ecological view of sociocultural patterns. I found that, by and large, ecological thinking elevates a widely-held assumption about anthropological evolution to a kind of explanatory truism: namely, that sociocultural organization generally proceeds throughout history towards greater and greater complexity. I’ve come across this formulation so many times in my life that I’ve accepted it as common-sense truth, and indeed the claim has a satisfying obviousness to it. Besides, anthropology itself is at least partly founded upon this assumption, for it is in the supposedly ‘simple’ sociocultural forms of premodern groups that anthropologists have dedicated most of their attention. A Tupi tribe, after all, has a smaller absolute number of social roles and economic behaviors than the modern industrial city of São Paulo, and its consequent ‘simplicity’ is therefore easier to catalogue and interpret.

But is the historical progression from simplicity to complexity really so obvious? I began to wonder what, exactly, complexity consists of. Is it a total number of parts or possible interactions within a system, or is it the variety of qualities amongst the parts? (A cemetery of ten thousand white crosses arranged in a grid, for example, though it has many parts, does not seem highly complex.) Or is complexity determined by how hard or easy some given variable is to understand? (This is roughly equivalent to how computer scientists understand complexity: how much processing time does it take to produce a verifiable answer to a given question?)

Whatever the definition of complexity, it doesn’t seem so obvious that the Tupi tribe is less complex than São Paulo. What’s more, it seems to me that by changing the frame of reference slightly it is possible to propose the exact opposite premise: that sociocultural organization is growing less complex over time.

The frame of reference that must be changed is one of scale. Rather than examining discrete units of humanity (which are already devilishly hard to border out in the first place), let’s consider all of the human species as our organizational unit. So rather than comparing a Tupi tribe to São Paulo, or comparing industrial England to Neolithic England, let’s compare the sum of all humans in, say, the year 2000 BCE to the sum of all humans in the year 2000 CE. Certainly there are far more humans today than four thousand years ago, and undoubtedly today’s humans possess tools of an enormously complex character. Taken as a whole, however, humanity was extraordinarily variegated and finely-patterned throughout its global distribution in its earlier stage, with hundreds of thousands of discrete, heterogenous organizational units differentially adapted to a wide range of geographic conditions. Taken as a whole, today’s humans are more homogenous than they ever have been, increasingly members of an extraction-and-exchange machine which spans the globe. In this sense, the unit humanity was far more complex, as a total organizational unit, in the past than it is today.

One way, I think, of describing complexity is to ask, given a randomly-chosen member of a set, how much you can confidently say about it. If I ask you where a randomly-chosen iron filing in a shook-up jar of iron filings is located, you cannot answer with any confidence. But if I put a magnet to the ends of the jar, and the filings jump into position, you now have much greater confidence saying that a randomly-chosen filing lies somewhere in the discrete pattern of the magnetic field. Similarly, if I ask you to tell me something about a randomly-chosen human in 2000 BCE, there is little you can say with confidence. Perhaps this person is a Minoan queen, or perhaps a Lao farmer, or perhaps a Inuit hunter. Now jump to today, and choose a random person on the earth. You can be reasonably sure that they participate in a money economy, and that they are subject to a nation-state political system. Probably they recognize the Coca-Cola logo. There’s even a good chance they could hum some Top 40 radio hits. Viewed from this perspective, the world looks like it is rushing headlong towards greater and greater simplicity.

All of this is not meant to yearn for a bygone complexity (I’ve avoided the word diversity in order to skirt its moral value) or to fume against a world of mass standardization. What I’m suggesting is that the progression from simplicity to complexity, so widely accepted as a pattern of human development that it not longer requires any contextual remark, is perhaps not as full of explanatory power as we might like it to be.