Innovation in Cultural Systems

From Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology

Innovation in Cultural Systems

Contributions from Evolutionary Anthropology

Edited by Michael J. O'Brien and Stephen J. Shennan

Leading scholars offer a range of perspectives on the roles played by innovation in the evolution of human culture.





Leading scholars offer a range of perspectives on the roles played by innovation in the evolution of human culture.

In recent years an interest in applying the principles of evolution to the study of culture emerged in the social sciences. Archaeologists and anthropologists reconsidered the role of innovation in particular, and have moved toward characterizing innovation in cultural systems not only as a product but also as an evolutionary process. This distinction was familiar to biology but new to the social sciences; cultural evolutionists from the nineteenth to the twentieth century had tended to see innovation as a preprogrammed change that occurred when a cultural group “needed” to overcome environmental problems. In this volume, leading researchers from a variety of disciplines—including anthropology, archaeology, evolutionary biology, philosophy, and psychology—offer their perspectives on cultural innovation. The book provides not only a range of views but also an integrated account, with the chapters offering an orderly progression of thought. The contributors consider innovation in biological terms, discussing epistemology, animal studies, systematics and phylogeny, phenotypic plasticity and evolvability, and evo-devo; they discuss modern insights into innovation, including simulation, the random-copying model, diffusion, and demographic analysis; and they offer case studies of innovation from archaeological and ethnographic records, examining developmental, behavioral, and social patterns.

ContributorsAndré Ariew, R. Alexander Bentley, Werner Callebaut, Joseph Henrich, Anne Kandler, Kevin N. Laland, Daniel O. Larson, Alex Mesoudi, Michael J. O'Brien, Craig T. Palmer, Adam Powell, Simon M. Reader, Valentine Roux, Chet Savage, Michael Brian Schiffer, Jeffrey H. Schwartz, Stephen J. Shennan, James Steele, Mark G. Thomas, Todd L. VanPool


$45.00 X ISBN: 9780262013338 296 pp. | 7 in x 9 in 45 b&w illus., 3 tables


Michael J. O'Brien

Michael J. O'Brien is Provost and Professor of History at Texas A&M University–San Antonio and the coauthor of I'll Have What She's Having: Mapping Social Behavior and The Acceleration of Cultural Change: From Ancestors to Algorithms (both published by the MIT Press).

Stephen J. Shennan

Stephen J. Shennan is Professor of Theoretical Archaeology and Director of the Institute of Archaeology at University College London.


  • Archaeologists have recently emerged as some of the most sophisticated evolutionists in the human sciences. O'Brien and Shennan's book on innovation is an important contribution to a central but difficult topic. It showcases what archaeologists and their allies are accomplishing.

    Peter J. Richerson

    Distinguished Professor, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis