My research focus lies on the long-term and large-scale evolution and organization of human societies. Presently, I work mainly with the deep human past, opinion dynamics and economic geography.
We work on several levels – from specific case studies up to conceptual, modeling and methodological development. The basis is the presence of dynamical systemic features that are common to just about any adaptive dynamical systems: animal culture, early hominin culture, modern culture, biological organic evolution – even how we distribute our activities today across geographical and social space.
The origins and evolution of human societies is key to understanding the world of today. Our cultural and biological features evolved together over periods of time that are vast compared to historical times. Culture makes us human – but we are also very specifically adapted to a cultural life, with a unique suite of genetic adaptations that permits us to operate in such a setting.
Building an improved understanding of this is key to understanding things like how nature and nurture should be delineated and how their interplay should be understood. But also to address very fundamental and even existential questions about what – if anything – it is to be human as opposed to just an animal. Although the empirical evidence is growing dramatically, we still lack a unified understanding of how humans evolved.
I also take an interest in complex systems more fundamentally: What type of system are we talking about? What features do problems and solutions in such a system have with regard to finding, understanding and dealing with them? Research has become more and more tightly integrated with policy over the past decades, but we are still quite inexplicit about how systems and problems under study are or should be conceived. Society is complex – nobody would object to that. But what is it to be complex? How does the complexity of societies compare with the way in which, say, bird flocks and computers are complex systems? What does this tell us about what methodologies and tools we should be using or developing? About the types of goals that we may have when trying to control societal system? What about unknown by-effects, for example?
What I see as key to the type of complexity we see in modern large-scale human societies is a general lack of clear scale separation. The dynamics of generated higher levels of organization unfold on timescales that overlap with those on lower levels. There is in the general case no way to make a clear cut across cultural sub-systems and isolate them for controlled study (such as by means of models). The rules of the game change on similar times scales that the game itself changes.
We call such systems, and others like them, “Wicked Systems” (see Societal Systems: Complex or Worse below) – and to understand them we think we need a constructively critical attitude to current approaches in science, one where one takes care not to throw the baby out with the bathwater!"
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