Cultural complexity and complexity evolution
Review article, 2020

We review issues stemming from current models regarding the drivers of cultural complexity and cultural evolution. We disagree with the implication of the treadmill model, based on dual-inheritance theory, that population size is the driver of cultural complexity. The treadmill model reduces the evolution of artifact complexity, measured by the number of parts, to the statistical fact that individuals with high skills are more likely to be found in a larger population than in a smaller population. However, for the treadmill model to operate as claimed, implausibly high skill levels must be assumed. Contrary to the treadmill model, the risk hypothesis for the complexity of artifacts relates the number of parts to increased functional efficiency of implements. Empirically, all data on hunter-gatherer artifact complexity support the risk hypothesis and reject the treadmill model. Still, there are conditions under which increased technological complexity relates to increased population size, but the dependency does not occur in the manner expressed in the treadmill model. Instead, it relates to population size when the support system for the technology requires a large population size. If anything, anthropology and ecology suggest that cultural complexity generates high population density rather than the other way around.

treadmill model

trait transmission

risk hypothesis

Cultural complexity

cultural evolution



Dwight Read

University of California

Claes Andersson

Chalmers, Space, Earth and Environment, Physical Resource Theory

Adaptive Behavior

1059-7123 (ISSN) 17412633 (eISSN)

Vol. 28 5 329-358

Odycceus- Opinion dynamics and cultural conflict in European spaces

European Commission (EC) (EC/H2020/732942), 2017-01-01 -- 2020-12-31.

Subject Categories

Evolutionary Biology

Other Humanities


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Basic sciences

Areas of Advance

Life Science Engineering (2010-2018)



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3/2/2022 2