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The Dynamics of Cultural Evolution

Against the background of these three very different examples we can now summarize our model of cultural evolution. What we have been describing are networks of human actions that include a given material and social culture. This cultural niche results from prior actions and constitutes, together with other environmental conditions and the internal organization of the actors, the regulative structure governing the network. The evolution of a networked population consists in its dealing with outside challenges to its preservation and that of its systemic structures. In the process, such external challenges may be internalized, that is, transformed into elements of the internal network structure.

The cognitive structures of individual actors are generated by reflecting on environmentally embedded actions. They represent the cognitive dimension of an action potential that we designate as knowledge. Knowledge itself may be externally represented and is thus shareable within a knowledge economy. While innovations may be triggered by external challenges, they become possible first because the horizon of possibilities associated with given means and external representations is always larger than the goals pursued by any given set of actors, and second because the context or the results of actions may become a source of new means of action and new external representations which then enable new forms of action coordination.

The evolution of a networked population may lead to the establishment of new patterns of interaction and new forms of internal, cognitive organization of the actors. On the individual level, new regulative structures arise because the reflection on actions with external representations may generate knowledge of a higher order of abstraction than the knowledge to which the external representation originally referred. The results of such reflections may then again be externally represented, thus generating context and path-dependent chains of abstractions of increasing order. On the population level, new regulative structures may emerge from the introduction of new means or from the exploration of given means, typically triggering both new forms of social organization and new forms of knowledge. Such new patterns of interaction are typically layered in the sense that the introduction of a new pattern does not lead to the complete eclipse of earlier patterns, which are rather integrated into the subsequent layers.

 
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