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Multilevel processes and cultural adaptation: examples from past and present small-scale societies

Victoria Reyes-García, Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats (ICREA); Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambietals, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
Andrea L Balbo, Climate Change and Security (CLISEC), KlimaCampus, Center for Earth System Research and Sustainability (CEN), University of Hamburg; Complexity and Socioecological Dynamics (CaSEs), IMF-CSIC
Erik Gómez-Baggethun, Department of International Environment and Development Studies (Noragric), Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU); Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA)
Maximilien Gueze, Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambietals, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
Alex Mesoudi, Department of Biosciences, University of Exeter
Peter J Richerson, University of California, Davis; University College London
Xavier Rubio-Campillo, Computer Applications in Science & Engineering, Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC)
Isabel Ruiz-Mallén, Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3), Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC); Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambietals, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
Stephen Shennan, Institute of Archaeology, University College London


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The last two decades have seen a proliferation of research frameworks that emphasise the importance of understanding adaptive processes that happen at different levels. We contribute to this growing body of literature by exploring how cultural (mal)adaptive dynamics relate to multilevel social-ecological processes occurring at different scales, where the lower levels combine into new units with new organizations, functions, and emergent properties or collective behaviors. After a brief review of the concept of “cultural adaptation” from the perspective of cultural evolutionary theory, the core of the paper is constructed around the exploration of multilevel processes occurring at the temporal, spatial, social, and political scales. We do so by using insights from cultural evolutionary theory and by examining small-scale societies as case studies. In each section, we discuss the importance of the selected scale for understanding cultural adaptation and then present an example that illustrates how multilevel processes in the selected scale help explain observed patterns in the cultural adaptive process. The last section of the paper discusses the potential of modeling and computer simulation for studying multilevel processes in cultural adaptation. We conclude by highlighting how elements from cultural evolutionary theory might enrich the multilevel process discussion in resilience theory.

Key words

cultural adaptation; cultural evolution; multilevel selection; resilience

Copyright © 2016 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087