The Evolution of Inequality: From the Pleistocene to the 21st Century

Spring semester 2021 | MA Seminar: Philosophy of Science (WP), Political, Legal, and Economic Philosophy (PP) | Seminar | 475739 | EN | 7 ECTS | Dienstag 14:15-16:00 | Unitobler Seminar Room F004

Ancestral forager societies are often depicted as egalitarian. However, with the rise of sedentary societies during the transition to the Holocene (about 25 kya– 12 kya), an increase in social scale and inequality seems to emerge in the material record. The continued and expanded role of cooperation despite increasing inequality is puzzling since, under these conditions, theory predicts a sharp reduction in the stability of cooperation over time. In this seminar, we will explore the origins and potential explanations of this puzzling pattern and discuss the extent to which the mechanisms that explain it play a role in explaining contemporary political and economic inequalities. Particular attention will be given to the role of direct and indirect forms of reciprocity, environmental and climate (in)stability, the mechanisms of wealth transmissibility and economic defensibility, and the relationship between horizontal forms of inequality and violent conflict. We will draw heavily on archeological and anthropological data, experimental evidence in social psychology, comparative data on political and economic inequality, as well as the UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Data Set. Previous knowledge of statistics is not required.

Work required for credits:
1. Handout: Each student will take care of presenting at least one of the assigned weekly readings. A handout should be handed in on the day of the assignment. Length: 2000 words max. Weight: 50%.
2. Final paper (due: June 24): Each student will have the opportunity to improve on his previous paper or write a paper from scratch based on one of the topics discussed through the seminar. Length: 6000 words max. Weight: 50%.

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Philosophical Topics on Cultural Evolution

Spring semester 2021 | MA Seminar: Philosophy of Science (WP), Political, Legal, and Economic Philosophy (PP) | Seminar | 469527 | EN | 7 ECTS | Montag 14:15-16:00 | Online

Over the past four decades, researchers have developed theoretical models, both qualitative and quantitative, to facilitate our understanding of the complex patterns of transmission and evolution of cultural traits. Despite the differences between cultural and genetic transmission, many of the models of cultural evolution borrow elements from the theory of population genetics. Furthermore, cultural and biological evolution can interact with one another and influence both transmission, development, and selection. This interaction requires integrating insights from niche construction theory and gene-culture coevolutionary approaches that help us to understand their reciprocal influence. In this seminar, we review the core concepts in cultural evolutionary theory, focusing on its philosophical implications. We will discuss the relationship between cultural and biological evolution, the dynamic of cultural transmission, the cumulative nature of human culture, its pattern of diversification and increasing complexity, the existence of culture in nonhuman species, among other topics. In the final part of the seminar, we will have the opportunity to revise these topics in light of recent evolutionary models of human social organization, morality, and religion.

Work required for credits:
1. First paper: Each student will take care of presenting at least one of the assigned weekly readings. A short paper should be submitted on the day of the presentation. Length: 4000 words max. Weight: 40%.
2. Final paper: Each student will have the opportunity to improve on his previous paper or write a paper from scratch based on one of the topics discussed through the seminar. Length: 6000 words max. Weight: 50%.
3. Discussion: If the student is taking the class for credit, she is expected to participate in discussion along with all writing assignments. Weight: 10%.

Syllabus | Course catalog | Timetable | External resources