Tag Archives: Complexity Science

Come to Cancun to talk about the Evolution of Cultural Complexity

The annual Conference on Complex Systems is one of the scientific gatherings where researchers present, discuss and debunk all things complex. This year it would be a double shame to miss it since it takes place in Cancun, Mexico between 17-22 September. If anyone needs any more encouragement, we are organising an exciting session focused on the evolution of broadly defined cultural complexity. Please send your abstracts by the 26th of May here. Any questions? Drop us an email: ccs17-at-bsc-dot-es
Details below and on the website: https://ccs17.bsc.es/

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Scientific Background

Human sociocultural evolution has been documented throughout the history of humans and earlier hominins. This evolution manifests itself through development from tools as simple as a rock used to break nuts, to something as complex as a spaceship able to land man on other planets. Equally, we have witnessed evolution of human population towards complex multilevel social organisation.

Although cases of decrease and loss of this type of complexity have been reported, in global terms it tends to increase with time. Despite its significance, the conditions and the factors driving this increase are still poorly understood and subject to debate. Different hypothesis trying to explain the rise of sociocultural complexity in human societies have been proposed (demographic factor, cognitive component, historical contingency…) but so far no consensus has been reached.

Here we raise a number of questions:

  1. Can we better define sociocultural complexity and confirm its general tendency to increase over the course of human history?
  2. What are the main factors enablingan increase of cultural complexity?
  3. Are there reliable way to measure the complexity in material culture and social organisationconstructs, that is?
  4. How can we quantify and compare the impact of different factors?
  5. What causes a loss of cultural complexity in a society? And how often these losses occurred in the past?

Goals of the session

In this satellite meeting we want to bring together a community of researchers coming from different scientific domains and interested in different aspect of the evolution of social and cultural complexity. From archaeologists, to linguists, social scientists, historians and artificial intelligence specialists – the topic of sociocultural complexity transgresses traditional discipline boundaries. We want to establish and promote a constructive dialogue incorporating different perspectives: theoretical as well as empirical approaches, research based on historical and archaeological sources, as well as actual evidences and contemporary theories. We are particularly interested in formal approaches which enable more constructive theory building and hypothesis testing. However, even establishing common vocabulary of terms and concepts and discussing the main methodological challenges in studying sociocultural complexity is an important step towards a more cohesive framework for the understanding of cultural evolution in general and for individual research case studies in particular. Our approach is informed by the convergence between simulation and formal methods in archaeological studies and recent developments in complex systems science and complex network analysis.

The session will focus but is not limited to:

  • Social dynamics of innovation.
  • Cumulative Culture and social learning.
  • Evolution of Technology and technological changes
  • Cognitive Process,Creativity, cooperation and innovation
  • Population Dynamics and Demographic Studies
  • Computer tools to understand the cultural evolutionary change

CFP: SwarmFest 2016, Burlington, VT Jul 31 – Aug 3

Possibly the longest running meeting on agent-based modeling, SwarmFest, is being held this July at the University of Vermont campus in Burlington. Now in its 20th(!) year, SwarmFest brings together people from a range of backgrounds in ABM and simulation. From the website:

SwarmFest is the annual meeting of the Swarm Development Group (SDG), and one of the oldest communities involved in the development and propagation of agent-based modeling.  SwarmFest has traditionally involved a mix of both tool-users and tool-developers, drawn from many domains of expertise.  These have included, in the past, computer scientists, software engineers, biomedical researchers, ecologists, economists, political scientists, social scientists, resource management specialists and evolutionary biologists.  SwarmFest represents a low-key environment for researchers to explore new ideas and approaches, and benefit from a multi-disciplinary environment.  

Given the concentration of computational and complexity labs at UVM, this promises to be a very exciting meeting. And summertime is a fantastic time to be on Lake Champlain, or really any lake in New England, so I wholeheartedly recommend the trek to Burlington.

Call of abstracts closes June 15th, so get in quickly. For more info, see the website.

CSS2016 Amsterdam

If the most important annual conference in complex systems simulation is anything to go by then researchers in humanities are slowly infiltrating the ranks of complexity scientists.

This year the CSS (Complex Systems Society) conference is taking place in Amsterdam between 19-22 September. It is structured a bit differently than traditional conferences, that is, it consists of two main parts:

  • Core sessions such as “Foundations of Complex Systems” or “Socio-ecological Systems”, which are held every year, and
  • Satellite sessions, usually focusing on smaller topics or subdisciplines, which are proposed independently and, therefore, change from one year to another.

Archaeology (and humanities in general) has been on and off the agenda since 2013 but usually this meant one dedicated session and perhaps a paper or two in the core sessions classified as social systems simulations. However, this year there seems to be a bit of an explosion (let’s call it ‘exponential growth’!) in the number of sessions led by folk who have interest in the past. These three are particularly relevant:

10. Complexity and the Human Past: Unleashing the Potential of Archaeology and Related Disciplines
Organizer: Dr. Sergi Lozano

26. Complexity History. Complexity for History and History for Complexity 
Organizer: Assoc Prof. Andrea Nanetti

27. The Anthropogenic Earth System: Modeling Social Systems, Landscapes, and Urban Dynamics as a Coupled Human+Climate System up to Planetary Scale
Organizer: Dr. John T. Murphy

In addition, there are a number of satellite sessions that, although not dealing specifically with past systems, may be of interest for anyone who deals with evolution, urban development, economic systems or networks and game theory.  Finally, the most excellent student conference on complex systems (SCCS) will run just prior to the main event, between 16-18 September.

To submit an abstract, get in touch with the session organiser (you can find their emails here). The official deadline is 10th July, but the organisers may have imposed a different schedule so get in your abstract soon. And see you all in Amsterdam!

Image above: http://www.ccs2016.org

 

 

CAA in Atlanta: 2017 dates

The Simulating Complexity team is all coming home from a successful conference in Oslo. Highlights include a 2-day workshop on agent-based modeling led by the SimComp team, a roundtable on complexity and simulation approaches in archaeology, and a full-day session on simulation approaches in archaeology.

We are all looking forward to CAA 2017 in Atlanta. Dates were announced at Oslo, so start planning.

CAA2017 will be held at Georgia State University March 13th-18th. This leaves 2 weeks before the SAAs, so we hope to have a good turnout on simulation and complexity approaches at both meetings!

Tim Kohler–The Nine Questions

photo by Roger Cozien

I sat down with Tim Kohler, the creator of the Village Ecodynamics Project agent-based model, professor of anthropology at Washington State University, researcher at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, and external faculty at the Santa Fe Institute, to discuss his philosophy on complexity science and archaeology, and get some tips for going forward studying complex systems.

How did you get introduced to complexity science:

I took a sabbatical in the mid-1990s and was fortunate to be able to do it at the Santa Fe Institute. Being there right when Chris Langton was developing Swarm, and just looking over his shoulder while he was developing it, was highly influential; Swarm was the original language that we programmed the Village Ecodynamics Project in. Having the opportunity to interact with scientists of many different types at the Santa Fe Institute (founded in 1984) was a wonderful opportunity. This was not an opportunity available to many archaeologists, so one of the burdens I bear, which is honestly a joyful burden, is that having had that opportunity I need to promulgate that to others who weren’t so lucky. This really was my motive for writing Complex Systems and Archaeology in “Archaeological Theory Today” (second edition).

What complexity tools do you use and how?

I primarily use agent-based modeling, although in Complex Systems and Archaeology  I recognize the values of the many other tools available. But I’d point out that I do an awful lot of work that is traditional archaeology too. I recently submitted an article that attempts to look at household-level inequality from the Dolores Archaeological Project data, and this is traditional archaeological inquiry. I do these studies because I think that they contribute in an important way to understanding whether or not an exercise in a structure like the development of leadership model, gives us a sensible answer. This feeds in to traditional archaeology.

In 2014 I published an article calculating levels of violence in the American Southwest. This is traditional archaeology, although it does use elements of complexity. I can’t think of other instances where archaeologists have tried to analyze trajectories of things through time in a phase-space like I did there. The other thing that I do that is kind of unusual in archaeology (not just complexity archaeology) is that I have spent a lot of time and effort trying to estimate how much production you can get off of landscapes. Those things have not really been an end in themselves, although they could be seen as such. However, I approached trying to estimate the potential production of landscapes so that it could feed into the agent-based models. Thus these exercises contribute to complex systems approaches.

What do you think is the unique contribution that complexity science has for archaeology?

I got interested in complexity approaches in early to mid 1990s; during that time when you look around the theoretical landscape there were two competing approaches on offer in archaeology: 1) Processualism (the new archaeology), and the reaction to processualism, 2) Post-processualism, which came from the post-modern critique.

First, with processualism. There has been a great deal of interesting and useful work done through that framework, but if you look at some of that work it really left things lacking. An article that really influenced my feelings on that approach was Feinman’s, famous article “Too Many Types: An Overview of Sedentary Prestate Societies in the Americas” from Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory (1984). He does a nice analysis in the currency of variables having to do with maximal community size, comparison of administrative levels, leadership functions, etc. I would argue that these variables are always a sort of abstraction on the point of view of the analyst. And people, as they are living their daily lives, are not aware of channeling their actions along specific dimensions that can be extracted along variables; people act, they don’t make variables, they act! It’s only through secondary inference that some outcome of their actions (and in fact those of many others) can be distilled as a ‘variable.’ My main objection to processualism is that everything is a variable, and more often these variables are distilled at a very high level abstraction for analysis. Leadership functions, the number of administrative levels… but there’s never a sense in processual archaeology (in my view) for how it is through people’s actions that these variables emerge and these high levels came to be. I thought this was a major flaw in processualism

If you look at post-processulism, at its worst people like Tilley and Shanks in the early 1990s, you have this view of agency… People are acting almost without structures. There’s no predictability to their actions. No sense of optimality or adaptation that structure their actions. Although I would admit that these positions did have the effect of exposing some of the weaknesses in processual archaeology, they didn’t offer a positive program to make a path going forward to understand prehistory.

I thought what was needed was a way to think about the archaeological record as being composed of the actions of agents, while giving the proper role to these sorts of structures that these agents had to operate within (people within societies). I also thought that a proper role needed to be given to concepts like evolution and adaptation that were out the window for the early post-processualists. That is what complexity in archaeology tries to achieve. A complex-adaptive system approach honors actions of individuals but also honors that agents have clear goals that provide predictability to their actions, and that these take place within structures, such as landscapes or ecosystems or cities, that structure these in relatively predictable ways.

How does complexity help you understand your system of interest?

Complexity approaches give us the possibility to examine how high-level outcomes emerge from the outcomes of agent-landscape interaction and agent-agent interaction. These approaches to a great measure satisfy the weaknesses of those the two main approaches from 90s (processualism and post-processualism). So we have both high level outcomes (processualism) and agent level actions (post-processualism) but complexity provides a bridge between these two.

What are the barriers we need to break to make complexity science a main-stream part of archaeology?

Obviously barriers need to be broken. Early on, although this is not the case as much any more, many students swallowed the post-processual bait hook, line and sinker, which made it so they wouldn’t be very friendly to complexity approaches. They were, in a sense, blinded by theoretical prejudices. This is much less true now, and becomes less true each year. The biggest barrier now to entry is the fact that very few faculty are proficient in the tools of complex adaptive systems in archaeology, such as agent based modeling, scaling studies, and faculty even are not proficient with posthoc analyses in tools like R that make sense of what’s going on in these complex systems. Until we get a cadre of faculty who are fluent in these approaches this will be a main barrier.

Right now the students are leading the way in complex adaptive systems studies in archaeology. In a way, this is similar to how processual archaeology started—it was the students who led the way then too. Students are leading the way right now, and as they become faculty it will be enormously useful for the spread of those tools. So all of these students need to get jobs to be able to advance archaeology, and that is a barrier.

Do you think that archaeology has something that can uniquely contribute to complexity science (and what is it)?

I would make a strong division between complex adaptive systems (anything that includes biological and cultural agents) and complex nonadaptive systems (spin glasses, etc.) where there is no sense that there is some kind of learning or adaptation. Physical systems are structured by optimality but there is no learning or adaptation.

The one thing that archaeologists have to offer that is unique is the really great time depth that we always are attempting to cope with in archaeology.

The big tradeoff with archaeology is that, along with deep time depth, we have very poor resolution for the societies that we are attempting to study. But this gives us a chance to develop tools and methods that work with complex adaptive systems specifically within social systems; this, of course, is not unique to archaeology, as it is true for economists, biologists, and economists

What do you think are the major limitations of complexity theory?

I don’t think complexity approaches, so far at least, have had much to say about the central construct for anthropology—culture. Agent-based models, for example, and social network analysis are much more attuned to behavior than to culture. They have not, so far, tried to use these tools to try to understand culture change as opposed to behavioral change. It’s an outstanding problem. And this has got to be addressed if the concept of culture remains central to anthropology (which, by definition, it will). Unless complexity can usefully address what culture is and how it changes, complexity will always be peripheral. Strides have been made in that direction, but the citadel hasn’t been taken.

Does applying complexity theory to a real world system (like archaeology) help alleviate the limitations of complexity and make it more easily understandable?

Many people who aren’t very interested in science are really interested in archaeology. So I think archaeology offers a unique possibility for science generally, and complexity specifically, by being applied to understanding something that people are intrinsically interested in, even if they aren’t interested in other applications of same tools to other problems. It’s non-threatening. You can be liberal or conservative and you can be equally interested in what happened to the Ancestral Puebloans; you might have predilection to one answer or another, but you are still generally interested. But these things are non-threatening in an interesting way. They provide a showcase for these powerful tools that might be more threatening if they were used in an immediate fashion.

What do you recommend your graduate students start on when they start studying complexity?

Dynamics in Human and Primate Societies by Kohler and Gummerman is a useful starting point

I am a big enthusiast for many works that John Holland wrote

Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell’s is a great volume

I learned an enormous amount by a close reading of Stu Kauffman’s “Origins of Order.” I read this during my first sabbatical at SFI, and if you were to look at the copy you’d see all sorts of marginal annotations in that. We don’t see him cited much nowadays, but he did make important contributions to understanding complex systems.

In terms of technology or classes, the most important things would be for them to get analytical and modeling tools as soon as they could and as early as they can. In the case of Washington State University, taking agent-based modeling course and taking the R and Big Data course would be essential. But to be a good archaeologist you need a good grounding in method and theory, so taking courses that fulfill that as early on as possible is essential.

And a final question…

What are two current papers/books/talks that influence your recent work?

I’m always very influenced by the work of my students. One of my favorites is the 2014 Bocinsky and Kohler article in Nature Communications. Another is upcoming foodwebs work from one of my other students. These papers are illustrative of the powers of complexity approaches. Bocinsky’s article is not in and of itself a contribution to complex adaptive systems in archaeology, except that it is in the spirit of starting off from a disaggregated entity (cells on a landscape) and ending up with a production sequence emerging from that for the system as a whole. It shows how we can get high-level trends that can be summarized by amounts within the maize niche. So it deals, in a funny way, with the processes of emergence. It’s a prerequisite for doing the agent-based modeling work.

Some recent works by Tim Kohler

2014 (first author, with Scott G. Ortman, Katie E. Grundtisch, Carly M. Fitzpatrick, and Sarah M. Cole) The Better Angels of Their Nature: Declining Violence Through Time among Prehispanic Farmers of the Pueblo Southwest. American Antiquity 79(3): 444–464.

2014 (first author, with Kelsey M. Reese) A Long and Spatially Variable Neolithic Demographic Transition in the North American Southwest. PNAS (early edition).

2013 How the Pueblos got their Sprachbund. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 20:212-234.

2012 (first author, with Denton Cockburn, Paul L. Hooper, R. Kyle Bocinsky, and Ziad Kobti) The Coevolution of Group Size and Leadership: An Agent-Based Public Goods Model for Prehispanic Pueblo Societies. Advances in Complex Systems15(1&2):1150007.

2012 (first editor, with Mark D. Varien) Emergence and Collapse of Early Villages: Models of Central Mesa Verde Archaeology. University of California Press, Berkeley

Call for paper: The Cultural Evolution of Technology: Evidence, Hypothesis and Theory

The folks at CaSEs (Complexity and Socio-Ecological Dynamics) are putting together a satellite session for CSS15 in Tempe, Arizona USA The session, entitled “The Cultural Evolution of Technology”. addresses questions such as “What are the similarities and differences between natural and artificial evolution?” and “Does technology evolve within the same framework than other cultural traits?”

Abstracts due June 22, session is being held on September 30th and October 1st. Check it out!

We (Xavier Rubio-Campillo, Sergi Valverde, and myself) are organising a satellite conference titled “The Cultural Evolution of Technology: Evidence, Hypothesis and Theory” at the annual European Conferences on Complex Systems (CCS), which will be held in the most typical of the European towns: Tempe, Arizona. Yes the conference is now international!

The parallelism between cultural and biological evolution has been noted for a quite a long time (see this blog entry for some  good introductory readings), but its progress have been more of a parallel development amongst different disciplines rather than the result of a research agenda defined by a single unified field of studies. There is good and bad in this. At the cost of sometimes ignoring the achievmenets of other fields, we had the opportunity to investigate similar deeper questions with different materials and methods. This conference will bring together experts from archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, and physics to discuss a variety of topics…

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Simulating Complexity at the SAA meetings!

Hello readers! I’m writing you from sunny San Francisco where we are gearing up for the SAAs. We have a Simulating Complexity session that is sure to be interesting. Find us Thursday afternoon at 1pm in the room Union Square 21. Here’s a teaser of the paper titles.

Opening Remarks–Mark Lake

A spatially explicit model of lithic raw material composition in archaeological assemblages–Phil Fisher and Luke Premo

Simulating Late Holocene landscape use and the distribution of stone artefacts in arid western New South Wales, Australia–Benjamin Davies

Testing the Variability Selection Hypothesis on Hominin Dispersals – a Multi-agent Model Approach–Iza Romanowska and Seth Bullock

Climatic variability and hominin dispersal: the accumulated plasticity hypothesis–Matt Grove

Humanizing wave of advance dispersal models–Colin Wren

Hierarchy and Tribute Flow in the American Southwest–Stefani Crabtree, Kyle Bocinsky, Tim Kohler

Changing Channels: Simulating Irrigation Management on Evolving Canal Systems for the Prehistoric Hohokam of Central Arizona–John Murphy, Louise Purdue, Maurits Ertsen

Complexity in space and time: spatio-temporal variability and scale in simulations of social-ecological systems–Isaac Ullah & Michael Barton

Modeling Behavior in Digital Places Using Low-Level Perceptual Cues–Rachel Opitz

Reconstructing Large-Area Ancient Transportation Networks to Support Complexity Research–Devin White

Many Roman Bazaars: exploring the need for simple computational models in the study of the Roman economy–Shawn Graham & Tom Brughmans

Empirical Validation and Model Selection in Archaeological Simulation–Enrico Crema

Discuassant and closing remarks–Tim Kohler

Baby Boom and the Old Bailey: Two New Data Mining Studies

Photo from http://www.zentut.com/data-mining/data-mining-techniques/

Here at simulating complexity most of us know Tim Kohler for his pioneering work on the Village Ecodynamics Project, one of the first major agent-based modeling projects in archaeology. In a new study in PNAS, “Long and spatially variable Neolithic Demographic Transition in the North American Southwest,” Kohler and Reese shift from simulation to real archaeological data analysis.

This article has been highly cited in the news (here, here, and here to name a few) mostly due to its enticing moral: there was a huge baby boom in the Southwest, it was unsustainable, and thus there was a mortality crash. This can be extrapolated to where we are today. If the Southwest couldn’t handle that many people, how many can our fragile Earth handle?

But the most applicable part of their study for this blog is the data mining aspect of the article. Reese literally spent 2+ years pouring over the grey literature to compile data on skeletons from the area, classifying their ages, sex, and various other data. Then these data were entered into a giant spreadsheet, where they were subject to the analyses that yielded the results.

Many archaeological projects are looking at large datasets and trying to find patterns in the noise. This paper is just one of many that is making use of the vast amounts of data out there and finding ways to synthesize massive reports. Gathering this data requires hours of work that is often times by hand.

In another study in PNAS “The civilizing process in London’s Old Bailey,” (also written about in the media here and here among others) Klingenstein, Hitchcock and DeDeo analyzed 150 years of legal documents from the Old Bailey in England. They find that through time there is a differentiation between violent and nonviolent crime, which reflects changes in societal perception of crime. With so many documents, standard methods of pouring through gray literature by hand would have been impossible. Instead, they invent techniques for a computer to read the documents and classify different words to different types of crimes. This study is not an archaeological study, but shows how historical documents can be used to find patterns in a noisy system.

Both of these studies demonstrate how our way of thinking of data is changing. Archaeologists used to focus on one site or one time period. These two studies demonstrate how creative thinking, quantitative knowledge, and some approaches from complexity science can help us find patterns in gigantic datasets. I recommend reading both studies, as they may help inspire you to think about some of your big data sets, and how you can approach them.