COMPLEXITY: Physics of Life

Scott Ortman on Archaeological Synthesis and Settlement Scaling Theory

Episode Notes

The modern world has a way of distancing itself from everything that came before it…and yet the evidence from archaeology supports a different story. While industrial societies tend to praise markets and advanced technologies as the main drivers of the last few centuries of change, a careful study of civilizations as distinct as Ancient Rome, Peru, and Central Mexico reveals an underlying uniformity. Consistent patterns have played out in human settlements across millennia and continents, regardless of the economic systems we’ve employed or the inventions on which we’ve relied. These patterns, furthermore, look just like those that govern and delimit evolutionary change; the scaling laws determining the growth of cities are, apparently, the same that led to cities in the first place, or to human social groups, or complex animals. Human settlements act as social reactors, by facilitating interactions — in other words, the functional relationships within communities drive history, and this century has more in common with the distant past than commonly believed.

These revelations, though, might have remained invisible to us if archaeology itself had not transformed over the last few decades, evolving new approaches to cross-disciplinary synthesis. It’s time to update both our notions of the ancient world and our popular conception of the archaeologist…

Welcome to COMPLEXITY, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I’m your host, Michael Garfield, and every other week we’ll bring you with us for far-ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers developing new frameworks to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe.

This week we talk to Former SFI Omidyar Fellow Scott Ortman, Associate Professor of Anthropology at The University of Colorado Boulder, about his work on settlement scaling theory and fostering synthesis in archaeology to advance science and benefit society.

If you value our research and communication efforts, please consider making a donation at — and/or rating and reviewing us at Apple Podcasts. You can find numerous other ways to engage with us at Thank you for listening!

Check out Scott’s CU Boulder Website and Google Scholar Page for more information and links to the research papers and opinion pieces we discuss in this episode.

For more on universal scaling laws and the science of cities, revisit these earlier episodes of COMPLEXITY:

4 — Luis Bettencourt

10 — Melanie Moses

17 — Chris Kempes

33 — Tim Kohler & Marten Scheffer

35 — Geoffrey West

36 — Geoffrey West

Join our Facebook discussion group to meet like minds and talk about each episode.

Podcast theme music by Mitch Mignano.

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Episode Transcription

Machine transcript by, edited with the help of Danielle Johnson and Caroline Siegel. (Time code starts at beginning of conversation, not of episode.)

Michael (0s):

All right. Well, Scott Ortman, it is a pleasure to have you on Complexity Podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Scott (6s):

Thank you.

Michael (7s):

So I like to start these, because a big part of the show, at least for me, is humanizing the researchers, humanizing the process of science. So I like to start these with a little bit of a biographical background and just ask you how you got into the work that you're doing?  What drew you into archaeology in the first place?  And then from there, what, most likely nonlinear path, took you into the orbit of the Santa Fe Institute?

Scott (37s):

Sure. Why did I become an archaeologist? Honestly, I think it was because when I was a freshman in college, the first archaeology course I took as an undergraduate, had a lot of inquiry to it. And what I mean by that is when I was younger, I was very good at math and I liked biology and things like that, and I always assumed that I would go into one of those fields when I grew up. And the first few years of college, I took a year of chemistry, a year of physics, a year of biology, and it was like class after class was “Here's everything that we know, learn it.” And all I can say is that the way it was taught for me, I mean, I could do it, but it wasn't super exciting because, I know of course in all of those fields inquiry is crucial once you get into it and once you get to the point that you can do that sort of thing, but the way it was presented made it feel like you're never going to get there because there's just a bunch of rote learning to do and you get tested on your ability to memorize things, as opposed to your ability to actually be a researcher.  In contrast, my first archaeology course, I guess it was my sophomore year in college, the very first assignment was getting data from excavations and being asked to examine it, and analyze it, make sense of it, figure it out. And that was just way more fun, frankly.  And I think if my first physics course had been fun like that, I'd probably be a physicist now or if my first biology course had been like that, I'd be a biologist now, but for whatever reason, I just got started down this path because of the way it was presented to me when I was 19 years old.

Scott (2m 16s):

How did I get to SFI? Well, I was an Omidyar Postdoctoral Fellow at SFI, was very fortunate enough to be offered one of those position at the Institute after I completed my PhD back in 2010. And I would say that when I applied for the fellowship, I wouldn't say I knew that much about complexity science per se, my training certainly was not in that. When I went and got a master's degree and PhD in archaeology, I learned the ideas and methods of that discipline. I've always been interested in interdisciplinary work, back when I was a graduate student, I read a lot of cognitive science and cognitive linguistics. I was interested in human biology and human evolution, population biology, and I applied a lot of those kinds of ideas and methods in my dissertation work. So I was very comfortable with and excited about the idea of interdisciplinary research or research on questions kind of at the margins between disciplines.  Or questions, where as much as practitioners of any given discipline might wish it were different, you can't answer them with a disciplinary approach. So I knew that SFI was the place to go to do kind of interdisciplinary work or work between disciplines. And that was really the reason I applied and why I was super excited and honored to be offered a fellowship there. So the work that I do related to complexity science in human societies is interests and knowledge that developed once I joined the SFI community, it's definitely not a part of my previous life.

Michael (4m 5s):

Yeah. So as someone who fell out of the ambit of paleontology after my undergrad, and then over the subsequent 15 years has seen a complete sea change in the methodological toolkit being used in that discipline, it seems like something very similar has gone on in archaeology, and that brings us to the first piece that I want to discuss with you, which touches on the issues you just described here. It was an opinion piece that you wrote for PNAS, along with a host of coauthors, including Jerry Sabloff and Tim Kohler of SFI, and numerous others on: Fostering synthesis in archaeology to advance science and benefit society.

And, I feel like this is a really important subject to clarify for people just how different, at least of the archaeology that you practice, is from the public opinion, the public image that has developed as a consequence of films like Indiana Jones, and just this notion that archaeology is sort of a sophisticated stamp collection or that it's about grave robbing or this kind of thing. And that actually, you're working in very intricate ways with people in a number of different fields. And you're applying a suite of techniques and methods that are not merely acquisitive and are really getting at something that is more fundamental about the dynamics of human society and the way that those dynamics are embedded in the sort of the broader, fundamental understanding about the physical nature of the world.

And so, I would love to hear you talk a little bit about this opinion piece and the organizations that you're a part of that you mentioned in this piece and why you and your colleagues felt that these organizations needed to happen, what kind of service they’re functioning in society.

Scott (6m 10s):

Yeah. And that opinion piece is emanated from a workshop that a large group of us attended and an organization that developed from that called the Coalition for Archeological Synthesis. And the basic idea of that is that the ability of archaeologists to document the physical remains of past behavior through archaeology has been expanding exponentially in the last few decades. Just to give you an example, a few years ago, the US Geological Survey did a LIDAR survey of all of Northern New Mexico where my field work is, and as a result there's freely available LIDAR data that you can download for my entire research area, and you can basically make absolutely accurate maps of archeological sites.  Things that used to take a field season and weeks to do, you can do in a day using your computer. It's really astonishing the ability of the tools that we have to make those observations. So, archaeology is getting so much better and so much faster and so much more efficient in collecting observations about the archeological record. And we're getting a lot better at translating those observations into proxies for things that are interesting about past behavior and things that are interesting to learn about.

At the same time, I think the traditional idea of the field is that its goal is to tell the story of the past. In other words, its purpose is largely humanistic in the sense of developing the story of societies of the past, the rise and fall of civilizations, the, the historical development of different societies around the world. And don't get me wrong, the public wants that from archaeologists and archaeologists like doing it, and they're good at it, and they're creative, and many of the stories that archaeologist develop are very exciting and interesting to think about. They feed our imaginations in important ways. They help us to imagine alternative worlds and alternative ways of living that I think all of us could use in these days to help us creatively imagine ways of solving the problems that we face.  But the many of us involved with the coalition feel that the field of archaeology is not leveraging our ability to systematically observe the archeological record well enough.  And we're not giving back to society as much as I think we could. And so the focus of this organization is to promote a way of thinking about the archeological record that is very much in keeping with the way, in a sense, a transformation that happened in biology as the theory of evolution came to pass in the 19th century. So, prior to Darwin, natural history involved, documenting the diversity of life, the diversity, the fossil record, cataloging the geographical patterns of biological diversity and so forth.   And prior to Darwin, there wasn't a very clear sense that the processes that govern what happens in a living population right now might be the same as the processes that govern the evolution of species at the scale of the paleontological record, for example, the geological record. So a commitment to uniformitarianism, a commitment to the idea that there are certain fundamental processes that have been operating in the evolution of life all along, was a crucial step in developing an approach to biology that has been so incredibly productive and useful for humanity. The ability to know how evolution works is crucial right now, right?  For figuring out how to solve this pandemic that we're suffering through.  Without the theory of evolution, it's a heck of a lot harder to solve many of these kinds of problems.

So the Coalition for Archeological Synthesis is trying to promote that way of thinking about the archeological record too, and about human societies.  The idea that there is a core set of uniformitarian social processes that operate in any society. And what that means is if you can identify what they are and learn how to study them, you can learn about the way those processes work today by studying the way they've worked in the past.  And that the things you would learn from studying the archeological record then become directly applicable to the way societies work today. That's the goal.  It's, of course, a huge culture change for archaeology and it's going to take a while to convince other social scientists about this way of thinking. But I think it's going to take archaeologists coming up with convincing examples of how this can be done.  Anyway, that's what we're working on and that's what I'm excited to be contributing to.

Michael (11m 13s):

Excellent. Yeah, I want to loop back into the uniformitarian picture here, but before we do, and I know this might be kind of dry for some people, but I think it's also important to understand the way that the practice, the organization, the structure of science is changing these days in order to reflect the increasingly networked nature of society itself. And you mentioned in this piece, that in collaboration with scientists and other disciplines, archaeologists need to conduct synthetic research that enjoys institutional and infrastructural support beyond what could be accomplished or is accomplished through grant funded initiatives that individual universities or research institutes, but how?  And then you point to a case study from the field of ecology grappling with similar problems coming to their own innovative solutions in the nineties.

So what does that look like in terms of what it means to reach beyond these sort of more conventional modes of funding and organizing science in order to actually accomplish this research?

Scott (12m 18s):

So the traditional scope of a grant, let's say from the National Science Foundation to do an archeological project would be a couple of years for a couple of collaborators to spend several months in the field, either doing excavations or survey, to do some analysis of the samples that are recovered for, let's say, dating or chemistry or things like that. And the traditional way of collecting archeological data is at the travel's edge; you've got a digging implement and you're in the ground, and that's where the observations are coming from is the removal of the earth. Or more recently maybe, making a map of archeological remains somewhere. So that process works, but of course it takes a very long time to accumulate enough data working in that way to apprehend the evolution of entire societies in ways that are relevant for what we live through now.  In many ways, I would say the collection of data through remote sensing and satellite imagery and space age types of technologies is of a scope and scale that is much more in keeping with the ability of the archeological record to contribute to an understanding of today.

But there's a culture change involved there where funding agencies still imagine what they're doing as: they're funding an excavation or they're funding an analysis of a museum collection or something like that. And again, I'm not saying that those things don't contribute to the total cumulative accumulation of knowledge in the field, it just means it's a very slow process when it's done that way. And it takes much longer than one project to do it that way. So one angle on solving this problem involves new forms of data collection, using satellites and imagery, I mentioned LIDAR coverage, things like that. Another dimension of it is that because archaeologists have been collecting data for a hundred years or more, there is a lot of information out there that's very distributed and non-standardized, and it's distributed in tons of publications and reports and archives and things like that. And the process of integrating all that information into the kinds of databases that we all know are so productive to work with today is a really big challenge. And it takes person power, it takes a person to actually go to an archive and get a piece of paper and actually type in the numbers in a record. You can't just go to a website and download the data to work with, you have to create it working in this distributed way. So that's also expensive and it takes a long time. So that's another one of the challenges that we have.  But I would say that the biggest challenge truly just has to do with archaeologists, imagining what we can do with the information we can potentially control, expanding our imagination regarding what we can do with it and the ways in which it can be helpful to the present and the future.

I think, again, you see it even in the way, archaeologists write.  I read so many books where the goal is to understand something that someone is looking at: this excavation, this burial, this detail.  And if the goal is to understand the details, I mean human societies in detail, of course vary in all sorts of ways. It's sort of like if you wanted to study the details in the configuration of organelles in a cell from moment to moment, it'd be much more productive to generalize about patterns in what the organelles do as single celled organisms evolve or something like that, then it would be to try and understand the specific details of what happens inside a cell from moment to moment.  And I think that's true for societies too. I think the regularities that are there at the level of human social behavior show up when you apprehend them at a big scale and you don't need to sweat the details so much.  And the archeological record also, because only some things preserve and they don't preserve consistently, and what is preserved varies from place to place around the world.  The archeological record shows you different things at different places just depending on happenstance for what happens to preserve based partly on the environment and partly on the behavior of people in the past, and partly on what's happened since those ruins were vacated, and so on.  All those things are there and all of those things mean that an archaeology that contributes to the present and future really can't traffic in the details.  We need to step back to the big picture again, I would say a bird's eye view and a broad view, an evolutionary level view of entire societies to make our contributions. So, supporting research teams to work on those sorts of projects when they are so different from what archaeologists have traditionally done or what an archeological project is traditionally conceived of as being, is a huge challenge that we have to overcome.

Michael (17m 36s):

Yeah. Anyone who has spent some time listening to this show or reading the corpus of complex systems research knows that there is a strong vein of functionalism in this discipline, and you're really speaking to that.

I want to talk with you about the way that adopting this functionalist attitude, or this lens, has allowed you to do some of the more interesting work, and at least in my opinion, that you've done, which is work you've coauthored with people like José Lobo and Luis Bettencourt and others on urban scaling and on how it is that you apply this kind of thinking to looking at this, like you said, rather heterogeneous set of different ancient settlements, urban and non-urban, over thousands of years, across thousands of kilometers all over the world, and then derive from that a uniform understanding of how human societies grow and what changes as they grow.

We'll link to all of these in the show notes.  You've got papers at PLOS One, Journal of Archeological Science, and others, looking at settlements, scaling and economic change everywhere from central Mexico to the Andes, to the Roman Empire. And like you said, it seems like you had to look less at the historically contingent and culturally specific ways that these cities utilized space and more at the functions that those different spaces and relationships between them enabled different kinds of social activity. So this is a powerful example of how this kind of thinking reveals these sort of universals among human societies across time and space and I I'd love to hear you kind of unpack how you and your coauthors formalized this kind of thinking in this work.

Scott (19m 37s):

Well, the way that we got to start collaborating is a fun story.  Back when I was a post-doc at SFI, of course, one of the things that is wonderful to do there is to sit and have lunch and talk with whoever happens to be there and learn about what other people are doing and hear about their questions and get involved in conversations about those things. So I used to, when I was a postdoc, I would pretty regularly sit and have lunch with Luis Bettencourt and learn about the work that he was doing with Geoffrey West and others on urban scaling. And what struck me was the very beginnings of a formal approach to thinking about these effects was beginning to take shape at that time.

And I remember Geoffrey and Luis, both talking about these ideas and explaining what they thought the fundamental social processes were that led to these effects that they were observing in contemporary cities. And so there were two elements of this. One was, as I learned about the kinds of data that urban scientists were using, working in the present, I thought, “Wow, they're thinking about societies like archaeologists do,”  in the sense that they're taking a big step back and thinking about them in very broad terms. And that's something that in the study of contemporary cities, has only become feasible in the relatively recent past as the technologies for observing contemporary, urban life, again from altitude, has come into being, so there's that dimension.

And then there were the ideas about where the social processes that generated these scaling effects and where they came from, what they were and what was going on with them. And I remember listening to Luis and Geoffrey talking about it and what I realized is that they were not alluding to anything that was specifically contemporary or modern. They weren't alluding to capitalism. They weren't alluding to finance. They weren't alluding to democracy. They weren't alluding to markets, even. They were alluding to something very, very simple and very, very general, which was the concentration of human interactions of all kinds in space, in physical space, and the constraints of physical space for human interaction.

Of course, the fact that a person can only talk to so many other people at once.  The fact that people have to eat in the end, we can't interact if we don't have energy in our bodies to burn, to power our brains. So when I heard Luis and Geoffrey talking about these ideas, I thought, well, if you're right, and this is what's going on with contemporary patterns of urban scaling, then they should show up throughout the archeological record too, because people in ancient societies did everything that they were talking about that people in cities today do. So I remember after one particular presentation that Geoffrey gave at SFI, I remembered that I had some settlement pattern data from ancient central Mexico on my computer that had been collected in the 1960s through a “old fashioned” survey archaeology, where people actually had to walk around and directly measure the boundaries of ancient settlements and things like that, estimate the population based on the densities of trash that were laying around on the surfaces of these sites and so on.

And so I, I found those data on my computer and I analyzed them the same way that I had seen Luis and Geoffrey look at data for contemporary cities.  And lo and behold the same statistical patterns were there, all the way down to the same parameters of the fit lines were there.  And I have to admit, I remember when I was first interviewing for an Omidyar Fellowship, I remember having an interview with Geoffrey and it was the first time I'd heard him talk about the urban scaling work that the team at SFI have been doing, and because of my training as an anthropologist, my first reaction was to be more interested in why cities don't fall on the line then the fact that the line was there. I was just coming out of an anthropology graduate program where diversity is the point of everything that anthropologists do. And so my first reaction to it was like, “Well, understanding the residuals to the fit line is more interesting than the fit line.”  And it took me a while, probably more of most of a year of listening to Geoffrey and Luis and others talk about how astounding it was that the fit line was there. And I would say that I finally understood that when I analyzed the data that I had on my computer from central Mexico and got the same parameter value for the fit line, then I thought, “Oh, okay, this is cool. This is interesting.”   And that started us off on this trajectory that's led to grant funding and a website and conferences and lots of publications, and as you said, I hope a good example of how the way of thinking represented by the Coalition for Archeological Synthesis can work. I certainly hope that this work will be perceived in that way by other archaeologists, at least, and hopefully other social scientists too. So we've been running with it ever since, and again, what's become, I think, apparent to all of us in ways that we didn't realize before is that the ideas embedded in the tradition of urban scaling research at SFI are really not even about cities. They're not about the present. They're not about cities.  They're about human beings and what they do. And they're about human sociality in general. And as a result, I feel like we're actually working on a much more general theory of human sociality than I think any of us realized back in 2013 when we first started talking. So I think it's incredibly exciting what we've been discovering together. And this is another way where what we're doing is a real culture change for an archaeologist.

Not too long ago, I was watching a YouTube video about some physicists that got really excited when there was a problem with the launch of a communication satellite that gave it an extremely elliptical orbit around the earth. And of course from the point of view of a GPS satellite and the functionality of that piece of equipment, it costs somebody a lot of money that the malfunction happened.  But for these physicists, there was like, “Wow, we have an opportunity to test elements of Einstein's theory of general relativity using this highly elliptical orbit.”  And something that the physicist said in the video that really hit home with me was:  “What we most wanted to do is get a result we didn't expect.  What we most wanted was to get a result that was inconsistent with general relativity, because that would tell us that there was something more to learn and something more to do”. That idea came from having a theory that was well enough developed, like general relativity, that when you do get an unexpected result, it is interesting and exciting because it does lead you in a new direction.  But that's partly because there's already reasonable support for general relativity; it's been tested in many ways and Einstein’s ideas have been found to be really good at capturing reality. So that really stuck with me, and it's been something that our group has been trying to do with studying scaling effects in the archeological record too, is to try and find cases where these relationships don't happen and then to ask, “Well, why not?”  And see if that leads us to a deeper understanding of the process overall. And there's a couple of papers that we have in progress, coming out soon, that are starting to do that. Now that we've seen the regularity in enough cases and enough reason to have some faith in the theory that we're working with, now we're at the stage where cases that don't work are actually more interesting. And again, for an archaeologist to have been involved in finding a regularity, that's strong enough that…   For most people in my field, the first time you would find a result that doesn't fit, you would just throw out everything and start over. You know, you'd be like, “Okay, fine. That was a dead end.” And you're done.  In this case, it feels more like, “No, we're not at the dead end, it's that we're actually probing the edges of how these processes work and how to better conceive of them and to understand them better by seeing areas where they break.”

The clearest example that we've been working with is a big database of information on the temporary camp sites made by hunting and gathering peoples around the world.  A researcher combed through the ethnographic literature and compiled this huge database of the populations and areas of temporary hunter-gatherer camps from all over the world and when you look at the relationship between the number of people that camp together and the amount of space they take up, what shows up very clearly is that hunter and gatherers camp increasingly spread out the larger the camp gets.  The more people camp together, the more space they put between each other. And that's the exact opposite of what happens in cities, all around the world, which is the more people live together, the closer they pack together.

And so here's an example of something where, wow, okay, hunter-gatherers don't do what people do in cities. They're clearly doing something else. Why is that? What's missing? Is it something social?  Cultural? Is it energetic? Is it because they don't have reliable food supplies? Is it because they don't have the social institutions that allow strangers to interact in a kind of mutually beneficial way? What is it that they're missing? And in answering those questions, then you begin to learn more about the emergence and evolution of the social processes that characterize the world that we know today. And it suggests there was a time when they didn't exist. And in a sense it suggests that there's evolution here in human sociality, an evolutionary story to explain. So that's an example of an area that I think is super, super exciting, where we have some papers in progress right now.

Michael (29m 60s):

So, you know, to draw a link to the conversations that we had for Jeffrey West on this show back episodes, 35 and 36, to talk about the deviations from that fit. You know, I think maybe one of my favorite examples is the example he gives in scale about the human being itself and about when you look at the, you know, the metabolic rates of these different organisms that a modern technological human being is using more calories. You know, when you count our entire technological footprint, you know, we're using something like 30 times as much energy as you would expect for another mammal of our body size.

And so you have to think about the human being as deviating from this plot, by regarding us as not being merely the mass of the flesh deal, limited organism, but you have to include everything else that we have taken in, again, functionally into the anatomical behavioral systems pattern of what it is that we are in this world now. And I think looking at that, one of the things that I love in particular about the paper that you lead authored for your work in the central Andes is how this kind of thinking inverts the assumptions that we, you know, so many people are spouting this rhetoric have been for, for centuries about the way that human culture, society and technology are driving one another. That for example, human lifespan and quality of life, the intricacy of society are, you know, are driven by technological innovation or driven by market activity. And in this particular study, one of the results is that this is precisely backwards. That again, you know, like with Jeffrey West talking about how the increased pace of life inside one of these social reactors that a city is, is the actually the engine powering this accelerating crisis innovation cycle.

And so I'd love to hear you get into a little bit of the details about how it's the connectivity of these social networks, not the expansion of long range trade, not market development, not technological progress that is changing everything, including all of those things that we just mentioned. It's sort of like, not the other way around, like how, how did you come to this? You know, what does it, what does it look like? You're talking about the, the Inca expansion absorbing various other cultures like Montaro and Wonka and how it changed their way of life. But again, not because they were suddenly, they suddenly received as like this boon of higher technology from the Inca, but that it was, it was changing the structure of the functional relationships within those societies. So, yeah, could you go into a little bit more detail about that?

Scott (32m 55s):

Well, I mean, according to the theory that we're working with, there are scale free effects of human agglomeration, or, you know, the number of people being able to interact with each other in space that are open-ended that they provide benefits as far as people can take them. But of course, all of humanity does not live in one city today, and the reason we can't for lots of different reasons, you know, one is that there'd be no way to get food to humanity if everyone lived in one city. There's also, of course, there are social divisions around the world today. There's conflict, you know, I mean, we're having enough trouble sticking together just as the United States right now.

So, you know, not, not, not to mention the conflicts and international relations that go on. So, you know, there's lots of other cultural, political, economic, energetic, technological barriers to the realization of that potential that we think is always there. And so all of these other things that go on in society in a sense, they come together to set what that potential is, and what we find is that societies generally grow to take advantage of whatever, whatever levels of agglomeration they can handle based on this other, the rest of the milieu that they're operating in. And in general, you know, everywhere we've looked, the material standards of living of human beings improve as their levels of agglomeration grow.

Scott (34m 24s):

That's on average, of course, there's lots of variation. Of course, it's of course there's fluctuations in that. Of course there are still injustices and experiences that many of us have of urban problems. These are statistical averages. They're not what must happen for every case at all times; they are the average outcome across many instances of what happens. So we think that those processes are always there. And one way that this realization does bump up against some traditional stories in archeology has to do with the emergence of civilizations, of early civilizations. I would say that ever since a very famous archeologist named V. Gordon Childe wrote Man Makes Himself back in the mid 20th century, the dominant approach in archeology concerning the emergence of civilization is been more or less that it involves a small group of wealthy and powerful people convincing the rest of society to support them and to labor longer and harder to pay their taxes, to support people who were more or less parasites, and basically because of power and because of the ability of leaders to control violence and things like that, people more or less just had to play along.

And what I would say is that that view presumes that there's no intrinsic benefit to figuring out how to live together in a city, and that the reason cities emerged is because leaders forced people to do it, or because people had to do it to defend themselves from the enemies of the leader, you know, who responded by having [inaudible]. So everyone has their own army, and so you live behind the walls in a city to protect yourself, and you give taxes to the leaders who keep you safe. You know, that's sort of the way it's often evolved in archeology. And so what it suggests is that civilization is in a sense false consciousness in Marxist terms, that the average person doesn't actually benefit from it, and that people would have been better off if it had never happened in the first place. And it's a pretty utopian kind of Edenic view. Of course, if civilization had never happened, there would be orders of magnitude fewer human beings on the earth that might be better for the earth, but there wouldn't be more people. So if your measure of success, if humanity is how many people you can give life to, well, I hate to tell you, but civilization was a pretty good invention, despite all the other problems that it has. So I would say that the work that we're doing helps to, in a sense of balance out that narrative, by describing some of the intrinsic benefits that flow from humans figuring out how to live together and develop economies, where there's mutually beneficial exchanges between individuals, despite all of the power asymmetries and warfare and injustices that come along with it.

You know, what I would say is that the net benefits of all of that have to outweigh the net costs, or else civilization wouldn't have emerged independently in seven different places around the world, and within a few thousand years of people figuring out how to produce a reliable food supply and develop infrastructure that was fixed in place. And it happened everywhere. That's all you're saying that human beings everywhere somehow were subject to the same false consciousness everywhere? Well, I guess I'm a little bit more optimistic than that view, but again, this is a big change for [inaudible] who has tended to largely adopt a critical stance on power and inequality. And this work suggests that, well, it's a little bit more complicated than that, and that we need to think more about it.

Michael (38m 1s):

Yeah. So in the work that you did on Rome, I like when you're, you're looking for how to, how to think about these things, how to measure these things. You're looking at again to think about this in terms of, like you said, the aerial view of things and how, again, to compare this to Jeff West and Jim Brown, Brian Enquist, and the way that they link urban scaling to the metabolic scaling and organisms, you think about the fora and the agorae of the Roman empire and the streets and the lengths and the widths of the street networks, like transportation networks, like the circulatory system of an organism, and, you know, naturally to call again on Jeff West episode and the conversation I had with Chris Kempes and with Melanie Moses on the show, there are physical limits to how big those networks can grow in an organism, be it unicellular remote multicellular, or, you know, a social superorganism like an ant colony. And so this gets into a tricky question that Jeff raises in his book and that we discussed in the conversation, which is have we followed the benefits, the increasing returns to scale of these increasingly enormous agglomerations of human beings kind of off the cliff? Like, are we, when you look at the way that human social organization has decoupled in, you know, important ways from spatial organization, you know, like as of yesterday, the late cultural historian, William Erwin Thompson, a shout out to him and his conversation on the evolution of human society from what do you call sanguinal to geographic and now noetic polities, you know, that you look at the way that people think about Facebook as one of the world's largest nations now.

So this is a digital Agora that is threatening in certain ways, the fabric of the cohesion of human society because of its enormous scale. And I'm just curious, I mean, there are certainly, there are things that could be said about the way that these systems depend upon an unjust simplification of the models of reality, you know, the externalization of certain ecological and economic costs. But yeah, I'm curious to know from you in thinking about all of this, you know, what do you make of the insights from settlement scaling theory to what is going on right now with this weird remix of spatial and non-spatial human interaction and what kind of insights this might shed on the future of human social organization and the sustainability of that organization?

Scott (40m 40s):

Yeah. Those are deep and important questions. I have a few thoughts, although, you know, I'm sure others will have more. One thing that occurs to me is that actually a friend network on Facebook is much less diverse than the scope of direct and indirect interaction, physical interactions that a person has in the real physical city. So, you know, even from the point of view of like, if you're commuting on the highway, you've got a whole bunch of other people with many different perspectives, beliefs, you know, other things that are all following the same rules for the mutual benefit of everyone on the road.

Or if you go to the grocery store, you know, the diversity of people in that store or the diversity of people that you interact with and getting your food for the day is orders of magnitude more diverse, I would say, than the people you tend to be friends with on Facebook. So what I think is being revealed is that social media is actually serving to isolate us from each other, actually in an ironic way, relative to what actually has supported the development of society as we know it. So I am actually quite concerned about that, but you know, at the same time at time, it's also super interesting. I mean, more and more of a person’s  physical needs can seem to be able to be met through the Internet because of all of the people who are increasingly putting their efforts into, for example, fulfilling grocery orders for someone, and then delivering them to their home so that you don't even have to go to the store to get the energy that you need.

And you can get really good food that way. And you could, you know, and so on and so forth, you know, so the abstraction of the information dimension of society from its energetic and physical dimensions is it seems to me like it's really putting some stress on it, but at the same time, I also think that life has changed in ways that I hadn't imagined when I was a kid. You know, I hadn't imagined that we would have GPS's and that when you wanted to go somewhere, you would just tell your phone where you wanted to go, and it would speak to you and tell you what to do. And, and that we'd be able to have a video conference, you know, and teach classes through the computer without ever leaving our home. And all these amazing things have happened that I think if you just go from the beginning point and the end point, you say, how in the world did this occur, but yet if you live it step to step, it said every step of the way people are responding to the problems right in front of them, and exploring the space we inhabit and figuring out how to move the boundaries in different ways. I guess what I'm saying is, is that the fact that many of us are noticing these kinds of stresses that come from the way social media abstracts our information, the information dimension from the rest, I suspect society will try to respond to it. And that the future will be different than what we are living in right now. I think that will continue.

One question that I think is super interesting to think about that we deal with a lot thinking about the archeological record is that there are many ancient city cities of the ancient world. They started small, they grew to a certain point, they got big, and then they plateaued, and they more or less stayed like that for centuries, often. One possible interpretation of that, again, given that there would have been increasing returns for them to continue getting it bigger, is that the energetic milieu of that society or the social milieu didn't allow it to get any bigger. There were some other constraint that kept it there. A fascinating question is whether the world we live in today is bumping up against constraints or not. Unfortunately, I think it's hard to know ahead of time. I think you can only know it in retrospect, although, you know, I welcome some ideas about how you could know it ahead of time.

I do think that most ancient societies did bump up against what was feasible and then they just sort of hung out there at the limits and much more frequently than in our experience. It's a huge question for sustainability, of course, whether, whether we're already operating near the edges of what we can do, I would say that because our technology is changing so fast, we're probably, I suspect we're actually not at the limits yet. The question will be whether we can continue to evolve in ways that don't destroy the earth and the process of us continuing to explore what we can do as a society.

Michael (44m 55s):

So to speak to that, and I know that you've got to go here soon, but I think if I can squeeze in a quickie bonus round, one of the things that you brought up a couple of times in this, you know, the overarching theme of adopting a uniformitarian lens to view the ancient world, the current world, and, you know, potentially the future world, speaks to the erosion of, as I think you said earlier, this idea that the world that we're looking at is somehow encapsulated in the past that, you know, that archeology is very much a discipline of the way that people are across time and space. Studying the Maya, it's not like the Maya disappeared, their social organization changed, but they're still there. They're still speaking the language.

Scott (45m 40s):

Well, but who is the they, right? I mean, what do you mean by that?

Michael (45m 44s):

Right? But you coauthored this opinion piece in PNAS on understanding migrations and looking at the past of human migration and what kind of light it might shed on climate migration, the kind of challenges that we discussed with Martin Scheffer and Tim Koehler back in episode 33. And you say in here, this is really key. I really liked this. You said for archeologists to be successful in this, they must not only listen to effected communities, but bring them into our research, traditional knowledge experts, and elders must not be subjects to be interviewed, but instead collaborators in identifying the problems to be studied and how to study them. So this really, this speaks again to a way that this discipline and anthropology and other disciplines have changed their thinking over the last century, you know, that it's no longer this sort of elite imperialists colonizer type of perspective on the communities and the societies that you're learning from, but like weaving them into the process.

And just as a parting thought, I'd love to hear you talk about in practice, what this actually means for the way that archeology has performed today and you know, how it might change the way that we practice it in the years to come.

Scott (47m 3s):

I mean, archeology has traditionally focused on geographical diversity, of course, in addition to evolution over time. And there's tremendous geographical diversity still today in human culture and society. And so integrating what archeologists learn about the histories of peoples and cultures in different parts of the world with the frame of mind of the inheritors of those traditions and the types of knowledge that those communities have accumulated through the history that you learn about through archeology is I think an important way of, again, perhaps unifying the heritage and imagination aspect of archeology with the science of it.

So, one example that I can think of is much of my direct archeological field work takes place in Northern New Mexico. And I, and I work in close partnership with people in the Pueblo communities of New Mexico in my work, and in those communities, there's a sense that the human community has a responsibility to the stewardship of nature, and that there is a moral obligation to it, and that it leads and all sorts of cool and interesting and different directions than the Western thought tradition does with regard to the ways in which human beings treat each other and the ways in which they operate on a landscape. Well, Pueblo ancestors have bequeathed to the present and the future and amazing archeological record of the experiences of people that have lived with those philosophies.

They've still grown and changed and evolved and had their struggles and successes, all the kinds of things we're familiar with. And yet there also were some interesting kind of fundamental philosophical differences between the Native American way of thinking about the nature of reality and about the relationship between humans and the world, the idea that humans are a part of the world, a part of the ecosystem, as opposed to something separate from it. Wilderness and makes no sense to a Native American. There's no such thing. Humans are in the wilderness all the time, if you're a Native American, right? So the idea that archeologists can learn about the long-term consequences of values as they play out in the big picture, I think is a very exciting and interesting direction to move.

And I think it also asks all of us to be a bit more humble about the things that we believe we know, and to say that well, you know, there may well be reasons why societies that think in the ways that Western society does have grown and achieved this sort of cultural hegemony over the earth. I mean, certainly modern science is an outgrowth of the Western way of thinking. And I would say, you know, there is such a thing as native science, but it's very different than Western science, and objectively, of course, you know, its accomplishments are, are different. They're not as extensive by certain ways of thinking about it as Western science would be.

On the other hand, if human communities have been able to persist at high densities, with limited technology and maintain an environment and maintain ecosystem functions, you know, beyond the human community in ways that are natural or that emanate naturally from the philosophy of the people, I think applying the tools of Western science to those sorts of things, to help us understand them better and help us to incorporate them better into our own future, I think is, would be a good thing to do. It seems to me like all of us would benefit from a bit broader understanding of these issues. So yeah, I think it's an exciting area.

And I think that's one of the key reasons why traditional knowledge keepers in different communities around the world are an important ingredient of the kind of collaborative synthesis work that we've been talking about.

Michael (50m 55s):

Awesome. That's a real potent place to end it. Scott, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.


Sure. Yeah, I've enjoyed it.