The Social Protocell Hypothesis (SPH) proposes that early hominin social communities and pre-cultural animal traditions interacted in a way that strongly recalls protocell models of the origins of life. The implication is that Homo and its cultural communities emerged in an Evolutionary Transition in Individuality, where atomistic traditions coalesced into macroscopic systems of traditions, adapted and selected on the level of the social networks in which they resided. The resulting “sociont” – an exotic ideational type of Evolutionary Individual – would then drive the evolution of Homo, and eventually the advanced societies of Homo sapiens. Thus, while many, maybe all, other Major Evolutionary Transitions (MET) have been associated with evolution making a vertical “jump” to a higher level of organization, human evolution would represent an oblique jump to a higher level of organization and a new domain. Apart from shedding light on the deep human past, making a theoretical connection to research on MET also provides a bridge between the natural and human sciences. If indeed our origins lie in a symbiotic ecological relation between a primate species and its ideas, then this transforms our view of ourselves in relation to society quite dramatically. Are we for example – along with domesticated species – most closely comparable to endosymbionts? What does this say about our prospects of viewing ourselves and our societies “from the outside”?
The SPH potentially provides something conspicuously missing today: a detailed theoretical roadmap for making sense of a dramatically improving empirical picture of human and cultural evolution.
Claes Andersson is Senior Researcher and Associate Professor in Complex Systems at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, and an external fellow of the European Centre for Living Technology in Venice, Italy. He works synthetically and interdisciplinary on large-scale and long-term patterns and mechanisms of societal change between complexity science, anthropology, biology and geography. Most of his research has been on human evolution and pre-history, and on urban and regional dynamics in the present and recent history.