New initiative probes human evolution

<p>ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change is accelerating a sea change in the social sciences with the creation of a research initiative designed to fund projects that develop new ways to think about human evolution and social change, and all that it entails.<br /><br />The initiative – Late Lessons from Early History – will be supported with $2.5 million over five years from the Intellectual Fusion Investment Fund. The initiative aims to fund research projects that focus on relating different perspectives of the past, present and future of humanity to each other by investigating, in multidisciplinary teams, the full trajectory of the emergence and evolution of a number of particular human traits and phenomena.<br /><br />“This extremely generous gift to the university offers us the extraordinary possibility to explore radical new ways in which different historical, social and natural sciences may help us deal with today’s and tomorrow’s looming issues,” says Sander van der Leeuw, director of the school and a professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. <br /><br />“At the same time, it supports our efforts to forge the very diverse faculty of the school into a unique, truly intellectually fused research and teaching community,” he adds.<br /><br />According to van der Leeuw, it takes a number of years to create a climate ideal for collaborative, cross-disciplinary research.<br /><br />“This in-depth, five-year investment will give researchers more freedom and a longer time frame to create genuine intellectual fusion than isn’t available when using many of the traditional sources of research funding,” he says.<br /><br />In order to break down disciplinary barriers, the School of Human Evolution and Social Change brings together a community of scholars of the past – paleoanthropologists, biological anthropologists and archaeologists – with a group of scholars studying the present – cultural anthropologists, linguists, sociologists, political scientists, mathematicians, a geographer, a geneticist and a behavioral ecologist. It relies on a thematic organization that brings the faculty together around topics ranging from human origins to urban societies.<br /><br />Faculty members in the school, in collaboration with others at ASU and relevant researchers worldwide, are developing proposals for funding consideration. Possible questions that might be addressed include: How did humans become the biological beings they currently are? What are the roles of sociality in different animal and human species? How have different technologies transformed human societies? How does culture impact the environment? How do institutions manage resources? What drives the growth of cities?<br /><br />One of the goals of this new research initiative is “to foster closer integration between these domains, recognizing that learning from past and present to help us deal with the future is as difficult as it is important,” van der Leeuw says.<br /><br />To stress this importance, van der Leeuw notes how the management of the planet increasingly relies on the use of computer models and scenarios to anticipate future events.<br /><br />“However, most natural and life scientists, as well as economists, are trained to do this in quantitative terms. Yet, if one goes back more than a century or two, quantitative data are essentially lacking, and even as recently as 50 years ago, they show important gaps.<br /><br />“As a result, most policy decisions are based on, at most, 50 to 100 years worth of data, and as such take only relatively short-term dynamics into account,” van der Leeuw says.<br /><br />He adds that such models “overlook the very important long-term dynamics that shape our societies and environments.”<br /><br />“The projects proposed under this new research program should not uncover new data or new descriptions of phenomena, but focus on developing new ways to think about human and social evolution and all that it entails,” he says. “By looking at the emergence of modern societies in fresh ways with appropriate time scales, we will get a much better grip on what actually are the complex processes that lead to current conditions of humanity.”<br /><br />The school is among the first social science programs to include the complex adaptive systems perspective in its research and teaching.<br /><br />Complex adaptive systems use theories and tools across many sciences to uncover common links among human, human-made and natural systems. Coupled with advanced data-gathering and computer modeling systems, this novel approach helps researchers from different disciplines conceptualize and analyze a wide range of intractable problems involving change and transformation. <br /><br />“Together, these studies will offer a different, more dynamic and process-oriented vision of the evolution of the human species, its societies and some of its achievements by focusing on the human capacity to self-organize as the fundamental ‘innovation’ that distinguishes the species from all other animal species,” notes van der Leeuw.</p><separator></separator><p>&nbsp;</p>