Institute of Archaeology


Microevolutionary Patterning in Technical Evolution

A recurring pattern in biological evolution is that increases in diversity (adaptive radiation) proceed by early diversification at higher taxonomic levels followed by later diversification at lower taxonomic levels.

This research involves the development of methodology to examine whether the evolution of technology is characterised by the same macroevolutionary pattern of breadth-first search of design-space followed by depth-first search. So far measures of taxonomic diversity have been used to investigate the exploration of design-space during the development of the bicycle.

It was found that this particular example of human technological evolution does indeed to conform to the pattern of diversification familiar to biologists. Nevertheless, the study provoked a number of methodological problems which are now being addressed, not least the question of how far the results are dependent upon the choice of taxonomy.

Bicycle design taxonomy with examples of leaf node occupants: a) Ladies’ Hobby-Horse, 1819; b) Gompertz’ hand cranked draisine, 1821; c) Rudge ordinary bicycle, 1884; d) Kangaroo bicycle, 1878; e) Osmond safety bicycle, 1896; f) Singer Xtraordinary bicycle, 1878; g) McCall’s rear-driven bicycle, late 1860s; h) Otto dicycle, 1881. Sources: a, c, d, e, f, g & h redrawn from Caunter 1955, plates I, IV, V, VI & X, by permission of HMSO; b redrawn from Polytechnisches Journal June 1821.

Related outputs

  • Lake, M W and Venti, J, 2009. Quantitative Analysis of Macroevolutionary Patterning in Technological Evolution: Bicycle Design from 1800 to 2000. pp147-174 in S J Shennan (ed.) Pattern and Process in Cultural Evolution, London: University of California Press.


  • AHRC