Computational behavior theory and cultural evolution
Tag Archives: culture
2018/11/08Posted by on
The New York Times reports on newly discovered rock art in Borneo, dated to 40,000 years old and providing further evidence that figurative art was not born in Europe. The idea that a full-fledged capacity for complex culture evolved in Europe is a traditional one, based on the fact that, until some time ago, the earliest finds of complex artifacts (art, stone tools, and so on) were from Europe. However, the idea is problematic because it fails to explain why every extant human population has the same cultural capacity, as there is no record of gene flow from Europe to all the rest of the world successive to the appearance of European complex culture. A few years ago, we analyzed evidence of cultural capacity and we came to the conclusion that this capacity is probably as old as the human species. The new find in Borneo joins the ones we had examined in pointing in this direction. In fact, we argued that even Neanderthals may have had the same cultural capacity as Homo sapiens, in agreement with the discovery 40,000 year-old paintings that may have been made by Neanderthals (announced as our paper was being published).
A summary of our paper on the origin of human cultural capacity is in a previous post.
2013/09/17Posted by on
Some time ago I wrote about fashions in dog breeds, pointing out the wild fluctuations in popularity in many breeds. Why do these occur? Owning a dog is a serious commitment in terms of time and money, and it would seem natural to try to acquire a dog that is healthy and with a good temperament. I set to find out whether this is actually the case with my colleagues Alberto Acerbi, Hal Herzog, and James Serpell.
In our new paper Fashion vs. Function in Cultural Evolution: The Case of Dog Breed Popularity, we show that, surprisingly, people do not prefer breeds that are better behaved or healthier. On the contrary, the most popular breeds are the most unhealthy, with a host of genetic defects that are at least partly related to intense selection to adhere to quirky breed standards, and possibly with more behavioral problems such as fear of other dogs, aggressiveness, or separation anxiety. We obtained these results crossing data from the C-BARQ database of dog behavior created by James (the actual data used in our analysis are here), data about dog registrations provided by the American Kennel Club to Hal Herzog (available here), and previously published health data (references 14-17 in the paper).
Thus many people (at least those interested in breed dogs) prefer to acquire a dog that is socially recognized to meet a certain “standard” than a healthy and well behaved dog. If you are unfamiliar with breed standards, I can tell you that they are quite exacting, and to many may appear just pointless. Here is, for example, what the nose of a bulldog is supposed to look like:
The nose should be large, broad and black, its tip set back deeply between the eyes. The distance from bottom of stop, between the eyes, to the tip of nose should be as short as possible and not exceed the length from the tip of nose to the edge of underlip. The nostrils should be wide, large and black, with a well-defined line between them. Any nose other than black is objectionable and a brown or liver-colored nose shall disqualify.
(From the AKC web site)
Note: “disqualify” means that the dog should not be considered a “true bulldog.”
2013/05/12Posted by on
When did humans evolve, to its full extent, the capacity to create complex culture? We consider this question in a paper appearing in the May 7th issue of Scientific Reports. Here is a quick summary.
Human cultural capacity has been traditionally dated to about 30-40 thousands of years ago, based on an impressive cultural explosion in Europe around that time, leaving us such evidence as sophisticated stone tools and plenty of “art” (objects without any clear practical use), like the figurine depicted to the right, the lion man, and striking cave paintings.
There is a problem, though. If cultural capacity evolved in Europe 30-40 thousand years ago, how did all the human groups that where living outside Europe get it? We have no evidence of genetic flow from Europe to the rest of the world, through which the genes responsible for cultural capacity could have spread. It appears that humans must have had the capacity to create complex culture before they fragmented geographically over a large area. This conclusion, however, appears equally problematic because the first split between human populations is currently dated at about 170,000 years ago. Thus humans would have had the capacity for complex culture for more than 100,000 years before complex culture actually appeared. Although this appears unreasonable, we argue that things actually went this way.
First, we note that archaeologists have unearthed stone tools of complexity comparable to that of the European cultural explosion, but much older (more than 200,000 years old). We also note that other indicators of behavioral modernity appeared earlier than 170,000 years ago, such as genes believed to be important for language and the morphology of the speech apparatus.
Second, we summarize recent work in cultural evolutionary theory showing that cultural evolution is, in its initial stages, exceedingly slow. The reason is essentially that culture is a cumulative process: Complex culture can be created only by building on already existing culture. Thus in the initial stages of cultural evolution there was not enough raw material to be elaborated upon, and the creation of culture was slow. Additionally, human groups were at this time small and scattered over a large area, hence it is likely that cultural elements have been invented many times but disappeared (we make a couple of examples in the paper).
The bottom line is that there is no evidence inconsistent with an early origin of cultural capacity, and current understanding of cultural evolution shows that a long gap between the genetic evolution of the capacity and the actual invention is, in fact, quite expected.
And, we suggest in the paper, Neanderthals may have had the same cultural capacity as ourselves.
2012/12/20Posted by on
A recent study by Aral & Walker provides support that the openness-persuasiveness dynamics we suggested a few years ago actually goes on in cultural evolution. In short, we had put forward mathematical and simulation models to support the notion that learning from others produces individuals that, over time, become more conservative (less likely to learn from others) and more persuasive (more likely to convince others of one’s own ideas). These predictions have been confirmed by Aral & Walker, who showed that older Facebook users are more difficult to convince do adopt a Facebook app than younger users, and yet are better at convincing others to adopt the app. Up to now, we only had indirect evidence about openness (older people score low on openness in personality tests), and no evidence on persuasion.
We have submitted a comment to the journal relating Aral & Walker’s intriguing findings to our theory. You can find a slightly extended version here, essentially with more references to relevant work.
2012/09/30Posted by on
Watch them here!
2012/07/26Posted by on
2012/04/05Posted by on
2012/03/08Posted by on
2012/01/28Posted by on
Plos ONE has accepted our paper “The logic of fashion cycles,” where Alberto Acerbi, Magnus Enquist and myself present a new theoretical model to understand fashion cycles (see my previous post on dog breeds). You can download a preprint, and here is the abstract:
Many cultural traits exhibit volatile dynamics, commonly dubbed fashions or fads. Here we show that realistic fashion-like dynamics emerge spontaneously if individuals can copy others’ preferences for cultural traits as well as traits themselves. We demonstrate this dynamics in simple mathematical models of the diffusion, and subsequent abandonment, of a single cultural trait which individuals may or may not prefer. We then simulate the coevolution between many cultural traits and the associated preferences, reproducing power-law frequency distributions of cultural traits (most traits are adopted by few individuals for a short time, and very few by many for a long time), as well as correlations between the rate of increase and the rate of decrease of traits (traits that increase rapidly in popularity are also abandoned quickly and vice-versa). We also establish that alternative theories, that fashions result from individuals signaling their social status, or from individuals randomly copying each other, do not satisfactorily reproduce these empirical observations.
2011/11/05Posted by on
I have recently attended a one-day course on data visualization with Edward Tufte and I have tried to put his advice on virtual paper in this supergraphic on the popularity of dog breeds, using AKC data (courtesy of Hal Herzog). The graph shows the popularity of 100 breeds over time (most popular breeds first), indicating the maximum in popularity and other peaks (if any). I have produced this graph as an inspiration for my ongoing work on cultural dynamics (some features are idiosyncratic to the data analyses I am making). Here are a few things I see in the graph:
- Many breeds have had a clear peak of popularity, after which their diffusion declined to low values. This applies especially, but not only, to breeds used purely as pets – such as the all-time favorite, the poodle.
- The faster a breed rises in popularity, the faster it goes back to its pre-spike level (this is not only a visual impression, it can be put on strong statistical grounds). A similar phenomenon has been observed for first names.
What else can you see? And how to explain it? In am working, with Alberto Acerbi and Magnus Enquist on an explanation of fashion cycles based on the cultural dynamics of preferences, as foreshadowed in our previous work on how social learning influences openness to new information. The paper is now under review at Plos ONE.