Cultural Evolution Contributes to Creativity

Source: Medium, Dec 2016

the leading theorist on how cultural and biological evolution interact.

Psychologists have now shown when you cooperate, when you participate in communal rituals, you become more cooperative and you have greater social solidarity with other members of your group.

another feature of your model, if I understand it correctly, is that you get more rapid or more complex or more interesting cultural evolution when you have a larger number of moving parts: more people, or more wealth, or more complexity. Is it kind of increasing returns to scale to cultural evolution?

the collective brain. This is simply the idea because we’re so dependent on learning from each other in order to do innovations and to construct increasingly fancy technologies, larger and more interconnected populations tend to have fancier tools and technologies.

Humans really don’t think as individuals. We don’t innovate as individuals. We innovate as groups. Groups that, for whatever reason, are able to create more social interconnections produce fancier tools and technology, and they’re able to maintain larger bodies of know-how.

what does your model predict, if only in broad terms? What effects will the Internet have on society given that genetic and cultural evolution are interacting and the number of permutations has gone up a lot quicker than we expected? Is this a train wreck waiting to happen or the greatest thing since sliced bread but 10,000 times better?

HENRICH: Certainly in the short term, it should increase the rate of innovation. It’s easy to exchange ideas amongst very diverse minds.

COWEN: In which ways does culture make us dumb?

HENRICH: It removes a lot of need to think because it gives us prebuilt solutions to problems. It gives us protocols so that we don’t have to figure out things for ourself. Just lots of prebuilt solutions. It tells us what we need to think and what we need to know in order to survive in the world.

HENRICH: Right. The case that I’ve made for this particular is that in order to make markets work, we need particular social norms for how to deal with strangers and interact with them in a mutually beneficial way. In the smallest-scale human societies, you have social norms for dealing with different kinds of relatives and people you have a certain kind of relationship with.

Most of the increase in the Flynn effect is due to the three subtests. There’s 10 subtests on the IQ test and three of them are about analytic thinking. Those are the three that have really dramatically gone up over the last hundred years.

The way I think about it is you want to think about natural selection as investing either in bigger brains that make you better at figuring stuff out by yourself — better at individual learning — or better at cultural learning, at learning from others.

When there’s not very much interesting things, interesting tools, techniques, ideas in the minds and behaviors of other members in your social group, individual learning is better because learning from others doesn’t get you anything because nobody else in the group has anything.

What you need is a situation where you’re able to have useful ideas in the minds of other members of your social group. In the book, I make the case that when humans are on the savanna as bipedal apes, the predator guild was probably much larger.

COWEN: If you’ve watched Star Trek and thought about space, let’s say someday, whenever, we encounter intelligent aliens. How intelligible do you think they will be to us?

HENRICH: I wouldn’t be very optimistic.

COWEN: Wouldn’t be very optimistic?

HENRICH: I can imagine an evolutionary track that is so different from anything we can comprehend.

HENRICH: I would see it as a great loss because languages contain rich ideas about the culture. When people learn languages they may actually come to think about the world differently.

Languages contain all these kind of different things like the spatial reference systems that I mentioned. Different ways of partitioning up the group.

People can be bilingual. You don’t have to necessarily impede communication. You can learn one language, the traditional language that you speak with people in your community, and also learn a kind of lingua franca so you can speak to the wider world.

HENRICH: I think when people use different languages, they can think about things in different ways and it’ll highlight different features of the problem. I think it’s still valuable. I would encourage people to learn multiple languages.

HENRICH: One thing that’s interesting about the maverick question is we tend to think of the maverick as the individual learner, the person who comes up with their own idea, their own new idea. But my take on the history, at least of invention (that’s something I’ve spent a little bit of time on; it could be different in other domains), is great ideas actually come from a recombination.

If you’re a cultural learner and you learn a little bit from this guy and a little bit from this guy and a little bit from that guy and recombine them, you get a brand-new thing. But you actually didn’t. You actually were just cultural-learning from three different people. Knowing people in very different domains of knowledge that normally don’t meet is a great way to be an innovator.


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