I was recently interviewed by Focus Magazine, a popular magazine in the Russian-speaking world. It was a wide-ranging interview, where we discussed my research on cultural evolution and the implications for some of the events taking place in the world today, including the Migration Crisis, climate change, and the rise of populist politicians.
I gave a keynote presentation at the Lorentz Center conference on “Trusting and the Law“. Tis was my first legal conference. The audience included judges, lawyers, and legal scholars. I presented a talk on “Economic Psychology and the Science of Cultural Evolution”, where I discussed some of the “invisible cultural pillars” that uphold legal institutions. It was fascinating to discuss differences in the approach to “evidence” in science and the law.
I was invited to present my work on human evolution and the evolution of brains at the “Evolution of cognition and longevity: Adaptation to a new technological environment” meeting at the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution, National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France. I presented “The Cultural Brain Hypothesis & Information Grandmother Hypothesis: How culture drives brain expansion and alters life history”, where I discussed the Cultural Brain Hypothesis (my dissertation; paper currently under review). I also presented some work in progress on the Information Grandmother Hypothesis.
The Cultural Brain Hypothesis is a more parsimonious explanation for the relationships that have been shown between brain size, group size, adaptive knowledge, social learning, and aspects of life history. The Cumulative Cultural Brain Hypothesis is a set of predictions derived from the evolutionary processes that lead to these relationships for the conditions that lead to an autocatalytic take-off between brain size and adaptive knowledge – the uniquely human pathway. The Information Grandmother Hypothesis extends this theory to explain the evolution of menopause and lifespan.
Speakers were biologists of all kinds. Speakers included:
I spent the last week back at Harvard University discussing research on cultural evolution and innovation with the Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA), part of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The LILA group include people from industry and the military. Every year the group invites two academics to discuss their research and how it might be applied to problems faced by members of the group. This year, Mary Ann Glynn and I were invited. It was an intellectually enriching opportunity to apply my work to current challenges in corporations and other organizations.
The ideas presented in my two talks were beautifully captured in the graphics below:
The Science of Cultural Evolution: What Makes Humans So Different
Sources of Innovation: The Secret of Human Success
I spent the last couple of days at a small conference on cumulative culture organized by Claudio Tennie and his two PhD students Elisa Bandini and Eva Reindl. The theme was “When and How does Cumulative Culture Emerge”. It was an excellent meeting – large enough to have a diversity of views, small enough to have interesting conversations with almost all participants.
We discussed the challenges and successes in inferring religious belief and practice from the archeological and historical record and new theoretical models and tools for exploring religious history, including the Database of Religious History (DRH).
To very briefly summarize, innovation is often assumed to be an individual endeavor driven by geniuses and then passed on to the masses. Consider Thomas Edison and the lightbulb or Gutenberg and the printing press. We argue that rather than a result of far-sighted geniuses, innovations are an emergent property of our species’ cultural learning abilities, applied within our societies and social networks. Our societies and social networks act as collective brains.
Innovations, large or small, do not require heroic geniuses any more than your thoughts hinge on a particular neuron.
We argue that rates of innovation are heavily influenced by:
transmission fidelity, and
We discuss some of the forces that affect these factors. These factors can also shape each other. For example, we provide preliminary evidence that transmission efficiency is affected by sociality—languages with more speakers are more efficient.
We argue that collective brains can make each of their constituent cultural brains more innovative. This perspective sheds light on traits, such as IQ, that have been implicated in innovation. A collective brain perspective can help us understand otherwise puzzling findings in the IQ literature, including group differences, heritability differences, and the dramatic increase in IQ test scores over time.