Cumulative Culture Evolved to Rapidly Coordinate Novel Behaviours

ResearchBlogging.orgIn the deliberations over humanity and its perceived uniqueness, a link is frequently made between our ability to support a rich, diverse culture and the origin of complex human behaviour. Yet what is often overlooked in our view of these two, clearly connected phenomena is the thread that weaves them together: the ability to coordinate behaviour. We need only look at the products of our culture, from language to religion, to see that any variant we may deem successful is contingent on coordinating the behaviour of two or more individuals. Still, what is truly illuminating about this ability is that, far from being a uniquely human feature, the ability to coordinate behaviour is ubiquitous throughout the many organismal kingdoms.

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How Culture Shaped The Human Genome

The study of culture, cultural evolution, gene-culture coevolution and niche construction have all received much more attention over the last decade. So it’s nice to see Nature taking on-board a fascinating review by Kevin Laland, John Odling-Smee and Sean Myles about how culture shaped the human genome: bringing genetics and the human sciences together. It’s really worth reading for anyone interested in the interactions between biology and culture. In particular, I was pleased to see them put forward the notion of culture having accelerated recent evolution, contra Stephen J. Gould’s claim that “there’s been no biological change in humans for 40,000 or 50,000 years”. Here’s the abstract:

Researchers from diverse backgrounds are converging on the view that human evolution has been shaped by gene–culture interactions. Theoretical biologists have used population genetic models to demonstrate that cultural processes can have a profound effect on human evolution, and anthropologists are investigating cultural practices that modify current selection. These findings are supported by recent analyses of human genetic variation, which reveal that hundreds of genes have been subject to recent positive selection, often in response to human activities. Here, we collate these data, highlighting the considerable potential for cross-disciplinary exchange to provide novel insights into how culture has shaped the human genome.

Falling miserably back to Earth

I just watched the first episode of the BBC’s new show Defying Gravity, and it is absolutely awful. Clichéd characters, boring plot, and a completely unrealistic setting (it’s set in 2052, which seems to have not moved on from 2009 — the obvious exception being space travel). However, it did remind me of a recent post by one of my favourite writers, Charles Stross:

There’s an implicit feedback between such a situation and the characters who are floundering around in it, trying to survive. For example: You want to deflect that civilization-killing asteroid? You need to find some way of getting there. It’s going to be expensive and difficult, and there’s plenty of scope for human drama arising from it. Lo: that’s one possible movie in a nutshell. You’ve got the drama — just add protagonists.

I use a somewhat more complex process to develop SF. I start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don’t have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects — much as integrated circuits are useful and allow the mobile phone industry to exist and to add cheap camera chips to phones: and cheap camera chips in phones lead to happy slapping or sexting and other forms of behaviour that, thirty years ago, would have sounded science fictional. And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it.

Star Trek and its ilk are approaching the dramatic stage from the opposite direction: the situation is irrelevant, it’s background for a story which is all about the interpersonal relationships among the cast. You could strip out the 25th century tech in Star Trek and replace it with 18th century tech — make the Enterprise a man o’war (with a particularly eccentric crew) at large upon the seven seas during the age of sail — without changing the scripts significantly. (The only casualty would be the eyeball candy — big gunpowder explosions be damned, modern audiences want squids in space, with added lasers!)

TV sci-fi sucks.

N.B. They just started jabbering on about natural selection and completely missed the point. So I’ll repeat: TV sci-fi sucks.

# 12 # 19 # 22 # 26 # 36 # 41

Excuse the lack of research-based posts over the past few days, I’ve been busy packing and travelling back to my homeland. No more Scotland, sadly. I will hopefully be posting the first in a series of posts about writing systems and what the study of them can reveal to us about the interactions taking place between culture, development and genetics. That aside, my main reason for posting is because I just watched Derren Brown predict the lottery numbers. Very impressive. Watch his show on Friday 11th to find out how he did it. Until then, here is a clip from one of his previous shows:

Cultaptation Conference

Earlier this year I went along to the Cultaptation Conference at St Andrews. Despite being a fascinating event, there appears to nothing on the blogsphere pertaining to the speakers and their talks. In fact, this generally holds true for cultural evolution: there are no dedicated blogs reporting what is undoubtedly a serious scientific endeavour. As a remedy I’m going to dedicate several future blog posts to the conference. Until then, here are the talk abstracts for some of my personal highlights:

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How do biology and culture interact?

In the year of Darwin, I’m not too surprised at the number of articles being published on the interactions between cultural change and biological evolution — this synthesis, if achieved, will certainly be a crucial step in explaining how humans evolved. Still, it’s unlikely we’re going to see the Darwin of culture in 2009, given we’re still disputing some of the fundamentals surrounding these two modes of evolution. One of these key arguments is whether or not culture inhibits biological evolution. That we’re seeing accelerated changes in the human genome seems to suggest (for some) that culture is one of these evolutionary selection pressures, as John Hawks explains:
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Need a platform for uninformed opinions?

Then try the Guardian’s comment is free on for size. Just read Jonathan Jones’ article on religion, science and nouveau atheism. I’m not going to say much (this turns out to be a slight lie) here, other than to direct your attention to this paragraph:

[…] the Dawkins view encourages a caricature of the history of science. It dramatises a clash between scientific reason and religious superstition that is supposedly as intense today as it was in the age of Galileo. But this is a schoolchild’s version of the history of science. It is simplistic and inaccurate to imagine that scientific discovery has ever been either the fruit, or the seed, of pure reason. Science, like art, is imaginative. And the imaginative pictures of the universe created by the great scientists have rarely been free of ideas that in the nouveau atheist view are irrational.

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Orangutans – probably more interesting than you

ResearchBlogging.orgIn the past few years there has been a recent spate of articles concerning orangutan intelligence. So, as I’m fairly bored, and in need of a break from university work, I’ve decided to write a bit of an essay on some of these finds.

Orangutans… They’re orange, right?

Correct; but Pongo pygmaeus abelii are so much more than just some arboreal orange ape that eats a lot of fruit. In fact, these great apes, the last surviving members of the genus Pongo, are highly resourceful and intelligent creatures, as evident in their ability to make and use tools, perform calculated reciprocity and even whistle a tune.

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My first post of this science-focused blog (and it's not about science)

I was planning quite a lengthy post about schizophrenia to kick-start my latest attempt at blogging. Then I read this:

Website age ratings ‘an option’

The option comes from culture secretary, Andy Burnhman, who envisions a future in which the Internet meets the high standards of decency embodied by British television – i.e. [feel free to insert your own witty remark equating some aspect of the BBC with this future internet]. Basically, the whole furore is over children (you know, that demographic unable to protect themselves) and their ability to use this internet thingy to view beheadings; and other material deemed not suitable for children. Burnhumans himself, had this to say:

This isn’t about turning back the clock. The internet has been empowering and democratising in many ways, but we haven’t yet got the stakes in the ground to help people navigate their way safely around it.

Look, we can all see the good intentions behind these proposals. But we don’t need the government to help us navigate – googlemaps is quite capable of this task. Seriously though, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how we can go from protecting children to full net censorship. Television and radio are already hotspots for such intense adherence to authoritarian rules, even if channel four believes itself to be the rebellious child of British television. The great thing about the net is that it allows us to roam freely in these information fields, consisting of porn, search engines (for porn) and everything else. Good times.