The Acceleration of Cultural Change : From Ancestors to Algorithms

Author(s): John (FRW) Michael J.; Maeda R. Alexander; O'Brien Bentley

Social Sciences | No Category

How culture evolves through algorithms rather than knowledge inherited from ancestors.

From our hunter-gatherer days, we humans evolved to be excellent throwers, chewers, and long-distance runners. We are highly social, crave Paleolithic snacks, and display some gendered difference resulting from mate selection. But we now find ourselves binge-viewing, texting while driving, and playing Minecraft. Only the collective acceleration of cultural and technological evolution explains this development. The evolutionary psychology of individuals--the drive for "food and sex"--explains some of our current habits, but our evolutionary success, Alex Bentley and Mike O'Brien explain, lies in our ability to learn cultural know-how and to teach it to the next generation. Today, we are following social media bots as much as we are learning from our ancestors. We are radically changing the way culture evolves.

Bentley and O'Brien describe how the transmission of culture has become vast and instantaneous across an Internet of people and devices, after millennia of local ancestral knowledge that evolved slowly. Long-evolved cultural knowledge is aggressively discounted by online algorithms, which prioritize popularity and recency. If children are learning more from Minecraft than from tradition, this is a profound shift in cultural evolution.

Bentley and O'Brien examine the broad and shallow model of cultural evolution seen today in the science of networks, prediction markets, and the explosion of digital information. They suggest that in the future, artificial intelligence could be put to work to solve the problem of information overload, learning to integrate concepts over the vast idea space of digitally stored information.


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“For most of human history, the winnowing process tended to favor forms of knowledge and technology that were specific to a place, region or group -- with irrelevant details or inessential changes stripped away and the important elements rendered compact, formulaic and memorable. Innovations can be transmitted, as well, but only after proving themselves and finding a place in a deep order. At the same time, the size of communities of meaningful contact among individuals hovers somewhere around Dunbar’s number. The authors are not alarmists or pessimists; they see the situation as a challenge, not a disaster. “To anticipate the future of cultural evolution,” they write, “think about populations, not individuals, and certainly not yourself. How will variation, transmission and selection be affected? … What wave should we be surfing now, and how will we find the next wave after that?” In any event, don’t ask Alexa.” 

Scott McLemee – Inside Higher Ed   (JC BookGrocer)

General Fields

  • : 9780262036955
  • : MIT Press
  • : MIT Press
  • : September 2017
  • : books

Special Fields

  • : John (FRW) Michael J.; Maeda R. Alexander; O'Brien Bentley
  • : Hardcover
  • : 176