Mark Pagel on collective cultural evolution, and how we may be becoming infinitely stupid

This is a very interesting talk by an evolutionary biologist, where he starts from the beginning of life itself and weaves a story through to our current state of culture and how ideas flow.

There are several pieces of the talk that are worth taking a moment to appreciate. Here are a couple excerpts.

here he explains humans versus chimpanzees:

One way to put this in perspective is to say that you can bring a chimpanzee home to your house, and you can teach it to wash dishes, but it will just as happily wash a clean dish as a dirty dish, because it’s washing dishes to be rewarded with a banana. Whereas, with humans, we understand why we’re washing dishes, and we would never wash a clean one. And that seems to be the difference. It unleashes this cumulative cultural adaptation in us.

here he explains how ideas are accelerating, and in many ways the term “building on the shoulders of giants” comes from:

If I’m living in a population of people, and I can observe those people, and see what they’re doing, seeing what innovations they’re coming up with, I can choose among the best of those ideas, without having to go through the process of innovation myself. So, for example, if I’m trying to make a better spear, I really have no idea how to make that better spear. But if I notice that somebody else in my society has made a very good spear, I can simply copy him without having to understand why.

here he describes how most of us make choices, and what the collective group-think means for humanity:

As our societies get larger and larger, there’s no need, in fact, there’s even less of a need for any one of us to be an innovator, whereas there is a great advantage for most of us to be copiers, or followers. And so, a real worry is that our capacity for social learning, which is responsible for all of our cumulative cultural adaptation, all of the things we see around us in our everyday lives, has actually promoted a species that isn’t so good at innovation. It allows us to reflect on ourselves a little bit and say, maybe we’re not as creative and as imaginative and as innovative as we thought we were, but extraordinarily good at copying and following.

If we apply this to our everyday lives and we ask ourselves, do we know the answers to the most important questions in our lives? Should you buy a particular house? What mortgage product should you have? Should you buy a particular car? Who should you marry? What sort of job should you take? What kind of activities should you do? What kind of holidays should you take? We don’t know the answers to most of those things. And if we really were the deeply intelligent and imaginative and innovative species that we thought we were, we might know the answers to those things.

And if we ask ourselves how it is we come across the answers, or acquire the answers to many of those questions, most of us realize that we do what everybody else is doing. This herd instinct, I think, might be an extremely fundamental part of our psychology that was perhaps an unexpected and unintended, you might say, byproduct of our capacity for social learning, that we’re very, very good at being followers rather than leaders. A small number of leaders or innovators or creative people is enough for our societies to get by.

And this next insight is where he predicts where we might be headed:

Putting these two things together has lots of implications for where we’re going as societies. As I say, as our societies get bigger, and rely more and more on the Internet, fewer and fewer of us have to be very good at these creative and imaginative processes. And so, humanity might be moving towards becoming more docile, more oriented towards following, copying others, prone to fads, prone to going down blind alleys, because part of our evolutionary history that we could have never anticipated was leading us towards making use of the small number of other innovations that people come up with, rather than having to produce them ourselves.

And how are Facebook, Google, and Twitter contributing towards making us collective stupider ?

The interesting thing with Facebook is that, with 500 to 800 million of us connected around the world, it sort of devalues information and devalues knowledge. And this isn’t the comment of some reactionary who doesn’t like Facebook, but it’s rather the comment of someone who realizes that knowledge and new ideas are extraordinarily hard to come by. And as we’re more and more connected to each other, there’s more and more to copy. We realize the value in copying, and so that’s what we do.

And we seek out that information in cheaper and cheaper ways. We go up on Google, we go up on Facebook, see who’s doing what to whom. We go up on Google and find out the answers to things. And what that’s telling us is that knowledge and new ideas are cheap. And it’s playing into a set of predispositions that we have been selected to have anyway, to be copiers and to be followers. But at no time in history has it been easier to do that than now. And Facebook is encouraging that.

Lastly, what might this mean from an evolutionary biology perspective, and what are we becoming?

Now, the evolutionary argument is that our populations have always supported a small number of truly innovative people, and they’re somehow different from the rest of us. But it might even be the case that that small number of innovators just got lucky. And this is something that I think very few people will accept. They’ll receive it with incredulity. But I like to think of it as what I call social learning and, maybe, the possibility that we are infinitely stupid.

Hope you enjoyed reading this, as much as I did.

Mark Pagel on collective cultural evolution, and how we may be becoming infinitely stupid

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