Friday, November 13, 2009

Getting a grip on cultural evolution

How did humans go from the ability to make a stone axe to a computer mouse? Science writer Matt Ridley posed that question during his keynote for the conference on the Evolution of Brain, Mind and Culture.

Both objects are designed to fit into the human hand. “But the hand axe was made to a design that continued to be used for about one million years,” Ridley said. “There’s no continual innovation or progress.”

And while a hand axe was knapped by a single person, a computer mouse requires the efforts of many. “It’s not just the people in the computer mouse company that made it, it’s the people who drilled the oil well from which the oil came for making the plastic. The point is that human intelligence went from being individual to being collective. And that, I think, is the crucial thing that we have to try and understand about the human breakout from being just another species to being this extraordinarily ecologically dominant species.”

So why, when and where did human intelligence become collective?

Ridley argued that, just as sex and the exchange of genes is crucial to speeding up biological evolution, trade and the exchange of goods was the major driver of cultural evolution and the accumulation of innovations.

“The actual swapping of one object for another is unknown outside our species,” Ridley said.

Ridley is the author of “Nature via Nurture,” among many other science books, and the forthcoming “The Rational Optimist.”

Related stories:
Celebrating Darwin's legacy
'Monkey see, monkey do' spreads social customs

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