perceptual thresholds in culture

Today at Culture Club [1] we discussed a recent paper by Eerkens & Lipo [link], where they present a null model of copying errors in cultural transmission. One of the notions they discuss is something I learnt a million years ago in Stage 1 Experimental Psychology: Weber's Fraction, or the Just Noticeable Difference. Interestingly, they reference the exact textbook from which I learnt psychophysics (wow, textbooks are expensive, I had forgotten!).

This made me think about what sort of "perceptual limits" there might be for complex social phenomena like kinship organisation, and where the JND might lie in scales of difference in (for example) inheritance. What would be the so-called "tipping point" for a formerly matrilineal system to start adopting as a norm a system of bilateral inheritance? What might the units to examine be? It struck me that this is possibly a way to get at some thorny "units of culture" questions, although it is beyond the scope of what I'm doing at present. But it would be so very nice to have some sort of null model that might group perceptually-bounded culture concepts together.

[1] Our weekly journal club/discussion meeting for the Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity

please leave a msg, the aliens are on myspace

Geoffrey Miller writes in SEED Magazine about Why We Haven't Met Any Aliens.

Basically, I think the aliens don't blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they're too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don't need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today. Once they turn inwards to chase their shiny pennies of pleasure, they lose the cosmic plot.

According to GM, the best and brightest minds get seduced by fancy entertainment technologies that mimic our evolutionary go-to impulses: fast-food, porn, iPods. There'll be no-one left to run NASA, and maybe–like the aliens–there'll just be no-one left.

Uh, I don't think so. As a bright spark in our discussion group said, Miller deflates his own argument later on:

Some individuals and families may start with an "irrational" Luddite abhorrence of entertainment technology, and they may evolve ever more self-control, conscientiousness and pragmatism.

That is, natural variation will contain strategies that will outcompete the Sims-addicted entertainment-happy phenotypes. This happens to me all the time because other people read journal articles when I read Batman. 

It's provoking, this piece, and I suspect not entirely serious–although the last remarks concerning the rise of  fundamentalism(s) need to be unpacked with respect to evolutionary motivations ALSO. I do like the term "creative class", but it irks me because it comes from a place of privilege. Someone's gotta be out there running the hamster wheel that makes the internet go. Someone's soldering the chip in your VR goggles. And that someone will quite likely be more than motivated to take your place in the great quest for knowledge if you're just slouched on the couch.  

paper: artificial cultural market

A new paper in Science [link]: Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market by Salganik et al.

In a web experiment, the researchers created an artificial database of music (from unknown bands) and allowed people to download songs after rating them. In some conditions, people could see which songs had been downloaded more often, creating a social influence environment. Interestingly, how songs fared in each of eight different runs vaired widely, and mostly independently of how people rated “quality”.

The message seems to be that in music tastes at least, we are all sheep, and the first sheep to baaa makes a great difference to who gets on Top of the Pops.