Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Joseph Henrich on cultural evolution, WEIRD societies, and life among two strange tribes

Just around the corner, HERE.

On collective thinking:
COWEN: Now, another feature of your model, if I understand it correctly, is that you get more rapid or more complex or more interesting cultural evolution when you have a larger number of moving parts: more people, or more wealth, or more complexity. Is it kind of increasing returns to scale to cultural evolution? Is that fair to say?

HENRICH: Yeah. There’s a couple of different ways that that comes out. I think the simplest and clearest one is this idea that I call the collective brain. This is simply the idea because we’re so dependent on learning from each other in order to do innovations and to construct increasingly fancy technologies, larger and more interconnected populations tend to have fancier tools and technologies.

Humans really don’t think as individuals. We don’t innovate as individuals. We innovate as groups. Groups that, for whatever reason, are able to create more social interconnections produce fancier tools and technology, and they’re able to maintain larger bodies of know-how.

There are these great cases in the ethnohistorical record of groups like the Polar Inuit who get cut off from the rest of the Inuit population. Then they begin to lose valuable tools and technology because their own brains remain the same size, but their collective brain became severed. They’re not able to maintain as much know-how in the population.

COWEN: That connection between size and speed of cultural evolution, that’s true at most margins? Say, India evolves culturally more rapidly than Denmark because it’s larger?

HENRICH: There’s lots of pieces to this puzzle. The key is to create interconnectedness. To explain the difference between Denmark and India: of course, Denmark is interconnected with many other populations, but the flow of information is much less constricted.

What happened in the scaling up of human societies in many places is societies get built on complex kinship structures in which you don’t have very much relations between different families and between different tribes. That constrains the flow of social information among these groups.

The trick the West pulled off is to manage to make individuals so that information could freely flow among individuals.
Institutions, family, the West and the rest:
COWEN: Say the Bill Easterly paper (I think it’s Bill Easterly) that goes back to the year 500 AD. Per capita GDP in 500 AD predicts per capita GDP today relatively well, at least much better than almost any other model would lead you to think. Now, it could be cherry-picking. 500 AD actually may do better than 1500 AD.

But do you think that result is just an artifact? Or is it reflecting the fact that cultural evolution runs deep and once you’re in a good groove, it tends to be self-reinforcing and you don’t get out of it very easily?

HENRICH: Yeah, because you’re developing all kinds of institutions that themselves can endure — both formal institutions and informal institutions — family practices, cultural values. Yeah, so I think you’re capturing a lot of that.

COWEN: How quick is the catch-up in that process? The West has a lot of contact with the world in the 18th and 19th centuries or maybe a bit earlier, brings Western norms, not always in a welcomed manner and often with violence.

There’s a debate in the economics literature. How much growth convergence is there? If you put on your cultural-evolution-plus-genetic-evolution hat, on net, do you expect the poor countries to converge to the wealthy countries or not?

HENRICH: Yes. I think we’ve seen a lot of convergence. Certainly, lots of places that were poor a hundred years ago are now relatively richer, so that you’re seeing a certain amount of convergence.

One of the big problems is that key to understanding all this are family-level institutions, so small-scale societies, developing countries depend on complex kinship institutions, which are really hard to break down.

What you’re doing is you’re putting Western-style institutions on top of an underlying set of family institutions that doesn’t fit. That misfit causes a lot of problems. It’s only through process of urbanization that you gradually break apart those families.
Bigness is a problem:
COWEN: Certainly, within the United States for sure, there is the opposite of convergence. Silicon Valley and Bethesda, Maryland, are getting richer, and West Virginia’s not catching up with them. There was convergence in the ’50s and ’60s. But across cities, counties in the US, we’re quite sure there’s the opposite of convergence.

That clearly is purely cultural and economic. It’s going to have nothing to do with genetics. There seem to be a lot of scenarios where you never get convergence. You have a kind of “average is over” scenario and the world diverges.

HENRICH: Yeah. The challenge that complex societies have always faced is that when they get big enough, they break down into little pieces. Systems for maintaining uniformity have always been a problem.

If you look at human history, what you’ll often see is the expansion of one group rapidly conquering or otherwise assimilating a large area. Then that group gradually breaks down as the inability to maintain cultural uniformity.
TV and the cultural-evolutionary treadmill:
HENRICH: It’s a cultural-evolutionary treadmill. One place where you see this is the complexity of television shows. Now, you have an ensemble cast and 20 different plots going on. You’ve got to track all these different plots. That wasn’t the television of the 1950s. It was one plot, one thing after another. Simple. The whole world is getting more complex, at least in terms of your need for analytic thinking.

COWEN: Some of that in your view is the supply-side effect. It’s not that we got smarter and they made TV better, it’s also they made TV better and that made some of us smarter.
HENRICH: Coevolutionary.

COWEN: Coevolutionary. This is going to make you out to be quite an optimist, then, because TV is going to get better and better. We’re just going to keep on getting smarter.

HENRICH: Yeah, of course.
Biological differences vs. genetic differences, Henrich speaking:
Cultural evolution is making us smarter by giving us all these new cognitive tricks. I think something else is important. People often conflate biological differences with genetic differences. Culture changes our biology even when it doesn’t change our genetics.

In the book, I make this long-term story that culture’s been shaping our genetic evolution, but it also shapes our biology. A simple example is everyone in this room — I would say with . . . I can’t be 100 percent sure — but you have a specialization in your left hemisphere, and you have a thicker corpus callosum than you would otherwise.

You’ve acquired a particular cultural skill, literacy, that changes your brain and makes you biologically different and actually thickens that information highway between your two hemispheres. When you hear spoken speech, you get greater full-brain activation patterns than you would if you’d still been illiterate. Culture changes our biology and causes us to think differently.
HENRICH: I think I can agree with the broad claim. One of the things we always face in complex societies, meritocratic-based societies, is there’s a tendency for people to want to surround themselves by people that are loyal to them, by family and friends and people who owe them things, right? We call this corruption. In most human societies, this was called business as usual.

There is this tendency to want to surround yourself with those loyal to you, those of your same tribe, ethnic group, all those kinds of things. Maintaining well-functioning institutions requires constantly resisting the tendency to surround yourself with reciprocal partners and family members that would otherwise corrupt the system.
Star Trek:
COWEN: What’s your favorite television show?

HENRICH: Star Trek.

COWEN: Which one?

HENRICH: I’m really a next generation guy although I think I like them all.

COWEN: Why next generation? What have we learned from Star Trek?

HENRICH: Lots of great things. It’s kind of like an anthropological quest: Captain Kirk was originally based on Captain Cook, and the idea was you’re going out to encounter new, different peoples and of course in Star Trek you go out into space and do it. Captain Cook was doing it in the Pacific, around the world.

We learn about ourselves by seeing ourselves projected in other peoples and other cultures and other societies.
COWEN: If you think of the implicit vision of how cooperative different groups can become, including people from different planets in various varieties of Star Trek, as an anthropologist that seems realistic to you or utopian?

HENRICH: I just thought it was fun.
The Big God vs. the Local God:
HENRICH: Our effort to test this is to go to places around the world where people believe in the Christian God but also maintain local gods, and then we look at their willingness to cheat in an experiment.

We find that the more they believe in the Christian God (or other big gods too — works with Islam), the more they believe that God is punishing and monitoring them, then the more cooperative they were in the game, less willing to cheat they were. But their belief in the local god either didn’t have an effect or caused them to go the other way.

One of the ways we deal with this is we unconsciously prime them of either their local god or the big god. In the case of the local god, it usually makes them more pro their in-group, whereas priming the big god made them more fair towards out-group members, towards this larger circle of coreligionists.

COWEN: So maybe more cosmopolitan, more likely to buy internationalism for larger —

HENRICH: Yeah. The idea is the one god is for building a big society and the other god is for galvanizing cooperation in this village.

COWEN: Then if you have cultural evolution operating more quickly for larger units, that will be correlated with a more rapid pace of cultural evolution and carrying more positive things.

HENRICH: It allows you to scale up, basically.

COWEN: There is in this account some positive external social benefit to a lot of forms of monotheism?

HENRICH: Yeah, that’s the idea.
Human origins:
HENRICH: That’s the start-up problem. The key thing to understand the start-up problem is how humans went down the special trajectory. The way I think about it is you want to think about natural selection as investing either in bigger brains that make you better at figuring stuff out by yourself — better at individual learning — or better at cultural learning, at learning from others.

When there’s not very much interesting things, interesting tools, techniques, ideas in the minds and behaviors of other members in your social group, individual learning is better because learning from others doesn’t get you anything because nobody else in the group has anything.

What you need is a situation where you’re able to have useful ideas in the minds of other members of your social group. In the book, I make the case that when humans are on the savanna as bipedal apes, the predator guild was probably much larger.

Humans have a chimpanzee-like brain, except they lived in larger groups and they would’ve had to be more social with each other so there’s a chance they could’ve crossed this threshold and started down this road. There’s a few other factors like the climate was changing in a way that would’ve favored cultural evolution, so a few other things play into it. But that’s the basic idea.

No comments:

Post a Comment