Friday, June 5, 2009

An alternate perspective on the origins of human behavior, culture

Here's an article that provides an alternative explanation to the various theories of the origins of culture and music that I presented on last week. It's especially interesting for all you Humbio folk saturated with the theories of Richard Klein. Results of a study done by scientists at University College London supports the idea of modern human behavior (which includes technology and culture) as arising from increasing population density, rather than a change in the human brain as Klein purports with his FOXP2-based theory.

According to Stephen Shennan at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, modern human behavior did not just appear in one area at one time but different areas at different times. In sub-Saharan Africa, features of modern human behavior like art date back to 90,000 years ago, much earlier than the 50,000 years ago Klein argued for. Furthermore, there is an absence of modern human behavior at around 65,000 years ago in sub-Saharan Africa, which is a discrepancy unexplainable by current genetic theories.

In order to discern why modern human behavior appeared in different places at different times, the UCL team created computer simulations of social learning. They found that high population density facilitates the exchange of skills and ideas and preserves new innovations from generation to generation, thus giving rise to modern human behavior. The researchers then examined genetic estimates of past population size in sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and the Middle East and found that their population densities were similar at the time of appearance of modern behavior.

This new model for explaining the origins of modern human behavior and culture is fascinating in that it suggests that innovation is driven by how well humans are socially integrated, not by sudden advances in brain power. On a very basic level, such a model is hard to dismiss regardless; even at school, we often see that it's not necessarily the brightest individuals who succeed, but the most resourceful and socially connected individuals. It raises interesting questions: Did we always have it in us to create the wheel? The computer? Did we just need a bigger society for more people to bounce ideas off of each other? Who knows, really -- we may not be getting very close to knowing for certain how we came to act the way we act, but there are a lot of cool paradigms out there for thinking about it.

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-Andrew Plan

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