Mark Pagel is Fellow of the Royal Society and Professor of Evolutionary Biology; Head of the Evolution Laboratory at the University of Reading; Author Oxford Encyclopaedia of Evolution; co-author of The Comparative Method in Evolutionary Biology. His forthcoming book is Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind.

I want this book.

Mark Pagel via Edge

One of the first things to be aware of when talking about social learning is that it plays the same role within our societies, acting on ideas, as natural selection plays within populations of genes. Natural selection is a way of sorting among a range of genetic alternatives, and finding the best one. Social learning is a way of sifting among a range of alternative options or ideas, and choosing the best one of those. And so, we see a direct comparison between social learning driving idea evolution, by selecting the best ideas —we copy people that we think are successful, we copy good ideas, and we try to improve upon them — and natural selection, driving genetic evolution within societies, or within populations.

I think this analogy needs to be taken very seriously, because just as natural selection has acted on genetic populations, and sculpted them, we’ll see how social learning has acted on human populations and sculpted them.

What do I mean by “sculpted them”? Well, I mean that it’s changed the way we are. And here’s one reason why. If we think that humans have evolved as social learners, we might be surprised to find out that being social learners has made us less intelligent than we might like to think we are. And here’s the reason why.

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.

What this means is that social learning may have set up a situation in humans where, over the last 200,000 years or so, we have been selected to be very, very good at copying other people, rather than innovating on our own. We like to think we’re a highly inventive, innovative species. But social learning means that most of us can make use of what other people do, and not have to invest the time and energy in innovation ourselves.

Now, why wouldn’t we want to do that? Why wouldn’t we want to innovate on our own? Well, innovation is difficult. It takes time. It takes energy. Most of the things we try to do, we get wrong. And so, if we can survey, if we can sift among a range of alternatives of people in our population, and choose the best one that’s going at any particular moment, we don’t have to pay the costs of innovation, the time and energy ourselves. And so, we may have had strong selection in our past to be followers, to be copiers, rather than innovators.

Followership is part of a vast meta-genetic pattern of human culture, where we need fewer innovators as our networks grow better at transmitting innovation. As social density increases, social learning increases, and the very best ideas can reach everywhere: or better, everyone.

I’ve had this bookmarked for a while because it’s a long-ish article and I haven’t had a chance to catch up, but I think it’s worth reading through on a top level as it has some interesting ideas which I’ve pondered myself in the past. However, I don’t think it pushes far enough on certain points:

  • I agree on the point that there doesn’t need to be “more innovaters” to help sustain an expanding, socially-connected group - just as there still only needs to be one seed to generate a whole crystal from a solution, no matter how much volume there is to the solution. I don’t necessarily see that this is any different from past models in the human population, however - I don’t think social learning has made us less intelligent. We are inherently lazy creatures - that’s how evolution designed us, because energy is a precious resource and difficult to harvest - and I can’t see how that would change over a few short centuries so that we become even more lazy (at least, on a genetic level). In the past, two geographically and socially remote groups may have independently come up with the design for a spear, but that does not make them any more or less intelligent than a group that is the equivalent of their combined numbers coming up with only one individual who creates the spear … perhaps there were several individuals in the large group who could have come up with the spear. However, there can only be one first place winner - the one who advertises his product before all the rest. This, by default, makes all the other “would-be geniuses” mere “social learners” after that. Science is full of examples of multiple people who developed similar theories, and who then may or may not need to compete for credit as the original innovator. 
  • Social learning itself has its own place in the evolution of ideas. On the micro-scale, say in a company that is trying to generate new IP and patents, there are often individuals who stand out as the “big thinkers” - the ones who come up with truly revolutionary ideas. However, there also needs to be a supporting group who not only polishes those ideas, but they frequently provide some of the incremental advancements which the big thinkers need and use to then make the next leap. (Not only that, there is sometimes a backlash - witness the king of copying, the Chinese. Yes, they copy blindly, and most often are associated with inferior products due to that, but this has often resulted in an eventual market rejection of such products, and companies have now learned to watch for signs of such rejection and poise themselves to take over with new products when it happens.) No true innovator lives in a vacuum - they are influenced as much by social learners as social learners “copy” from innovators. In fact, entrepreneurs often take their cue from general population trends - I don’t know how often I’ve heard an inventor or entrepreneur say that the reason they started a business or thought of an invention was because there was a clear need that wasn’t being addressed in the market, or because the usual modus operandi clearly wasn’t working after they were subjected to constant and identical frustrations.
  • As for the topic on the randomness of innovation - I not only whole-heartedly agree with this, but I have a name for it: guess and check. Musical instruments are a prime example of this - through centuries of painstaking guess and check, guitars have evolved into nearly the perfect shape for producing the acoustics that it needs to. These days, we can use fancy simulation software and engineering principles and equations to come to the same conclusions, but guess and check had worked well enough, if over a much longer timespan. There is also the epiphany - where a series of seemingly unrelated or random facts percolate in the subconscious, until one day, suddenly, it all seems to come together into a single, elegant solution. I think any innovator understands all too well how random such insights can be, and quite often optimize their environments to encourage such happenings. All the thought and development that comes after is usually spent on polishing it, making it, and/or proving it.

In conclusion, I think it’s not so much that we’re getting dumber due to larger groups of social learners, but that there is now competition arising between the innovators themselves. As we become more and more globally connected, it will be harder for anyone to claim the truly independent and genius idea, and on top of that, earlier than anyone else. Not only that, but our body of knowledge is so huge - witness our current problems with trying to filter out information overload, rather than struggling with information scarcity - that innovation time is potentially eaten away by the time it takes to process the necessary data to see where innovation can take place. Of course, a true innovator’s genius lies in this subconscious, knee-jerk ability to identify these very holes without going through the number-crunching … and that, I think, is something which will always be present in a population to varying degrees, and it’s only whether the current environment will support these people that will matter the most.

Make a culture hostile to entrepreneurs and start-ups? Yes, you will see a decline in innovation. Make it hospitable to such endeavors? You may very well see an explosion in revolutionary ideas.

(Source: underpaidgenius, via emergentfutures)

As hokey as the title might seem, the project encompasses very solid philosophies that address everything from the individual’s every-day life to global issues. The essays are all responses to the central question: “What scientific concept will improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

(Note that at the end of the article, a link is given to a website where all responses are also published online.)

Of the sample quotes given on the review/summary page, these jumped out at me as they not only run parallel with my own personal philosophies on such matters, but pinpoint a lot of what I feel is wrong with policy and law-makers’ perspectives these days:

At best, we nurture the fantasy that knowledge is always cumulative, and therefore concede that future eras will know more than we do. But we ignore or resist the fact that knowledge collapses as often as it accretes, that our own most cherished beliefs might appear patently false to posterity.

That fact is the essence of the meta-induction — and yet, despite its name, this idea is not pessimistic. Or rather, it is only pessimistic if you hate being wrong. If, by contrast, you think that uncovering your mistakes is one of the best ways to revise and improve your understanding of the world, then this is actually a highly optimistic insight. - Kathryn Schulz

We can learn nearly as much from an experiment that does not work as from one that does. Failure is not something to be avoided but rather something to be cultivated. That’s a lesson from science that benefits not only laboratory research, but design, sport, engineering, art, entrepreneurship, and even daily life itself. All creative avenues yield the maximum when failures are embraced.


The chief innovation that science brought to the state of defeat is a way to manage mishaps. Blunders are kept small, manageable, constant, and trackable. Flops are not quite deliberate, but they are channeled so that something is learned each time things fell. It becomes a matter of failing forward.” - Kevin Kelly


Do Dolphins Speak Whale in Their Sleep?

Captive dolphins have picked up some new vocabulary. Not from each other, but rather from a “sounds of the sea” tape played during their performances.

When their handlers noted strange sounds coming from the tanks at night, they compared them to known calls and discovered they were mimicking and practicing whale calls they had heard on tape.

When the researchers used a computer program to compare auditory recordings of the whale calls with the mysterious nighttime noises, it showed that the two sounds were very similar. And because the dolphins had been captive their entire lives, they couldn’t have picked them up from real whales.

To get a second opinion, the team asked 20 human volunteers to listen to humpback whale sounds and wild dolphin sounds. Then the researchers played the nighttime vocalizations and asked the volunteers whether the sounds came from a whale or a dolphin. About 76% of the time, the volunteers classified the imitations as sounds from real whales

The dolphins were last reported to be working on whale disguises, surely as part of their world domination plan.

(via ScienceNOW)

Amazing just on its own, but it also reminds me of the famous Lyre Bird, which has an extraordinary repertoire of chainsaws, car alarms, and camera shutter clicks (WITH motor drive)!

Now I wonder if the dolphins are simply mimicking the whale songs for fun (that is, with no new meaning ascribed to them), or if they’re actually incorporating the new sounds into their own “language”, just as the internet created its own lolspeak and language based off of onomatopoeia. (I can’t believe I spelled that correctly on the first try)


There are no scientific studies that I know of that say men and women differ in “mental abilities”, which is an awfully broad term on its own.

There are anatomical and developmental differences in male and female brains, but these differences have resulted in much myth and little truth. For instance, men have larger brains, on average, than women. But if having larger brains was a sign of greater mental faculties, then whales would have beaten us to fire and spaceships.

It’s important that we acknowledge that there are genuine genetic and biological differences in male and female development, but it’s equally important that we don’t extend these differences into myths of superiority. I’m a fan of what Stanford neuroscientist Josef Parvizi says about it:

“…if we are to entertain the idea that humans ‘experience’ life differently, and that different experiences mold the brain function differently, then we must also seriously consider that gender (along with class, ethnicity, age, and many other factors) would also contribute to this experience, and that they will contribute to molding of the brain…

So if women and men have systematically different life experiences and face dissimilar expectations from birth, then we would expect that their brains would become different (even if they are not innately dissimilar), through these different life experiences. Even if neuroscientists see differences in the brains of grown men and women, it does not follow that these differences are innate and unchangeable.

For instance, if girls are expected to be more adept at language, and are placed in more situations that require communication with others, it follows that the networks of the brain associated with language could become more efficient in women. Conversely, if boys receive more toy trucks and Lego’s, are given greater encouragement in math and engineering classes, and eventually take more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses, it follows that the sections of the brain associated with mathematics could become more efficient in men…

The tricky part is that we do not make the mistake of taking account of these differences as evidence for biological determinism.”

Beyond the social implications of such a question (which has, is, and will be a topic of many a debate and paper), I am reblogging this for its acknowledgment of the underlying biological differences (differences, and not inequalities) and the elements of behavioral conditioning and environment, the latter of which is too often overlooked.



Collaboration is in. But it may not be conducive to creativity.

Hello. If you need to understand me at all, this is a pretty good start.

Fantastic article! I’m an introvert and even I occasionally get a little a lonesome in my cubicle, but the tradeoff is that shit gets done.

This is by no means a business blog, but since I associate with so many creative types and am myself by nature an introvert (though constant exposure has taught me to play extrovert for short periods of time), thought this might be useful in both personal and professional life. :)

I found this particularly pertinent as I am frequently immersed in IP-generating high-tech companies, who place an extreme emphasis on creativity to solve engineering and real world problems. The pressure to collaborate, feed each other ideas, and to maintain a creative high is huge. Yet this article pegs something which I have long suspected, and which probably every introvert can feel instinctively - to actually get things DONE, these things have to occur outside of a brainstorm. But it doesn’t mean a complete hermitization of the creative thinkers … as the article’s conclusion points out, some balance needs to be found between the two extremes, and that may be what’s key to founding a successful endeavor that requires more than a single participant.

(via avali)











What did you get?


Follow this blog, you will love it on your dashboard

Sweet, peaceful, passionate, insecure

outgoing, passionate, naive and sweet.

Outspoken, passionate, charismatic and lovely

Lazy, Passionate, Loyal & Sweet

Peaceful(HAHA!), Reserved(??), Talented, Passionate

Passionate, sweet, dependent and outspoken

Lethargic, sentimental, peaceful, and patient.

… yeah, that’s mostly accurately.

Dramatic, passionate, courageous, restless.

I’m not a whore this time, sweet.

loyal, impatient,  genuine, elegant

Though, even before I started this game, I wondered if as a native English speaker and reader, if it meant that I would be unintentionally biased toward the top horizontal rows? And then I started wondering if I should try and TRULY randomize it by taking my first two samplings while intentionally reading vertically, right to left, and then covering the horizontal rows from the bottom up, or if I was trying to game the system too much, and whether even native readers of other systems of writing (such as Chinese, which is traditionally up-to-down and right-to-left) would REALLY reflexively look for vertical words even when looking at a grid of obviously western characters, and then I got all mixed up and gave up.

My eyes still automatically picked out only horizontal words in the upper half of the happy face. >.>


Violinists can’t tell the difference between Stradivarius violins and new ones

So says a new double-blind study pokes a big f-hole in the assumption that legendary, vintage instruments like Stradivari make any discernable difference in playing quality. By taking six instruments (three new and three of the most rare, worth $10 million together) and putting them blindly in the hands of 21 expert players, the researchers found that violinists couldn’t tell the old from new.

Ever since the early 19th century,  many tests have questioned the alleged superiority of the old Italian violins. Time and again, listeners have failed to distinguish between the sound of the old and new instruments. But critics have been quick to pick holes in these studies. In most cases, the listeners weren’t experts, and the players and researchers knew which violin was which – a flaw that could have biased the results.

What’s more, no one has tested whether violinists themselves can truly pick up the supposedly distinctive sound of a Strad. The common wisdom is that they can, but Fritz and Curtin showed that this isn’t true. “Many people were convinced that as soon as you play an old violin, you can feel that it’s old, it’s been played a lot, and it has a special sound quality,” says Fritz. “People who took part in the experiment said it was the experience of a lifetime when we told them the results. They were fully convinced they could tell the difference, and they couldn’t.”

During the Eighth International Violin Competition of Indianapolis – one of the world’s most important competitions – Fritz and Curtin persuaded six violinists to part with their instruments. Three of the violins were new; one was made a few days before. The other three had illustrious, centuries-long histories. Two were made by Stradivari and the other by Guarneri. One of the Stradivari, denoted “O1”, currently belongs to an institution, and is loaned to only the most gifted players. All three have featured in concerts and recordings, bowed by famous violinists. Their combined value is around 10 million US dollars, a hundred times more than the three new ones.

Of course, as Ed points out, this self-deceptive behavior is common, from wine to women’s shoes. He pointed out this piece from Jonah Lehrer that suggests although we are fooling ourselves by going for rarity over actual quality, we feel a certain psychological reward from giving ourselves a treat, no matter if it’s real.

(via Not Exactly Rocket Science)

I’m a pianist, not a violinist, but this does bring up a host of questions in my mind:

  • Whenever I have played new pianos and complained about certain aspects of it, I was often told that “time will help tune it” - as in, with brand new felt pads on the hammer, they are somewhat stiff at first, but with continuous play, they will soften up and bring a richer tone. However, that would only be true relative to what the piano started out as. It may very well be that some pianos start out sounding richer than others, and this is a feature which piano makers can build right into their instruments - you can “artificially” age a piano, in a sense, by installing pads that have already been softened up a bit by needling them, etc. So, I can sort of understand the argument here … the sound of an instrument is so intrinsic to its construction, how could someone not tune every single aspect of it to produce the most pleasing sound possible, and thus, through technology and applied science, reproduce effects immediately that used to only be available through the natural “breaking in” process of playing an instrument for years upon years?
  • However, that said, I think some focus should also be turned to its playability. While I have played on pianos whose voice I’ve preferred over others, simply due to either the type of song I was playing (ragtime vs classical, baroque vs romantic, etc) or simple personal preference (I usually prefer slightly brighter to darker tunings), there has never been any question in my mind as to just how easy it might be to play one. The Fazioli pianos, for instance, whose virtues I’ve extolled endlessly in the past, had been an entirely new and delightful experience. There are definitely some songs that I would not attempt to play on any piano that isn’t perfect in its action. While, in a way, this action is also tuneable to varying degrees on both new and old pianos, I wonder if violinists might not experience such variations as well, and if it is any more (or less) consistent as trying to tie sound to age.

But, to actually say something a bit more concrete, such as what, if not the sound and playability, actually counts toward the pricetag on these instruments:

  • Maybe the value of these rarities is simply that they have stood up to the test of time, and still sound just as good as when they were first made, or the history that they carry. After all, museums hold plenty of abstract, unidentifiable pieces of stone and wood (to the layman’s eye) but their value lies in the stories that they tell, not in their utility.
  • To reference another study, it was shown that golfers significantly improved their putting ability when they believed they were using equipment that had belonged to a celebrity golfer. Would having a century-old Stradivarius in their hands make a violinist play better? If it did, should it be worth more than a new off-the-shelf violin?