Friday, September 7, 2012


The Edge recently posted one of their conversations, this one featuring Joseph Henrich (he of WEIRD -- Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic -- fame).  It's an interesting set of thoughts all around, and his basic thesis -- that it's not really possible to distinguish cultural from biological evolution because it's all part of one evolutionary process that of course has multiple levels working simultaneously -- is dear to my heart.  But there were two moments that stuck out.  

First, a point I mentioned just recently; from an ethnographic or ethological perspectives it is completely obvious that markets are fundamentally about cooperation, not competition.

One of the interesting things about the division of labor is that you're not going to specialize in a particular trade—maybe you make steel plows—unless you know that there are other people who are specializing in other kinds of trades which you need—say food or say materials for making housing, and you have to be confident that you can trade with them or exchange with them and get the other things you need. There's a lot of risk in developing specialization because you have to be confident that there's a market there that you can engage with. Whereas if you're a generalist and you do a little bit of farming, a little bit of manufacturing, then you're much less reliant on the market. Markets require a great deal of trust and a great deal of cooperation to work. Sometimes you get the impression from economics that markets are for self-interested individuals. They're actually the opposite. Self-interested individuals don't specialize, and they don't take it [to market], because there's all this trust and fairness that are required to make markets run with impersonal others.

Second, he tells a great story about Tasmanian history:

I began this investigation by looking at a case study in Tasmania. Tasmania's an island off the coast of Southern Victoria in Australia and the archeological record is really interesting in Tasmania. Up until about 10,000 years ago, 12,000 years ago, the archeology of Tasmania looks the same as Australia. It seems to be moving along together. It's getting a bit more complex over time, and then suddenly after 10,000 years ago, it takes a downturn. It becomes less complex. 

The ability to make fire is probably lost. Bone tools are lost. Fishing is lost. Boats are probably lost. Meanwhile, things move along just fine back on the continent, so there's this kind of divergence, and one thing nice about this experiment is that there's good reason to believe that peoples were genetically the same. 

You start out with two genetically well-intermixed peoples. Tasmania's actually connected to mainland Australia so it's just a peninsula. Then about 10,000 years ago, the environment changes, it gets warmer and the Bass Strait floods, so this cuts off Tasmania from the rest of Australia, and it's at that point that they begin to have this technological downturn. You can show that this is the kind of thing you'd expect if societies are like brains in the sense that they store information as a group and that when someone learns, they're learning from the most successful member, and that information is being passed from different communities, and the larger the population, the more different minds you have working on the problem. 

If your number of minds working on the problem gets small enough, you can actually begin to lose information. There's a steady state level of information that depends on the size of your population and the interconnectedness. It also depends on the innovativeness of your individuals, but that has a relatively small effect compared to the effect of being well interconnected and having a large population.

Apparently, you can start counting Neolithic Australia amongst the "things that are like a brain".

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