A society’s cultural practices form the construction of its social networks


It is unlikely that somebody born immediately may independently assume up all the mandatory steps it might take to ship a rocket to the moon. They would wish to be taught from those that got here earlier than them.

“There are such a lot of stuff you would wish to be taught, engineering and chemistry and astronomy,” says Marco Smolla, an evolutionary biologist and postdoctoral researcher within the Division of Biology in Penn’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “It is the ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ thought.”

People can innovate, developing with their very own methods to advance a society’s data, however, maybe extra usually, they be taught from these with whom they’re linked.

In a brand new paper in Science Advances, Smolla and theoretical biologist Erol Akçay, an assistant professor of biology, present how this studying course of triggers a suggestions that impacts the community construction of societies. Societies in an atmosphere that favors generalists, who’ve a variety of expertise, are much less well-connected than these societies that favor specialists, who’re extremely expert at a smaller variety of traits.

Whereas different researchers have studied how a society’s social construction may affect its cultural dynamics, that is the primary time that researchers have proven how cultural choice may influence how the group’s social community was shaped and maintained.

Placing these theoretical societies underneath sure pressures–such as altering a generalist-leaning atmosphere so it favors specialists after which goes again to favoring generalists–revealed an inclination for densely networked clusters of specialists to come up, forming “echo chambers” immune to studying new expertise. Such societies can get caught being extremely specialised in a couple of expertise, even when the atmosphere requires a bigger number of expertise.

The findings may inform how companies and even educational fields encourage networking, the authors say.

“There’s an thought in enterprise and science and so forth the place individuals say networking and extra connectivity is necessary since you get extra numerous traits within the community,” says Akçay. “What we present is the alternative, that in truth if you happen to get extra networked and well-connected, you amplify this echo chamber. You be taught what you observe, and if all people is linked meaning all people learns the identical issues.”

Smolla and Akçay got down to create a easy mannequin of cultural evolutionary dynamics, working off the concept that cultural practices are handed by means of a social community. They centered on the trade-off between a generalist tradition that favors a variety of expertise, for instance a hunter-gatherer society through which everybody could also be comfy with a lot of practices, versus a specialist-favoring tradition, for instance a fishing society, through which everybody makes a speciality of that livelihood.

“We requested, how does the factor it is advisable to be taught have an effect on the way you work together with others,” says Smolla. “When you’re a generalist the place you’ve got a number of completely different skillsets to amass, otherwise you’re a specialist who learns one factor however learns it very well, how does that have an effect on the networks?”

The researchers used a social-network mannequin borrowed from a earlier research by Akçay and his former postdoc Amiyaal Ilany based mostly on hyena societies through which social ties are handed by means of generations. In addition they borrowed a function of social-network evaluation by Penn’s Damon Centola often known as “complicated contagion,” which assumes that an individual requires a number of exposures to a talent or habits to be taught it.

Their first predominant discovering, that specialists shaped environment friendly, dense networks, whereas generalists shaped sparser networks, got here as one thing of a shock.

“We had thought it is perhaps the opposite method round,” says Smolla, “that if you happen to needed to be a generalist with a broad spectrum of expertise you’d work together with a broad spectrum of people. However the cause that is not the case is complicated contagion, the truth that it’s a must to observe traits repeatedly. Within the dense community of specialists, you are extra more likely to be taught a particular talent that everybody round you is specializing on as nicely.”

Additionally shocking to the group was the truth that generalists developed repertoire sizes that had been solely barely bigger than these of specialists. However once more, it is determined by complicated contagion: The generalists had been much less more likely to encounter others with the identical trait a number of occasions, which suggests that they had decrease charges of studying general. Specialists, alternatively, had far increased proficiencies than the generalists, because of a mix of people innovating after which studying from their highly-skilled pals and neighbors.

Smolla and Akçay additionally noticed that being topic to environmental modifications can hurt specialists, sealing them off from alternatives to be taught. They level to examples of this on, for example, social media the place teams are usually extremely linked, and even in tight-knit specialties of science.

“There’s even an attention-grabbing current paper that exhibits that, in scientific communities the place all people coauthors with the identical individuals, these scientific fields are much less more likely to produce replicable findings,” says Akçay.

Wanting forward, the researchers are persevering with to instance cultural evolution by including complexity to their mannequin. In a single line of research, they’re inspecting what occurs when there are completely different values positioned on the varied expertise discovered and taught in a bunch.

“For example proper now it is higher to be a scientist, however later it is perhaps higher to be a farmer,” says Smolla. “We’re excited by how that impacts a society’s networks.”


Erol Akçay is an assistant professor within the College of Pennsylvania Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Division of Biology.

Marco Smolla is a postdoctoral researcher working with Akçay on the College of Pennsylvania.

The research was supported by the Military Analysis Workplace (Grant W911NF-12-R-0012-03).

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