Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Proposed constraints on cumulative cultural evolution

Alex Mesoudi recently wrote a paper about the possibility of a ceiling on cumulative cultural evolution. The abstract says, in part:
Yet previous analyses of cumulative cultural change have failed to consider the possibility that as cultural complexity accumulates, it becomes increasingly costly for each new generation to acquire from the previous generation. In principle this may result in an upper limit on the cultural complexity that can be accumulated, at which point accumulated knowledge is so costly and time-consuming to acquire that further innovation is not possible. In this paper I first review existing empirical analyses of the history of science and technology that support the possibility that cultural acquisition costs may constrain cumulative cultural evolution. I then present macroscopic and individual-based models of cumulative cultural evolution that explore the consequences of this assumption of variable cultural acquisition costs, showing that making acquisition costs vary with cultural complexity causes the latter to reach an upper limit above which no further innovation can occur.
Some brief feedback: The argument is based on the idea that:
Assuming that people have a limited, finite amount of time in their lives to devote to acquiring previously accumulated knowledge, there would theoretically come a point at which so much has to be learned that there is no time remaining for innovation, and accumulation will cease.
I don't think Mesoudi is making enough of an effort to consider the effects of technological development. Machines and computers have potentially unlimited lifespans, very large memories and are widely expected to exhibit impressive cognitive capacities in the non-too-distant future. Their symbiosis with humans seems likely to essentially demolish the constraints that Mesoudi discusses. Which is not to suggest that innovation will continue forever, just that the human lifespan seems unlikely to constrain it.

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