Thursday, 11 December 2014

The major transitions in cultural evolution

In their famous work, The Major Transitions in Evolution John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry identified cultural evolution as being a Major Transition. However, a more fine-grained classification than theirs seems attractive to me - and so, in this post, I'll consider what changes qualify as being the major transitions in cultural evolution.

These are my picks for the major transitions so far:

  • The origin of cultural transmission;
  • The origin of digital transmission via speech;
  • Human collectives with specialization (via agriculture);
  • The origin of writing;
  • Mass-produced written materials (via industry);
  • Computers;
  • The internet;

The list is heavily dominated by two kinds of improvements:

  • Better storage;
  • Better networking;

The evolution of cultural evolution has seen developments in computation, sensors and actuators - but these seem to have been more incremental - and less like "major transitions".

The next big major transition in cultural evolution looks set to be machine superintelligence.

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