Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The cultural Cambrian explosion

The Cambrian explosion has become synonymous with the idea that evolution is characterized by periods of explosive generation of diversity - followed by shake-outs - in which that diversity is winnowed.

I think we can see examples of this phenomenon in cultural evolution.

Economists are used to the idea that marketplaces regularly see periods of adaptive radiation followed by shake-outs. This is part of the idea of a boom-bust cycle.

Human languages seem to be past their "explosion" stage - and we are now in the "shake-out" stage - when diversity decreases.

By contrast, computer languages are still in the "explosion" stage.

TV channels are also still in their "explosion" stage.

Indeed, for most categories of memes you care to think of, we are currently seeing explosive growth. We are living through the cultural Cambrian era. Some explosions have clearly not started yet. We haven't yet seen much of an explosion of fusion reactor designs, or an explosion of machine intelligence. An explosion of machine intelligence is widely forecasted, though. Rodney Brooks titled his 1999 book "Cambrian Intelligence". More recently we have Dag Kittlaus claiming that A Cambrian Explosion In AI Is Coming It's not hard to believe.

What about the shake-out phase? We live in a world with a small number of search engines, a small number of social networks and a small number of popular operating systems. There's mostly only one internet. In some "winner-takes all" markets, competitors inflate - squeezing out the smaller players.

Biologists have long hoped for alien life to study - so that they can see what principles of biology are fundamental and which are accidents of history. Cultural evolution largely fulfills that dream - by providing new forms of life for biologists to study which are not based on DNA. In the case of the Cambrian explosion, speculation about multi-million year old events can be usefully supplemented by modern systems undergoing similar adaptive radiations followed by competitive winnowing. Evolutionary biology is likely to grow stronger and more mature by assimilating these new examples of the dynamics of evolving systems.

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