Comments on Human Cultural Transformation

This is a followup to Ben’s post on Human Cultural Transformation Triggered by Dense Populations.  Too many links for this to be accepted into the comments directly…

In thinking about these questions, it helps me to remind myself of the difference between evolution and emergence. Evolution happens whenever you have a population of agents with heritable variation and differential reproduction rates. There are at least two types of emergence, both of which can create new types of agents. Various self-reinforcing mechanisms lead to stronger and more stable agency. We may not even recognize the emergence of nascent agents for what they are until said agency (or coherence) becomes strong enough. For instance, many people have a hard time wrapping their head around cultural agency of any form.

Obviously none of us on here have a problem with the concept of non-human agency, but as Alex and Ben collectively point out, cultural agents depend on human agents for their very existence.  Yet …

“Bad people do bad things”

In listening to this account of Hemant Lakhani, convicted in 2005 of illegal arms dealing, I was reminded of another This American Life episode about Brandon Darby.  Underlying both stories are accounts of seemingly incompetent, misguided, would-be bad guys who were actualized on a path of evildoing by law-enforcement agents during sting operations.

What I found most interesting was the quote in the title of this post, said by the prosecutor in the Lakhani case.  This was his justification for why it was okay to have the U.S. military supply Lakhani the weapon that he was convicted of illegally dealing.  (If you listen to the story you will learn that Lakhani had been making promises to the informant of being able to procure weapons for a long time and he’d been unsuccessful on his own).

While it seems on the surface that “bad people do bad things” — i.e. that’s how bad things get done, they require a bad person to do them — …

Violence on the Decline

From Monday’s Washington Post:

The District, New York and Los Angeles are on track for fewer killings this year than in any other year in at least four decades. Boston, San Francisco, Minneapolis and other cities are also seeing notable reductions in homicides.

Full article is here, in which more sensible police approaches are given credit for the decline.…

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

A few articles on the economy that were sent my way recently.

The Good: After Capitalism (Geoff Mulgan)

The era of transition that we are entering will be disruptive—but it may bring a world where markets are servants, not masters.”  I urge you to read this entire article, and leave your ideological biases at the door.  Despite the title, this is no polemic.  Here’s the punchline:

Contemporary biology and social science has confirmed just how much we are social animals—dependent on others for our happiness, our self-respect, our worth and even our life. There is no inherent contradiction between capitalism and community. But we have learned that these connections are not automatic: they have to be cultivated and rewarded, and societies that invest large proportions of their surpluses on advertising to persuade people that individual consumption is the best route to happiness end up paying a high price.


Tribes are hot.

Kevin has referred more than once to the famous Dunbar number for limits on optimal human tribe size.

One of my favorite books recently is Seth Godin’s book on leadership, called — you guessed it — Tribes.

Yesterday I heard a great talk by David Logan, co-author of Tribal Leadership.…

How to Change the Climate in 3 Years

Oh, and re-grow the rainforrest, strengthen the social, political and economic climate, save endangered species and increase biodiversity and resilliance all at the same time without any budget.…

Twitter vs. Psychoanalysis

In this Times Online article, two psychologists and an author weigh in with their view of Twitter users as narcissistic and infantile:

The clinical psychologist Oliver James has his reservations. “Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.”

“We are the most narcissistic age ever,” agrees Dr David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and director of research based at the University of Sussex. “Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognise you, you cease to exist. It may stave off insecurity in the short term, but it won’t cure it.”

For Alain de Botton, author of Status Anxiety and the forthcoming The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Twitter represents “a way of making sure you are permanently connected to somebody and somebody is permanently connected to you, proving that you are alive. It’s like when a parent goes

Red Pill or Blue Pill?

As we approach the inauguration of a new leader who trying to be truly post-partisan, I think Jonathan Haidt’s TED brilliant talk is apropos:…



This is a picture of what Food on Foot did on Christmas. …

The Return of Public Discourse

We are living in a time wherein the sound bite is the modal and most influential form of public discourse.  Which is unfortunate because of its unidirectional, one-to-many nature.  I’m happy to report though that I see the signs of a return to more meaningful conversation in the form of online video.…

Response to "Thoughts on Ants, Altruism and the Future of Humanity"

[ This is an edited version of a blog comment on Brandon Kein’s Wired Science post here ]

The question of whether we will “break through” to a superorganism or collapse through any number of spiraling cascades or catastrophic events is the subject of Ervin Laszlo’s book, The Chaos Point, which I highly recommend.  In it, he gives a sweeping view of the complex evolutionary dynamic (focusing on human society), and makes a solid argument that we are at an inflection point in history right now, similar to the “saltation” that begat multicellularity.…

TED Talk: Susan Blackmore

Memes and “temes”

Apropos of Kevin’s post yesterday on the “Singularity“, we need to be taking more seriously cultural agency (which includes technological and socio-technological agency):…

Dangerous Media, part 2

I have talked about some of the dangerous aspects of main stream media in the past.  Recently I was reading The Black Swan, in which the author argues that watching TV news, listening to news on the radio, and even reading newspapers actually makes you less informed (and dangerously so) than if you were to tune out completely.…

TED Talks: Wade Davis

Endangered cultures

Notes from TED

Here are some notes that I took at TED 2008.  I have a bunch more on each of the speakers individually which I may post as time permits.  Let me know if you want me to expand any of the notes below into a full post.

World's Best Powerpoint Presentations

Some people would say “Best” and “Powerpoint Presentation” are oxymoronic in combination.  But I disagree.  Powerpoint and its digital slideshow ilk (e.g. Keynote) are a relatively new medium, and it is the job of the slideshow creator and the presenter to make the presentation kick ass.  Al Gore proved this point with his slideshow that was so compelling that it was turned into an Oscar-winning movie.  One could argue that his was more about the presenter than the slideshow, but there are examples of amazing stand-alone slideshows, like this one:

Is Obesity Contagious?

Science News reports that a 2005 study of obese and normal-weighted people found that “30% of the obese group showed signs of previous adenovirus-36 infection, while only 11 percent of the lean group did”. Recent research showed that the virus induces long-term changes in how stem cells develop, causing some that were slated to form bone cells to turn into fat cells instead. Researchers are quick to point out that you shouldn’t avoid fat people for fear of infection because the infectious phase only lasts a few weeks, and would have ended long before obesity set in.…

The New Philanthropy

What I mean by “the New Philanthropy” is the cultural change afoot that is leading more and more of us to believe and act on the belief that we can make a big impact, in our lifetime, with or without large amounts of capital. The New Philanthropy has three classes of people.

Independently Wealthy

John Wood is a model example of someone who had accumulated massive resources and lived a full and busy life, but had some experiences that shifted his perspective to the point where he could no longer continue on his previous path. In the old days, independently wealthy philanthropists like Rockefeller saw their role as to “make as much money as possible, and then use it wisely to improve the lot of mankind.” John Wood and his ilk believe “what kind of man am I if I don’t go face this challenge directly”, and to their peers who say they are crazy or having a midlife crisis they respond “wouldn’t it be

The Eight Most Powerful People on the Planet

…but weak, indecisive and utterly incapable of true world leadership
read the article | digg the article

Cultural Agency

Talking about culture from a complex systems standpoint requires a bit of inductive leap of faith as follows. If you buy the argument that agents emerge from agents (and interactions thereof) at lower levels, then it is clear that there is some level of agency above individual humans.* What we call this level varies according to who is telling the story and what the thrust of their thesis is: population, culture, society, memetics, economy, zeitgeist, etc. The reality is that all of these levels (and more) co-exist, and we are talking about interlocking systems at varying “partial levels” with dynamic, and only loosely constrained, information flow. Nonetheless, there are common elements and properties that we can discuss that are at the very least distinct from the realm of an isolated individual human being.