MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

People Who Need People

Carthage in Berlioz's Les Troyens: ROH production by David McVicar (photo: Cooper)

Carthage in Berlioz’s Les Troyens: ROH production by David McVicar (photo: Cooper)

The science journalist Ed Yong sums up two recent studies showing the significance of social interconnection:

Now, two teams of scientists have independently shown that the strength of this cumulative culture depends on the size and interconnectedness of social groups. Through laboratory experiments, they showed that complex cultural traditions — from making fishing nets to tying knots — last longer and improve faster at the hands of larger, more sociable groups.

Psychologist Joe Henrich, lead author of one of the studies, brings up the implications of these findings for the Internet era:

“Innovations like literacy, writing and mail allowed us to access the thoughts of people in distant places and times,” says Henrich. “Extend that to the Internet, and things should only speed along even more.”

Jong points out an additional issue suggested by the two studies: “a large population size may be necessary for the evolution of cumulatively complex cultures, of the sort that distinguishes modern humans from other primates.”

For example, Henrich notes that many anthropologists assumed that Neanderthals were less intelligent than humans even though their brains were the same size, because they built less complex tools. “Another possibility is that they lived in scattered groups without much interconnectedness,” he says. They lacked the large groups that ratchet culture to new heights.

But [primatologist Lewis] Dean notes that human culture is more sophisticated than these experiments allow. We help one another with complex tasks, teach each other and provide feedback. “I think the experiments risk underestimating what all groups, including small ones, can achieve,” he says.

Is it too far-fetched to try to extrapolate from this a model for the evolution of musical thought vis–à–vis sophisticated ensembles such as the string quartet or modern orchestra?

Filed under: science, sociology

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