paleoanthropology, evolution and genetics

Photo Credit: Hillside above the Rising Star cave system, South Africa. John Hawks CC-BY-NC-ND



Notable paper: Tamariz, Monica and Simon Kirby. 2015. Culture: Copying, Compression, and Conventionality. Cognitive Science 39:171-183. doi:10.1111/cogs.12144

Synopsis: Tamariz and Kirby ran a series of experiments in which a chain of people copied arbitrary line drawings, one person to the next, like a game of “telephone”. In some of these chains, each person could look at the drawing while she copied it; in others the copying had to be done purely from memory of seeing the drawing. After being copied just a few times, the drawings from memory became rapidly simpler and smaller. More interesting, errors introduced into the drawings tended to propagate when they followed simple rules, or when they involved recognizable symbols (like letters).

Interesting because: Human minds can encode a lot of information but they are most efficient when the information follows relatively simple instructions. The complexity of instructions required to produce an object or drawing, called its algorithmic complexity, is a natural measure of its information content. The experiments conducted by Tamariz and Kirby help to illustrate how cultural transmission that depends on memory will select for changes that reduce complexity or enable it to be encoded symbolically.