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What a shock experiment reveals about cultural evolution



The rhythm of change: What a drumbeat reveals about cultural evolution

Drum beat in the lab. Credit: Daniel Vegel

Living organisms are not the only things that evolve over time. Cultural practices have also changed, and in recent years social scientists have taken a keen interest in understanding this cultural evolution. Many studies have focused on psychological factors among people, such as how our visual system limits the shape of written signs.


But environmental factors, such as the availability of materials or physical space, probably also play a role, says Helena Mitton, a doctoral student in complexity at the Santa Fe Institute. Although researchers in this field usually acknowledge the impact of the environment on cultural change, she says, the effects have never been studied experimentally.

To encourage these influences, Mitton recently designed a series of experiments ̵

1; using three identical drums and over 100 participants – to study the impact of material constraints on cultural development. She and her collaborators described the experiment and their results in Notices of the Royal Society B, the main journal of biology of the Royal Society.

The group focuses in particular on how environmental factors affect the development of rhythm. Mitton says she chose to study music because the instruments obviously depend on material constraints. The materials available to the community, for example, will determine the types of instruments they can create, which in turn shape acoustics and sounds.

One of the four initial “seed” rhythms in the experiment heard by the first generation of participants. Credit: Helena Mitton

“We wanted to do the simplest experiment possible,” says Mitton. The researchers recruited 120 participants, none of whom had ever studied music, to participate in an experiment modeled on the game “Phone”. Such so-called transmission chains, Mitton says, are often used in the laboratory to mimic cultural communications.

The participants were divided into chains of six people. The first person listened to a simple sequence of beats played on three drums, and then tried to repeat the rhythm. The second person listened to the first person’s experience and tried to reproduce it, and so on. Mitton and her collaborators studied how rhythms change during the broadcast.

In some circuits, people got a rhythm of playing drums sitting next to each other. Others had to try to recreate drum beats separated by longer distances. And others face a combination of small and large distances between the drums they use. In total, the researchers examined four different spatial configurations of drums and compared how the rhythms produced by the participants differed in these configurations.

The rhythm produced by the sixth generation of participants. Credit: Helena Mitton

“People are transforming what they’ve heard in a very systematic way, not randomly,” said cognitive scientist Dan Sperber of the Central European University in Budapest, who worked with Mitton on the project. “We can predict how the rhythms will change.” The scientists correctly hypothesized that over time, the rhythms would differ significantly from the initial rhythm of the seeds and in a specific way for each configuration.

“It was evidence of a conceptual experiment to show that different cultural models would emerge with different backgrounds,” says Mitton. “The important thing is that we have shown that you can analyze environmental and psychological factors.”

She says she hopes that this simple experiment with drums and telephones will inspire new ways to move the many influences on cultural evolution in the future.


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More information:
Motor constraints affect the cultural evolution of rhythm, Notices of the Royal Society B (2020). rspb.royalsocietypublishing.or… .1098 / rspb.2020.2001

Provided by the Santa Fe Institute

Quote: The Rhythm of Change: What a Drum Rhythm Reveals for Cultural Evolution (2020, October 27), retrieved on October 28, 2020 from https://phys.org/news/2020-10-rhythm-drum-beat- reveals-cultural -evolution.html

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