Sometimes it seems that modern culture is developing at a dizzying pace. In music, cinema and literature, new styles appear and trends change rapidly, couturiers and designers never cease to amaze with new concepts, new applications constantly come into fashion, and so on.
In comparison, changes in nature seem to occur much more slowly. After all, genetic mutations that give animals and plants new advantages are gradually fixed in new generations.
But is it really so? Or is human culture still not developing as fast as it might seem, and we are not so eager for change?
The answer to this question is not easy, because there is no specific criterion or, let's say, unit of measurement for analyzing how a culture is changing.
Yet scientists from the UK and the US have tried to compare the rates of cultural and biological evolution using an original approach.
Popular music, English literature, scientific publications and car design were the objects of research.
In particular, the experts analyzed 17 thousand songs that entered the Billboard Hot 100 hit parade between 1960 and 2010, and selected one hundred musical characteristics (variables). In the case of cars, 16 different parameters were considered (including size and power). Finally, the scientists examined 2,200 literary works of 19th century British writers and 170,000 scientific publications of the British Medical Journal. 500 different topics were designated as variables.
Using metrics and tools from evolutionary biology, the team compared the rate of cultural change with the rate of biological change of four species (snails, birds, and two species of butterflies) that are considered model in this context.
For example, the change in the color of the wings of a birch moth is the most famous example of industrial melanism. Until the middle of the 19th century, the wings of these moths were white-grayish with dark blotches, due to which the insects remained invisible on tree trunks. However, their color changed with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, when Britain was literally covered with soot. When the laws governing emissions of pollutants came into force and the tree trunks returned to their normal color, the color of the butterfly's wings changed again.
Other "reference" animals are Darwinian finches, which change their beak shape in response to environmental changes (such as droughts and rains). Using these birds as an example, evolutionists have proved that a new species can develop in just two generations.
For both cultural and biological "groups," the team calculated metrics that reflect the rate of change. And they turned out to be the same.
"It says something about human psychology. We are surprisingly conservative about our choices, and what we like is changing very slowly," said team leader Armand Leroi of Imperial College London.
According to some researchers, cultural artifacts can be viewed as organisms: they grow, change and multiply.
The simplest example: people quickly forget bad jokes, but tell each other funny stories over and over again. We have been reading the books of classics for centuries, and the glory of one-day bestsellers is fading away before our eyes. A new approach in science only spreads if researchers find it fruitful, and so on.
“When we create something new, be it a scientific article or a work of art, we take it and release it into the world, and it either lives or dies. Its success depends on whether people want it or not, [it is] just like natural selection, "says Professor Leroy, implying that the environmental factor that drives evolution in nature, in the case of culture, is replaced by the factor of human perception.
In addition, both cultural and biological evolution experience short bursts of significant change, often due to external factors. For example, the rapid change in the shape of the beak of Darwin's finches can be compared with the rapid pace of evolution of cars, namely, with the appearance of electric "offspring" in this family (by the way, in both cases, climatic changes became the trigger.)
Leroy also notes that the same Darwin finches give birth on average once a year. Approximately the same amount of time is required to write and produce a new book or song (that is, in fact, these cultural artifacts "multiply" at the same rate).
By the way, earlier some scientists considered the evolution of archaeological artifacts, for example, stone tools, from this point of view. According to one of these works, the development of human culture is twice as fast as biological evolution. The author of this study, Charles Perrault of the University of Arizona, argues that this is adaptive speed: thanks to relatively rapid development, a person could adapt to new ecosystems, and his life expectancy increased.
A scientific article on the results of a new study by evolutionary biologists is presented in the journal Nature Human Behavior.