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Seeing Cultural Evolution In The Patterns Of History
Joe Brewer
Joe Brewer
is a complexity researcher who specializes in culture design. He is culture editor for This View of Life and co-founder of Evonomics.

I recently had an inspiring conversation with Maximilian Schich, an art historian and complexity scientist at the University of Texas in Dallas. His research focuses on the evolution of complex networks that represent human activities.

Last year he produced an amazing visualization of human migration patterns throughout the last 2000 years that went viral—currently garnering nearly 1 million views – not bad for a scientific study! It shows how human history carves patterns in time that can easily be grasped by expert and layperson alike.

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We talked about the evolving landscape of social science and how new visual communication tools are revolutionizing the way researchers present their results. In the context of rapid (and accelerating) global change, the ability to make sense of cultural patterns and see how they arose from the past will be vital to safeguarding our collective future. The 7 billion people alive today must content with a world filled with systemic risks ranging from climate disruption to chronic poverty and the continual threat of disease epidemics.

All of these change processes are patterns of cultural evolution. They only make sense when we think of their selection criteria and the relative fitness they have in the social niches that exist at any point in time. Some behaviors will thrive and spread. Others will never see the light of day. This can be seen in the geographic density of human creativity in urban centers throughout history. People went where there were opportunities—economic niches that supported their personal development and provided pathways to welfare for their families and themselves.

So how is social research itself evolving? That is the topic of our conversation.


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