Social Networks Are Key To Preserving Culture, Sharpening Skills
November 13, 2013

Social Networks Are Key To Preserving Culture, Sharpening Skills

Lee Rannals for – Your Universe Online

A study from a team at the University of British Columbia (UBC) found that strong social networks might be the key to raising a smart child.

A team writing in the Proceedings of the Royal Academy: Biological Sciences said when people are able to learn from a wider range of teachers, it increases the group’s average skill over successive generations. The study found that population size and social connectedness are crucial for the development of more sophisticated technologies and cultural knowledge.

“This is the first study to demonstrate in a laboratory setting what archeologists and evolutionary theorists have long suggested: that there is an important link between a society’s sociality and the sophistication of its technology,” Michael Muthukrishna, lead author of the study and a PhD student in UBC’s Dept. of Psychology, said in a press release.

Researchers tested the relationship between sociality and cumulative cultural evolution in two laboratory experiments, where sociality is operationalized in terms of a participant’s ability to access and learn from multiple experienced individuals.

“Humans may be unique among species in generating the cumulative cultural evolutionary processes that give rise to complex [behavioral] skills and technologies,” the researchers wrote in the journal. “A growing class of theoretical models suggest that the emergence of such complex and ‘difficult to learn’ cultural traits (tools, techniques and skills), such as many of the technologies used by hunter–gatherers, is heavily influenced by the abilities of learners to access larger social networks of other individuals.”

The team tested the transmission of knowledge and skill using undergraduates randomly assigned to one of two treatments, each with ten generations.

During the study, participants were asked to learn some new skills, such as digital photo editing and knot-tying, and then pass on those talents to the next “generation” of participants. The groups who had greater access to experts were able to accumulate significantly more skills than those with less access.

The team found that within ten “generations” of each member, the group with multiple mentors had stronger skills than the group limited to a single mentor. Those groups that had greater access to experts retained their skills longer than groups that began with less access to mentors, sustaining higher levels of “cultural knowledge” over multiple generations.

The scientists wrote that the results “confirm how increasing the number of accessible cultural models can generate greater accumulations of technical know-how in a population, such that every individual in the final generation of the five-model population is more skilled than the most skilled individual in the final generation of the one-model population and almost all individuals in the one-model population.”

Researchers said the study has important implications for several areas, including skills development and education. They added that it is an important study to understand how we need to protect endangered languages and cultural practices, particularly for those groups of people who may not have a strong social network to pass down skills to.