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Can technology improve although people don't understand what they're doing?



Can technology improve although people don't understand what they're doing?

The task was to adjust the position of the pressure so that the wheel rolled to the bottom of the ramp as soon as possible. Credit: Maxime Derex

Starting around 60,000 years ago, our species spread worldwide using a wider variety of habitats than any other species. People can do this because we can quickly evolve specialized equipment that makes life possible in different environments – kayaks in the arctic and fishing weirs in the Amazon. How can we do this? Most scholars focus on our intelligence: people are better at causal reasoning than other animals, and this allows us to devise useful tools.


New experimental work by the ASU research team published in the magazine Human Nature Behavior this week suggests that cultural evolution can produce new adaptive information even though people do not understand what they are doing. The research team includes Professor Roots and Robert Boyd, researcher of the Institute of Human Roots, and a former post-doctoral researcher of the Institute of Human Roots, Maxime Derex.

Even in traditional societies, human technology is often too complex to be a product of human ingenuity alone. The cultural expert theory suggests that complex technologies stem from the accumulation of many improvements, which were largely small and often unrecognized, made across generations linked to cultural transmission.

To test the theory of researchers that beneficial changes over generations can produce cultural adaptations without individual understanding, the team studied cultural evolution in the laboratory with an exercise to simulate "generations" of improvements.

In the first part of the experiment, the participants were shown a wheel with four spokespeople resting on a sloping ramp. On each spoken there was a pressure that could be moved closer or further from the center of the wheel. The task was to adjust the position of the pressure so that the wheel rolled to the bottom of the ramp as soon as possible. Participants were organized in 14 groups or "transfer chains," with each participant taking five participants long.

Can technology improve although people don't understand what they're doing?

The task was to adjust the position of the pressure so that the wheel rolled to the bottom of the ramp as soon as possible. Credit: Maxime Derex

In each chain, the first participant had a few trials to experiment with the pressure to improve the speed with which the wheel went down the ramp. The second, third, fourth and fifth participants went in the chain to see how the previous participant adjusted the weight and then got a few trials to experiment. On average over 14 groups of participants, the results were improving and better and, at the end of the last group, the wheels were going as fast as possible.

But this happened without any increase in understanding. After the experiment, each participant was given a causal understanding and asked which of two wheels with a weight at different sites was faster.

However, there was no progress in understanding. Participants improved the task although their understanding had not improved. The responses of the first participant were only slightly better than random choices, and the fifth participant did not have a better understanding than the first participant on average.

Was the problem that participants could not only observe what the previous member did from the chain, not why did they do what they did? A second experiment shows that this is not the case.

In a second version, participants were able to give a written explanation of why they had set the weight where they did. However, there was still no systematic improvement in understanding.

The task was to adjust the position of the pressure so that the wheel rolled to the bottom of the ramp as soon as possible. Credit: Maxime Derex

Some participants were involved in the explanation, but not the whole causal story.

"In fact most participants produced incorrect or incomplete theories despite the relative simplicity of the physical system," said Maxime Derex, who is now a Marie Curie Fellow at Exeter University in England. "This restricted subsequent experimentation and prevented participants from finding more efficient solutions."

This experiment helps to explain how cultural evolution produces very complex tools even in simple, pre-multiple societies. The construction of a kayak or fishing weir is complex, multi-use processes that are difficult to understand even with the help of modern science. However, these technologies and many others were devised by people living in small villages without libraries, computers or laboratories.

"Of course, intelligence is important for adapting people," said Rob Boyd. "But it's not enough. Our unique ability to learn from each other means that the cumulative cultural evolution of great adaptations is possible – that is only partially understood – and this powerful tool has allowed to our species adapt and spread. "


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More information:
Causal understanding is not necessary for improving technology that evolves our cultural, t Human Nature Behavior (2019). DOI: 10.1038 / s41562-019-0567-9, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-019-0567-9

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Arizona State University

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Can technology improve although people don't understand what they're doing? (2019, April 1)
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