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Bigger numbers, not better brains, smarten human cultures

Tool innovations take off as populations grow and share diverse ideas

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1:59pm, November 13, 2013

CULTURE CLUB  While part of a team, computer-game players saw examples of how to draw an arrowhead, left, and a fishing net, right, before trying to copy or improve on the originals. Larger groups in this game developed more effective designs, suggesting that big populations drive cultural evolution.

Language, computers and other novelties of human cultures are primarily the products of living in large groups, a new study suggests.

Technological advances and the accumulation of other know-how get a jump start as populations expand, say evolutionary biologist Maxime Derex of the University of Montpellier 2 in France and his colleagues. Their laboratory experiments, reported November 13 in Nature, indicate that improvements in tool design occur more frequently as group size grows. Such advances spread rapidly as group members copy whatever works best.

The importance of brute numbers for social learning helps to explain why the human species, which originated around 200,000 years ago, displayed a rapid burst of cave painting and other complex cultural practices around 45,000 years ago, a time of population expansion, Derex proposes.

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