Alex Bentley and Michael O'Brien

Jan 8, 2019

The Acceleration of Cultural Change

From Ancestors to Algorithms

MIT Press 2017

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Our evolutionary success, according to co-authors Alex Bentley and Michael O'Brien, lies in our ability to acquire cultural wisdom and teach it to the next generation. Today, we follow social media bots as much as we learn from our ancestors. We are radically changing the way culture evolves.

In The Acceleration of Cultural Change: From Ancestors to Algorithms (MIT Press, 2017), Bentley and O'Brien describe how the transmission of culture has become vast and instantaneous across an internet of people and devices, after millennia of local, ancestral knowledge that evolved slowly. Long-evolved cultural knowledge is aggressively discounted by online algorithms, which prioritize popularity and recency. If children learn more from Minecraft than from tradition, this is a profound shift in cultural evolution.

Bentley and O'Brien examine the broad and shallow model of cultural evolution seen today in the science of networks, prediction markets, and the explosion of digital information. They suggest that in the future, artificial intelligence could help solve the problem of information overload, learning to integrate concepts over the vast milieu of digitally stored information.

Professor Alex Bentley is Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter @ralexbentley.

Hoover Harris, editor of Degree Or Not Degree?, holds a PhD in English and writes and speaks about trends in higher education. He can be reached by email at or on Twitter @degreenot.

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