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When in Rome Do as the Romans--Sage Advice or Doorway to Doom?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, June 26, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Can conformity lead to mass extinction?

Some scholars think it can, and has. Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and Pete Richerson of the University of California, Davis, believe excessive conformity can prevent the adaptability and innovation needed to survive during periods of rapid environmental change. In fact, they think conformity may have contributed to the demise of the Mayan civilization in southern Mexico on the eighth and ninth centuries, and the Norse settlements in Greenland 1,000 years ago.

Their theory is described in the story by Dan Jones, "Conformist May Kill Civilization" in Nature News. The scholars modeled how different learning strategies fare in different learning environments, and found that under certain circumstances societies can be doomed by conformist social learning. For example, a "red noise environment" is one in which the environment is stable for long periods then undergoes major changes suddenly in unpredictable ways. They say that pattern has characterized many historical periods. And that's when rampant conformity bodes ill. The ability of humans to learn from each other, to imitate and emulate, has helped societies function and keep chaos at bay, and the story explains that social learning is more efficient than having individuals waste time learning what other around them already know. But the story also points out that "Rapid change puts a premium on the capacity of individuals to learn through exploration and experience, and to adapt their behavior accordingly."

"During long periods with only modest amounts of change, conformist social learning is a more successful strategy than costly individual learning," says Richerson, but he adds, "The mix of individual and social learning that evolves during the quiet periods of red noise environments tends to have too little individual learning to cope with the rarer big changes." Luke Rendell, a biologist at the University of St. Andrews in the UK, thinks it is plausible that excessive conformity can collapse civilizations. "People might find it difficult to believe that humans, in all their complexity, would do something so stupid as to copy themselves to extinction," he says, "but in my view that may rely on an overly rosy view of human omnipotence. What matters to most people is how they are doing as individuals right now, and longer term considerations are very easily pushed down the priority listing."

Whitehead and Richerson argue societies should promote individual learning and innovation over social conformity. They also suggest "prestige bias," meaning that people copy successful role models rather than just indulge in unselective imitation, can be helpful. They say, however, testing their models requires more knowledge about how people really use learning strategies before further testing can be accomplished.

Over the years, scholars have developed many theories about the crash of the Mayan civilization and the demise of Norse settlements in Greenland. Whitehead and Richerson believe entrenched conformity and social inertia may have played a role in the inability of both populations to cope with harsh environmental and ecological changes and societal adversities.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "A man must consider what a rich realm he abdicates when he becomes a conformist." And in the words of a Chinese proverb, one dog barks at something, and a hundred bark at the bark.

But how can we nurture innovation and individuality while still supporting the useful conformity that promotes and order, a body of standard knowledge, and some consensus on manners and values?

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  innovation 

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