24 June 2009

"Conformists may kill civilizations"

Well, duh! It shouldn't take a whole lot to realize that. Still, this article raises interesting points.

Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University ... and Pete Richerson of the University of California, Davis, have modelled how different learning strategies fare in different environments. They found that conformist social learning - imitating and emulating what the majority are doing - may also cause the demise of societies....

Behaviour that is genetically determined can adapt to environmental change by the slow process of natural selection, but only when that change is also slow. Rapid change puts a premium on the capacity of individuals to learn through exploration and experience, and to adapt their behaviour accordingly.

Figuring things out for yourself can be time-consuming, however, and a waste of time when others around you have already acquired the relevant knowledge....

"[1] Societies should promote individual learning and innovation over cultural conformity, and [2] the models for social learning should be individuals who have demonstrated that they understand how to live with the current environmental trends," says Whitehead. [my emphasis]

Translation of the second point: If you must follow someone else's example or be instructed by them, then make your role model a present-day environmentalist. That is, adapt your behaviour and learning to our changing environment. If enough of us do that, then we MIGHT yet save our civilization.

Alternatively, carry on as you are; the planet will do just fine without us.

Regarding the second point, post-secondary institutions must look seriously at what the hell they've been doing. "Higher learning" has become an industry and post secondary institutions little more than diploma mills whose aims are to provide a labour force to big business.

Moreover, far too many graduate students have discovered that conformity is THE ONLY WAY they'll be permitted to climb the academic ladder. Innovation and originality are taboo, given that these challenge the academics already in power. Modern post secondary institutions effectively discourage, weed out and reject non-conformists. It wasn't always this way and is anathema to the way education should be.

Recommend this post