Human Collective Memory from Biographical Data

Bookmarked Estimating technological breaks in the size and composition of human collective memory from biographical data (

The ability of humans to accumulate knowledge and information across generations is a defining feature of our species. This ability depends on factors that range from the psychological biases that predispose us to learn from skillful, accomplished, and prestigious people, to the development of technologies for recording and communicating information: from clay tablets to the Internet. In this paper we present empirical evidence documenting how communication technologies have shaped human collective memory. We show that changes in communication technologies, including the introduction of printing and the maturity of shorter forms of printed media, such as newspapers, journals, and pamphlets, were accompanied by sharp changes (or breaks) in the per-capita number of memorable biographies from a time period that are present in current online and offline sources. Moreover, we find that changes in technology, such as the introduction of printing, film, radio, and television, coincide with sharp shifts in the occupations of the individuals present in these biographical records. These two empirical facts provide evidence in support of theories arguing that human collective memory is shaped by the technologies we use to record and communicate information.

C. Jara-Figueroa, Amy Z. Yu, and Cesar A. Hidalgo
in Estimating technological breaks in the size and composition of human collective memory from biographical data via arXiv


Calculating the Middle Ages?

Bookmarked Calculating the Middle Ages? The Project "Complexities and Networks in the Medieval Mediterranean and Near East" (COMMED) [1606.03433] (
The project "Complexities and networks in the Medieval Mediterranean and Near East" (COMMED) at the Division for Byzantine Research of the Institute for Medieval Research (IMAFO) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences focuses on the adaptation and development of concepts and tools of network theory and complexity sciences for the analysis of societies, polities and regions in the medieval world in a comparative perspective. Key elements of its methodological and technological toolkit are applied, for instance, in the new project "Mapping medieval conflicts: a digital approach towards political dynamics in the pre-modern period" (MEDCON), which analyses political networks and conflict among power elites across medieval Europe with five case studies from the 12th to 15th century. For one of these case studies on 14th century Byzantium, the explanatory value of this approach is presented in greater detail. The presented results are integrated in a wider comparison of five late medieval polities across Afro-Eurasia (Byzantium, China, England, Hungary and Mamluk Egypt) against the background of the {guillemotright}Late Medieval Crisis{guillemotleft} and its political and environmental turmoil. Finally, further perspectives of COMMED are outlined.

Network and Complexity Theory Applied to History

This interesting paper (summary below) appears to apply network and complexity science to history and is sure to be of interest to those working at the intersection of some of these types of interdisciplinary studies. In particular, I’d be curious to see more coming out of this type of area to support theses written by scholars like Francis Fukuyama in the development of societal structures. Those interested in the emerging area of Big History are sure to enjoy this type of treatment. I’m also curious how researchers in economics (like Cesar Hidalgo) might make use of available(?) historical data in such related analyses. I’m curious if Dave Harris might consider such an analysis in his ancient Near East work?

Those interested in a synopsis of the paper might find some benefit from an overview from MIT Technology Review: How the New Science of Computational History Is Changing the Study of the Past.

Big History Summer Reading List | Big History Project

Replied to Big History Summer Reading List (
The best part of teaching Big History is that we’re always learning right alongside our students. As the year winds down here in the US, many BHP teachers are looking for books to take with them to the beach, the mountains, or wherever they choose to unwind this summer. We asked our teacher leaders for their favorite books related to Big History and this list is what they came up with.

I’ve got a lot of these on my big history book list on
It also looks like a lot of these are things that Bill Gates has been reading too!

Global Language Networks

Yesterday I ran across this nice little video explaining some recent research on global language networks. It’s not only interesting in its own right, but is a fantastic example of science communication as well.

I’m interested in some of the information theoretic aspects of this as well as the relation of this to the area of corpus linguistics. I’m also curious if one could build worthwhile datasets like this for the ancient world (cross reference some of the sources I touch on in relation to the Dickinson College Commentaries within Latin Pedagogy and the Digital Humanities) to see what influences different language cultures have had on each other. Perhaps the historical record could help to validate some of the predictions made in relation to the future?

The paper “Global distribution and drivers of language extinction risk” indicates that of all the variables tested, economic growth was most strongly linked to language loss.

This research also has some interesting relation to the concept of “Collective Learning” within the realm of a Big History framework via David Christian, Fred Spier, et al.  I’m curious to revisit my hypothesis: Collective learning has potentially been growing at the expense of a shrinking body of diverse language some of which was informed by the work of Jared Diamond.

Some of the discussion in the video is reminiscent to me of some of the work Stuart Kauffman lays out in At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (Oxford, 1995). Particularly in chapter 3 in which Kauffman discusses the networks of life.  The analogy of this to the networks of language here indicate to me that some of Cesar Hidalgo’s recent work in Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, From Atoms to Economies (MIT Press, 2015) is even more interesting in helping to show the true value of links between people and firms (information sources which he measures as personbytes and firmbytes) within economies.

Finally, I can also only think about how this research may help to temper some of the xenophobic discussion that occurs in American political life with respect to fears relating to Mexican immigration issues as well as the position of China in the world economy.

Those intrigued by the video may find the website set up by the researchers very interesting. It contains links to the full paper as well as visualizations and links to the data used.


Languages vary enormously in global importance because of historical, demographic, political, and technological forces. However, beyond simple measures of population and economic power, there has been no rigorous quantitative way to define the global influence of languages. Here we use the structure of the networks connecting multilingual speakers and translated texts, as expressed in book translations, multiple language editions of Wikipedia, and Twitter, to provide a concept of language importance that goes beyond simple economic or demographic measures. We find that the structure of these three global language networks (GLNs) is centered on English as a global hub and around a handful of intermediate hub languages, which include Spanish, German, French, Russian, Portuguese, and Chinese. We validate the measure of a language’s centrality in the three GLNs by showing that it exhibits a strong correlation with two independent measures of the number of famous people born in the countries associated with that language. These results suggest that the position of a language in the GLN contributes to the visibility of its speakers and the global popularity of the cultural content they produce.

Citation: Ronen S, Goncalves B, Hu KZ, Vespignani A, Pinker S, Hidalgo CA
Links that speak: the global language network and its association with global fame, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) (2014), 10.1073/pnas.1410931111

Related posts:

“A language like Dutch — spoken by 27 million people — can be a disproportionately large conduit, compared with a language like Arabic, which has a whopping 530 million native and second-language speakers,” Science reports. “This is because the Dutch are very multilingual and very online.”

The Information Theory of Life | Quanta Magazine

Bookmarked The Information Theory of Life (Quanta Magazine)
The Information Theory of Life: The polymath Christoph Adami is investigating life’s origins by reimagining living things as self-perpetuating information strings.

César Hidalgo on Why Information Grows | The RSA

I’ve just recently finished the excellent book Why Information Grows by César Hidalgo. I hope to post a reasonable review soon, but the ideas in it are truly excellent and fit into a thesis I’ve been working on for a while. For those interested, he does a reasonable synopsis of some of his thought in the talk he gave the the RSA recently, the video can be found below.

The underlying mathematics of what he’s discussing are fantastic (though he doesn’t go into them in his book), but the overarching implications of his ideas with relation to the future of humankind as a function of our economic system and society could have some significant impact.

“César visits the RSA to present a new view of the relationship between individual and collective knowledge, linking information theory, economics and biology to explain the deep evolution of social and economic systems.

In a radical rethink of what an economy is, one of WIRED magazine’s 50 People Who Could Change the World, César Hidalgo argues that it is the measure of a nation’s cultural complexity – the nexus of people, ideas and invention – rather than its GDP or per-capita income, that explains the success or failure of its economic performance. To understand the growth of economies, Hidalgo argues, we first need to understand the growth of order itself.”

The Math That Connects Pluto to DNA — NOVA Next | PBS

Bookmarked The Math That Connects Pluto to DNA by Alex RileyAlex Riley (NOVA Next | PBS)
How a mathematical breakthrough from the 1960s now powers everything from spacecraft to cell phones.
Concurrent with the recent Pluto fly by, Alex Riley has a great popular science article on PBS that helps put the application of information theory and biology into perspective for the common person. Like a science version of “The Princess Bride”, this story has a little bit of everything that could be good and entertaining: information theory, biology, DNA, Reed-Solomon codes, fossils, interplanetary exploration, mathematics, music, genetics, computers, and even paleontology. Fans of Big History are sure to love the interconnections presented here.

Reed-Solomon codes correct for common transmission errors, including missing pixels (white), false signals (black), and paused transmissions (the white stripe).
Reed-Solomon codes correct for common transmission errors, including missing pixels (white), false signals (black), and paused transmissions (the white stripe).

Microscopic view of glass DNA storage beads

Collective learning has potentially been growing at the expense of a shrinking body of diverse language

Yesterday, I saw an interesting linguistic exercise:

Short activity to show how flexible our language is and how difficult collective learning would have been for our non sapiens ancestors.

Step 1: As a class, choose 200 random words. (I had 15 kids choose 14 words each)

Step 2: Answer the following questions using only the words listed:

  1. How should we try to kill that mammoth?
  2. Explain why you should marry me.
  3. Give directions for a simple task.
  4. Come up with a plan to improve our cave.
  5. Describe a physical landscape.
  6. Come up with your own question!
Chris Scaturo
on February 3 at 8:44am in Yammer Group on Big History: Unit 6 – Early Humans Group

I have to imagine that once the conceptualization of language and some basic grammar existed, word generation was a much more common thing than it is now. It’s only been since the time of Noah Webster that humans have been actively standardizing things like spelling. If we can use Papua New Guinea as a model of pre-agrarian society and consider that almost 12% of extant languages on the Earth are spoken in an area about the size of Texas (and with about 1/5th the population of Texas too), then modern societies are actually severely limiting language (creation, growth, diversity, creativity, etc.) [cross reference: A World of Languages – and How Many Speak Them (Infographic)]

Consider that the current extinction of languages is about one every 14 weeks, which puts us on a course to loose about half of the 7,100 languages on the planet right now before the end of the century. Collective learning has potentially been growing at the expense of a shrinking body of diverse language! In the paper “Global distribution and drivers of language extinction risk” the authors indicate that of all the variables tested, economic growth was most strongly linked to language loss.

To help put this exercise into perspective, we can look at the corpus of extant written Latin (a technically dead language):

“It is a truly impressive fact that, simply by knowing that if one can memorize and master about 250 words in Latin, it will allow them to read and understand 50% of most written Latin. Further, knowledge of 1,500 Latin words will put one at the 80% level of vocabulary mastery for most texts. Mastering even a very small list of vocabulary allows one to read a large variety of texts very comfortably.”
with data from Dickinson College Commentaries

These numbers become even smaller when considering ancient Greek texts.

Another interesting measurement is the vocabulary of a modern 2 year old who typically has a 50-75 word vocabulary while a 4 year old has 250-500 words, which is about the level of the exercise.

As a contrast, consider the message in this TED Youth Talk from last year by Erin McKean, which students should be able to relate to:

[ted id=2158]

And of course, there’s the dog Chaser, which 60 minutes recently reported has a vocabulary of over 1,000 words. (Are we now destroying variants of “dog language” for English too?!)

Hopefully the evolutionary value of the loss of the multiple languages will be more than balanced out by the power of collective learning in the long run.

A world of languages – and how many speak them (Infographic)

An infographic from the South China Morning Post has some interesting statistics about which many modern people don’t know (or remember). It’s very interesting to see the distribution of languages and where they’re spoken. Of particular note that most will miss, even from this infographic, is that 839 languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea (11.8% of all known languages on Earth). Given the effects of history and modernity, imagine how many languages there might have been without them.


A World of Languages

Source: INFOGRAPHIC: A world of languages – and how many speak them

The Information Universe Conference

Yesterday, via a notification from Lanyard, I came across a notice for the upcoming conference “The Information Universe” which hits several of the sweet spots for areas involving information theory, physics, the origin of life, complexity, computer science, and microbiology. It is scheduled to occur from October 7-9, 2015 at the Infoversum Theater in Groningen, The Netherlands.

I’ll let their site speak for itself below, but they already have an interesting line up of speakers including:

Keynote speakers

  • Erik Verlinde, Professor Theoretical Physics, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Alex Szalay, Alumni Centennial Professor of Astronomy, The Johns Hopkins University, USA
  • Gerard ‘t Hooft, Professor Theoretical Physics, University of Utrecht, Netherlands
  • Gregory Chaitin, Professor Mathematics and Computer Science, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brasil
  • Charley Lineweaver, Professor Astronomy and Astrophysics, Australian National University, Australia
  • Lude Franke, Professor System Genetics, University Medical Center Groningen, Netherlands
Infoversum Theater, The Netherlands
Infoversum Theater, The Netherlands

Conference synopsis from their homepage:

The main ambition of this conference is to explore the question “What is the role of information in the physics of our Universe?”. This intellectual pursuit may have a key role in improving our understanding of the Universe at a time when we “build technology to acquire and manage Big Data”, “discover highly organized information systems in nature” and “attempt to solve outstanding issues on the role of information in physics”. The conference intends to address the “in vivo” (role of information in nature) and “in vitro” (theory and models) aspects of the Information Universe.

The discussions about the role of information will include the views and thoughts of several disciplines: astronomy, physics, computer science, mathematics, life sciences, quantum computing, and neuroscience. Different scientific communities hold various and sometimes distinct formulations of the role of information in the Universe indicating we still lack understanding of its intrinsic nature. During this conference we will try to identify the right questions, which may lead us towards an answer.

  • Is the universe one big information processing machine?
  • Is there a deeper layer in quantum mechanics?
  • Is the universe a hologram?
  • Is there a deeper physical description of the world based on information?
  • How close/far are we from solving the black hole information paradox?
  • What is the role of information in highly organized complex life systems?
  • The Big Data Universe and the Universe : are our numerical simulations and Big Data repositories (in vitro) different from real natural system (in vivo)?
  • Is this the road to understanding dark matter, dark energy?

The conference will be held in the new 260 seats planetarium theatre in Groningen, which provides an inspiring immersive 3D full dome display, e.g. numerical simulations of the formation of our Universe, and anything else our presenters wish to bring in. The digital planetarium setting will be used to visualize the theme with modern media.

The Information Universe Website

Additional details about the conference including the participants, program, venue, and registration can also be found at their website.

Nicolas Perony: Puppies! Now that I’ve got your attention, complexity theory | TED

For those who are looking for a good, simple, and entertaining explanation of the concept of emergent properties and behavior within complexity theory (or Big History), I just came across a nice TED talk that simplifies complexity using a few animal examples including a cute puppy video as well as a bat and a meerkat example. The latter two also have implications for evolution and survival which are lovely examples as well.

[ted id=1916]

Richard Dawkins Interview: This Is My Vision Of “Life” |

Bookmarked This Is My Vision Of "Life" by John Brockman (
The's interview with Richard Dawkins.
Richard Dawkins [4.30.15]

“My vision of life is that everything extends from replicators, which are in practice DNA molecules on this planet. The replicators reach out into the world to influence their own probability of being passed on. Mostly they don’t reach further than the individual body in which they sit, but that’s a matter of practice, not a matter of principle. The individual organism can be defined as that set of phenotypic products which have a single route of exit of the genes into the future. That’s not true of the cuckoo/reed warbler case, but it is true of ordinary animal bodies. So the organism, the individual organism, is a deeply salient unit. It’s a unit of selection in the sense that I call a “vehicle”.  There are two kinds of unit of selection. The difference is a semantic one. They’re both units of selection, but one is the replicator, and what it does is get itself copied. So more and more copies of itself go into the world. The other kind of unit is the vehicle. It doesn’t get itself copied. What it does is work to copy the replicators which have come down to it through the generations, and which it’s going to pass on to future generations. So we have this individual replicator dichotomy. They’re both units of selection, but in different senses. It’s important to understand that they are different senses.”

Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins

RICHARD DAWKINS is an evolutionary biologist; Emeritus Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, Oxford; Author, The Selfish Gene; The Extended Phenotype; Climbing Mount Improbable; The God Delusion; An Appetite For Wonder; and (forthcoming) A Brief Candle In The Dark.

Watch the entire video interview and read the transcript at

Brief Review: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

The Swerve: How the World Became ModernThe Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stephen Greenblatt provides an interesting synthesis of history and philosophy. Greenblatt’s love of the humanities certainly shines through. This stands as an almost over-exciting commercial for not only reading Lucretius’s “De Rerum Natura” (“On the Nature of Things”), but in motivating the reader to actually go out to learn Latin to appreciate it properly.

I would have loved more direct analysis and evidence of the immediate impact of Lucretius in the 1400’s as well as a longer in-depth analysis of the continuing impact through the 1700’s.

The first half of the book is excellent at painting a vivid portrait of the life and times of Poggio Bracciolini which one doesn’t commonly encounter. I’m almost reminded of Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life, though Greenblatt has far more historical material with which to paint the picture. I may also be biased that I’m more interested in the mechanics of the scholarship of the resurgence of the classics in the Renaissance than I was of that particular political portion of the first century BCE. Though my background on the history of the time periods involved is reasonably advanced, I fear that Greenblatt may be leaving out a tad too much for the broader reading public who may not be so well versed. The fact that he does bring so many clear specifics to the forefront may more than compensate for this however.

In some interesting respects, this could be considered the humanities counterpart to the more science-centric story of Owen Gingerich’s The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus. Though Simon Winchester is still by far my favorite nonfiction writer, Greenblatt does an exceedingly good job of narrating what isn’t necessarily a very linear story.

Greenblatt includes lots of interesting tidbits and some great history. I wish it had continued on longer… I’d love to have the spare time to lose myself in the extensive bibliography. Though the footnotes, bibliography, and index account for about 40% of the book, the average reader should take a reasonable look at the quarter or so of the footnotes which add some interesting additional background an subtleties to the text as well as to some of the translations that are discussed therein.

I am definitely very interested in the science behind textual preservation which is presented as the underlying motivation for the action in this book. I wish that Greenblatt had covered some of these aspects in the same vivid detail he exhibited for other portions of the story. Perhaps summarizing some more of the relevant scholarship involved in transmitting and restoring old texts as presented in Bart Ehrman and Bruce Metzter’s The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption & Restoration would have been a welcome addition given the audience of the book. It might also have presented a more nuanced picture of the character of the Church and their predicament presented in the text as well.

Though I only caught one small reference to modern day politics (a prison statistic for America which was obscured in a footnote), I find myself wishing that Greenblatt had spent at least a few paragraphs or even a short chapter drawing direct parallels to our present-day political landscape. I understand why he didn’t broach the subject as it would tend to date an otherwise timeless feeling text and generally serve to dissuade a portion of his readership and in particular, the portion which most needs to read such a book. I can certainly see a strong need for having another short burst of popularity for “On the Nature of Things” to assist with the anti-science and overly pro-religion climate we’re facing in American politics.

For those interested in the topic, I might suggest that this text has some flavor of Big History in its DNA. It covers not only a fairly significant chunk of recorded human history, but has some broader influential philosophical themes that underlie a potential change in the direction of history which we’ve been living for the past 300 years. There’s also an intriguing overlap of multidisciplinary studies going on in terms of the history, science, philosophy, and technology involved in the multiple time periods discussed.

This review was originally posted on on 7/8/2014. View all my reviews

Information Theory and Paleoanthropology

A few weeks ago I had communicated a bit with paleoanthropologist John Hawks.  I wanted to take a moment to highlight the fact that he maintains an excellent blog primarily concerning his areas of research which include anthropology, genetics and evolution.  Even more specifically, he is one of the few people in these areas with at least a passing interest in the topic of information theory as it relates to his work. I recommend everyone take a look at his information theory specific posts.

silhouette of John Hawks from his blog

I’ve previously written a brief review of John Hawks’ (in collaboration with Anthony Martin) “Major Transitions in Evolution” course from The Learning Company as part of their Great Courses series of lectures. Given my interest in the MOOC revolution in higher education, I’ll also mention that Dr. Hawks has recently begun a free Coursera class entitled “Human Evolution: Past and Future“. I’m sure his current course focuses more on the area of human evolution compared with the prior course which only dedicated a short segment on this time period.  Given Hawks’ excellent prior teaching work, I’m sure this will be of general interest to readers interested in information theory as it relates to evolution, biology, and big history.

I’d love to hear from others in the area of anthropology who are interested in information theoretical applications.


Book Review: Jared Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?”

I’m honestly shocked that no one else has written a book similar to The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies prior to now. It’s certainly a wonderful synthesis and a fantastic resulting thesis based on an incredibly broad array of areas of study over a lifetime of work.

I personally don’t think that it is as significant as Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies was, though perhaps it should be just as (if not more) ground shaking for modern society. As a long-time student of evolutionary biology and other fields related to this work, I’m not as impressed with the effort as I might otherwise be since most of the overarching thesis is second nature to me. It does however have some superb anecdotes and broad reviews of large areas of literature to provide some excellent motivation that I might not otherwise have spent the time to find thus giving it some excellent value to me.

The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond (bookcover)

As for others in the general public, I highly recommend it for it’s simple and clear examples and the ultimate thesis which are exceptionally worth reading (and implementing) into one’s life as well as into broader areas of modern society. If nothing else, it points out how drastically life has changed for human societies even in the last 150 years, much less the last 10,000.

For those in the field or with an interest in Big History, this is certainly a must-read and possibly an excellent place to start for those without any background at all.

Based on my own personal background, I’d give this 3 stars (in terms of it’s direct value to me), but for the general public it’s easily a 5 star work. I do wish that it had been more traditionally and extensively footnoted, but for a broader audience I certainly understand Dr. Diamond’s reasons for publishing it as he did.