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Introduction to Week 6

Welcome to the sixth and final week

This week, we are picking up on some threads from last week and focusing on the origin of language and the complexity of society more generally, but shifting focus from interactions between individuals to think about the emergence of complex patterns at the level of large groups: how do languages, cultures, and societies emerge?

One of the remarkable things about human culture is that it is an astonishing collective (and, to some extent, accidental) invention, arising from the intelligence and ingenuity of billions of people spread across thousands of years.

A natural question is how such complex patterns can arise, allowing us to coordinate our behaviour between individuals, groups, societies, and, to some extent, across the entire globe. We saw, earlier, how crucial coordination is and, on reflection, languages, customs, conventions, organisations, governments, trade and many, many more aspects of our society are vital mechanisms for coordinating behaviour across people and across collections of people.

One process by which this complexity can arise is cultural evolution (analogous to, but very different from, biological evolution). Another process which generates complex coordination is, perhaps surprisingly, from the operation of markets.

These thoughts will also lead us to think again about the structure of society and what counts as a good society. At the most fundamental level, once we realise that our beliefs and values are themselves products of our society, then we must worry that our ethical and political intuitions may not provide an impartial judge of the society we live in and how it should progress. But that is for later. First, let us look at where all this mysterious complexity in language, culture and society comes from.


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This article is from the free online course:

The Mind is Flat: The Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology

The University of Warwick

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