A New Method for Reconstructing Cultural Evolution Applied to Electronic Music

A recent study in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior proposes a novel method of phylogenetic reconstruction using dynamic community detection

October 25, 2021

In studies of both biological and cultural evolution, researchers often create diagrams tracing the descent of an organism or cultural product to its ancestral source. These diagrams, called phylogenies or phylogenetic trees because of their branching but mainly linear structure, look at similarities and differences in artifacts or organisms to untangle evolutionary relationships vertically, that is from one generation or iteration to the next.

However, researchers have debated whether the evolution of cultural products like art and music are best described by a tree-like structure, with evolution occurring within one genre from one piece to the next, or if the horizontal transmission of influence between artists would imply a webbed or reticulated structure, in which evolution occurs in interactions between artists of different genres.

In a recent study led by Mason Youngblood, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, researchers propose and demonstrate a novel method for determining the shape of cultural evolution focusing on electronic music. The method uses dynamic community detection to focus not on the cultural traits themselves, in this case musical features, but on the musicians creating them.

Using the new method, Youngblood and coauthors Karim Baraghith and Patrick Savage found that the branches of their phylogenetic tree correspond to different subgenres of electronic music and that the relationships between the subgenres largely match the historical record. Although there is relatively high level of horizontal transmission between the subgenres, indicating the influence that different musical styles have on another, the results show that it still possible to track lineages of musical evolution through artist interactions. Additionally, they found that the diversity of electronic music has increased over time.

 “This new method of phylogenetic reconstruction, which focuses on relationships between creators rather than relationships between products, can be generalized to any cultural system with high resolution data on historical interactions between the people involved,” says Youngblood.

Because cultural phylogenies are typically based on the similarities between cultural artifacts, it can be very difficult to construct phylogenies for complex cultural products like music and other artforms. The current study shows that, despite the complexity and near constant transfer of influence between musical subgenres, it is possible to detect stable lineages of artists that correspond to a distinct subgenre and branch out over time.

The authors hope that futures studies will apply this method to assess how levels of reticulation in evolution vary across other cultural systems, such as academic publishing and film, as well as biological systems where high-resolution reproductive data is available.

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