Humans: Why They Triumphed is a fascinating article from the Wall Street Journal that examines the roles social networks and collaboration plays in cultural evolution.
For a long time recent human cultural evolution has been a bit of a puzzle. Despite having mastered tools, language and fire about 500,000 years ago, the evolution of modern society suddenly took off only about 45,000 years ago.
The article reviews research suggesting that group and cross group interaction started humans on the road towards progress via collective intelligence. Key quote:
"The answer lies in a new idea, borrowed from economics, known as collective intelligence: the notion that what determines the inventiveness and rate of cultural change of a population is the amount of interaction between individuals."
The author goes on to introduce the concept of idea sex - the combination and re-combination of ideas and concepts advances progress:
"Trade is to culture as sex is to biology. Exchange makes cultural change collective and cumulative. It becomes possible to draw upon inventions made throughout society, not just in your neighborhood. The rate of cultural and economic progress depends on the rate at which ideas are having sex."
Human's ability to create broad social networks is also a key reason we were more successful than the Neanderthals. According to Daniel Adler of the University of Connecticut, Neanderthals didn't develop trade or cross group social networks and "it is the "development and maintenance of larger social networks, rather than technological innovations or increased hunting prowess, that distinguish modern humans from Neanderthals.""
Neanderthals did, however, get out enough to mate with humans.
The article ends with the quite optimistic view that if idea sex drives progress, things are looking pretty good:
"There's a cheery modern lesson in this theory about ancient events. Given that progress is inexorable, cumulative and collective if human beings exchange and specialize, then globalization and the Internet are bound to ensure furious economic progress in the coming century—despite the usual setbacks from recessions, wars, spendthrift governments and natural disasters."