The authors argue that cultural fragmentation models predict that cultural change is driven primarily by period effects, whereas acquired dispositions models predict that cultural change is driven by cohort effects. To ascertain which model is on the right track, the authors develop a novel method to measure “cultural durability,” namely, the share of over-time variance that is due to either period or cohort effects for 164 variables from the 1972–2014 General Social Surveys. The authors find fairly strong levels of cultural durability across most items, especially those connected to values and morality, but less so for attitudes toward legal and political institutions.
The day after the 2015 UK General Election, Rebecca Roache––who is nowa Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Royal Holloway––wrote a blog postentitled, ‘If you’re a Conservative, I’m not your friend’. She began her blog post with the following statement:
One of the first things I did after seeing the depressing election news this morning was check to see which of my Facebook friends ‘like’ the pages of the Conservatives or David Cameron, and unfriend them. (Thankfully, none of my friends ‘like’ the UKIP page.)
Was Dr Roache’s decision an isolated incident, or was it part of a more general tendency for people with left-wing/liberal views to block or unfriend their ideological counterparts? In an attempt to answer this question, I tracked down as many relevant surveys and polls as I could. The results are presented below.
In 2012, Pew Research found that liberals were more likely than conservatives to have blocked, unfriended or hidden someone they disagreed with on social networking sites.
In 2014, YouGov found that Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters were much more likely to say they would find it harder to be friends with someone who became a UKIP supporter than vice versa.
In 2014, Pew Research replicated their 2012 result, finding that consistent liberals were more likely than conservatives to have blocked, unfriended or hidden someone they disagreed with on Facebook.
In 2015, StatsSocial found that right-wing twitter users were more likely to follow left-wing pundits than vice versa. On average, 34% of users following the top 50 left-wing pundits were right-wing, whereas only 26% of users following the top 50 right-wing pundits were left-wing.
In 2016, the Public Religion Research Institute found that Democrats were more likely than Republicans to have blocked, unfriended or stopped following someone they disagreed with on social networking sites.
In 2016, Demos found that Conservative supporters were slightly more likely to have retweeted Labour or SNP supporters than vice versa. However, they also found that UKIP supporters were no more likely to have retweeted Labour or SNP supporters than vice versa.
In 2016, YouGov found that Conservative supporters were less likely to say they would be upset if their child married someone who supported Labour, and that Republicans were less likely to say they would be upset if their child married a Democrat.
In 2017, Pew Research found that Democrats were much more likely to say that a friend voting for Trump would put a strain on their friendship than Republicans were to say that a friend voting for Hillary Clinton would put a strain on their friendship.
In 2017, The Dartmouth (a college newspaper) found that Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to say they would be uncomfortable having a roommate with opposing political views to their own.
In 2017, The Cato institute found that Hillary Clinton voters were much more likely to say they would find it hard to be friends with a Donald Trump voter than vice versa.
In 2018 the The Dartmouth replicated their 2017 result, finding that Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to say they would be disinclined to befriend another student who had political beliefs opposite from their own.
Finally in 2018, YouGov confirmed that Labour and Remain supporters were more less likely to have friends with different political views than were Conservative and Leave supporters.
It should be noted that not all the evidence goes in the same direction. For example, a 2012 paper in Public Opinion Quarterly reported that Republicans were more likely than Democrats to say they would be unhappy if their child married someone from the opposite party. And a 2016 survey by Professor Lynn Vavreck found no difference between supporters of the two parties.
Overall however, the weight of evidence (especially the most recent evidence) indicates that Dr Roache’s decision was not an isolated incident. Of course, it might simply be that people with left-wing/liberal views are more willing to admit to disengaging from their ideological opponents.
Orangutans can communicate about the past just like humans, new research finds
The evolution of language converted a defenceless naked ape into a world-dominating force. It fundamentally transformed how humans transmit information and knowledge. A large and potent component of language is our ability to communicate about things that are not here, that happened in the past, or that will happen in the future. This feature of language is known as “displaced reference”.
Displaced reference is universal across the world’s languages and pervades our daily lives. In fact, to speak about the present moment has become a rarity nowadays, though noticeable exceptions are when we comment about the weather, ask for the salt over the dinner table, or talk with very young children.
Displaced reference unshackles speakers from the present. The magnitude of information that becomes available to individuals (or species) capable of displaced reference is therefore immeasurably greater than individuals (or species) strictly living in “the here and the now” – which is the bulk of the animal kingdom.
So far, besides humans, only social insects are capable of displaced reference. It is remarkable how honey bees (and their tiny brains) can communicate, for instance, about the location of distant food sources to other bees in the hive. The discovery of this fact merited a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for Karl von Frisch in 1973. Displaced reference in social insects spawns many fascinating – and unanswered – questions about animal intelligence and what the minimal viable intelligence systems for a particular cognitive capacity are.
However, biologically, bees and other insects are far apart from humans and can tell us very little about how language evolution played out among our ancestors. Lacking examples in vertebrates, mammals, or non-human primates, including great apes – our closest relatives – scientists literally had no clues about how this capacity came about in humans. But this is the new jigsaw piece that wild orangutans are bringing to the puzzle of language evolution.
The missing link?
In the low mountain rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia, our team simulated a natural encounter with a predator to study the vocal responses of wild orangutan females. The set up consisted of a human researcher, disguised as a forest big cat, parading on all fours across the forest floor in front of the orangutan females.
We observed that, despite showing all sorts of distress (including urinating and defecating), orangutan females refrained from responding vocally towards the “predator”. Instead, they waited up to 20 minutes to communicate their alarm to their offspring, long after the predator had left the scene. Across several experiments there was an average delay of seven minutes before the females vocally expressed their alarm.
The data (and simple common sense if we imagine ourselves facing a wild Sumatran tiger!) suggest that to respond vocally in the presence of a predator would have been a huge risk to the orangutans’ safety. If the females had responded immediately by calling out warnings, the predator could have detected them and perhaps attempted an attack, particularly on the infant orangutans.
Instead, the mothers waited for a significant amount of time before signalling vocal alarm about the danger that had now passed. The question that springs to mind, then, is: why did the females signal their alarm at all? If they hadn’t responded vocally at any point, they wouldn’t have faced any danger at all, right?
That is undoubtedly true; but had the mothers not expressed alarm, their infants would have remained oblivious to one of the most lethal dangers in the rainforest. Instead, the females waited long enough until it was safe to call out, but not so long that their infants could not connect their mothers’ vocal distress with what had just happened, and understand that it was extremely dangerous. The female orangutans were teaching their young about the dangers in the forest by referring to something that had happened in the (recent) past.
In the 1970s, early attempts to release rescued orangutans and reintroduce them back into this same forest failed miserably. Nearly all the released animals fell prey to forest cats, essentially for lack of knowledge about survival in the rainforest.
Orangutan infants stay with their mothers as long as human children do. It has been shown that this exceptionally long period ensures that mothers pass on a variety of knowledge, skills and tools to their offspring. Our new findings indicate that teaching about predators is a vital aspect of this.
Widening this out to human language evolution, orangutans exemplify how our ancestors probably communicated beyond the here-and-now about the past, and possibly the future, even before they had uttered their first word. Together with mounting evidence, great apes are helping scientists build a clearer picture of our ancient ancestors as they moved towards fully fledged language.
By showing us that we are, after all, not so different from them, great apes help us learn where we come from, define who we are and, hopefully, decide where we are going as intelligent stewards of our precious planet.