Modeling the Evolution of Diversity
My research project at the University of Cambridge aims to adapt emerging macroevolutionary methods to the analysis of archaeological data. Due in part to the explosion in molecular “big data”, macroevolutionary methods have seen a renaissance with new methods providing increasingly realistic models, improved robustness of inferences and the ability to test a range of evolutionary hypotheses. I build from recent Bayesian approaches developed in paleontology that provide an innovative and flexible approach to modeling artifact origination and extinction without imposing strict assumptions about the mode of cultural evolution.
My colleagues and I recently demonstrated some of the benefits of this approach in an analysis of car models (Gjesfjeld et al. 2016). Results from this research indicate a nearly four-fold decrease in the innovation and extinction rate of car models since the early 20th century with major rate shifts occurring in the 1930's and 1980's. Further details of the research can be found in the Palgrave Communication article as well as articles from a range of online blogs and magazines (see below). I have recently developed a tutorial to help interested researchers in examining the diversification of cultural data. The tutorial can be found here.
The encouraging success of our approach has led us to current and future research that explores the dynamics of innovation and extinction in other technological systems. This includes archaeological pottery from the American Southwest, FDA approval pharmaceutical drugs, Linux operating systems and iPhone apps.
The broader contribution of this research is to demonstrate that methods born in biology, when applied to similarly structured cultural data, can produce robust quantitative insights into the diversification of material culture and help to illuminate the evolution of contemporary cultural and technological diversity.
2016 Gjesfjeld, Erik, Jonathan Chang, Daniele Silvestro, Christopher Kelty, Michael E. Alfaro. Competition and extinction explain the evolution of American automobiles. Palgrave Communications (2): 1-6.
Find article here (open access).
Popular Media Coverage
Los Angeles Times: From Duryea to Tesla: cars have evolved much like Darwin's finches
Boston Globe: Darwinian Evolution in the Auto Industry
MIT Technology Review: How Data Mining Reveals the Hidden Evolution of Automobiles
UCLA Newsroom: Technique from biology helps understand the evolution of the American car