THE FUTURE OF THE HUMAN CLIMATE NICHE
Areas of the planet home to one-third of humans will become as hot as the hottest parts of the Sahara within 50 years, unless greenhouse gas emissions fall, according to research by an international research team of archaeologists, ecologists, and climate scientists. The study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, resulted from a 2018 SFI working group on climate change and the human “niche” (see “Science meetings,” p.1). If the current scenario of rapid heating continues, 3.5 billion people would live outside the temperature and humidity combinations in which humans have thrived for 6,000 years.
Read the paper at doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1910114117
WHAT’S AN INDIVIDUAL? INFORMATION THEORY MAY PROVIDE THE ANSWER
Despite the near-universal assumption of individuality in biology, there is little agreement about what individuals are and few rigorous quantitative methods for their identification. A new approach, published in Theory in Biosciences, may solve the problem by defining individuals in terms of informational processes. SFI President David Krakauer, SFI Professors Jessica Flack and Nihat Ay, and their colleagues look to structured information flows between a system and its environment. “Individuals,” they argue, “are best thought of in terms of dynamical processes and not as stationary objects.”
Read the paper at doi.org/10.1007/s12064-020-00313-7
SWING VOTERS, SWING STOCKS, SWING USERS
The notion of a swing voter is limited because people don’t always fall neatly onto one side or another. A new technique could help identify prime candidates for changing election outcomes, or lead to a better understanding of how institutional and environmental factors shape the emergence of social structure. SFI Program Postdoctoral Fellow Eddie Lee, the lead author, describes it as “a generalizable approach for identifying pivotal components across a wide variety of systems.” These include social media (like Twitter), biology (like the statistics of neurons), and finance (like fluctuations of the stock market). Lee and his colleagues from Cornell University, Illinois Tech, and CodeX published their work in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.
Read the paper at doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2019.0873
INFORMATION DROVE DEVELOPMENT OF EARLY STATES
Sophisticated information processing is key to the way societies function today. And it turns out it was also critical to the evolution of early states. A team of SFI researchers dug into what’s called the Seshat Global History Databank, a massive assembly of historical and archaeological information spanning more than 400 societies, 30 regions, and 10,000 years of human history. Their findings, published in Nature Communications, show that the ability to store and process information was central to sociopolitical development across civilizations ranging from the Neolithic to the last millennium.
Read the paper at doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-16035-9
WHAT ANCIENT CITIES TELL US ABOUT MODERN CITIES
Today’s modern cities, from Denver to Dubai, could learn a thing or two from the ancestral Pueblo communities that once stretched across the southwestern United States. For starters, the more people live together, the better the living standards. That finding comes from a study published in the journal Science Advances and led by SFI External Professor Scott Ortman, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Jose Lobo at Arizona State University. As part of the Social Reactors Project, which holds regular working groups at SFI, Ortman and Lobo took a deep dive into data from the farming towns that dotted the Rio Grande Valley between the 14th and 16th centuries. Modern metropolises should take note: As the Pueblo villages grew bigger and denser, their per-capita production of food and other goods seemed to go up, too.
Read the paper at doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aba5694
HUMAN PORTRAITS REVEAL SHIFT IN CULTURE, COGNITION
Human cognition and cultural norms have changed the composition of human portraits, according to a new analysis of European paintings from the 15th to the 20th century published in Cognitive Science. The study, led by SFI Omidyar Fellow Helena Miton, examined “bias” in 1,831 paintings by 582 unique European painters. Miton and her co-authors from Central European University and the Arctic University of Norway found evidence that forward bias — where painters put more open space in front of their sitters than behind them — was widespread. They also found that the bias became stronger when cultural norms of spatial composition favoring centering became less stringent. “Cognitive factors cause greater spontaneous attention to what is in front of — rather than behind — a subject,” Miton says. “Scenes with more space in front of a directed object are both produced more often and judged as more aesthetically pleasant.”
Read the paper at doi.org/10.1111/cogs.12866