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When We Have What She’s Having: Cultural Influence and Collective Scholarship

A visit with Michael O’Brien, Professor of Anthropology, Dean of the College of Arts and Science

By Darcy Holtgrave
Published: - Topics: MIT Press I'll Have What She's Having projectile points collaboration culture

Michael J. O’Brien, Professor of Anthropology, Director of the Museum of Anthropology, and Dean of the College of Arts and Science, studies culture through the lens of evolutionary theory. His research interests range from the tangible Indian arrowhead to more abstract theories of social influence on consumer choices. The common denominator is that evolutionary theory can be applied not only to the biological sciences but the social as well. He explains, “If humans evolved, descended from other humans, the information that they carry has evolved as well. We’re interested in those paths of transmission of cultural information.” Dean O’Brien’s study of human interconnectedness also fosters it; he maintains that collaborative scholarship, or “wired brains,” produces scholarship more rigorous and expansive than does individual work.

Dean O’Brien traces his scholarly interest in anthropology to his childhood in Texas. “It really started out, I think, like a lot of people, collecting arrowheads and wanting to know a little more about them. That’s the part of my life when we knew less and enjoyed it a whole lot more, because it was so simple.” His interest in projectile points prompted him to study at Rice University in Houston, and he might have been content studying local Texas artifacts had his professors not challenged him to expand his sphere. Still an undergraduate, he worked for two years on a project in Oaxaca, Mexico, and that prompted him to pursue his PhD at the University of Texas at Austin.

His interest in projectile points persists in his recent work. “Probably no subject delights archeologists in North America more than where humans came from and how long they’ve been in North America. There’s a lot of debate on those things,” and the distribution of spear and arrowhead designs and the variations by date and location offer evidence in support of theories of human migration and technological advances. His current work in the U.S. looks at the way points are “hafted to shafts,” and “trying to figure out, in an evolutionary sense, which ones are descended from others.”

This line of descent is physical evidence of the intangible evolution of culture. He observes, “Culture gives you a means of meeting your environment…so it’s not culture that’s evolving, it’s people who are evolving by means of culture, so we use the same methods, the same approaches to examine cultural evolution that any good biologist or paleobiologist uses to study organisms.”

Critics claim evolutionary theory is appropriate only for biological phenomena, and furthermore, natural selection is inhibited in humans by technological innovations. For instance, advances in healthcare preserve the lives of people who might otherwise be eliminated from the gene pool. Dean O’Brien rejoins that cultural selection occurs, and in a dramatic example, he relates how eyeglasses—an invention that can prevent injury—have played a role in genocide. In the killing fields of Cambodia in the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge executed people who wore eyeglasses in an attempt to purge society of intellectuals.

Dean O’Brien believes that the application of evolutionary theory to culture is a foregone conclusion, and he notes how humans have evolved into “interconnected” minds. He says harnessing the intelligence and skills of multiple people sharpens scholarship, allowing for greater breadth and depth of analysis and insight than is possible for a single scholar to realize. For instance, in a complex scientific study the time it would take a single person to operate the equipment, run the software, and analyze results greatly slows the research process. As Dean O’Brien notes, at any given time he may be working with ten or fifteen scholars in various fields, and technology enables the working groups to communicate worldwide.

In August 2011, Dean O’Brien and his colleagues Alex Bentley and Mark Earls saw the publication of their book I’ll Have What She’s Having: Mapping Social Behavior.

consumer behavior compass

Source: “Mapping Human Behavior for Business” by Alexander Bentley, Mark Earls and Michael J. O’Brien.
The European Business Review May-June 2012 p. 24.

The book is intended as a readable introduction to patterns of influence in the transmission of culture. Targeted at popular audiences in a similar fashion to Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, their book reviews how the selections made by others affect consumer choices. Dean O’Brien suggests that we imagine consumer behavior falling within the cardinal points of a compass, where the north-south pole represents how well informed people are and the east-west represents how socially connected they are. The argument is that consumer behavior has drifted to the southeast corner, where people are largely poorly informed and very socially connected, leading to purchasing choices based on imitation.

Dean O’Brien’s singular dedication to academic research and publication stems from his sense of his job duties. He says his position,“first and foremost” as a member of the Anthropology faculty, requires active research and publication, particularly given the mission of the University of Missouri as a leading research university. Next, he says, comes his role as Dean of the College of Arts and Science. Asked whether his research applies to his administrative work, he says he might reach for a pat response about understanding human nature, but instead, he says engaging in research helps him lead by example. “I have to be able to say if I can do it, you can do it,” he says. “And as a faculty member, I want my dean to be someone who is not only a dean, but also a great scientist.” This exemplary use of social influence to inspire advances in scholarship reflects his views on larger cultural processes: culture evolves through imitation.