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« Howard Gardner: Seven? Eight? And Now Five? | Main | Fact for the Day »

April 04, 2007

Culture / Biology

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Agnostic has put up a nifty posting about how cultural evolution might affect biological evolution. In a comment I dropped on his posting I managed -- in however scatterbrained a way -- to ask a question I've meant to ask for a while, namely:

I think there's a lot to it. New niches crop up, and -- to everyone's surprise -- previously unnoticed creatures take them over. Geeks are a good example. Anyone old enough can remember when "the geek" wasn't a big or at least much-visible part of society. Computers caught on, and suddenly geeks were everywhere. Everntually even geek taste (sci-fi, Wired) became culturally important, alas.

Another example: When a quirky beauty becomes famous, suddenly you find yourself surrounded by girls who look like her. The world is suddenly full of Meg Ryans, or Britneys, or Lindsays. Were they always there, and we didn't notice them because we had no template to stick 'em in before the star established the the template? Or did the star's success make it possible for the girls to assert their quirky looks with some confidence?

I remember noticing this happen with Claire Danes, for instance. She became an It Girl, and suddenly the world was full of Clarie Daneses. Where had they been hiding until then?

Any thoughts?



UPDATE: Another GNXP commenter provided a link to a fascinating -- and NSFW -- page featuring and discussing some ancient Etruscan art.

posted by Michael at April 4, 2007


I have recently returned to reading your blog and now I remember why I had to give it up. You have perfected the Art of Blog and I can barely keep up. Yet, each little morsel compels me to a response.

I think that this has something to do with the way that humans use narrative as a way to encode information and project possible life courses. Narratives are elaborate templates that can boggle the mind with their sophistication in terms of how they can encode information. The Claire Danes template pops up, and along with it a whole set of behaviors and attributes get punctuated. In a sense, this relates to your previous post because it has to do with "talents" that give someone an advantage. In popular culture, thats what happens, a narrative is portrayed in a way that makes it seem like if you had this attribute--if you were Claire Danesish in any way--then you will have an advantage. Of course it's always at least half illusion. And remembering all the Michael Jackson look-alikes from the eighties scares the hell out of me...........

Posted by: The Lock on April 4, 2007 6:26 PM

Movies have recognized nerds and geeks for ages. American Graffiti (1973) had the obvious nerd character Toad. War Games (1983) introduced the computer geek, via the character Malvin. And of course there is 1984's Revenge of the Nerds.

Posted by: Peter on April 4, 2007 7:45 PM

I noticed it with Meryl Streep and then Jodie Foster. All of a sudden, every actress on every TV commercial looked like them for awhile. But I didn't notice it as much in real life. I'm wondering if casting directors were grasping on to "what's hot"---or if actresses make themselves up to look that way thinking that is what casting directors want. A self-perpetuating thing.

Posted by: annette on April 5, 2007 12:48 PM

Before the nerd and the geek was the Egghead (supposedly inspired by Adali Stevenson). And the UR-geek is perhaps the square. If you were cool, you were a hipster, daddyo. And before that you wanted to be a hepcat. It seems to be part of human nature for people to divide up into the cool kids and the uncool kids, and even adolescents seem to have an instinctive need to over-emphasize the failings of their parents in order to develop their own self-image.

Hollywood is weird, oscillating between creativity and the most inane need to rigidly imitate hits and to find new stars who closely resemble existing stars. There are a number of sites dedicated to the “poor man’s” version of a hot star, e.g.

So, for example, George Peppard was the poor man’s version of Steve McQueen, and Brooke Adams is the poor man’s Karen Allen (or vice versa).

Mary Astor (“The Maltese Falcon”) had the best take on Hollywood’s simplemindedness in this regard:
"There are five stages in the life of an actor: Who's Mary Astor? Get me Mary Astor. Get me a Mary Astor Type. Get me a young Mary Astor. Who's Mary Astor?"

Posted by: Alec on April 5, 2007 7:07 PM

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