Can scientific discoveries shape popular culture? In a novel National Bureau of Economic Research study, Michela Giorcelli of the University of California and others use changes in language to establish how scientific discoveries influence the social and cultural environment.
Focusing on Charles Darwin’s landmark 1859 publication, On the Origin of Species, which laid out the theory of evolution, the authors ran machine learning algorithms on about eight million books to examine whether the key concepts in Darwin’s theory influenced the broader public discourse. They find that the frequency of certain terms, such as ‘evolution’, ‘survival’ and ‘natural selection’, increased in both fiction and non-fiction literature after 1859.
More interestingly, they showed that the association between some previously-unrelated concepts increased following Darwin’s discovery. For instance, the words ‘competition’ and ‘life’ started being used together in literature more frequently.
The term ‘evolution’ used to be restricted to chemistry and physics, but began to be used in biology, as well as in social subjects. The authors argue that the adoption of these words and their new meaning suggest that Darwin’s scientific breakthrough had broad cultural implications.
The authors claim that the impact of scientific discoveries does not depend just on the recognition of advances by the scientific community, but also on the broader public perception, understanding and acceptance.
They argue that this suggests that science can influence economic growth not just through its discoveries, but also through its effects on culture.
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