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To Understand How Culture Evolves, Alumnus Mason Youngblood Maps Electronic Music Trends and Much More

Ph.D. candidate Mason Youngblood (Credit: Emily Cote)

By Lida Tunesi

During his time at the Graduate Center, Mason Youngblood (Ph.D. ’21, Psychology) studied and published research on music sampling, far-right radicalization, and methods of monitoring house finch behavior, all in the name of understanding cultural evolution.

Getting one step closer to that understanding, Youngblood wrote a chapter of his dissertation on mapping the evolution of electronic music subgenres from 1975 to 1999. The chapter was recently published in Evolution and Human Behavior.

Youngblood and his co-authors built the map based on data on collaborations between artists, making this the first cultural phylogeny based on historical interactions between communities. Typically, these mappings are based on similarities between cultural artifacts or traits, which in this case would have been similarities in sounds or beats.

Even though Youngblood based his mapping on “horizontal” sharing, it still came out looking tree-like, showing stable lineages of artists that corresponded to distinct subgenres, branching out over time.

“Tree-likeness is fundamentally important for theoretical reasons,” Youngblood said. “For example, it’s easy to build biological trees of animal and plant species because genetic transfer mainly occurs within branches, whereas it’s much more difficult to build them for viruses because of how quickly they evolve and how much transfer occurs between branches.” 

Youngblood is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. His work asks how socially learned traits and behaviors change over time, and how individual behaviors result in larger cultural change — whether in music, politics, or birds.

Because his ideas are so interdisciplinary, the method Youngblood used in his published dissertation chapter “is generalizable to any cultural system where there is high-resolution data on the historical interactions between the people involved,” he said. This could include art, film, or the sciences. The method is now available as a software package.

Having graduated with a number of published articles under his belt, Youngblood offered this advice to other students hoping to do the same.

“Don’t be afraid to pursue independent projects and publish on your own,” he said. “Also, embrace the open science movement. The process of reregistering your studies, preparing your data and analysis code to be replicable and publicly shared, and publishing preprints gives you clear milestones and ends up saving you time in the long run.”

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing.

Submitted on: SEP 7, 2021

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