Field of Science


The following question was given as a homework problem in a course I'm TAing:

CNBC had an interesting program on the current financial crisis. They located one investor who noticed that since the late 1990's housing prices have been growing 10 percent every year (that is, each year, the average home price is 1.1 times the average price in the previous year) while income was only increasing by 5 percent each year (that is, each year, the average income was only 1.05 times the average of the previous year).

Explain why it is "absolutely clear that this situation could not go on forever", in the words of the investor (who made over a billion dollars because of this observation).
This simple question goes right to the heart of the financial collapse. I would only add that, not only did this particular investor make billions off this observation, but our whole economy lost trillions, because the vast majority of financial decision makers were either unable or unwilling to make this same observation.

(Anyone who needs help with the mathematics of this problem can meet me in the comments.)

Human Cultural Transformation Triggered by Dense Populations

Biologically,modern humans first appeared 160,000 to 200,000 years ago. But the transition to complex human societies, with art, music, advanced tools, occurred a good deal more recently, and moreover, occured at different times in different parts of the world. An article in June's Science magazine (see a less technical write-up here) argues, based on historical evidence and computer simulations, that in each case the transition was triggered once the population density had reached a critical threshold. At this threshold, there is sufficient interaction to allow for complex ideas to be passed down through generations, enabling rapid cultural evolution.

This highlights an interesting evolutionary tension: as I've written before, evolutionary theory tells us that cooperative behaviors are more likely to evolve (biologically speaking) in populations that are dispersed over space rather than densely packed. But I'm beginning to think that cultural evolution may be different enough from biological evolution to require its own body of theory.