Throughout the history of human cultural evolution, different cities around the world have served as hubs for artists and intellectuals. Athens, Vienna, Paris, and New York have all acted as magnets at some point in time, attracting talent from around the world. What was it about these places that made them so popular with the cultural revolutionaries? New research from Northeastern University seeks that answer, and also identifies other major cultural centers that have existed in Europe and North America over the past 2,000 years.
The team of scientists used the birth and death locations of over 150,000 intellectuals to create a map of their migratory patterns throughout the two continents. The paper, published on Friday in the journal Science, shows how a higher number of intellectuals worked and died in these hubs, regardless of where they were born. Athens, for example, was a cultural hub during the fifth century, when some of the greatest thinkers the world has ever known lived. By the 10th century, intellectuals were mostly living in Rome, and by the 18th century, many were living in Paris. With many individuals also being born in these hubs, the paper also shows that despite colonization and improvements in transportation, many intellectuals did not travel far from the places they were born to the places they would die in — a notable finding in human migration patterns.
"By tracking the migration of notable individuals for over two millennia, we could for the first time explore the boom and bust of the cultural centers of the world," said Albert-László Barabási, director of Northeastern’s Center for Complex Network Research, in a press release. "The observed rapid changes offer a fascinating view of the transience of intellectual supremacy."
The study also highlighted that a city’s economic status did not alter its popularity among artists. Even places that were not economic hubs managed to become centers of intellectual congregation. Also, by the 16th century, there seemed to be two different cultural regimes at play in Europe: One was a "winner-takes-all" regime, involving countries where an individual city attracted a substantial and constant flow of intellectuals (Paris, for example), while the other was a "fit-gets-richer" regime, in which cities within a federal region, such as Germany, competed with each other for their share of intellectuals — these cities were only able to attract a fraction of the intellectual population.
The team also found that an average level of attractiveness or culture could not be determined between the various cities. This was because a cities suitability varied over time. For example, while gritty New York City has always been the preferred destination for intellectuals, it was even more so in the 1920s, when many intellectuals considered for the study were born. Meanwhile, popular places like the Alps, the French Riviera, and Hollywood became famous for their appeal and climate, however, few notable figures have come from these locations.
The team used centuries-old data and vast amounts of literature to accurately design the intellectual migration map. They relied on large data sets such as the General Artist Lexicon, which consists exclusively of artists and includes more than 150,000 names, and Freebase, which includes the names of roughly 120,000 individuals, of whom 2,200 are artists. These methods helped them identify a clear set of geographical patterns that would not have been recognized using traditional quantitative historical methods. The third data set, the Getty Union List of Artist Names, was used to validate the results of the other two.
"We're starting out to do something which is called cultural science where we're in a very similar trajectory as systems biology for example," said Maximilian Schich, associate professor in arts and technology at the University of Texas, in the release. "As data sets about birth and death locations grow, the approach will be able to reveal an even more complete picture of history. In the next five to 10 years, we'll have considerably larger amounts of data, and then we can do more and better, address more questions."
Source: Schich M, Barabási A, Helbing D, et al. A network framework of cultural history. Science. 2014.