NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
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Does Scientific Progress Affect Culture? A Digital Text Analysis

Michela Giorcelli, Nicola Lacetera, Astrid Marinoni

NBER Working Paper No. 25429
Issued in January 2019, Revised in May 2020
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy, Productivity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship

We focus on a unique episode in the history of science, the elaboration of the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin, to study the interplay between scientific progress and cultural change. We perform text analysis on a corpus of hundreds of thousands of books, with the use of techniques from machine learning. We examine, in particular, the diffusion of certain key ideas of the theory of evolution in the broader cultural discourse and imaginary. We find that some concepts in Darwin’s theory, such as Evolution, Survival, Natural Selection and Competition, diffused in the cultural discourse immediately after the publication of On the Origins of Species. Other concepts such as Selection and Adaptation were already present in the cultural dialogue. Moreover, we document semantic changes for most of these concepts over time, and a more positive sentiment toward these ideas, thus providing further insights about the channels through which Darwin’s theory influenced the broader discourse. Our findings provide the first large-sample, systematic quantitative evidence of the relation between two key factors of long-term economic growth (science and culture), and suggest that machine learning and natural language processing offer promising tools to explore this relation.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w25429

 
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