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on December 22, 2004
In the concluding pages of this book, Richerson and Boyd observe that universities have introductory courses in psychology, sociology, economics and political science in which students "are encouraged to think that the study of humans can be divided into isolated chunks corresponding to these historical fields." There is, however, no Homo Sapiens 1 or 101, "a complete introduction to the whole problem of understanding human behavior." The authors note that the chief reason no such course exists is "that the key integrative fields have not yet developed in the social sciences" and that "a proper evolutionary theory of culture should make a major contribution to the unification of the social sciences. Not only does it allow a smooth integration of the human sciences with the rest of biology, it also provides a framework for linking the human sciences to one another." I believe that such an evolutionary theory can and should integrate the social sciences with each other and biology and that this book could and should serve as the foundational text for Homo Sapiens 101.

There are dozens of books available employing evolutionary thinking to humans, the large majority of which do not offer a "proper evolutionary theory" because they neglect the most obvious and unique feature of our species--our culture, information affecting behavior acquired from other humans through social transmission. This failure results from a steadfast dedication to accounting for human behavior in terms of principles applicable to the prosocial behavior of other species-- kin selection and reciprocity. In an attempt to not stray from "orthodox" neo-Darwinism, neo-Darwinians have failed to fully acknowledge, let alone explain, the most salient feature of our species--a fact that "social contructivists" use to dismiss evolutionary theory. Richerson and Boyd recognize the "ancient social instincts" of kin altruism and reciprocity but they also acknowledge and give appropriate attention to what they call the "tribal social instincts." These instincts, which probably emerged during the dramatic climate variations of the late Pleistocene, allow members of our species to identify with, dedicate themselves to, and take normative direction from, groups of people that include hundreds to thousands of people beyond kin and friends. These tribal instincts are accommodated in complex societies such as our own through "work-arounds," institutions such as religious organizations, political parties, voluntary associations and other symbolically marked groups that exploit our inclination toward particularistic community attachment. Originally, though, these instincts coevolved in a ratcheting process with our language, capacity for perspective taking, morality, religion and "culture" broadly conceived. We are a thoroughly unique groupish species and the only species on which group selection of cultural variants has played a role. As Richerson and Boyd argue, genes and culture have coevolved within our species. Culture has been primary in the environment selecting features of our genotype. Those humans incapable of cooperating in tribal settings were ostracized and were unlikely to find mates. They were less likely than cooperators to survive and reproduce. Culture has molded our genetic make-up just as our genes have directed the development of our culture.

I do not have space here to outline Richerson and Boyd's theory of cultural evolution beyond noting that population thinking plays as prominent a role as it did in Darwin's thought. I can say that unlike their landmark book, Culture and the Evolutionary Process (1985), this book is accessible to any adult with a three digit IQ. I can also note that the authors are both modest and civil toward those with whom they disagree--characteristics that portray their training in the natural sciences instead of the social sciences. They are quick to acknowledge when empirical evidence is currently lacking to substantiate claims they are making, and they are always generous to their intellectual opponents. For example, they acknowledge Richard Dawkins' contributions to evolutionary theory, while demonstrating the deficiencies of his "meme" theory of culture; they faithfully reproduce the arguments of evolutionary psychologists concerning domain-specific mental modules, while showing the dangers of overly-adaptationist accounts of our mental mechanisms; and in their discussions of various religious groups--Mormons, Catholics, the Amish, Hutterites, and the earliest Christians--Richerson and Boyd are deeply respectful of religious believers, something utterly missing in the writings of non-believers such as Richard Dawkins. This respectful attitude issues not from an impulse to pander but, rather, from an appreciation for our species-wide groupish tendencies and the accomplishments of symbolically marked groups, religious and otherwise.

Perhaps the largest contribution this book will make if it attains the number of readers it deserves is that it provides Darwinians and social constuctivists in the social sciences and the humanities grounds for common discussion and possible agreement. This is no small feat given the tendency of these symbolically marked groups to deem their in-group members angelic and those in the out-group moronic, if not demonic.
Brad Lowell Stone
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on March 18, 2012
Richerson and Boyd present the same argument in (at least) two books. Culture and the Evolutionary Process is the earlier mathematical treatment. Not By Genes Alone is the later nonmathematical version, though it is informed by the same mathematical models as the earlier work. I am reviewing them together because the key concepts are the same, I read them almost together, and which version you prefer will probably depend on your background.

The core argument has several elements. First, culture constrains and shapes human behaviour (social scientists may be surprised that this is not immediately evident to all). Second, that the way that culture spreads can be understood using mathematical models based on evolutionary principles: competition between different ideas and behaviours (social norms) spread through inheritance from cultural parents (parents, teachers, social leaders). Importantly, this means that culture can evolve relatively quickly, allowing populations to adapt, but can also persist within a population even where the particular idea is no longer appropriate. Finally, the authors argue that the importance of culture for humans has led to greater fitness of genetics that favour culture (eg language facilitation), which has in turn supported a greater role for culture and further genetic pressure and so on.

In many ways, Culture and Evolutionary Process is the easier book, particularly if you are comfortable with mathematics. The mathematics is not hard, just very long and extremely tedious, particularly as the authors have attempted to make it accessible to nonmathematicians. Each section is well organised with an introduction that explains what the mathematics is going to demonstrate, and a conclusion about the implications of the mathematical results. Not By Genes Alone dispenses with the mathematics and makes the same arguments with examples and text. However, there is a sense throughout that the authors are responding to some unseen critics of their theory and there are many very detailed arguments about issues that don't appear to be important to the main thrust of the argument. This is probably also because Not By Genes Alone was written much later and the authors' thinking has evolved. All this detail interferes with readability and makes it unclear for whom the book is intended. However, the later book has the advantage of more thoroughly discussing the implications of the theory.

I enjoyed both books, though I found them both hard work and heavy going (for different reasons). I also think that the main argument is important and has deep implications for how we understand the role of culture and social sciences. While I would normally subtract a star due to the difficult reading, I am adding one for the importance of the ideas. This means 4 stars for Culture and Evolutionary Process, and 5 stars for Not By Genes Alone. The difference is because the earlier work does not sufficiently flesh out the implications.
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on March 1, 2006
Not By Genes Alone by Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd explains something that should seem simple. Genes made us, we made culture, so genes shaped culture. Yet culture also helped shape us, so genes and culture interact together and work together to make us. But HOW do you do research on culture and link it to genes? Well, if culture also acts like genes, then what you want to do it treat it like genes.

And that is what the book does. It studies culture from an evolutionary point of view, breaking it down to traditions and values, making these the genes of culture. Cultures evolves, adapts and sometimes even cause problems, bringing about the extinction of the culture. One culture might work better than another and overwhelm the weaker, less fit culture.

By using the ideas and knowledge that Darwin has passed down to us the authors were able to understand how genes and culture worked together to shape US. LOTS and lots of detailed, data rich, chapters. Take your time and enjoy.
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on June 5, 2011
This is a remarkably comprehensive guide to recent research into the interaction between human culture and biology. The academic authors, an environmental scientist and anthropologist respectively who call themselves for the purpose of the book `environmental theorists', have integrated the research of many others with theories of their own. One of the strongest points of the book is its promotion of recent discoveries about the extraordinary climatic conditions that shaped humanity, literally earth-shaking information that makes new sense of human evolution but is often not taken into sufficient account. I assume that the inspiring, almost lyrical, treatment of this new information comes from the environmental scientist.

Overall, this is not a popular science book, though it is more readable than most scholarly texts. What stops it being popular science is perhaps the lack of an easy-to-grasp narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The more comprehensive the research gathered the harder this gap is to fill, and it is to their credit that the authors have managed to link together such wide-ranging research from so many disciplines even if the linking theory seems sometimes contradictory, unclear, and over-complex with its many types of cultural transmission "biases" which account for everything. At times they seem to be hinting that culture is a sort of test-bed for natural selection, and that software will eventually be turned into silicon, so to speak. This would be the ultimate `gene-culture coevolution'. What else can they mean in the book's conclusion (p. 235) by: "In the short run, cultural evolution, partly driven by ancient [i.e. pre-human primate] and tribal social instincts and partly by selection among culturally variable groups, gave rise to the institutions we observe. In the longer run, cultural evolutionary processes created an environment that led to the evolution of uniquely human social instincts." Even if they are not propounding a theory that natural selection is using culture to beta test its new releases, they certainly seem to link nature and nurture more closely than other authors. On the same page they say "Without the ancient social instincts, we can't explain the many features of our social systems that we share with other primates". But we can. There are other ways to explain how dominance and bullying could arise in human societies a million years after it had vanished from the ancestral genome. This is the distinction between `homologous' and `analogous' evolution which the behavioural ecologists have emphasised.

The authors sometimes rely on a view of genetic evolution which was showing its age even at the time of publication. They claim to find cultural analogues of group selection, for example, which nowadays does not always mean one group out-competing another group. On page 208 they assemble the evidence that foragers frequently indulged in group combat, in support of Darwin's view that it led to the evolution of the social instincts, but admit that the data refers to either horticulturists or to foragers who were being forced into a small and smaller space by colonists.

The authors hold that `thinking about culture using Darwinian tools opens many new avenues for investigation.' One of these avenues that the authors have followed is `cultural maladaptation' analogous to what Richard Dawkins calls `misfirings' or `Darwinian mistakes'. The main human cultural maladaptation, in Richerson and Boyd's book, is the demographic transition: the reduction in fertility in developed countries. "Modern low fertility does not maximise fitness" (p. 173), and "The evolutionary potential of culture makes possible ... spectacular maladaptations, such as the collapse of fertility" (p. 115). At first one wonders if they are taking a position on the world population question, but it is more likely that they are disappointed that a simple model of more successful parents passing on both their genes and their high culture as a single package - allowing pure `coevolution' - is not applicable. Some would say, taking a more modern view of natural selection, that the differential reduction in fertility may not be a maladaptation at all; the eusocial insects manage to limit reproduction to certain castes and the ants alone now constitute a biomass equal to humans. Until recently it was thought that this behaviour could only evolve in closely-related populations, but recent research has shown that relatedness may not be the driving force behind eusociality. It is well within the bounds of possibility that humans have invented a culture which maximises fitness by allotting the tasks of having children and teaching them to different castes: a division of labour if you will admire the pun.

In the final analysis, what makes this book great is that the authors have assembled a remarkable collection of research and have gone to the trouble of interpreting it and taking positions. These positions will engage the attention of the thoughtful reader who can question them on the basis of the evidence presented. Whatever new theory and research in gene-culture coevolution captures our imagination in years to come, it will have been inspired by this book.
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on December 1, 2014
Book is very interesting, but focuses on the environmental factors that shaped culture, and not really any others. Almost every point made in this book says that because of environmental factor X, cultural effect Y. In that way, it is a very good read for looking at how cultures evolved around their environments, but not for a more holistic viewpoint.
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on March 7, 2014
Greatly interested in neuroscience of the brain & said book was mentioned in
Patricia Churchland's "Touching a nerve..." I'm a Darwinist @ heart & have
wanted to have a sense of the history of human culture(s) in terms of the HOW.
Richerson's book is a great intro availing himself of the latest research in that
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I found this book boring, and not nearly as breath-taking and inspiring as Robert Wright's Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, which altered my perception of everything else, and is right up there with E. O. Wilson's Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge as one of my most respected readings.

Both Wright and these authors acknowledge Richard Dawkins and The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition--with a new Introduction by the Author as being instrumental in getting the academy to think new thoughts.

However, and despite other's averaging a four, I feel such a sense of respect for what these two authors have done (with a superb bilbiography and a good index) that I cannot qualify this with less than five stars.

The two nuggets for me, with my interest in Epoch B leadership and self-organizing communities, came at the end:

+ Hierarchies are inefficient attempts to segment levels of society so as to reduce the distances between segments to tolerable ones, while actually creating a MASSIVE gap between the top and the bottom.

+ "Our knowledge of the basic cultural patterns of evolution is grossly incomplete..."

Here are my fly-leaf notes, a short summary of the book--a number are also segment headings in the book, a matter of choice on my part.

+ Culture is CRUCIAL for understanding human behavior both individually and in aggregate groups

+ Populations carry a variable pool of inherited information thorugh time--population units provide the unit of linkage between cultural evolution and genetic evolution

QUOTE: "Culture is information capable of affecting individuals' behavior that they acquire from other members of their species through teaching, imitation, and other forms of social transmission."

+ Culture changes nature of human evolution and is necessary part of the design problem for human psychology

+ Feedback loops between human psychology, social information, and environment [this is a special interest of mine, data pathologies and information asymmetries retard the achievement of universal propserity and peace--see Earth Intelligence Network's book Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace.

+ Culture an ultimate cause of human behavior, distinguishing humans from all other species as humans have both advanced technologies and advanced social systems

+ The authors strive to follow Darwin's "path not followed" but are pointed in noting that Darwin himself identified the path in his original work

+ Culture is NOT divorced from biology

+ Cultural difference account for much human variation (including memorably, difference tastes with respect to horse meat)

+ Technology is culture, not part of the environment [this is of special interest to me as a proponent for Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) and Multinational, Multiagency, Multidisciplinary, Multidomain Information-Sharing and Sense-Making (M4IS2) because the USA treats OSINT as a technical collection discipline rather than a human intelligence/cultural understanding issue, which is flat out WRONG and a major cause of US ignorance about all matters foreign to it's internal biases]

+ Social environment is NOT culture and culture is NOT the social environment

+ Culture is (mostly) information in brains, gestated by biased and unbiased transmissions as well as observation and immitation

+ Adaptive biases and maladaptive cultures merit much more study; if information costs are high maladaptive beliefs will spread

+ One example of a maladaptive culture is that of the consumer culture that redirects time and energy from offspring to consumption

+ Culture allows rapid adaptation to a wide range of environemnts but leads to systematic maladaptations as a result

+ Some cultural sub-sets (e.g. the Amish) can avoid assimilation

+ Genes and culture co-evolve

+ Commmand backed up by force is NOT sufficient to keep a population submissive--culture plays a huge role in pressing conformity to the point that force is only needed for the resistant few

The authors end with some observations on the need for a great deal more data, observing that most studies to this point, few that they have been, have been qualitative in nature. My own view is that we will never intermediate data about the real world--we have to create a World Brain with an embedded EarthGame that can connect all humans with all information--and especially true cost information about every product and service--so that we can all play ourselves and finally achieve Point Omega (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin).

Major book forthcoming soon: Tom Atlee's Reflections on Evolutionary Activism. A pre-review is available at Phi Beta Iota, the Public Intelligence Blog.

Other books I recommend within my ten link limit:
Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution
Conscious Evolution: Awakening Our Social Potential
How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, Updated Edition
Society's Breakthrough!: Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the People
The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World
The Leadership of Civilization Building: Administrative and civilization theory, Symbolic Dialogue, and Citizen Skills for the 21st Century
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Some years ago, Richard Dawkins published "The Selfish Gene", explaining how gene survival was fundamental in natural selection. He also coined the term "meme" to explain the dissemination of ideas across societies. Almost immediately, there was a strident chorus of objection, based on the theme of "you can't say that about humans!" The outcry hasn't ceased, but in the case of Richerson and Boyd, it's become somewhat muted. This book is designed to gently persuade you that human evolution rests on a solid "cultural" base. Biology is under there somewhere, but for humanity, cultural impact overwhelms our genetic roots.

The authors would like to abandon the dichotomy of what's usually referred to as the "nature versus nurture" debate. That's admirable, but not only has that contest been challenged elsewhere, finding anyone adhering to either position as an absolute is difficult, if not impossible. Who claims "genes" are the sole behaviour drive? Not even religions, the most dogmatic element in our society, any longer label infants as "blank slates" to be moulded at will. Individuality and expression may be curtailed, but not constrained. Yet that curtailment, even if only mindless imitation, is the foundation of this book. Instead of the chaos of individual response to environmental pressures, "culture" guides behaviour to the extent that groups become predictable in their activities. For them, "culture" is a sort of behavioural umbrella keeping families and small communities from unravelling the fabric of society.

Richerson and Boyd gather a wide spectrum of studies to erect their cultural edifice. They examine studies of social animals, scrutinise the grim world of economics and wonder how it is that of all species, human beings filled nearly every environmental niche. They accept the complexity of human society as naturally hierarchical. That organisation, coupled with a strong imitative/cooperative sense enabled our species to readily adapt to so many ecological niches. Where some say, "If it works, don't fix it!", Richerson and Boyd counter, "If it works, imitate it!" Human beings, they contend, are better imitators than other species because we can judge long-term impacts of actions. This talent, coupled with language, provides our unique adaptability in varied environments. We can test for success and pass our findings to our neighbours. This gives groups within our species both unique abilities and the means to improve them. Not all of humanity is but one culture. It's a melange of groups, each culture representing a regional or social norm.

"Group selection" is the offshoot of an older, flawed, evolutionary concept - "species selection". With the idea of "species selection" quickly demonstrated as false, group selection arose to replace it. A close look at group selection reveals that it's but another mechanism to keep humanity separated from the remainder of the animal kingdom. If you downplay any similarities between us and other beasts, you are able to retain a "divine spark" or other metaphysical notions for humanity. And only humanity. Richerson and Boyd's use of animal behaviour studies to ameliorate this distinction are a welcome addition to social studies. However, these examples are carefully selected and interpreted by the authors. They aren't set in an evolutionary context, but are given solely as a contrast to the also carefully chosen aspects of human behaviour. The book raises a number of interesting questions, but answers few of them satisfactorily. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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I love the combination of evolutionary biology with culture. It's a simple yet powerful way of looking at culture, which too often remains mired in obscure or meaningless definitions. The authors write clearly and accessibly (political scientists should take note), so I expect all readers will enjoy this book.
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on May 11, 2010
There is much to be learned from this book, but it is unnecessarily tough going. The authors delight in long verbal arguments about very fine distinctions. While there are many good empirical studies referenced, too often the concrete implications of their fine distinctions are either not there, or presented chapters later. They tie themselves into knots on the definition of imitation so that they can distinguish humans from all other animals and make unsubstantiated assumptions about animal learning. No one disputes that humans are smarter and can accumulate cultural innovations to a far greater extent than any other species.

The authors provide evidence that culture is a force in its own right working in tandem with environment and genetic inheritance. At the same time our genetic inheritance has endowed us with heuristics for achieving success such as conformity and imitation of the successful which can be maladaptive in our current world. In looking at the time when humans were hunter gatherers, the authors make an interesting distinction: there is evidence that while human bands were of modest size, the area of peaceful coexistence could be substantially larger through kinship, and shared cultural tokens, so that the "we" could encompass many more people.
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