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Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind 1st Edition

4.2 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393065879
ISBN-10: 9780393065879
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Herbert Spencer got it wrong. True Social Darwinism does not mean ruthlessly inhuman competition. Rather, it means the emergence of cooperation and altruism as vital parts of the astounding set of distinctively human adaptations called culture. Arguing this point, Pagel invokes Richard Dawkins’ notion of memes as cultural units that compete for survival in social life in the same way genes compete for reproduction in biological life. Readers soon see how the memes that foster trust, division of labor, and intergenerational learning have flourished in small groups of related individuals. But Pagel also limns the dynamics of kin groups in incubating memes for deceit, prejudice, and violent aggression toward out-groups. Yet by ferreting out the hidden implications of game theory, sociolinguistics, and the mnemonics of music, Pagel shows that cosmopolitan civilizations can transcend such destructive impulses and so sustain very large yet harmonious societies. Some readers, to be sure, will resist the explanation of even religious worship and artistic creativity in terms of biological science. But readers of diverse perspectives will recognize the timely wisdom in Pagel’s concluding reflections on the challenge humans now face in overcoming deeply ingrained ethnic jealousies by developing much more inclusive new conceptions of culture. --Bryce Christensen


“Gorgeously written, elegantly argued, Pagel demonstrates that genes are only a small part of the human success story; minds and culture are the larger part. A compelling read that allows us to appreciate everything around us with fresh eyes.” (David Eagleman, author of Tales of the Afterlives and Incognito)

“An intriguing combination of information...with an optimistic prediction of a future global society in which inventiveness and cooperation prevail.” (Kirkus Reviews (UK))

“Starred review. Pagel does an excellent job of using evolutionary biology to discuss the origins of religion, music, and art, and the reason why, cross-culturally, we generally share a sense of morality.” (Publishers Weekly (UK))

“This richly rewarding work of science explains the evolutionary significance of living in a collaborative culture.

Human evolution may be the hottest area in popular science writing, ahead even of books about cosmology and the brain. Within this crowded field, Mark Pagel’s Wired for Culture stands out for both its sweeping erudition and its accessibility to the non-specialist reader.” (Clive Clarkson - Financial Times)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (February 27, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780393065879
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393065879
  • ASIN: 0393065871
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.5 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,017,529 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
When one thinks of theories of culture, the humanities come to mind, as well as disciplines like soicology and anthropology. Mark Pagel is a population biologist who has developed new and creative directions in estimating phylogenetic trees from highly spotty data, using phylogenetic trees using Bayesian Markov process and related methods. What is he doing writing a book on human culture? Well, it turns out that biologists have developed much better models of cultural evolution than sociologists or anthropologists, and it is a crime and a scandal that the latter displines do not simply take over wholecloth the body of research created by evolutionary population biologists and animal behavior theorists.

The basis for the biological approach to culture is to note that culture is information passed from one generation to the next, just as genes are information (coded in DNA strands in our chromosomes) that do the same thing. Indeed, both genes and culture evolve by very similar mechanisms: replication, mutation, and selection. This is by far the most important point to keep in mind in trying to understand human culture and its contribution to the life of our species. Pagels does a very clear, elegant, and creative job in conveying this message even to readers who have never though more about biology than that involves dissecting frogs. Whenever a biological topic comes up, Pagel takes the time to explain the issue clearly and completely non-pedantically, often refering to analogies from music and the movies to make his points clear.

There is a second absolutely central connection between genes and culture: they mutually interact in the two million year history of the emergence of proto-humans and their transformation into Homo sapiens.
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Format: Hardcover
There probably isn't much I can add to all of these reviews so I will keep my waffling short.

This was well written and interesting. However I did think that it was often one sided and I would have liked to have seen the author provide more evidence and also to try and refute opposing views. Obviously you can't do this for every topic of interest and keep the book to a manageable length but I would certainly have liked to have seen more of it.

I was convinced by most of it. However I think that reciprocal altruism doesn't tell the whole story. People do altruistic acts even if they are not seen by other people or appear to not directly get anything out of it. People often get pleasure form the altruistic act itself. Also people sometimes take great risks to help others when it is unlikely that there will be much in the way of a reward.
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Format: Paperback
Mark Pagel is professor and head of the Evolution Laboratory of the Division of Zoology in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading. His "Wired for Culture" is, as one might expect, a scholarly tome, which discourses at length on the nature of mankind's so-called "cultural vehicles" -- our communities, societies, tribes etc, together with their various trappings such as laws, languages, customs, and so on -- and the ways in which we, uniquely as a species, have evolved to function within them. The basic tenet of the book's thesis is that those very traits which most people think defines Homo sapiens as a species -- our intelligence, capacity for reasoning, language and consciousness -- have not so much shaped the cultures in which we have come to live but rather themselves arisen as a direct consequence of our evolutionary tendency towards mutual cooperation within small but competing tribal groupings.

The idea is a not a new one - Darwin himself came close to proposing something very similar in his "The Descent of Man" of 1871. In fact there are times when I think Darwin came closer to getting things right -- for Pagel clearly builds much of this argument on the thinking of Richard Dawkins of the 70s, holding to many of the tenets of "The Selfish Gene" (albeit modified to a more "gene expressionistic" mode of thinking) and consequently departs considerably from the latest thinking of many human biologists with regard to what drives evolutionary pathways, as well as what lies behind the workings of the human mind.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book says it is about how and why humans have evolved so that they were able to rapidly build today's large-scale, complex societies. It discusses cooperation, deception, religion, altruism, kin selection, reciprocity, reputations and language. This is an interesting set of topics and the book offers a unique perspective on them.

The book is largely about origins - so a hefty chunk of it is about things that happened thousands or millions of years ago. It is written more as a popular science book than a science book. The book was definitely a good read, but alas, I often found myself irritated, frustrated or in disagreement with the author while reading it. I'll start with some of the negative points, and then get on to what I liked.

The book is saturated with human exceptionalism. We hear that only humans have proper culture and a proper language. Mark discusses cultures and languages in non-human animals, but is ultimately dismissive of them, since non-human cultures are insufficiently cumulative, and non-human languages are insufficiently symbolic. I tend to emphasize the opposite perspective. I think it is important to see the close links between human and non-human animal cultures and languages and use comparative ethology to illuminate these features of human social life.

Next: cultural evolution. Mark is aware of cultural evolution, and it plays an significant role in his narrative. At the very start of the book, he discusses the subject in terms of memes, gives Richard Dawkins credit for the idea and then lays out his understanding of the topic. Mark cites Dennet, discusses brain flukes, rabies, and the Cordyceps fungus.
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