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The Evolution of Culture: A Historical and Scientific Overview Paperback – August 1, 1999
Scientific Teaching Series
Shop the Scientific Teaching Series from Macmillan.
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It is an edited collection of technical essays by anthropologists engaged with evolutionary theory. It is, however, accessible to any serious reader and contains many insights that will eventually work their way into more popular books on the evolution of human behavior.
I read this for insights about how large brains, altruism, language, symbolic culture, and religious practices could have evolved through a series of small, evolutionarily beneficial steps. I won't try to do justice to the technical results, but a couple key theories are that early social intelligence evolved from its benefits for coalition building among females (soon there will be a book asking why modern politics is controlled by males!) and that answers to evolutionary benefit lie more in mate selection rather than survival benefits (intelligence is beneficial for the same reason as a peacock's tail).
The editors set the theme of "applying a rigorous Darwinian analysis" to human culture in their Introduction. They remind us that this is a topic that has long eluded a disciplined investigation. Darwinian approaches to human evolution are difficult, but the editors contend that solid research offers insights previous scholars have ignored or not attempted. Their selection of three major themes, society, language, art and religion, allows them to demonstrate how these areas reflect the evolutionary process in our species.
To recount the eleven essays here would effectively re-write the book. There are pieces dealing with various forms of symbolism, the application of cooperation and altruism, and courting behaviour. The authors frequently remind us that evolution goes far beyond mere "survival". A mulititude of elements interplay in determining which individuals are "fittest" in the human environment. Art, for example, has many roots, and "body painting" is but one of many of them. In Camilla Powers' essay, she demonstrates how mating rituals, community organisation and colour recognition work together to build art forms and social structure. Religion, an item of intense debate, is skillfully examined in Steven Mithen's essay on how humans came to devise the idea of the supernatural. He suggests that the idea of a "supernatural" being arose with the maturation of human cognition. Religion, therefore, arose not as a survival trait, but merely as an extension of human cognitive capability.
The information offered in each essay is thoroughly referenced at the end of the piece. There are illustrative charts and graphics summarising the information in the text. In all, this collection will stand for some time as a foundation for further work. The editorial team is to be congratulated for their effort in bringing together so many fine authors addressing a difficult topic. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
Most readers won't miss this, but that is just the problem: none of the authors takes the opportunity to focus on culture in non-human animals. Only Dunbar's paper takes extensive examples from other species, as his paper is based on general principles of sociality. The fact that the book's subjects range from language to the problem of the free-rider to religion, and can still be called limited with respect to its title, reveals the uselessness of the term "culture" for anything but evoking and propogating species-chauvinism.