Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution First Edition
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The other day I noticed it on my reader and decided I should give it another go. Glad I did. Surprised to learn that the authors feel their subject is under-appreciated. Maybe it's just too easy to think "well of course" and presume no further thought is needed. Not so simple. We have culture. We don't really know how we managed to acquire it. Or how it works.
We'd be better off if we did. It explains why we walk to the drum we hear, and why others hear different ones.
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.
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
Top international reviews
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.
~ Written by Brad Lowell Stone
Other animals have exhibited certain local behaviour patterns that others have termed cultural, but "only humans show much evidence of *cumulative* cultural evolution. By cumulative cultural evolution, we mean behaviors or artifacts that are transmitted and modified over many generations, leading to complex artifacts and behaviors" (p. 107). In this way, complex artifacts are not "invented by individuals; they evolve gradually over many generations" (p. 107). So human cultural evolution, though not inspired by "great person breakthroughs" is still unique, depending as it does on external memory storage and teaching-learning. I liked this, as I am an educator.
I also liked the point that culture and genes co-evolve. Still it seems to me, they tend to see the human species in a more mechanical manner than is necessarily the case: Everything is ultimately done for survival. Cases where cultural choices like human sacrifice or mass witch-hunts have been undertaken are seen as mistaken attempts at survival. I wonder how this accounts for the suicide cults that have appeared and, not surprisingly, rapidly disappeared? They explain altruism or kindness in the same way, as leading to survival of the group. They even seem to disparage efforts to control population growth. Such efforts, mostly in the middle & upper classes of industrialized countries, are said to be the result of "selfish cultural variants" (p. 169). "Modern low fertility does not maximize fitness" (p. 173). Surely this puts them firmly in the evolutionary biology camp.
The writing is most often turgid & uninspired, with the many examples of cultural continuity or adaptation being local, mundane, & unimpresssive. They end by pleading for the wide acceptance of "a proper evolutionary theory of culture" since that "should make a major contribution to the unification of the social sciences" (p. 246). They call for the development of a mass of quantitative detail on cultural variation to equal the detail found in the study of genetic variation, simply equating the two.
I felt let down at the easy way cultural symbolism & artistic experession were simply dismissed by suggesting a little quatitative analysis would reveal them as simple functionalism. By now I was bored. By the time they snidely state that "So many older scientists try their hand at philosophy that it can practically be regarded as a normal sign of aging" (p. 254), I was glad to finish the book and close it.