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Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution 1st Edition

4.2 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0226712840
ISBN-10: 0226712842
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Editorial Reviews


“There have been a number of more or less complex variants on this . . . metaphor for genetic evolution and it is generally agreed that the most nuanced and sophisticated version is contained in the work of Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, and laid out in considerable detail in Not By Genes Alone.”
(Richard Lewontin The New York Review of Books 2005-10-04)

“Drawing on new ideas about multilevel selection, evolutionary psychology and . . . ‘strong reciprocity’ (the bestowing of rewards and punishments even where there is no direct personal gain for this behavior), Richerson and Boyd build a case for a special role for cultural processes in human evolution. . . . It is a book full of good sense and the kinds of intellectual rigour and clarity that we have come to expect from [the authors].”
(Robin Dunbar Nature)

“Ambitious and wide-ranging. . . . The writing is lucid, even eloquent. . . . Richerson and Boyd have done a rare thing: Casting their net widely across a range of disciplines, in order to tackle the most complex phenomenon of our species, and they have achieved consilience. Read and ponder.”

(W. C. McGrew Journal of Human Evolution 2006-02-01)

“Writing in a much more accessible form than they have before, Richerson and Boyd lay out their case for the role of culture in shaping the human mind and behavior. . . . . This book provides an excellent account  of Richerson and Boyd's theory, and is a must-read for anyone interested in gene-culture coevolution.”

(Susan Blackmore Bioscience 2006-01-01)

"[The] subject, the place of culture in human evolutionary dynamics, is relatively neglected, and is rarely as well debated as it is here. . . . Indeed, their text deserves to be considered by all of us in any field of archaeology."
(Don Brothwell Antiquity)

"This is an important work that is sure to generate lively discussion on a topic crucial to our understanding of ourselves."
(Northeastern Naturalist)

"Richerson and Boyd have produced an excellent explication and overview of the current state of the research on cultural evolution . . . and the relative roles of genes and culture in human evolution and behavior from the Pleistocene to the present--and they have done all this in a rigorous but non-technical, easily readable format. I think that both those who are just beginning to explore the evolutionary sources of human behavior and those who are currently engaged in work in this area will greatly benefit from reading this book."
(Adam Gifford, Jr. Journal of Bioeconomics)

About the Author

Peter J. Richerson is professor of environmental science at the University of California, Davis. Robert Boyd is professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Prolific authors and editors, they coauthored Culture and the Evolutionary Process, published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 342 pages
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press; 1 edition (December 31, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226712842
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226712840
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.3 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #792,773 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By R. Stone on December 22, 2004
Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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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Format: Paperback
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.
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