The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter Hardcover – October 27, 2015
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"Limber and lucid."---Barbara Kiser, Nature
"[A] pleasure for the biologically and scientifically inclined." ― Kirkus
"Henrich draws on his far-flung ethnographic field studies and the work of colleagues to illustrate the adaptive power of human culture." ― The Scientist
"Joseph Henrich . . . offers a compelling and comprehensive answer in his exceptional new book The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. It is an intellectual tour-de-force that offers an overview for the field of cultural evolution."---Joe Brewer, This View of Life
""A provocative alternative to the standard narrative about evolution…. Henrich's book is immensely ambitious, informative, and important."---Glenn Altschuler, Psychology Today
"Mind-stretching…. Henrich's book will take you on a prodigious journey through human nature and society."---Alun Anderson, , New Scientist
"I thought I understood cultural evolution. But in his new book, The Secret of Our Success, Joseph Henrich schooled me. I felt like I learned more from his book than from the last dozen books I've read."---Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
"Henrich posits a unique approach to understanding human behavior, not in purely evolutionary terms, but as a process of cultural evolution." ― Library Journal
"Human evolutionary biologist and psychologist, Joseph Henrich, a professor at both Harvard and the University of British Columbia has provided compelling insights into the ways that social, physical, scientific, agricultural, religious, and other human practices commonly termed 'culture' have honed man's skills and fostered survival strategies. . . . The contents offer a very readable and riveting story of how culture--gene interaction must be examined when assaying human intelligence." ― NSTA Recommends
"Culture sits upon a foundation of genetics and biology but is separate from it. Joseph Henrich wanted to upend this conventional narrative. . . . The implications of this new, continuing narrative for the way we think about people, societies, and even companies are both subtle and significant."---David K. Hurst, Strategy + Business
"This book synthesizes, in a format accessible to general readers, research from a variety of disciplines that address in varying ways, the evolutionary journey begun about 6 million years ago by our primate ancestors, forming humans in the process, into a unique species centered, according to Harvard evolutionary biologist Henrich, around social learning, cultural transmission, and cumulative culture." ― Choice
"A deep account of the relationship between culture and the human mind is now emerging, with The Secret of our Success by anthropologist Joseph Henrich blazing a trail in late 2015. Here Laland adds important layers to this new understanding." ― New Scientist
"It is engagingly written, is illustrated with fun examples, includes autobiographical reminiscences, and (important!) eschews mathematical equations. . . . Secret of Our Success is much more than a popular book. It addresses the most fundamental questions about our societies. . . . My strong recommendation is to read the book. I'll say more: Secret of Our Success is going to be a field-defining book for Cultural Evolution in the next decade."---Peter Turchin, Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture
"Henrich presents a compelling case along with a thoroughly engaging read."---Jason Zinser, Quarterly Review of Biology
"An ambitious and timely endeavor to re-frame the conversation around human behavior. . . . This work will undoubtedly play an important role in conversations about human behavior for years to come."---Adrienne Tecza, Journal of Politics and Life Sciences
"A mind-opening book about how culture interacts with biology and technology in an evolutionary process."---Jayati Ghosh, Project Syndicate
"Social science is at the cusp of a revolution, incorporating a better understanding of how our capabilities and culture have evolved and how the interplay of social and political choices shape human experiences. Joseph Henrich has been at the forefront of this more holistic social science. In this wonderfully readable book, Henrich shows how our species is special and how our practices, beliefs, and instincts have emerged because of our cultural learning. This must-read book will be cherished and consulted for its ideas and insights."
―Daron Acemoglu, coauthor of Why Nations Fail
"The cumulative, collaborative nature of human culture, far more than our individual intelligence, is what makes it―and us―special. How and when this collective brain emerged and evolved has until recently been only vaguely understood. Now Joseph Henrich brings a rich and deep rigor to the topic and tells the epic story in easy narrative style. This is a remarkable book."―Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist and The Evolution of Everything
"In this accessible, authoritative book, Joseph Henrich explains why culture is essential for understanding human evolution. It is a must-read for anybody curious about why we are the way we are."―Robert Boyd, coauthor of How Humans Evolved and Not by Genes Alone
"Joseph Henrich has written a magnificent book. With verve and clarity he sets out a compelling theory of the interactions between genes and culture, and defends the theory with a remarkable range of evidence from fields as varied as history, primatology, neuroscience, and the science of sport. This book provides an enthralling account of the secret of our success." ―Stephen Stich, Rutgers University
"Is the ability to acquire highly evolved culture systems like languages and technologies the secret of humans' success as a species? This book convinces us that the answer is emphatically ‘yes.' Moving beyond the sterile nature-nurture debates of the past, Joseph Henrich demonstrates that culture―as much a part of our biology as our legs―is an evolutionary system that works by tinkering with our innate capacities over time."―Peter J. Richerson, University of California, Davis
"In the last decade, in the interstices between biology, anthropology, economics, and psychology, a remarkable new approach to explaining the development of human societies has emerged. It's the most important intellectual innovation on this topic since Douglass North's work on institutions in the 1970s and it will fundamentally shape research in social science in the next generation. This extraordinary book is the first comprehensive statement of this paradigm. You'll be overwhelmed by the breadth of evidence and the creativity of ideas. I was."―James Robinson, coauthor of Why Nations Fail
"With compelling chapter and verse and a very readable style, Joseph Henrich's book makes a powerful argument―in the course of the gene-culture coevolution that has made us different from other primates, culture, far from being the junior partner, has been the driving force. A terrific book that shifts the terms of the debate."―
Stephen Shennan, University College London
"A delightful and engaging expedition into and all around the many different processes of genetic and cultural evolution that have made humans such ‘a puzzling primate.'"―Michael Tomasello, codirector of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
"Henrich is one of a small group of anthropologists who has revolutionized our thinking about evolution. His new book is a highly readable introduction to how our genes and cultural variants evolved together. This nuanced work offers the most comprehensive answer I know of to the question of how we became human. It tells the story of how culture, cultural learning, and cultural evolution made us so smart."―Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind
"The Secret of Our Success provides a valuable new perspective on major issues in human evolution and behavior. Bringing together topics from such diverse areas as economics, psychology, neuroscience, and archaeology, this book will provoke vigorous debates and will be widely read."―Alex Mesoudi, author of Cultural Evolution
- Publisher : Princeton University Press (October 27, 2015)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 464 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0691166854
- ISBN-13 : 978-0691166858
- Item Weight : 1.75 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.5 x 1.25 x 9.75 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #688,770 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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There are problems with studying the distant past: evidence is difficult to obtain; experiments are challenging to perform; and predictions are difficult to test. It would make sense for students of cultural evolution to look to modern cultural dynamics, which are not afflicted by these problems.
In fact, Joe doesn't discuss about cultural evolution very much. He doesn't provide an introduction to the topic or attempt to explain how it works. Instead he assumes a theory of cultural evolution and goes on to use it to analyze the evolution of the DNA genes of our ancestors.
Perhaps all the study of the influence of culture on DNA is a bias arising out of academic funding sources. Or maybe the researchers involved all copied each other. What risks getting lost here is the idea of culture as a largely independent system evolving along broadly Darwinian lines that operates on a different timescale to the evolution of DNA genes and proceeds largely independently from it. Ancient history is all very well, but there's also the modern world, technology, the internet and the future to think about.
Anyway, it's not entirely fair to criticize a book because of its chosen subject area. In fact, the book is vastly better than most books on the topic of human genetic evolution because Joe is using a sensible theoretical framework which includes cultural evolution. If I had to describe the book in one word, I would use the term "solid".
Joe argues for the importance of our collective brains, and against the significance of our individual brains. This is well-trodden territory by now, but Joe's book provides an excellent overview of this topic.
Joe has spent some of his life visiting the cultures he studies, and his book has many anecdotes from them. At the start I feared that the book was too anecdote heavy. For a scientists describing evidence as 'anecdotal' is a popular way of saying it is practically worthless. Fortunately, Joe goes beyond anecdotes frequently enough for me.
I was hoping to find material about the cultural brain hypothesis - which Joe publicly supported in 2012. This is the idea that was pioneered by Susan Blackmore, that culture drove the expansion of the human brain. However this idea got very little coverage in the book.
I was also expecting to find some support for and advocacy of group selection. The topic is rarely mentioned in the book. Joe does start out by saying that he is going to go beyond the kin selection and reciprocity explanations for cooperation championed by Dawkins and Pinker. He then spends some time in the book attempting to establish that groups of our ancestors regularly wiped each other out - but this seems obvious and uncontroversial to me. I was expecting some kind of case to be made for group selection, but I missed it.
Overall, I didn't find much to disagree with in the book. There were a few issues. For example, at one point, Joe proposes that millionaire generosity is performed so that others will copy them, and they will benefit from living in a more cooperative society. I'm pretty sure that this is mostly wrong. Virtue signaling explains such generosity. Millionaire generosity is largely performed out of reputational concerns - as proposed by Robin Dunbar in a paper titled "Showing off in humans: male generosity as a mating signal".
Joe argues that cumulative cultural evolution made our species special. This seems to be a fairly common position, but it ignores the fairly substantial scientific evidence that chimpanzees also have cumulative cultural evolution. The difference between our culture and theirs is not so much that ours accumulates and theirs does not, but that their cultural accumulations run into a low complexity ceiling.
I also worry about Joe over using the concept of a norm. There's more to cultural evolution than norms, and I'm concerned that constantly thinking in terms of evolving norms misses out the evolution of all the non-norms.
Another suspect section was titled 'move over natural selection'. Joe writes: "since the rise of cumulative cultural evolution natural selection has lost its status as the only "dumb" process capable of creating complex adaptations". I was left wondering whether Joe though cultural adaptations formed without selection, or whether he thought that such selection was not "natural".
In the end, I was left wondering about the author's position on many other points as well. Joe seems to have only covered the areas where the science was fairly settled. I would have liked to see more speculation and exploration of controversial issues. I guess then the book wouldn't have been so solid.
Cultural over-fitting correlates well with any outcome, so it never really helps explain anything.
Then I read Henrich's explanation for why blue eyes are a product of culture and genetic evolution. As humans moved to higher altitudes, the lower exposure to sunlight reduced the ability of UVB light to synthetize vitamin D, given that melanin in dark skin blocks much of this process. Some populations in the Baltic area did not have a high vitamin D in their diet because they had already switched to agriculture, heavy on cereals, which are not as high in vitamin D as other diets - like those of other populations in high altitudes who fished more (e.g. eskimos). The combination of the selective pressure to maximize vitamin D from sunlight in a cereal-fed population led to the specific mutation in HERC2 gene, which affected nearby OCA2 gene that reduced melanin in the skin -a mutation that also happens to reduce melanin in the eyes- and, therefore, causes blue and green eyes. "If cultural evolution hadn’t produced agriculture, and specifically techniques and technologies suitable for higher latitudes, then there would be no blue or green eyes" (p. 85). This is the oddly named "The Secret of Our Success" at its best: a complex web of experimental and theoretical insights from all behavioral sciences that explains culture's role in human evolution.
Culture, Henrich argues, is not whatever the user of the over-fitting trick I described above wants it to be, but an even larger bag of tricks made by the interaction between information embedded in our genes and information stored, and updated, in our collective minds. "Our species’ uniqueness, and thus our ecological dominance, arises from the manner in which cultural evolution, often operating over centuries or millennia, can assemble cultural adaptations." (p. 33). The array of cultural adaptations, as described in this book, is astonishing: the digestive system, lactose tolerance, sweat, faith, tolerance to alcohol, divination rituals, spicing food, prestige, menopause, altruism and language itself are all elements that embody cultural evolution, which Henrich describes as "a consequence of genetically evolved psychological adaptations for learning from other people." (p. 35). At some point in our evolutionary past, humans crossed a threshold, where culture could serve as an information repository of knowledge and provoke adaptations in a quicker way than genes could.
The carefully chosen anthropological, psychological, economical, historical and experimental evidence Henrich uses to illustrate his points are exemplary - they are unforgettable. The Naskapi ritualistic solution for hunting caribou prey that, effectively, randomizes their hunting ground to maximize the likelihood of success. Or how societies can forget to make and manipulate fire. Or how the hunting strategies imparted by grandmother killer whales on their grandchildren to catch seals near the coast can help explain human menopause. Or the similarity, and later divergence, in learning capabilities between chimpanzees and human children as both grow up. The book is full of astonishing examples that still provoke a sense of awe upon recollection.
Culture is social learning. Powered by networks of brains, which are reinforced by social norms, it helps accumulate knowledge through generations, altering our biology and shaping our genes. "The Success of Our Success" is a great example of its main message, as it distills a very complex, deep, argument in a clear and rigorous way.
This book is a social science jewel. Unforgettable and erudite of the likes of Diamond's "Guns, germs and steel" and Beinhocker's "The origin of wealth". I hope to re-read it soon.
Top reviews from other countries
You can't say that his concept is new: it has been clear every since Darwin that the human body itself has been altered by our culture - most accounts of human evolution have for as long as I can remember started by pointing out that humans are not very fast or very strong, and have small teeth and no claws to speak of. These characteristics must have evolved gradually as we developed teamwork and technology.
However the description of the way in which every human society has far more technology than one person could invent in a lifetime is full of interesting facts and very worthwhile. So is the emphasis of accurate transmission of human knowledge and expertise from one generation to the next. For a million years we have evolved not only to learn from our elders, but to study them to decide which ones are the most successful and the most worth learning from.