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Five best books on Cultural Evolution

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The evolution of culture is another name for memetic evolution, since culture consists of memes (such as languages, methods of cooking, music, values, ideas, and so on). Joe Henrich is a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Culture, Cognition, and Coevolution at the University of British Columbia, where he is a professor in the departments of psychology and economics. His post at begins:

What exactly is ‘cultural evolution’?

In the last 20-30 years a lot of different disciplines—I have psychology and economics particularly in mind, but also parts of biology—have become increasingly convinced that, in order to understand humans and human behaviour, we need to take culture seriously. Economists have recently got into this, and they now have quite a bit of evidence that, in order to explain the differences among, say, the wealth of nations or innovation or growth in GDP, culture matters a lot. These sets of ideas, beliefs and values that people acquire from prior generations really have a big impact.

Then the question becomes, how do we think about this in a systematic way, because culture is notoriously fuzzy. What my colleagues and I have tried to do is to think about culture as an evolutionary system. We can think about how individuals learn from each other, right down to a child growing up: Who do they pay attention to? Who do they learn from? What kinds of ideas are they attracted to?

So, in my book, what I try to do is approach that from an evolutionary perspective. Humans are a kind of animal, and we seem to be very dependent on culture and cultural learning for very basic things — like how to find food, how to organise our societies, how to make the basic tools which allow us to survive. We can think about culture as a genetically evolved cognitive adaptation for learning from other people. Natural selection is operating over generations to make people better at learning from the other members of their social milieu — figuring out who in their environment they should tune in to, what kinds of ideas they should pay attention to, and how they should integrate information across diverse people.

This turns culture into an evolutionary process that can change over long periods of time; that can reach stable states — the way genetic evolution will produce stable species for long periods. It creates clumpings or groups — where some people tend to do things one way, and other groups tend to do things in other ways. It creates something called ‘social norms.’ Once people can culturally learn the standards by which they judge others, you get social norms out of this process.

Genetic evolution is shaping us to be cultural learners, but then the interesting part is that that turns around, and cultural evolution begins to shape our genetic evolution.


Say something simple like the evolution of technology: you begin to produce fire and cooking and knowledge about how to process plants and animals, how to cook meat. This then shapes our digestive system: we have small stomachs and small teeth and short colons because we’re the cooking animal, or the food-processing animal more generally. A lot of our digestion is actually done externally — so we have to put much less energy into our digestive system. This is because we have all this culturally learned know-how about how to process foods.

Why does the term ‘cultural evolution’ seem to be somewhat controversial, then? Is it that some scientists, focusing primarily on genetics, feel that culture doesn’t have a role to play in evolution — just as, I suppose, some economists also would argue that straight economics doesn’t need any inter-disciplinary input either?

One interesting thing about the sociology of the field is that in the 1970s, when socio-biology first began to emerge and try to apply evolution to explain human behaviour, the culture wars emerged. One side would insist that human behaviour is determined by culture — so there were anthropologists like Marshall Sahlins who wrote a book called The Use and Abuse of Biology. On the other side, people like Richard Dawkins argued that genetic evolution played an important role in explaining behaviour and human behavioural variation.

What’s interesting about the approach that my colleagues and I have been working on is that it actually dissolves that unhelpful and—I think—scientifically destructive dichotomy. We say, ‘Yes, culture is important. But to understand the foundations of human learning, we need to think of ourselves as an animal with adaptations for learning from others.’ Then we can say a lot about cultural evolution and about how societies evolve and what kinds of things we should expect of the world by understanding how natural selection has shaped our minds to make us better learners. That single move diffuses the difference between culture on one side and genes on the other.

The interesting thing that comes out of this is the idea that culture can actually be the driving force in human genetic evolution. I argue in my book that the central driving force in human genetic evolution—that gave us big brains, shaped our hands and dexterity as well as our feet and other parts of our anatomy—was actually created by cultural evolution. Tools and social institutions and languages shaped our genes. That idea—that genetic evolution was driven by cultural evolution—is relatively new and certainly hasn’t been widespread until recently.

And some people might disagree. Are you finding a lot of resistance to the idea?

Of course there is disagreement, there is always going to be disagreement. One of the central lines of this disagreement is how important this learning process is versus what some evolutionary psychologists call ‘evoked culture.’ This is the idea that our minds are like jukeboxes and respond to environmental cues. When you have certain environmental cues, you get different behaviours and different psychology. It’s not because people learn different things from previous generations: instead, it is just their minds responding, in a pre-programmed way, to different input cues.

For example, some people have argued that personality types—introversion/extroversion—are a product of the pathogen environment. In environments high in pathogens, people are nervous about strangers who might carry pathogens, so they become more introverted, more xenophobic, less willing to engage with others. But once the pathogens are removed from the environment, then it is much more beneficial and adaptive to interact more broadly with large social networks because you are less likely to get pathogens.

The case that I’ve made is that both of these are important. A lot of times the environment, the things that cue up these different psychological processes, are themselves influenced by cultural evolution. In the case of the pathogens—if you buy that account and there is at least some evidence for it—you have to take into account that there’s been massive cultural evolution to reduce the pathogens in our environment. There used to be malaria in southern England. But because of institutions, now there’s not. So that changes the pathogen environment in ways that then shift this evoked psychology. That’s one of the points of debate: where is this evoked psychology, what role does it play, and how important is it?

So you’re working with academics from all sorts of different fields: anthropology, archaeology? . . .

Continue reading.

Later in the interview:

With growing inequality around the world today, does reading this book help shed any light onto current problems?

It points to something that is recurrent in the work of many researchers — also like Peter Turchin, the ecologist-turned-historian. When societies are competing, this high competition tends to keep inequality down. Then, over time, the elite of a society—consciously or unconsciously—gradually twist the institutions and change the social norms so they get a disproportionate share of the pie.

What we are seeing is a process that’s repeated itself many, many times over, where gradually, over a long period of time, the elites change the rules of the game so they are increasingly favoured. There are various ways to get out of the trap. The usual one is revolution, collapse and discord, but hopefully there are other ways out too.


Written by LeisureGuy

13 October 2016 at 4:40 pm

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