Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mark Pagel - Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind

Mark Pagel's new book, Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind, is near the top of my want-to-read list. Scientific American reviewed the book, and Pagel spoke in early March at the RSA in England - I am also including a review from the Wall Street Journal and one from Brain Pickings.

MIND Reviews: Wired for Culture

Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind
by Mark Pagel. W. W. Norton, 2012

Human populations have faced bottlenecks over time that put them in peril. Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel believes that humans overcame these forces by banding together in larger groups, which may have propelled their brain capacity to greater heights.

In Wired for Culture, Pagel proposes that humans learn best through imitation. Aggregating into larger clusters allowed social learning to truly flourish, ultimately leading to the formation of societies, technology and culture. Humans are unique among other primates, however, in that they did more than simply pick up the latest spear technology by observing and mimicking their peers. As they developed more complex communication skills, they were able to adapt and pass on these tactics to the next generation.

Pagel theorizes that the evolution of language ratcheted up the exchange of the ideas and skills that eventually formed the basis of different cultures.

Yet this collaborative spirit did not extend to make humans altruistic, Pagel concludes. As a species, we join forces only with those whom we trust and whose actions we anticipate will be similar to our own. In fact, he proposes that thousands of different languages exist in the world because we are inclined to promote trust within our own social circles but confusion among outsiders. Language allowed us to pass along individual cultures as much as it segregated, and even protected, us from different ones.

The book’s narrative is diffuse, veering offtrack as Pagel attempts to explain lofty concepts. Also problematic is that Pagel appears to build his theory on the absence of contradictory evidence—our brain and behavior differ from those of other primates, so the human mind must help explain these distinctions. He cites theories from philosophers and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who argues that people who are genetically related are more likely to behave altruistically toward one another.

Despite these issues, the main themes are worth exploring. If Pagel’s theory is correct, the success of the human race largely depended on culture, which spawned not just from neural connections within the brain but also from the social connections people made within their communities.
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Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind
01 Mar 2012

*Please be aware that there are some images used in this talk of a violent nature.

Mark Pagel, one of the world's leading experts on human evolution and development, visits the RSA to investigate our species' capacity for culture, cooperation and community.

Listen to the podcast of the full event including audience Q&A.

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Making Ourselves at Home

While our genes evolve slowly, our cultures change fast—it's the key to humanity's unparalleled adaptability

In the history of the Earth, the appearance of human language and culture represents an event almost as momentous as the origin of life itself, for they allowed a new way of transferring information from one life-form to another. Before this, most information transfer was genetic, passed from parents to offspring via DNA. With language, information could be transferred to anyone who could understand it; culture, to a great extent, determines who those anyones will be. Moreover, cultures come with memories, know-how and technologies that mean we do not have to start from scratch, reinventing the wheel every generation. In short, language and culture allowed for a new kind of evolution, the evolution of ideas, thoughts and practices; and compared with our genes, cultures can evolve exceedingly fast.

It's a recent thing: Life began around 3.5 billion years ago, but human language and culture got going only within the past 200,000 years and cities only within the past 10,000. Yet this development has had a big effect: We humans vary little in our genes but a lot in our cultures. Today there are more than 7,000 mutually unintelligible languages and far more cultures and subcultures than that.


A traveling surfer seeks advice from a local in Bali in 1993.

Cultural evolution works in tandem with genetic evolution, of course: Once we evolved culture, culture began to evolve us. This process is seen most clearly in matters of diet. Way back, our ancestors developed the control of fire and invented cooking; over time, this led to our evolving shorter guts, and smaller mouths and teeth, as food became softer and more nutritious. Cooking may also have set the stage for the evolution of larger brains: Big brains take a lot of calories to maintain, so being able to get more calories with less effort may have been crucial. In more recent times, peoples that herd cows have evolved to be able to drink milk as adults (even now most humans are typical mammals and lose the ability to digest milk when they are weaned), while peoples that have historically eaten a lot of starch have evolved to be better at digesting it.
Read the whole review.

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Wired for Culture: How Language Enabled “Visual Theft,” Sparked Innovation, and Helped Us Evolve


Why remix culture and collaborative creativity are an evolutionary advantage.

Much has been said about what makes us human and what it means to be human. Language, which we’ve previously seen co-evolved with music to separate us from our primal ancestors, is not only one of the defining differentiators of our species, but also a key to our evolutionary success, responsible for the hallmarks of humanity, from art to technology to morality. So argues evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel in Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind — a fascinating new addition to these 5 essential books on language, tracing 80,000 years of evolutionary history to explore how and why we developed a mind hard-wired for culture.
Our cultural inheritance is something we take for granted today, but its invention forever altered the course of evolution and our world. This is because knowledge could accumulate as good ideas were retained, combined, and improved upon, and others were discarded. And, being able to jump from mind to mind granted the elements of culture a pace of change that stood in relation to genetical evolution something like an animal’s behavior does to the more leisurely movement of a plant.
Having culture means we are the only species that acquires the rules of its daily living from the accumulated knowledge of our ancestors rather than from the genes they pass to us. Our cultures and not our genes supply the solutions we use to survive and prosper in the society of our birth; they provide the instructions for what we eat, how we live, the gods we believe in, the tools we make and use, the language we speak, the people we cooperate with and marry, and whom we fight or even kill in a war.”
But how did “culture” develop, exactly? Language, says Pagel, was instrumental in enabling social learning — our ability to acquire evolutionarily beneficial new behaviors by watching and imitating others, which in turn accelerated our species on a trajectory of what anthropologists call “cumulative cultural evolution,” a bustling of ideas successively building and improving on others. (How’s that for bio-anthropological evidence that everything is indeed a remix?) It enabled what Pagel calls “visual theft” — the practice of stealing the best ideas of others without having to invest the energy and time they did in developing those.
Read the whole review.
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