Saturday, July 28, 2012

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

Here are two reviews of Mark Pagel's recent book, Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind.The first is from Maria Popova at Brain Pickings (a brief but positive review) and the other is from Steven Rose at the Times Higher Education blog (very derogatory review).

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.

It might seem, then, that protecting our ideas would have been the best evolutionary strategy. Yet that’s not what happened — instead, we embraced this “theft,” a cornerstone of remix culture, and propelled ourselves into a collaboratively crafted future of exponential innovation. Pagel explains:
Social learning is really visual theft, and in a species that has it, it would become positively advantageous for you to hide your best ideas from others, lest they steal them. This not only would bring cumulative cultural adaptation to a halt, but our societies might have collapsed as we strained under the weight of suspicion and rancor.
So, beginning about 200,000 years ago, our fledgling species, newly equipped with the capacity for social learning had to confront two options for managing the conflicts of interest social learning would bring. One is that these new human societies could have fragmented into small family groups so that the benefits of any knowledge would flow only to one’s relatives. Had we adopted this solution we might still be living like the Neanderthals, and the world might not be so different from the way it was 40,000 years ago, when our species first entered Europe. This is because these smaller family groups would have produced fewer ideas to copy and they would have been more vulnerable to chance and bad luck.
The other option was for our species to acquire a system of cooperation that could make our knowledge available to other members of our tribe or society even though they might be people we are not closely related to — in short, to work out the rules that made it possible for us to share goods and ideas cooperatively. Taking this option would mean that a vastly greater fund of accumulated wisdom and talent would become available than any one individual or even family could ever hope to produce. That is the option we followed, and our cultural survival vehicles that we traveled around the the world in were the result.”
“Steal like an artist” might then become “Steal like an early Homo sapiens,” and, as Pagel suggests, it is precisely this “theft” that enabled the origination of art itself.

Sample Wired for Culture with Pagel’s excellent talk from TEDGlobal 2011:

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Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation

8 March 2012

'Brain candy' is hard to swallow

A grand biological theory for what makes us so special does not convince Steven Rose

Charles Darwin was clear about it. "I am convinced that natural selection has been the main but not the exclusive means of modification," he wrote in the introduction to On the Origin of Species in 1859. Unfortunately, many of Darwin's modern acolytes seem to have forgotten the master's cautionary words and turn one mechanism among several into a totalising theory. Mark Pagel, a distinguished evolutionary biologist, is but the latest. His central concern - and an important one for anyone interested in human history and society - is to understand the origins of those human attributes that mark us out most distinctly from other living forms: our capacities for speech, social organisation and the creation of culture and technology.

Biologists are of course committed to the view that these are evolved properties. For one unorthodox strand of evolutionary theory, whose early protagonist was the Russian anarchist prince Peter Kropotkin but which was championed in modern form by theorists including Lynn Margulis and David Sloan Wilson, this presents no problem: cooperation between individuals and even between species can serve as a motor of evolutionary change. But for the dominant strand of ultra-Darwinists, natural selection works by ruthless competition between individuals of the same species, and any trait must have a selective advantage to the individual - that is, the genes that confer or enable it must have enhanced our ancestors' reproductive success. Hence the problem: how could cooperation, empathy and altruism, even to the extent of sacrificing one's life to save others, increase a person's chance of transferring copies of his or her genes to the next generation?

Pagel's mentor in these matters, Richard Dawkins, distinguished between genes as replicators and organisms as passive vehicles utilised by the genes to ensure their transmission into the next generation. That is, you and I are merely our genes' way of making copies of themselves. Dawkins, and following him Pagel, then introduces two mutually contradictory hypotheses to solve the problem of culture and seemingly non-adaptive traits. The first proposes that culture enhances our genes' chances: the typically masculinist example is that being good at art or music ("brain candy", says Pagel) or having a reputation for valour serves a man like the peacock's tail serves the peacock - a sign to the female that its owner carries good genes and therefore is worth mating with. When writing in this mode, Pagel suggests that, just as organisms are survival vehicles for genes, so social structures - such as groups or tribes, which require a degree of mutual trust and cooperation - are cultural survival vehicles for their members, and hence their genes. Thus a group's culture is part of each individual group member's extended phenotype.

The second, contradictory hypothesis is that culture is an autonomous life form; it consists of units like genes, called memes, that inhabit an individual's mind and are transmitted between individuals through our unique powers of communication. Typical memes are advertising jingles or fashion practices, such as wearing baseball caps backwards. Notoriously, Dawkins proposed, and Pagel follows him, that religion too is a meme - but in this case an infective, hostile virus that poisons the minds it takes over. But as a coherent theory, memeology is about as convincing as Scientology; anything that can embrace religion, advertising jingles and fashions in headwear as if they are all examples of the same unitary thing, a meme, which can jump from brain to brain, should have been laughed out of court years ago, as philosopher Mary Midgley has cogently argued.

In Wired for Culture, Pagel employs both these hypotheses in broad speculations ranging from the evolutionary motivations of suicide bombers to the origins of speech, without apparently recognising that they are contradictory. Confusions of level abound, as when Pagel says: "Our brains can effortlessly think..."But it is we who think, using our brains. Written in a patronising tone and replete with fairy stories about Pleistocene men cooperating by agreeing that one should sharpen spears while the other chips stone hand axes (presumably the women are home doing the cooking as usual), the book misses entirely one of the most convincing arguments for the evolution of human sociality, centred on human mothers' unique preparedness to share the parenting of their children (called "alloparenting" by the evolutionary biologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy). Grand unitary theories of everything used to be the province of physicists. It's a pity that biology has shed its modesty; we have enough to say about things we do know about without trying to take over the world.

By Mark Pagel
Allen Lane, 432pp, £25.00
ISBN 9781846140150
Published 1 March 2012
Reviewer: Steven Rose is emeritus professor of life science, The Open University.

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