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The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

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Humans are a puzzling species. On the one hand, we struggle to survive on our own in the wild, often unable to solve basic problems, like obtaining food, building shelters, or avoiding predators. On the other hand, human groups have produced innovative technologies, sophisticated languages, and complex institutions that have permitted us to successfully expand into environ Humans are a puzzling species. On the one hand, we struggle to survive on our own in the wild, often unable to solve basic problems, like obtaining food, building shelters, or avoiding predators. On the other hand, human groups have produced innovative technologies, sophisticated languages, and complex institutions that have permitted us to successfully expand into environments across the globe. What has enabled us to dominate such a vast range of environments, more than any other species? As this book shows, the secret of our success lies not in our innate intelligence, but in our collective brains--in the ability of human groups to socially interconnect and learn from one another. Drawing insights from lost European explorers, clever chimpanzees, hunter-gatherers, neuroscientists, ancient bones, and the human genome, Joseph Henrich demonstrates how our collective brains have propelled our species' genetic evolution and shaped our biology. Our early capacities for learning from others produced many innovations, such as fire, cooking, water containers, plant knowledge, and projectile weapons, which in turn drove the expansion of our brains and altered our physiology, anatomy, and psychology in crucial ways. Further on, some collective brains generated and recombined powerful concepts, such as the lever, wheel, screw, and writing. Henrich shows how our genetics and biology are inextricably interwoven with cultural evolution, and that this particular culture-gene interaction has propelled our species on an extraordinary evolutionary trajectory. Tracking clues from our ancient past to the present, "The Secret of Our Success" explores how our cultural and social natures produce a collective intelligence that explains both our species' immense success and our human uniqueness.


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Humans are a puzzling species. On the one hand, we struggle to survive on our own in the wild, often unable to solve basic problems, like obtaining food, building shelters, or avoiding predators. On the other hand, human groups have produced innovative technologies, sophisticated languages, and complex institutions that have permitted us to successfully expand into environ Humans are a puzzling species. On the one hand, we struggle to survive on our own in the wild, often unable to solve basic problems, like obtaining food, building shelters, or avoiding predators. On the other hand, human groups have produced innovative technologies, sophisticated languages, and complex institutions that have permitted us to successfully expand into environments across the globe. What has enabled us to dominate such a vast range of environments, more than any other species? As this book shows, the secret of our success lies not in our innate intelligence, but in our collective brains--in the ability of human groups to socially interconnect and learn from one another. Drawing insights from lost European explorers, clever chimpanzees, hunter-gatherers, neuroscientists, ancient bones, and the human genome, Joseph Henrich demonstrates how our collective brains have propelled our species' genetic evolution and shaped our biology. Our early capacities for learning from others produced many innovations, such as fire, cooking, water containers, plant knowledge, and projectile weapons, which in turn drove the expansion of our brains and altered our physiology, anatomy, and psychology in crucial ways. Further on, some collective brains generated and recombined powerful concepts, such as the lever, wheel, screw, and writing. Henrich shows how our genetics and biology are inextricably interwoven with cultural evolution, and that this particular culture-gene interaction has propelled our species on an extraordinary evolutionary trajectory. Tracking clues from our ancient past to the present, "The Secret of Our Success" explores how our cultural and social natures produce a collective intelligence that explains both our species' immense success and our human uniqueness.

30 review for The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

  1. 4 out of 5

    Michal

    The Secret of Our Success is one of these books that really shines light on the evolution of human species. Written by Joseph Henrich, Professor of Anthropology at Harvard, this book is one these few that really change how I see the world. An example of the book that had similar impact for me would be "Who's in charge" by Gazzaniga, or General Semantics by Korzybski. The premise of the book is simple, but profound. Humans are cultural animals, and culture helped us evolve into the dominant speci The Secret of Our Success is one of these books that really shines light on the evolution of human species. Written by Joseph Henrich, Professor of Anthropology at Harvard, this book is one these few that really change how I see the world. An example of the book that had similar impact for me would be "Who's in charge" by Gazzaniga, or General Semantics by Korzybski. The premise of the book is simple, but profound. Humans are cultural animals, and culture helped us evolve into the dominant species that we are now. More importantly, culture created evolutionary pressures, enabling selection for traits best adjusted to not only environmental, but also cultural factors. Henrich's book is extremely well researched, referencing hundreds of peer reviewed articles in the areas of anthropology, genetics, economy and evolution. Each of the claims the author is making is backed up by wealth of research, and synthesizes ideas from a variety of disciplines. For a skeptical reader, the range of original research sources referenced in the book should be a valuable resource in reviewing the claims made in the book. And these claims are what really makes this book special. It explains how the culture affects the learning process, knowledge transfer, skill retention, prestige, but also biological adaptations, and gene expressions. Some of the implications of the claims made in the book, particularly about how prestige affects individuals, made me a little uneasy, but only considering what is seeing as prestigious right now. If you are interested in evolution of human species, in what makes us, humans, special and in what is affecting our future right now, read this book. Its worth it.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Alex Zakharov

    A well-articulated case for gene-culture coevolution, and as good of an argument for culture driving genetic evolution as you are going to get. For starters Henrich’s book effectively debunks the once-orthodox and badly mistaken view (espoused by the likes of Stephen Jay Gould) that human biological evolution basically stopped 50K years ago and we’ve since been adapting via cultural evolution. Henrich does stress that accumulated culture is the driving force of human evolution but he also demons A well-articulated case for gene-culture coevolution, and as good of an argument for culture driving genetic evolution as you are going to get. For starters Henrich’s book effectively debunks the once-orthodox and badly mistaken view (espoused by the likes of Stephen Jay Gould) that human biological evolution basically stopped 50K years ago and we’ve since been adapting via cultural evolution. Henrich does stress that accumulated culture is the driving force of human evolution but he also demonstrates the resulting and quite strong effects on human genome thus setting stage for autocatalytic gene-culture co-evolutionary process. In my view many genes vs culture debates can be resolved by simply looking at culture as part of the environment, and then we are back to classic dynamics of natural selection and adaptation. In this sense Henrich’s emphasis on culture at the expense genes can be misleading to a cursory reader. At a high level Henrich’s perspective is actually in line with Cochran and Harpending (“10000 year explosion”) – humans have always genetically adapted to various environments and if anything the rate in the last 10K years have only increased due to culture-driven selection. Notes to self: - A big theme that humans unlike other species adapt to various environments via cultural “downloads” and learning rather than raw biological adaptation. That resulted in genetic changes that biologically optimized humans for knowledge acquisition from the surrounding environment/culture (extended childhood, menopause, cortex-folding and density limited by head size, selection for sociability, mimicry etc) - Fascinating chapter on biological changes due to selection for running and hunting (humans can vary speed smoothly while animals got “gears”, special muscle fibers, skeletal changes, neck rotation, sweat glands changes) - Outsourcing body functions in general is another theme (e.g. “water source” for running, food digestion - shorter stomachs, colons, smaller teeth, jaw changes etc). Outsourcing frees up the energy for optimizing the brain... - Other adaptions – skin color, lactose tolerance, efficient alcohol processing in Asia, blue eyes in Balkans, infection resistance (malaria-sickle cell story, virus resistance in Europe vs Americas or Europe vs Africa). Cochran/Harpending have a different spin on lactose tolerance arguing for pastoral cultures with dairy outcompeting pastorals without dairy and on the margin outcompeting early farmers as well. They link it to emergence of Indo-European language family. - Very big theme - opaque cumulative knowledge. Henrich explanation is clearer and more developed than Taleb’s “grandmothers wisdom” or “religion/faith as a hedge”. Results in selection for and wiring up of mimicry, norm following (to copy opaque knowledge without understanding it) and reputation maintenance. Finally a sensible argument for human tendency to follow norms and punish violators. Also need to know whom to copy from – prestige plus automatic selection for group affiliation markers such as ethnicity in choosing the model. o Lesson to be learned: experiment, don’t design (humans are bad at top-down design, institutions and otherwise) o Lack of causal models may be a plus in early phases of practice adoption but you do need them eventually. o Interesting comment is increased need to “mentalize” other person’s state of mind (improves knowledge acquisition/download?), which could plausibly lead to dualism and farther down the road to religion(?) - Cooperation is a big theme of course: o Nice somewhat-plausible argument for “outsourcing” child raising and optimizing knowledge intake. Extended childhood increases cost on mother giving rise to pair-ponding. Learning from multiple models helps (from adults and same age group), perhaps leading to increased intra-tribal cooperation. Pair-bonding/family clans can also lead to cooperation among groups once daughters from one tribe marry the other. o Intergroup competition with or without warfare also fosters cooperation within group. For more modern version of it see Tilly's european state formation via war. - On one hand it is nice that Henrich’s argument doesn’t hinge on group vs individual selection as a mechanism for culture-driven evolution. On the other avoiding group selection subject altogether sometimes leads him down incredibly speculative alleys. For example he tries to justify kin selection as a special case of group selection driven by cultural selection, highly implausible. You don’t need culture for kin-selection at all, but yes you would most likely would need culture to increase trust among unrelated groups. - Excellent section on “startup” problem, i.e. under what conditions does a species switch to cultural evolution (crossing the “rubicon”). Need to have enough knowledge around you to accumulate in the first place, at least enough knowledge that one can’t learn it on his own in single lifetime, chicken-and-egg problem. Tries to link to it to terrestrially (freeing up the hands), predation pressures (eliciting cooperation), fluctuating environments (forcing adaptation). Reducing workload on mother, emergence of pair-bonding may modulate this threshold crossing via cooperation feedback loops. Group size matters increasing probability of encountering or generating a successful practice. We probably almost crossed it a few times unsuccessfully. Very speculative, I’m not fully sold, but quite interesting. Perhaps needs synthesis with Cochran/Harpending that on the margin gives more weight to biological factors (human expansions, viruses). - Cute bit on differences in bias towards forefront vs background in europeans vs asians (determining absolute line lengths vs relative sizes experiments) - Distinguishes between biology and genetics, correctly warns about confusing the two when discussing effects of culture. In case for biology brings up thickening of neural connections due to reading (ok) and famous Nisbett/Cohen study of honor cultures and violence in American South as an import from Scots-Irish immigration (eh... don't hold your breath on this one). - Henrich’s constant theme is that over multiple generations in a given specific environment and in the process of optimizing knowledge/culture for that environment a human subpopulation would undergo genetic changes. But then he often treats culture as the primary differentiating aspect between different populations. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Just think European diseases having a massive impact on colonization of America or compare populations that spend 8K years doing agriculture vs a few of hundred. - Cute bit on division of labor as division of information in the face of vast amounts of accumulated knowledge, once you can’t learn it all specialization is inevitable and is only bound to increase. Even in pre-history division of labor between men and women was driven by this information and skill asymmetry. - Another big theme collective brain. Larger groups, more connections, more experimentation, better solutions found quicker. Smells like another flavor of Garett Jones’ “Hive Mind”. OK, perhaps all else being equal larger group and more connections probably do make you smarter. But “all else being equal” is a tall order and is rarely the case. By Henrich’s own logic wouldn’t yours and your group’s achievement potential relative to where it is now be influenced by the evolutionary path that culture/population took to get to this point? For a given point in time it seems that Cochran/Harpending idea of step jumps driven by right tail of IQ distribution may matter more relative to sheer group size and number of connections (small differences in average gives rise to large differences in the tails, and it is the tails that matter for significant progress). Joel Mokyr in his "Culture of Growth" makes a somewhat similar argument for a post-renaissance Bacon-inspired 200 year run of a transnational community of highly intelligent, constantly-communicating, knowledge-sharing tinkerers eventually bringing about industrial revolution. So yes connections and group size matter but it matters the most in the right tail. Anyway, terrific book, often speculative but highly recommended. Read it together with "10000 year explosion" and you'll have a blast.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Andy

    This is a good collection of factoids and anecdotes illustrating the point that human intelligence/behavior can be biological without being genetic. And that is important because it emphasizes the roles of the physical and social environments. Unfortunately, the book is put together like a course syllabus more than like something for the general reader (with frequent parentheses referring to other chapters, etc.)

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jayesh

    Trying to queer the nature-nurture binary :D (rather the genetics-environment binary). I think it overreaches in the middle with some of the Evo-Psych explanations lacking specificity in how exactly culture has such a strong effect on selection itself. Otherwise goes well with Reich's Who we are and how we got here, Cochran's 10000 year explosion and Pinker's Blank State. Main theme of the book is what it says in the subtitle - it's hard to distinguish effects of culture evolution and human evolu Trying to queer the nature-nurture binary :D (rather the genetics-environment binary). I think it overreaches in the middle with some of the Evo-Psych explanations lacking specificity in how exactly culture has such a strong effect on selection itself. Otherwise goes well with Reich's Who we are and how we got here, Cochran's 10000 year explosion and Pinker's Blank State. Main theme of the book is what it says in the subtitle - it's hard to distinguish effects of culture evolution and human evolution since they go hand in hand. I like the analogy: We stand on the shoulders of a very large pyramid of hobbits.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Mehrsa

    Excellent, comprehensive and well-written overview of how culture shaped us as a species. Henrich writes a very convincing and well-sourced history of humanity. A few really random and interesting tidbits: * Kids will pick up and play with all sorts of things, but before putting plant-like things in their mouths, they will look to an adult for cues. * Our bodies are built to run (read born to run for more), but not for storing water. So our evolution was premised on us being able to communicate to Excellent, comprehensive and well-written overview of how culture shaped us as a species. Henrich writes a very convincing and well-sourced history of humanity. A few really random and interesting tidbits: * Kids will pick up and play with all sorts of things, but before putting plant-like things in their mouths, they will look to an adult for cues. * Our bodies are built to run (read born to run for more), but not for storing water. So our evolution was premised on us being able to communicate to eachother where to find water and how to hunt prey *We crossed the rubicon as a species when people started helping women out with their babies. Amen! Lots of really cool insights in here.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jason Furman

    One of the most amazing books I've read in recent years, The Secret of Our Success has a single thesis that sounds obvious but then it shows you how different it is from what you might have thought before, how much it explains, and how we have learned all of this with a combination of genetics, social psychology, anthropological observation of different groups, studying primates, game theory, experimental economics, and many other disciplines all of which come together to form a richer, more com One of the most amazing books I've read in recent years, The Secret of Our Success has a single thesis that sounds obvious but then it shows you how different it is from what you might have thought before, how much it explains, and how we have learned all of this with a combination of genetics, social psychology, anthropological observation of different groups, studying primates, game theory, experimental economics, and many other disciplines all of which come together to form a richer, more complex understanding of what makes humans so unique. Joseph Henrich's thesis is that humans are set apart because culture and genes have co-evolved. We’re not smarter, more social or more strategic than other animals but we’re much better at learning from each other. This cultural evolution is non-genetic and can make rapid progress, including adapting to different and changing environments. But it is not unrelated to genes, in fact genetic changes have made us better cultural learners--and made us worse at everything when we do not have that a cultural learning at our disposal. In a sense, humans domesticated themselves--just like they domesticated wolves into more docile and weaker dogs. Henrich goes through reasons why some other explanations are wrong: (1) Humans are not smarter than other animals. Infants score about the same as chimps on various cognitive tests, we're worse at getting to the Nash equilibrium of games like matching pennies than many chimps, we can be worse at numerical recall than chimps, etc. Where we excel is in our ability to learn from each other. (2) Humans are not more successful because of our better evolved instincts. Take European explorers and drop them in the middle of an unfamiliar area like Australia, the Canadian north or even Florida and they will have no idea how to hunt for food, fashion weapons, make boats, make warm clothing, identify or prepare foods, etc. We don't have instincts, we have locally adapted cultural knowledge to survive in these contexts. (3) Humans are not inherently more prosocial than other animals, it is learned not innate. For example, a variety of experimental games (like the "ultimatum" game) show more collaborative attitudes in larger scale societies than in smaller ones. Instead his explanation is that culture is like a "collective brain" that enables ideas that are discovered by one person to be spread to others. He shows through a model that it less important to have geniuses than to have learners and collaborators. And that learning depends not just on population size but its interconnectedness. That is why larger populations come up with more complex inventions (e.g., the wheel was only invented in Eurasia) and more complex languages with more sounds and more words. This ability to learn does depend on our brains but has also co-evolved with our brains. For example, we have smaller teeth and a weaker digestive system which forces us to pre-digest our food with tools, fire and many other treatments. We are capable long distance runners, which requires a system to sweat, which only works because we can carry water with us and rehydrate. Etc. Cultural transmission has also made us respect and learn from people in our groups, those with greater age and more prestige. Henrich has personally made important contributions to understanding in a number of these areas, but not everything in the book is completely original. And that is a strength of the book--it is conveying a cutting edge field but does not appear (to my admittedly layman views) to be idiosyncratic or pushing a thesis too far. Instead it is partly summarizing the state of the art. In some cases the book is more speculative or has to extrapolate from lab experiments to complex dynamics that play out over hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. Henrich is generally honest about the limitations on our understanding and how they will be filled in over time. But does not let that detract from the bigger thesis. Occasionally Henrich's arguments suffer a bit from the "just so" stories that rationalize any human behavior as an evolutionary adaptation. But his novel and creative use of just how hard it is to adapt to different environments (e.g., an extended discussion of what it takes to hunt/cook a seal in the arctic or prepare manioc in Africa without getting cyanide poisoning) make it clear that many of these adaptations really are that--adapative. Henrich also takes a relatively conservative stance that places a lot of emphasis on hierarchy, prestige, age, and not thinking too much for oneself and instead accepting the culture we get because that culture is adaptive and adaptive in ways we don't fully comprehend so tampering with it can have serious downsides. In fact in the conclusion he is quite explicit about this: "Humans are bad at intentionally designing effective institutions and organizations, though I’m hoping that as we get deeper insights into human nature and cultural evolution this can improve. Until then, we should take a page from cultural evolution’s playbook and design 'variation and selection systems' that will allow alternative institutions or organizational forms to compete.” There is nothing inherently wrong with being conservative in this sense, but it does have two risks: not explaining how we have innovated in part by challenging authority and asking questions (the enlightenment had that attitude and very rapid change) and a normative risk of lending too much credibility to existing institutions and practices. These are small quibbles when set aside against contemplating one of the most impressive accomplishments of human cultural evolution, understanding ourselves would be high up on the list. And this book represents the accumulated ways we have better understood ourselves, many of which we have only learned in the last few decades. Imagine how much more we will learn in the coming years, decades, centuries and more.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Anurag

    Culture has long been neglected while explaining biological evolution, and I personally have never thought of the many links between the evolution of our society and of our genes. This well-researched book by Harvard professor Joseph Henrich presents an account of human evolution while clearly underlining profound ways in which culture has shaped our genes. According to the author, the Rubicon which tipped our species from ape-hood to something more, was the beginning of a runaway process of cult Culture has long been neglected while explaining biological evolution, and I personally have never thought of the many links between the evolution of our society and of our genes. This well-researched book by Harvard professor Joseph Henrich presents an account of human evolution while clearly underlining profound ways in which culture has shaped our genes. According to the author, the Rubicon which tipped our species from ape-hood to something more, was the beginning of a runaway process of cultural learning, when the combined group knowledge of society started exceeding what an individual could hope to invent by its own in a lifetime. This in turn caused increased inter-dependence among humans as it was more profitable to develop social learning skills over individual prowess. Dr Henrich presents compelling experiments from psychology and sociology, which point towards our extremely tuned social learning skills as the biggest differentiating factor from apes - in fact we 'ape' each other much more than apes do. What also interested me a lot was the processes we use to select whom to learn what from, right from our childhood. I would rate this book alongside Sapiens, in the scope and depth of the topics it covers. Selected excerpts (I finally figured out how to export kindle highlights!): It’s now clear that infants and young children use cues of competence and reliability, along with familiarity, to figure out from whom to learn. In fact, by age one, infants use their own early cultural knowledge to figure out who tends to know things, and then use this performance information to focus their learning, attention, and memory. Infants are well known to engage in what developmental psychologists call “social referencing.” Interestingly, while hunters reach their peak strength and speed in their twenties, individual hunting success does not peak until around age 40, because success depends more on know-how and refined skills than on physical prowess. By contrast, chimpanzees—who also hunt and gather—can obtain enough calories to sustain themselves immediately after infancy ends, around age 5. The long and short of all this is that it’s very difficult to survive for months without cooking. Raw-foodists are thin and often feel hungry. Their body fat drops so low that women often stop menstruating or menstruate only irregularly. This occurs despite the supermarket availability of a vast range of raw foods, the use of powerful processing technologies like blenders, and the consumption of some preprocessed foods. The upshot is that human foraging populations could never survive without cooking; meanwhile, apes do just fine without cooking, though they do love cooked foods. Often, most or all of the people skilled in deploying such adaptive practices do not understand how or why they work, or even that they “do” anything at all. Such complex adaptations can emerge precisely because natural selection has favored individuals who often place their faith in cultural inheritance—in the accumulated wisdom implicit in the practices and beliefs derived from their forbearers—over their own intuitions and personal experiences. In many crucial situations, intuitions and personal experiences can lead one astray, as we saw with our lost explorers (the nardoo was satisfying). This causes social norms, including ideas, beliefs, practices (e.g., rituals), and motivations, to flow via cultural transmission from more successful groups to less successful groups. Since individuals cannot easily distinguish what makes a group more successful, there is a substantial amount of cultural flow that has nothing to do with success (e.g., hairstyles and music preferences).

  8. 5 out of 5

    Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin

    Covers both the nature and nurture side of development as these two factors worked together in our spiraling coevolution. Makes the case that social cooperation and self-domestication played a larger role in our ascent than even the growing intellect. We are super cooperators that call into question individual selection and bring group selection more in focus. Studies on our development of particular adaptations from bipedalism to our digestive tract which got less complex when we learned to co Covers both the nature and nurture side of development as these two factors worked together in our spiraling coevolution. Makes the case that social cooperation and self-domestication played a larger role in our ascent than even the growing intellect. We are super cooperators that call into question individual selection and bring group selection more in focus. Studies on our development of particular adaptations from bipedalism to our digestive tract which got less complex when we learned to cook, to eye color and skin adaptations to different Lattitudes. It also covers things that make us stand out like language and social cooperation unrivaled by any species. Interesting take on the course of human development.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Simon Lavoie

    This book is an extensive account of gene-culture coevolution. Bringing together many lines of evidence (archeological, linguistic, genetic, first hand-ethnographic datas, behavioral economics, comparative psychology) author addresses those central themes : • our (over) imitative tendency, leading to (1) underperforming at self-interest oriented games when compared with chimpanzees, and to (2) replicating behaviors that are superfluous and devoid of instrumental efficiency; • the rational outcome This book is an extensive account of gene-culture coevolution. Bringing together many lines of evidence (archeological, linguistic, genetic, first hand-ethnographic datas, behavioral economics, comparative psychology) author addresses those central themes : • our (over) imitative tendency, leading to (1) underperforming at self-interest oriented games when compared with chimpanzees, and to (2) replicating behaviors that are superfluous and devoid of instrumental efficiency; • the rational outcomes of cultural opacity; • prestige-, ethnic- and self-similarity-biased learning capacity ; • anatomical and physiological novelties (small stomach and canine, fine motor dexterity, white sclera, numerous sweats glands, skins and eyes color); • ability to override and re-frame instinctive emotional responses (be it through cooking, through descent, wedding or kinship rules); • self-domesticating norm psychology; • intergroup competitions schemes (war and territorial expansion, differences in migration, in survival, in reproduction, and in prestige-biased transmission) • dependence on observed or even inferred social norms in calibrating how cooperative, altruist or selfish we are; • ethnic-stereotyping urges; • cumulative cultural evolution (autocatalytic process termed the rubicon, following Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion). Some high lights include : • the claim we are neither selfish nor cooperative - altruist but spontaneously following observed or inferred rules, which we depend upon to become one or the other (spontaneous rule following better explains social equilibrium than the invisible hand of interest) - (p.154) • the start-up enigma (which state of affair was rich enough in information and know-how without a prior brain increase to exert a selective pressure favoring such an increase in working memory, information processing and imitative skills - including mimicry), enigma presumably resolved by terrestriality, group enlargement, pair-bonding and cooperative childrearing. Joseph Henrich strongly endorses and strengthen his thesis director's (Robert Boyd) contribution (Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution), and that of other key thinkers like Michael Tomasello (Origins of Human Communication), Bernard Chapais (Primeval Kinship: How Pair-Bonding Gave Birth to Human Society) and Sarah Hrdy (Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. One of his ambition is to draw a line on evolutionary psychologists' (David Buss and Steven Pinker notably) account of our species making, for its dismissal of culture is outdated and no longer tenable. This goal is welcom and well served. One bad side of the book is that Henrich seems to embrace a little too much, in a way that overflows the reader with many big claims and hypothesis, some of which are poorly supported. Among those the claim that dominance (physical threat and bullying) is still in effect in the building of human hierarchy and group leadership. Very few, if any, experimental ground is given in support. Overall, there is quite much to discuss and think about therein, and I am personally rejoiced at seeing an anthropologist going at the big gene-culture evolution picture with such cleverness and scholarship.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Vikas Erraballi

    "We stand on the shoulders of a very large pyramid of hobbits." A must-read.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Graeme Newell

    This is an interesting book on cultural anthropology and how our very social brains influenced human evolution. We tend to think of evolution as a primarily biological process, but the authors do a good job of showing how social interaction had a profound impact on the transformation of our bodies and brains. The authors are two very smart people and the book explains some of the most interesting research being done in evolutionary science. Humanity’s killer app was not so much our big brains, it This is an interesting book on cultural anthropology and how our very social brains influenced human evolution. We tend to think of evolution as a primarily biological process, but the authors do a good job of showing how social interaction had a profound impact on the transformation of our bodies and brains. The authors are two very smart people and the book explains some of the most interesting research being done in evolutionary science. Humanity’s killer app was not so much our big brains, it was the development of social systems that allowed important knowledge to be stored and shared within a tribe and over time. One person could come up with a game changing survival tactic. Sociality allowed that innovation to promulgate. Thus the tactic didn’t disappear when that person died. Physical evolution takes a very long time. Human cultural evolution can happen in a single generation. When you think about it, in essence, humans are no longer just individuals. Humanity is so intertwined and socially connected that we've become a sort of "super organism." Humans now need social systems just for basic survival. Put me in the woods without other people and I will quickly starve and die. Much like an organism has specialized cells, we now have specialized people, each of whom perform specific jobs that allow the whole to prosper. Other people with specialize skills make sure I am clothed, fed, sheltered and healthy. I've lost the ability to do this on my own. Social and cultural evolution lead the way to important physical changes. Domestication of animals literally changed our human bodies. Adults quickly developed the ability to digest dairy. Social hunting techniques drove changes in our bodies that facilitated the ability to throw projectiles, run faster, and sweat. The authors show how adherence to social norms was (and continues to be) a powerful driver that’s now hardwired into our brains. New research shows that infants will punish a wrongdoer and reward those who follow the rules. This book needed to be edited a bit more astutely. Quite a few times it wandered off into the weeds. The authors have so much knowledge that it’s just hard for them not to reveal everything they know. It was a bit of a bipolar read - either delightfully engrossing or annoyingly tangential. Had the book been 25% shorter, it would have been stronger. Still, I learned a lot. It revolutionized my opinion on the power of sociality to accelerate human evolution. Humanity’s ability to work as a team is our greatest superpower. We bicker, fight and kill each other, but underneath all that bluster are powerfully effective social systems that continue to allow homos sapiens to learn, survive catastrophes, and care for each other.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy

    There have been a number of recent books that have added to, or somewhat amended, Darwinian evolution, including The Tangled Tree and The Evolution of Beauty. In that same vein, Henrich argues that culture has played a large role in the success of our species. We have surpassed other ape species in part due to our ability to learn from others, and to create larger groups to learn from and continue the knowledge. To some extent culture has led to biological or genetic evolution. The majority of th There have been a number of recent books that have added to, or somewhat amended, Darwinian evolution, including The Tangled Tree and The Evolution of Beauty. In that same vein, Henrich argues that culture has played a large role in the success of our species. We have surpassed other ape species in part due to our ability to learn from others, and to create larger groups to learn from and continue the knowledge. To some extent culture has led to biological or genetic evolution. The majority of this book is Henrich talking about study after study that help back up his points. I felt like I was getting face bashed by so many studies and I almost couldn't take it anymore. I think Henrich made his point overall, but this was not an enjoyable read for me.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Frank

    Wow! This is a masterpiece. One of the most interesting and informative books I have ever read. This book challenges the conventional wisdom on the anthropics and evolution of our species, and provides a compelling theory for how social learning has driven a biological change in humans, sparking the development leading to where we are today. Despite being a big think/theory book, each page is filled with fascinating information hooking the reader for more. I am confident this book will one day be on Wow! This is a masterpiece. One of the most interesting and informative books I have ever read. This book challenges the conventional wisdom on the anthropics and evolution of our species, and provides a compelling theory for how social learning has driven a biological change in humans, sparking the development leading to where we are today. Despite being a big think/theory book, each page is filled with fascinating information hooking the reader for more. I am confident this book will one day be on a Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates recommendation list and sell 1,000,000 copies and finally get the attention it deserves.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Adam

    After reading Cecilia Heyes' wonderful book "Cognitive Gadgets", I somehow formed the impression that where that book was about the "mills" of cultural evolution, Henrich's book focused on what Heyes called the "grist." I'm still interested in the grist, of course--the evolutionary stories of things like folk tales, languages, stone tools, etc, etc, are all extremely fascinating, but once I'd had a taste of the bigger picture, I was a bit hesitant to take the more myopic view. Fortunately, that After reading Cecilia Heyes' wonderful book "Cognitive Gadgets", I somehow formed the impression that where that book was about the "mills" of cultural evolution, Henrich's book focused on what Heyes called the "grist." I'm still interested in the grist, of course--the evolutionary stories of things like folk tales, languages, stone tools, etc, etc, are all extremely fascinating, but once I'd had a taste of the bigger picture, I was a bit hesitant to take the more myopic view. Fortunately, that expectation was wildly off base. Secret of Our Success is interested in exactly the same big-picture questions of cultural evolution as Cognitive Gadgets, but with a far more accessible and inclusive approach. Henrich cites the usual lab microcosm studies of human and primate behavior, but framing the theoretical context of that work and extending its implications feels less overbearing here than in more academically targetted books. Where those books (I'm thinking of CG but also Tomasello's Natural History of Morality) often feel like tentative, first steps in a big question, largely focused on narrow academic distinctions, it feels like Henrich has a mature theory with huge, obvious implications that he's exuberant about sharing. I knew a decent amount of this already, but there was still plenty of new and interesting points and evidence. I particularly enjoyed the way Henrich talks about intelligence. It's something that has frustrated me for a while, seeing a lot of people on my political side making embarassing arguments in an effort to discredit what they see as eugenic-associated intelligence science. Cultural evolution provides the key to disentangling "an animal did an impressive thing" and "an individual animal has an impressive capacity to learn" and in the process sorts out, in broad strokes, all the things that make intelligence a contentious concept. It doesn't just handwave about "culture" in a way that reads like a racist dogwhistle; it actually explains, mechanistically, how and why cultures differ. Overall, it's a glorious celebration of cultural evolution as an answer to all the questions in human history that make sense without it. Easily recommended as the place to start in this field if you haven't read it yet and honestly something anyone with a passing interest in anything related to human behavior owes it to themselves to look into. Learning evolution as a child gives you a certain awe, but it can't match the thrill someone like TH Huxley might have felt as an adult naturalist reading Darwin for the first time. Finally getting this piece that makes obvious, intuitive sense of everything you've spent your life pondering. I'd sort of written that off in a "born too late to explore the world" way, but, well, here it is.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Aleksandra

    Amazingly comprehensive and insightful. Answers the question as to why humans are unique and how we go there.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Douglas O'laughlin

    This is literally a 6 star book. Sapiens with teeth and creates a lot of causal models and things that you can use for better cognition. Cannot stress enough how good of a book this is.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Laurent Franckx

    What, if any, is the fundamental difference between humans and other animals? We have in-laws. At least, so argues Joseph Henrich. He really does - but, of course, this bold statement is just part of a broader argument. According to Henrich, it is a fundamental mistake to think that the success of the human species can be explained by our cognitive capacities. The real advantage of humans, he argues, is that we are capable of learning from others, not just from personal experience. The evidence h What, if any, is the fundamental difference between humans and other animals? We have in-laws. At least, so argues Joseph Henrich. He really does - but, of course, this bold statement is just part of a broader argument. According to Henrich, it is a fundamental mistake to think that the success of the human species can be explained by our cognitive capacities. The real advantage of humans, he argues, is that we are capable of learning from others, not just from personal experience. The evidence he offers comes from different angles. Laboratory experiments, for instance, show that human toddlers are not better than young apes in problem-solving when they have to solve a problem on their own. However, they clearly outperform their distant cousins when there is scope for learning from others. In real life, a spectacular illustration is provided by the fate of our explorers who, even when well prepared and well equipped, end up starving in environments where native people thrive. (Interestingly, successful explorers typically learn from native peoples before venturing into unknown territory). The success of these native people can be understood by looking at their often highly idiosyncratic knowledge of the local fauna and flora, and of the techniques that are needed for hunting and building in this specific environment. This brings us to the core of the argument: this knowledge has seldom or never been acquired by the work of individuals, but through accumulated small improvements of knowledge through the generations. We don't know a lot because we stand on the shoulders of giants, but because we stand on a pyramid of pygmies. Which bring us to the next point: if knowledge is only useful if it is adapted to local circumstances, and if "useful" knowledge is only accumulated slowly with a lot of trial-and-error, then, Henrich argues, the evolutionary forces that apply to biology, also apply to culture. This book is thus essentially a treatise on group selection and cultural evolution. It covers a broad and fascinating range of topics from this perspective: For instance, to get back to the issue of the "in-laws": humans are fairly unique in having large extended families and in living beyond their procreative period in life. This makes sense once you understand that these extended families play a crucial role in cultural transmission. Another surprising insight is that blue eyes and pale skins have evolved to compensate for vitamin-D-poor diets at high latitudes (Inuit have not evolved these, because their diets are different from Europeans). "The secret of our success" is not the first book to discuss these topics. Paul Seabright's " The Company of Strangers" has already discussed evolutionary approaches to economics and human institutions, Jared Diamond has developed a sweeping theory of the interaction between physical history and society in "Guns, Germs, and Steel", Peter Turchin has discussed group selection and culture in " Ultrasociety" (see https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach have argued that individual intelligence is powerless of not embedded within society in " The Knowledge Illusion" (see https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) ... But, as the focus of each book is different, I am convinced that you can still learn a lot (I certainly have) by adding this fascinating book to your reading list. The reader should just be aware that this book has been published by Princeton University Press. While it is not overly technical, Henrich does strive for intellectual rigor, at times at the expense of readability. One shortcoming in this book is that, just as Turchin, Henrich relies on the theory of group selection without addressing the controversies surrounding it. It would have been interesting to explain the criticisms that its opponents have addressed against this approach.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Vadim Polikov

    This was a fantastic book. It was well written, interesting, and changed the way I view the world. The best way to describe this book is it is written by an anthropologist who has studied many primitive hunter gatherer communities but is also comfortable in a psychology lab running experiments to get at the core of human nature. He presents a totally different view of human evolution and what being human really means and how we are different from other animals. The data he presents and the evide This was a fantastic book. It was well written, interesting, and changed the way I view the world. The best way to describe this book is it is written by an anthropologist who has studied many primitive hunter gatherer communities but is also comfortable in a psychology lab running experiments to get at the core of human nature. He presents a totally different view of human evolution and what being human really means and how we are different from other animals. The data he presents and the evidence he gives is hard to argue with. As someone who prides himself on understanding biology, genes, and evolution, I came away completely convinced he is right, and that the standard model is inaccurate. Apart from the core argument, his identification of prestige (due to more knowledge) as a separate hierarchy from dominance was pretty cool. I wonder where charisma fits into those hierarchies. A proposed mechanism for how we "crossed the Rubicon" into cultural evolution was that when we came down from the trees we now had to contend with more predators which lead to larger group sizes which led to larger, denser groups, which led to paid bonding, which led to kinship relationships (without pair bonding nobody cares about kin other than their mother since you dont know which kid is yours). Coming down from the trees gave us our hands free and kinship allowed us to help raise young which allowed for bigger brains and more time to develop. More kin also led to more people to learn from. He makes great points about how we are not that much different than apes in many cognitive aspects except compared to apes we are rock stars at cultural learning and attending to others who can each us something. His last chapter is a good summary of the book, so much of this is taken verbatim from there: p. 315: The standard picture of human evolution proposes a long, fairly boring period of genetic evolution that culminated in an explosion of innovation and creativity sometime after 100,000; 50,000; or 10,000 years ago, depending on whom you are reading. After this, genetic evolution seems to stop and cultural evolution takes over. Culture is then divorced from brains and biology, as well as from genetics, and the rest is history. [His view is that culture has really been the driving force for human evolution and we literally cannot exist without culture. Our bodies are evolved (due to culture-gene coevolution) to take advantage of cultural items like clothing, housing, food prep, etc.] p. 316: It's not just that these older approaches fail to consider some minor influences of culture on biology or some recent and rate feedback loops showing how cultural practices, like drinking milk, have shaped genetic changes; these now outdated evolutionary views fail to recognize that the CENTRAL force driving human genetic evolution for hundreds of thousands of years, or longer, has been cultural evolution. The consequences of this run deep and wide: Many aspects of our physiology and anatomy make sense only as genetically evolved responses to selective pressures created by the cultural evolution of things like fire, cooking, cutting tools, projectile weapons, water containers, artifacts, tracking know-how, and communicative repertoires. Among our numerous features, these help explain our small teeth, short colons, shrunken stomachs, poor plant-detoxification abilities, accurate throwing capabilities, nuchal ligaments (head stabilizer for running), numerous eccrine sweat glands, long postreproductive lives, lowered larynxes, dexterous tongues, whitened sclera, and enlarged brain. Many of our cognitive abilities and biases make sense only as genetically evolved adaptations to the presence of valuable cultural information (chapters 4, 5, and 7). These evolved mechanisms include our well-honed cultural learning abilities, "over-imitative" tendencies, and folkbiological capacities for organizing and enriching what we learn about plants and animals, among many others. Much of our species' status psychology, including our deferential motivations, patterns of mimicry and imitation, facets of pride, cooperative tendencies, and bodily displays, appear to be genetically evolved adaptations to a world in which valuable cultural information was unevenly distributed across the minds of other members of our social groups. Our social psychology appears designed for navigating a world with social rules and reputations, where learning and complying with these rules is paramount and where different groups possess quite different norms (chapters 9-11). We internalize costly norms as goals in themselves, usually via cultural learning, and are particularly good at spotting norm violators, even when those violations have nothing to do with cooperation. p. 317-318 Having crossed the [transition to cultural evolution], we can't go back. The impact of this transition is underlined by the fact that, despite our long evolutionary history as foragers, we generally can't survive by hunting and gathering when we have been stripped of that relevant culturally acquired know how: We saw big-brained explorers repeatedly flounder in environments ranging from the Arctic to the Australian outback. As our heroes sought to confront the recurrent challenges faced by our Paleolithic ancestors, like finding food and water, they struggled. No foraging modules fired up and no fire-making instincts kicked in. Mostly, they just fell ill and died as a result of blunders that any local, indigenous adolescent equipped with cultural know-how inherited from earlier generations would have easily avoided. It's not merely that people in modern societies need culture to survive. Hunter-gatherers, as well as other small-scale societies studied by anthropologists, are massively dependent on large bodies of culturally acquired know-how, related to tracking, food processing, hunting, and tool manufacture. This expertise is often complex, well-adapted to local challenges, and not causally well understood by most practitioners; remember cassava processing to remove the cyanide, corn-ash mixtures to prevent pellagra, and Fuegian arrow manufacturing. All humans societies, whether they live as hunter-gatherers or not, are entirely dependent on culture. p. 319: Natural selection shaped our psychology to make us docile, ashamed at norm violations, and adept at acquiring and internalizing social norms. This is the process of self-domestication. The differences among groups created by cultural evolution and social norms would have created intergroup competition if it hadn't already existed. Various forms of intergroup competition, only one of which involves violence, increasingly favored social norms that fostered success in this competition, which would have commonly included norms that increase group size, solidarity, social interconnectivity, cooperation, economic production, internal harmony, and risk sharing, among many other domains. This process meant that genes would increasingly find themselves fighting to survive in a world of prosocial norms, where narrowly self-interested norm violations were punished. This would have favored genes for a prosocial psychology, prepared for navigating a world where norms about harm and fairness toward fellow community members were likely to be important. To most effectively construct prosocial norms, cultural evolution often harnesses, extends, or sometimes suppresses aspects of our innate psychology. In chapter 9, we saw that cultural evolution has repeatedly constructed norms that harness our kin psychology, pair-bonding instincts, and incest aversion to weave an expanded kinship network that includes affinal relatives, classificatory brothers and sisters, and uncles whom we call "father" p. 321 Recall that we saw just how well less enculturated humans - that is, children - performed against apes, both young and old. If humans were equipped with more powerful genetically installed hardware, we'd expect that these kids, who have much bigger brains than the apes they were competing against, would have mopped up the floor with their hairy brethren. Instead, they mostly tied in a wide range of cognitive domains. Where the kids did excel was in the domain of social learning. p2. 323: All of this is still going on: Cumulative cultural evolution, intergroup competition, and culture-gene coevolution still continue and have only accelerated in the last ten millennia. With the stabilization of global climates 10,000 years ago and the increased ease of food production, intergroup competition intensified to foster new institutional forms, leading to larger and larger societies with more and more people. This competition eventually favored the rise and diffusion of new social norms favoring trust, fairness, and cooperation with strangers, which were sustained by a diversity of increasingly complex political, religious and social institutions. Politically, these involved institutions like laws courts, judges, and police, which backstopped the usual community level monitoring and punishment that had dominated small-scale human societies for eons. In the domain of religion, new packages of supernatural beliefs, rituals, and norms emerged, spread, and recombined, Over time, these processes gave rise to novel "high gods", who were morally concerned about behavior among coreligionists, even strangers, and increasingly better equipped to monitor (omniscience) and punish (e.g., hell) norm violators. New communal rituals developed and spread that combined cues of prestige and conformity with credibility-enhancing displays (CREDS) to deepen faith in these new gods and to build larger communities of belief that extended beyond the local community or the tribe. The consequence is that modern religions, just like our political institutions, are quite unlike the religions and rituals that existed for most of our species' evolutionary history, although they were all created by the same cultural evolutionary processes. For social institutions, some ancient societies even began to develop a package of social norms that fostered and enforced rules that limited the number of wives a man, even a rich one, could have to just one (at a time), This is odd, given that 85% of human societies permit men to marry multiple wives. By exploiting various aspects of human psychology, normative monogamous marriage may have spread because it suppressed male-male competition within societies, which reduces crime, violence, rape, and murder while increasing infant health and survival, in part by increasing male investment in children. Technologically, of course, these larger societies, which were often interconnected by trade and migration especially along latitudinal lines had larger collective brains and so continued to accumulate increasingly complex tools, technologies, practices, and bodies of know how.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jerrod

    This is a great treatment of up-to-date theory and evidence on the evolution and effects of social norms. Henrich's main thesis is that what distinguishes humans from other animals is our ability maintain and transfer cultural knowledge through multiple generations. This allows for the accumulation of knowledge that is not held in any individual's head but is embodied in the norms, rituals, and technology we use everyday. Not only that, but our cultural evolution has actually driven our biologic This is a great treatment of up-to-date theory and evidence on the evolution and effects of social norms. Henrich's main thesis is that what distinguishes humans from other animals is our ability maintain and transfer cultural knowledge through multiple generations. This allows for the accumulation of knowledge that is not held in any individual's head but is embodied in the norms, rituals, and technology we use everyday. Not only that, but our cultural evolution has actually driven our biological evolution. Trained as an anthropologist, Henrich approaches the issues of human behavior with a grounding in methodological individualism, putting him very much in the economic-way-of-thinking camp. His writing style is (usually) clear and non-pedantic and is quite humorous at times (while not necessary, a basic knowledge of game theory will aid the reader). Anyone familiar with the work of Friedrich Hayek, Elinor Ostrom, Doug North, Julian Simon, etc., will find ample support for their views of the effect of culture/informal institutions on individual behavior in the evidence laid out in this volume. For economists, the main take away is that one must understand the environment in which a decision is made before saying what is and isn't an incentive. The book kept me intrigued until the chapter on language (which, upon reading that chapter, confirmed my prior position (formed after attending some linguistics seminars in grad school) that linguistics is the most boring topic of all the social sciences). The final two chapters (which are Henrich's attempt to bring everything together) are rather repetitive and could have used a bit more engagement of the scholars who do not hold the author's position. The part that bugged me most was his description of signalling behaviors: "These are what I call credibility enhancing displays." His description is sold as something novel but these observations have a lengthy pedigree in the economics literature (which, incidentally, is where biologists imported the idea of the handicap principle from). I think Spence and/or Frank merited at least a citation, but they are absent from the bibliography. Here's an example of humor (the use of which becomes scarcer as the book progresses) used by Henrich: On communication practices across cultures: "I've seen many a humanities scholar, with a latte in one hand and a book in the other, struggle to communicate, unable to deploy air quotes to shield themselves from any undesirable implications of their words." The examples of the loss of technology and the travails of stranded explorers do a lot of work for the exposition of the thesis and are deployed to great effect in showing how our survival is dependent on culturally embodied knowledge. The effect of culture on the attainment of knowledge is much messier than just explorers not having the know-how to survive or Tasmanians being cut off from Australia, as this story about the loss of how to cure scurvy shows.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Will A

    Books that influence me most tend to do so by giving me new glasses to see the world through: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies for seeing the impact of environments on history; The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York for seeing how power operates; The Death and Life of Great American Cities for seeing how cities work; The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention for seeing how language changes. This book promises to have a la Books that influence me most tend to do so by giving me new glasses to see the world through: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies for seeing the impact of environments on history; The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York for seeing how power operates; The Death and Life of Great American Cities for seeing how cities work; The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention for seeing how language changes. This book promises to have a lasting influence on me by giving me new glasses for seeing how culture impacts human beings and their societies. It synthesises insights from physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, experimental psychology and economics into an inter-disciplinary evolutionary analysis: what makes human most special among animals is that we learn and teach culture; our cultures are what allow us to dominate the globe, rather than our individual faculties; culture changes the human body over evolutionary timescales by standing in for biological functions (e.g. cooking for high-power digestion); culture can be good for human beings even though they do not know why (his main example is manioc processing that removes poisons which would only be damaging in the very long term); culture proliferates among individuals by means of evolved learning processes biased towards copying success; humans instinctively seek out, follow, and punish deviation from cultural norms; and culture proliferates among social groups by differential success in sustaining and expanding those groups. Henrich doesn't give it a name but perhaps Evolutionary Functionalism would be appropriate (Functionalism is the anthropological theory that culture tends to integrate societies and promote cooperation). Taken individually, most of the individual insights were familiar (which was why I put the book down when I first flipped through it), but coming back to it I realised that what makes this book special is the way in which it brings them all together into a unified perspective on human culture that is a new way of looking at it. For example, take bonding practices in hunter-gatherer bands. Henrich brings up evidence that a member of a band is typically related closely only to a minority of band members. So how do bands form as cooperative units? The standard answer derived from biology and economics is that if kin-altruism does not suffice, then it must be reciprocity. But, of course, hunter-gatherers do not merely reciprocally exchange with each other; they practise naming traditions, fictive kinships, initiations, collaborative rituals, and so on, which produce social bonds that go way beyond what economics predicts. Why then do such seemingly functional, pro-social practices prevail? Henrich's answer is that such practices give an advantage in cultural-evolutionary terms to groups that practise them: they are more likely to win wars, conquer territory, maintain common identity and wider-spread inter-group cooperation when they grow and fission, and hence out-compete groups whose cultures do not promote cooperation so strongly. Nearby groups will preferentially adopt cultural forms from the dominant group, whether by force, emulation or inter-marriage (even non-adaptive culture might get included along with adaptive). The same principles go for technology or any other cultural form that drives differential group success, and the bigger the socialising group the better the technology becomes, simply by the greater frequency of invention and sharing. Group-selection theory usually falls down (this is Richard Dawkins' critique in regard to genetic evolution) because of the free-rider problem: somebody who selfishly benefits from group cooperation without contributing to it will do even better than those who cooperate, and so the genes for cooperation will fail to spread preferentially. But, as Henrich shows, human beings are powerfully drawn to punishing the violators of cultural norms, even those which are entirely arbitrary. Cooperation according to cultural norms plus punishment of defectors mean cultural forms really can be objects of group-selection pressure. He gives empirical examples from experimental psychology and, indeed, from some history of traditional societies. Most impressively, Henrich takes the penultimate chapter to synthesise a lot of knowledge about archaic humans so as to lay out a speculative theory of how a variety of aspects of human evolution, biological and behavioral, came together to enable and promote cultural learning. As I say, little here is brand new when looked at piece by piece, but to put it all together like this, from human instincts through a theorised pattern of culture-enabling evolution all the way to inter-group politics, is certainly new to me: the analysis of human beings as the species in a unique cultural niche, and of their societies as under group-selective pressure for adaptive culture. It's impressive. The book's limitations prompt further questions: 1. How does the functional or group-selective theory of cultural evolution jibe with work by Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought) and Dan Sperber on the way in which cultural forms tend to spread not by strict imitation, but with a constructive bias in content towards certain, potentially instinctive, psychological "attractors"? Sperber in that article wants to subsume Darwinian selection pressure as just one form of cultural attractor. How does cultural evolution change when there are cultural producers determined to exploit our biases and attractors for their own financial or politcal interests? 2. If humans are as conformist as Henrich argues them to be, then what explains the common phenomenon of adolescent rebellion? Henrich discusses adolescence only as a time of cultural "apprenticeship" but this is clearly inadequate. What explains the proliferation of subcultures wherever they are free to express themselves? 3. How, if at all, does functional group selection of culture apply in agricultural societies characterised not by small-group consensus but by large-scale inequality and internal conflict: for example in the first coercive resource-extraction civilisations such as the ancient silt-based Sumer, Egypt and Indus? Is exploitation a favoured strategy in group selection? Does group-selection theory have anything to say about historical transitions in modern times from the moral economy, to capitalism, to the welfare state? Is capitalism functional in the group-selective sense despite producing deep conflicts of material interest between classes which would seem to militate against social integration? Is there a relationship between cultural norms and the cycles of boom and crisis identified by Jack Goldstone, such that societies which develop more egalitarian norms find it easier to stabilise conflict and ward off state collapse?

  21. 5 out of 5

    Ushan

    Humans pride ourselves on being smart, rational animals. However, several times in history, European explorers found themselves in food-rich unfamiliar environments: the Arctic, the Australian outback, the American Southwest, and either starved to death or would have if they hadn't been enslaved by the natives. Why didn't they use their smarts to figure out how to survive there? Because it is very difficult. Both hunting and gathering are skills that take decades to perfect, and took thousands o Humans pride ourselves on being smart, rational animals. However, several times in history, European explorers found themselves in food-rich unfamiliar environments: the Arctic, the Australian outback, the American Southwest, and either starved to death or would have if they hadn't been enslaved by the natives. Why didn't they use their smarts to figure out how to survive there? Because it is very difficult. Both hunting and gathering are skills that take decades to perfect, and took thousands of years for indigenous people to develop. The explorers lacked the culture of the indigenous people, which was why they ended up dead or enslaved. Although phylogenetically, humans are obviously hominids, like chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, we are also a new kind of living being that needs culture to survive. The human digestive system is meant to digest cooked food. It will only work for beings who have mastered fire and the art of cooking and plant detoxification. The human body is meant for long-distance running, but sweating will cause it to quickly run out of water. It will only work for beings who carry water containers and know where the nearest wells to replenish them are. This book has many more examples. Humans are the only living beings whose anatomy and physiology is shaped by culture. One thing discussed in this book I have never thought about before is the similarity between toolmaking and language. Making a spear, a bow, an arrow, a boomerang, an atlatl all require following a certain sequence of steps, each of which consists of certain actions that contribute to the purpose of the tool. The same is true of uttering a sentence. Chances are, the mental mechanisms that developed for the former were coopted for the latter. Some years ago I read a large number of books on theoretical linguistics, but none made this analogy.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Kevin Hu

    Henrich takes the reader on an expansive tour of our species from the lens of cultural accumulation, social learning, and culture-gene coevolution. His writing is crisp. Sections progress at a graceful pace, each building on the previous. By the end, I wish I could read it anew a second time.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Swarna Kumar

    One of the most fascinating books I have ever read. I think I didn't feel so impressed by any book since Guns, Germs and Steel or Selfish Gene. I would rate it better than Blank Slate, Sapiens, Homo Dues, Righteous Mind to list some.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Tomáš Zemko

    Groundbreaking. Highly recommended.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Dorotea

    Interesting read, his main argument is that cultural learning evolution is the primary driver of our species’ genetic evolution.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Yijia Chen

    Darn. We're not just smarter and less hairy chimpanzees. And we're not just made of our genes. A long one to be sure, the book shows me a groundbreaking way to think about humans and our evolution, one that is driven by culture. A central idea from the book is that humans but no other animal have cross the intellectual Rubicon not because we're that much smarter than other apes, certainly not because we know how to make tools, but because (view spoiler)[we have developed both the cognitive capabi Darn. We're not just smarter and less hairy chimpanzees. And we're not just made of our genes. A long one to be sure, the book shows me a groundbreaking way to think about humans and our evolution, one that is driven by culture. A central idea from the book is that humans but no other animal have cross the intellectual Rubicon not because we're that much smarter than other apes, certainly not because we know how to make tools, but because (view spoiler)[we have developed both the cognitive capability and kinship structure that makes learning from others and passing cultural know-hows down to offsprings possible, so that over generations we build up a formidable arsenal of knowledge about survival, success, and the world around us. (hide spoiler)] I love how Henrich puts it: "We don't stand on the shoulder of giants; we stand on the shoulders of a myriad of hobbits." This has wild implications for the nature of innovation. People tend to adore Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Isaac Newton among many others who are perceived as geniuses of innovation. However, now I think about it, these people's strength lies not in their individual creativity and certainly not their genetic superiority, but in their ability to obtain and synthesize useful insights and tools to serve new needs that emerge in human society at their time. In other words, put Newton in an Amazonian village and he would most likely eat the apple without thinking too much, but likely a more adept forager than he otherwise would be in England. At the very root, it's the other people around the innovator, as well as the specific culture and institutions, that have allowed and catalyzed these seemingly individual-oriented innovations. Another implication for today is that human beings who have grown up in different cultures and communities have noticeable biological differences in perception, immune response, etc, and which are strictly thanks to cultural learning. (view spoiler)[After reading the "honor experiment" for the Deep South in the book, you'd suddenly understand today's conservative/liberal schism in the United States - people do NOT think the same way, in contrary to many politicians and how I used to think. (hide spoiler)] Lastly, what's the macroscopic takeaway from this book? I would say, before the digital age, despite our superb capacity for cultural learning, our knowledge is somewhat limited to know-hows on survival (and success) in the local community. Today, however, each of us has the option (e.g. from this book) to understand who we are and what our relationship to the world looks like on a global, even cosmic, scale. This is empowering. And to say the very least, when we get caught up in an argument or having a bad day, a perspective to see your peers (and yourself) as merely "ape copycats" is rather entertaining.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Christen

    Incredibly fascinating book. Some of my notes: - Example of cultural evolution affecting our genetic/biology: we are incredibly efficient coolers of our hairless bodies and sweat copiously to cool when we are long distance running to wear down prey. Yet we don't store water in our bodies and really can't even drink a lot of water at once. But our cultural evolution and water-carrying technology was so useful that our bodies adapted. Similarly, our tiny teeth, weak jaws, and shorter digestive syst Incredibly fascinating book. Some of my notes: - Example of cultural evolution affecting our genetic/biology: we are incredibly efficient coolers of our hairless bodies and sweat copiously to cool when we are long distance running to wear down prey. Yet we don't store water in our bodies and really can't even drink a lot of water at once. But our cultural evolution and water-carrying technology was so useful that our bodies adapted. Similarly, our tiny teeth, weak jaws, and shorter digestive systems have evolved because of our cultural technology for food cooking and processing. - Role models matter because we are cultural learners. We prefer to learn from others like us. - Apprenticeship and role models matter - people who are skilled at something are sometimes not conscious of what they are doing and why it works, so only by observing and modeling them can learners also unconsciously learn that behavior! Books/authors weak spot. - Children prefer to make friends with similar-speakers (same dialect) rather than similar races, when given the option. We look for cultural and ethnic clues and race is actually a weak cue. - Humans are stubborn pattern-makers, so things like bird augery and shamanism that seem really irrational actually helped because it enforced randomness, which was good when trying to surprise other humans or try something new. - Prestige vs. dominance for influence and leadership. We look for prestige cues because we want to follow people who have valuable skills and knowledge. Prestigious people are often highly skilled, wise, self-deprecating, joking, good-humored, and extremely generous. We stare at prestigious people and copy them. Huh! Dominant leaders use aggression and threats of violence to be above others, and they elicit submissive behavior (avoiding eye contact, slumped body language). Dominant leaders make decisions and have influence but we do not gaze at them and model them like we do prestigious leaders. - We look for Credibility Enhancing Displays from those trying to change our behavior to judge how much they believe. May be why martyrs helped religious causes. - Education/facts don't change minds like social norms. - Captain Cook realized his crew wouldn't eat sauerkraut to avoid scurvy if it was mandated. So he only served it to the officers. Then the crew was desperate to get some! He had the first crew where no one died from scurvy. Power of prestige and social norms vs education/dominance. - Different norms can turn on different biology and psychology even though our genes are the same. - Innovation needs trust, big network for information to spread and experiment from new learners. - Social connectivity > Individual IQ. Learn from others. - Brain builds strengths based on environmental needs. Especially childhood/teen years. - We can easily lose cultural knowledge. It is not a straight line up in technological advances. Ex: Pygmies fire, Inuit island no boats. - Social norms hold large groups together - politics, religions, rituals, etc. - IQ of average American in 1815 was <70. Our brains have changed to adapt to our environment. - The brain (from social norms) of a literate Westerner is very very different from other cultures. (Most psychology studies are done on WEIRD people - Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic countries.) - Big call to let cultures experiment. We are not good at designing systems - best to let things be and see who comes out with the most success and model them, vs. trying to design it all.

  28. 5 out of 5

    MargaretDH

    This isn't my field, so I feel like I can only evaluate my experience of reading the book. I feel like Henrich's assertions were well argued and supported, and I certainly trust UBC and CIFAR (his employers) as credible institutions that employ credible people, but I can't say for sure whether or not this is good anthropology/evolutionary theory. All that is to say, I enjoyed reading this book! Henrich is a very accessible writer, and introduces concepts around the way our genetic evolution has b This isn't my field, so I feel like I can only evaluate my experience of reading the book. I feel like Henrich's assertions were well argued and supported, and I certainly trust UBC and CIFAR (his employers) as credible institutions that employ credible people, but I can't say for sure whether or not this is good anthropology/evolutionary theory. All that is to say, I enjoyed reading this book! Henrich is a very accessible writer, and introduces concepts around the way our genetic evolution has been impacted by our cultural evolution in an engaging and interesting way. Henrich suggests that most of what sets us apart from our closest ape relatives and other animals is our ability to imitate and learn from one another, and to pass that information on to successive generations. This is what he means by culture - social norms and customs, technologies, heuristics, etc. As he says at the end of the book, we are not giants, nor do we stand on the shoulders of giants. We stand on an enormous pyramid of hobbits, with the hobbits getting a little taller and a little taller as you move towards the top. Henrich uses a lot of examples here (and they're the best part) to illustrate his argument. For example, adults who can digest lactose usually are descended from groups that herded cattle and didn't turn all of their dairy into cheese or fermented milk products. We are wired to respect and imitate people with prestige, even when it doesn't make sense to do so - see the spike in copycat suicides after a celebrity dies by suicide. Once cultures had figured out the technology to carry water, long distance running really took off natural selection favoured those who could sweat efficiently and with an especially springy arch in their feet. This isn't a book about intelligence, exactly. It's about the way that we are all part of a collective brain, and groups of people in different places and times have used and harnessed or enhanced that collective brain in different ways. Henrich says that our culture still has an impact on our genetics, and as our culture changes, so do we. If any of this sounds interesting, this is a very readable book to pick up.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Tiago Irineu

    An introduction to genetic-cultural coevolution theory. A must-read for anybody interested in human behavior and cultural and institutional evolution. This theory states that Culture has been the main driver of human genetic evolution and that there is feedback effect between cultural and genetic evolution. The book can be divided into three major endeavors. First, Henrich argues that Cultural Knowledge is the explanation of how we could "dominate" the world, without speciating like ants. After t An introduction to genetic-cultural coevolution theory. A must-read for anybody interested in human behavior and cultural and institutional evolution. This theory states that Culture has been the main driver of human genetic evolution and that there is feedback effect between cultural and genetic evolution. The book can be divided into three major endeavors. First, Henrich argues that Cultural Knowledge is the explanation of how we could "dominate" the world, without speciating like ants. After this, he "shows" how many of our body characteristics just make sense as an adaptation, if augmented by cultural devices. For example, he states that when compared to other apes, humans have smaller guts than expected. This is possible just because part of our digestion is made outside our bodies, by cooking food. The last "part" is about how the fact that we are cultural learners explains our sociability. We need to learn from others, so the bigger the group, more learning opportunities and more possibilities of technological evolution. But there are the well-known problems that emerge in the context of larger groups, therefore pro-social rules emerged for making possible the existence of bigger groups, and intergroup competition spread those pro-social norms. A good summary of a major part of the book is given by this excerpt from page 287: " [...] (The first fourteen chapters) Explored how natural selection has shaped our psychological capacities for culture; how learning from other across generations produces sophisticated technologies, intricate institutions, complex languages, and vast bodies of knowledge; and how these products of cultural evolution have shaped our bodies, brains, and psychologies, both through developments in the short run and by driving our genetic evolution in the long run." pg. 287 Just read it.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Philip Maher

    Great book by a human evolutionary biologist which helps me understand why humans are the way we are: non-rational but still able to cooperate in large groups. I’d liken it to Sapiens in its attempts but the material is more advanced and it is better cited. Before reading, I didn’t know much about cultural evolution and culture-gene coevolution. After the author’s claims and presentation of evidence I am more convinced that (1) these exist and (2) they contribute drastically to our behaviors and Great book by a human evolutionary biologist which helps me understand why humans are the way we are: non-rational but still able to cooperate in large groups. I’d liken it to Sapiens in its attempts but the material is more advanced and it is better cited. Before reading, I didn’t know much about cultural evolution and culture-gene coevolution. After the author’s claims and presentation of evidence I am more convinced that (1) these exist and (2) they contribute drastically to our behaviors and structures today (as well as in the past.) Cooperation is a part of it, but there is so much more! Ie: How do we seem so intelligent when we are irrational, what are mechanisms for establishing cooperation, and what does (did) this mean for our species? In sum: social norm formation, random tool invention/improvement, and language development all culturally developed/evolved in small groups of humans (and pre-humans) and self-amplified through various mechanisms (genetic and non-genetic.) How children absorb rules and norms was particularly eye opening to me. The subject is obviously not one where you can perfectly apply the scientific method but I think he does a magnificent job with his studies and presentation. Admittedly though, I am not smart/knowledgeable enough (or haven't been exposed to the appropriate amount of cultural learning) to know if items have been cherry picked or excluded to fit his thesis. The end (why terrestrial apes vs other animals) is certainly more speculative but gives science many frontiers to take a look at. As an added bonus, there may be insights into human happiness in this book by analyzing social norms/rituals/behaviors and their relation to human cultural evolution.

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