by Jared Diamond Read He convincingly argues for the interplay between experimental, field and simulation studies. The Selfish Gene was written in 1976. In the case of the pathogens—if you buy that account and there is at least some evidence for it—you have to take into account that there’s been massive cultural evolution to reduce the pathogens in our environment. That’s a way in which we can use our understanding of genetic evolution to inform how we think about culture and cultural evolution. So, if you really want to energise innovation, you should create larger collective brains — in other words, interconnect more minds and allow information to flow more freely among people with diverse areas of knowledge and expertise. So this is a book looking at 13,000 years of history? by Richard Dawkins The first thing I would say is that, whether you think it is right or wrong, it’s spurred an incredible amount of research. So, for example, there’s a number of economic studies now supporting Diamond’s basic thesis. So you’re working with academics from all sorts of different fields: anthropology, archaeology? Then you need an even bigger brain that’s even better at that stuff. As soon as you have women having babies later in life, you immediately reduce the total number of babies. 3 What you do is you map the things you can see in the material record. Of course there is disagreement, there is always going to be disagreement. They go back and pull together many different ethnographic sources on different societies around the world, societies that we know a lot about because a lot of anthropologists have been there and recorded the details of how the society functions. We can think about culture as a genetically evolved cognitive adaptation for learning from other people. There are various ways to get out of the trap. It was a change to greater sociality. The differences in domesticated animals in different continents, say, caused pathogens to spread and destroy many populations. But, it turned out, that was just one among a number of different ways of looking at genetic evolution. So your fitness is lower, in an evolutionary sense. Sophie Roell, editor of Five Books, takes us through her personal choice of the best nonfiction books of 2020. Read. Read. The first chapter is about a conversation he has with a guy in New Guinea, in which he gets asked, basically, the same question as I had been. Mostly support has increased for his thesis, except for the since-1500 part of economic growth. We say, ‘Yes, culture is important. Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. 4 “Genetic evolution is shaping us to be cultural learners, but then the interesting part is that that turns around, and cultural evolution begins to shape our genetic evolution.”. Is Guns, Germs and Steel well regarded? Joe Henrich recommends books on Cultural Evolution. One side would insist that human behaviour is determined by culture — so there were anthropologists like Marshall Sahlins who wrote a book called The Use and Abuse of Biology. They were always asking me questions—lots of questions that I thought were really complex and pretty deep—and one of the questions they asked me was, ‘You anthropologists come here and study us, but we never get to go to where you are from and see how you guys live. So languages are really just like other domains of culture—like tools—in that they are cumulative and depend on the size and inter-connectedness of populations. I assumed that a lot of language learning was innate, or that we had lots of pre-built, evolved machinery for it. The Selfish Gene “If you really want to energise innovation, you should create larger collective brains — in other words, interconnect more minds and allow information to flow more freely among people with diverse areas of knowledge and expertise.”. But because of institutions, now there’s not. But in societies where you have hereditary power, in which one group of people are better by virtue of their birth than other people, then the kids often get buried with lots of fancy stuff. Read. Then the question becomes, how do we think about this in a systematic way, because culture is notoriously fuzzy. Psychologists study economic decision-making. A lot of times the environment, the things that cue up these different psychological processes, are themselves influenced by cultural evolution. It seems that if humans do depend so much on sociability and interaction, I expect great things to happen from the internet — and the huge and constant interaction of people and information that it allows. Cultural evolution—or what Dawkins described as mimetic evolution or memes—creates the second system of inheritance that feeds back and drives genetic evolution. You can compare that with communication systems in another species. There’s lots of ways to increase fidelity—people or animals can get better at learning from others—but they can also become more social and hang around each other more. This site has an archive of more than one thousand interviews, or five thousand book recommendations. Genetic evolution is shaping us to be cultural learners, but then the interesting part is that that turns around, and cultural evolution begins to shape our genetic evolution. I would say the most controversial part of his work—the place where there is the strongest disagreement—is about what’s happened in Europe since 1500. The books also got me thinking about language. That idea—that genetic evolution was driven by cultural evolution—is relatively new and certainly hasn’t been widespread until recently. Mike looks at this ratchet process and he argues that the key adaptation was what he calls ‘theory of mind’ or ‘mentalizing’. So you have burials, for example. Now other animals can learn from each other, but the loss of information between generations is sufficiently high that they never get anywhere. I lay out evidence in my book that larger and more interconnected societies produce faster cultural evolution and have fancier tools. When I first read that book, I didn’t have one. “What we are seeing is a process that’s repeated itself many, many times over, where gradually, over a long period of time, the elites change the rules of the game so they are increasingly favoured. We can think about how individuals learn from each other, right down to a child growing up: Who do they pay attention to? I read this book as I was going into my last year of graduate school at UCLA. If the collective brain idea is right, when we look back historically on this period, the early 21st century, we should see a massive increase in rates of innovation because of all the interaction the new communication technology is permitting. “It’s a popular book, so it’s written to be digestible to readers who don’t have a biological background.”. So you have to think of these as only partially separate inheritance systems in which one can feed back and drive the other. “Lots of subsequent work has borne Mike out on that the key element in getting cumulative cultural evolution, which is high fidelity cultural transmission. This is because we have all this culturally learned know-how about how to process foods. “It lays out a particular way of thinking where you think about genes from the genes’ eye view.”. The demographic transition is a big puzzle for evolutionary biology because since about 1870, Western populations have been having fewer and fewer babies. The fact that humans are particularly good at inferring what other members of their social group are thinking allows them to be better social learners, and that gives them the high fidelity transmission of knowledge across generations which gives you the ratchet effect. So it is an interaction of technology, social institutions and people’s beliefs and preferences. Tell me about this book. Your last choice is The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (1999) by Michael Tomasello. This is going to help us understand genes’ — which is really what he is trying to explain in that first book. It’s been hugely influential. You can also have the evolution of teaching, where the transmitter actively helps out the learner and helps make sure they pass on the knowledge.
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