Wired for Culture: Conversation with Mark Pagel

Wired for Culture: Conversation with Mark Pagel

Conversations March 09, 2012 / By Ryan Davies
Wired for Culture: Conversation with Mark Pagel

Study of how our species' innate capacity for culture altered the course of our social and evolutionary history.

We humans left Africa less than a hundred thousand years ago, yet in this comparatively short time there has been a staggering explosion of cultures. What caused this blooming of diversity? Why, for example, are there so many mutually incomprehensible languages, even close together within small territories? Why do we wrap ourselves in flags, or define ourselves in opposition to others? In Wired for Culture, Mark Pagel uses the latest research in evolutionary biology to tell the story of how our success as a species has in fact depended on our facility for culture.

The existence of our amazingly diverse cultures throughout the planet has always been seen as a product of geography combined with our inherent traits of consciousness, empathy, language and our extraordinary intelligence. But Pagel shows how we've had it the wrong way round. Many of these inherent traits cannot exist without culture. Indeed, a capacity for culture may be better viewed as an inherent trait in itself. Every human group wants to carve out its own identity. It is this that truly distinguishes us from our closest ancestors, and ensured we survived, while they declined and became extinct.

Wired for Culture is a fascinating history of culture's role in natural selection, which will change how we view ourselves, not just as individuals, but as a species of communities.

A Conversation with Mark Pagel, Author of WIRED FOR CULTURE: The Natural History of Human Cooperation

In your book “culture” doesn’t just mean art, literature or music – what is your definition of “culture”, in a nutshell?

Yes, the arts, music and religion are what most people have in mind when they refer to “culture.” This is so-called high culture, there to move, uplift, entertain, or console us. But we can define ‘culture’ more generally as knowledge, beliefs, and practices acquired from watching and learning from others.

This definition can make culture sound bland and uninteresting but our ability to exchange information by copying and imitating others is unique among animals and means that our species invented and then launched an entirely new sphere of evolution – the sphere of ideas. And, it was an invention that would alter the course of evolution. Now, ideas could accumulate in the form of knowledge, skills, beliefs and technologies, and without having to wait for the much slower pace of genetic evolution. As a result, our species became the only one on Earth that acquires the rules of its daily living from the accumulated knowledge of our ancestors rather than from the genes they pass to us.

Culture is why our species spread around the world adapting to its many environments while all other species are limited to places on Earth their genes adapt them to. Today, the accumulation of ideas we call culture is responsible for nearly everything around us in our bustling everyday lives – our mobile telephones and hammers, our trains and wooden chairs, our microscopes and space shuttles and our Large Hadron Colliders. All of these evolved by the gradual accumulation of ideas, one on top of the another, in a manner analogous to the way genes evolved, it is just that the pace is millions of times faster.

What are the key aspects of human behavior which separate us from other species in the use of culture as a survival tool?

All other species have instincts for survival that are hard-wired into their genes, and those instincts are suited to the environment their species is adapted to. Thus, a gorilla, or an elephant or a chimpanzee can be plucked from its group and put down anywhere else in the world where its species is found and it will know what to do and how to communicate.

But we are different. What is hard-wired into our genes is an instinct to adopt and then embrace the culture of our birth. Our minds are cultural ‘blank slates’ – each of us could have been born into a different culture and be someone else, with a different internal voice, language customs and beliefs. A human plucked from one corner of the earth often cannot even communicate with a human from another corner, or often even from next door! And someone from, say, a Polynesian culture would have no idea how to survive in, for example, a traditional Inuit society.

This tells us that we have evolved to use culture – any culture – as our strategy for survival and prosperity. We are programmed to acquire the knowledge, skills, and beliefs and learn the rules of the culture of our birth because that culture is adapted to its particular environment. Our minds are full of the culture of our birth and we carry that information and pass it onto our children in a manner not so different from the way we carry and then pass on genetic information to our children.

You could say we are ‘cultural zombies’ and so much so that we cannot imagine our lives any other way.

You mention in the book the idea of altruism and cooperation being key aspects of human’s success – yet humans go to war, murder, are xenophobic and racist. How do the two aspects of human nature sit side by side?

Our species left Africa around 60,000 years ago and then spread around the world in small cooperative tribal societies. These tribal groups have been the fundamental social unit of our survival and reproduction throughout our species’ history. As a result, we have developed a set of social rules for sharing and cooperating within our social groups.

But the success of our species in occupying the world has meant that these tribal societies will have been in constant competition with other tribal groups seeking to occupy the same territories and use the same resources. This competition has been such a continual feature of our history that some anthropologists and archaeologists describe that history as one of ‘constant battles’.

These two forces – cooperation within our groups but competition with other groups – have produced a species that is brimming with contradictions. We have morality but we apply it shrewdly and conveniently. We are kind and generous, but our history shows we are also capable of throwing a switch in our minds that makes us capable of treating members of other societies as something less than human in moral terms.

Sadly, these tendencies reside to a greater or lesser extent in all of us – just contrast your feelings at hearing of one of your country’s soldiers being captured and tortured with those you feel about the same events happening to someone from another country. Our altruism and generosity on the one hand, and our tendency to xenophobia on the other are both part of our evolved psychology for making our cultural groups work to serve our interests. This is not to say we should approve or condone the behaviours this psychology promotes, but these tendencies do lurk in our nature and so should be something we are aware of.

Can any of the arguments you put forward in your book find equivalents in the news at the moment?

Yes, there are a number of contemporary events that have links to our evolved tribal psychology.

Our in-built wariness of strangers, often shading into xenophobia, will be one of the most overworked features of our psychology as we enter increasingly into a modern globalized world characterized by the mass movement of people from poorer to richer areas. The contemporary news, sadly, is dominated by sectarian and ethnic strife fueled by the tensions that so naturally arise between people simply because they represent different cultures.

Happily, we can see one way to overcome some of our wariness of others in the financial difficulties that are facing nations like Italy and Greece. The small tribal societies of our past have worked in part by linking people’s fates. As soon as the success and survival of your group depends upon everyone pulling together – perhaps it is in battle with another group – the psychology and emotions that promote group cohesion will evolve. One of the most reassuring long-term tendencies of our species has been to recognize that formerly competing groups can often do better by cooperating than by engaging in endless cycles of betrayal and revenge. So, our history has been to build larger and larger cooperative groups – chiefdoms, city-states, nation-states, and even collections of nations such as the E.U.

These larger entities link people’s fates and thereby promote cooperation even if that cooperation is purely pragmatic. Thus, our willingness to bail our Greece and Italy, among others, is a recognition that our economies are now interdependent. You could say that we have been trapped by our own cooperative mentality.

Our tendency towards altruism and generosity give rise to some of the more peculiar behaviors of our species. We routinely help others, give up our seats on trains, hold doors for people, contribute to charities and we might even risk our health and well-being or our lives by pulling someone from a burning building or fighting in a war.

These altruistic acts all evolved to promote the cooperative tribal societies of our evolutionary past, and they are based on a deep-seated notion of ‘fairness’ in our dealings with others. This notion of fairness acts like a psychological police force: we expect others to behave in ways that benefit those around them, and we know they expect the same of us. It is the social glue that makes our cooperative societies possible. We take it for granted but no other animal has such a feeling.

It is this ancient evolutionary trait that gets aroused in public debates about bankers and other people in business receiving huge bonuses. Their rewards somehow seem ‘unfair’. But what do we mean by this? In many cases these people have not broken any laws. Still, we feel this peculiar and yet powerful emotion even though in most cases stopping one of these people from receiving their award will not help us in any way – a banker turning down a bonus doesn’t put more money in your pocket, and most of us would have to concede that if offered such a bonus ourselves we would want to take it.

So, why do we feel this emotion so strongly and vividly? Fairness can be seen as an emotion that gets us to behave in ways that invest in the future, and this is what we expect of emotions designed to police and maintain our social groups. When we publicly ridicule and criticize ‘fat cats’ it is a way of sending a message to others that we are not the sort of people to be trifled with. We might not benefit in any way now, but our actions are explained by what they might return in the future. Protestations about fairness tell others they won’t get way with the same sorts of things.

You mention that the only other organism to use this “shared cultural knowledge” is lowly bacteria. If it’s such a successful survival technique, why don’t more species use it?

Culture means our species can share knowledge, technology and skills and this makes available a vast shared stored of information – each of us can draw on things discovered by someone else at a far different time and place and this has allowed us to adapt to every environment on the planet.

Curiously, the bacteria, simple one-celled organisms, have evolved an ability to exchange genes between individuals and even between species, rather than solely by passing them on to their offspring. This has made available to the bacteria a vast shared store of genetic information, and perhaps in this light it is not surprising that they too have occupied nearly every environment on earth, from deep-sea ‘smokers’ (small volcanic chimneys that spew out super-heated water) to the glacial ice, and extremes of salt and acidity.

Other animals haven’t been able to do this because they cannot exchange genes in the ways that bacteria can, and because they don’t have ‘culture’. It seems that human culture requires an ability to understand what others are thinking and why they do the things they do. No other animal seems to have this capability, or at least not beyond the capability of a typical human 2-3 year old. Our very large brains might have at least in part evolved to be able to represent both what is going on in our own minds and what we think is going on in others’ minds – this takes lots of processing power, like a big computer.

Are there any real-world applications people can take from your book? If they learn to be more altruistic on a personal level will they reap any benefits, or does it take a whole society?

Two things really stand out for human interactions: generosity and reputation, and these two are linked. Human societies are built on trust and cooperation. Our altruism is risky because any time you help someone else, chances are that they can benefit from you, but at your expense. So, our societies place a great emphasis on people demonstrating that they are the sort of people who can be trusted not to take advantage of others.

Our many ongoing acts of altruism – our holding doors, giving up seats on trains – are ways we show others we are that sort of people. This is why generosity and forgiveness are so valuable. It shows people you are willing to make sacrifices to be part of a larger cooperative social group, and people will therefore wish to associate with you. Studies show that generous people often do better in cooperative experiments that do selfish people. The selfish people might do well in the short term, but not over the long run because they do not attract allies.

Reputation is the currency we use to buy other people’s trust and because we have language, word of our reputation can travel far and wide. The value of a good reputation cannot be overstated, it can even be as valuable as one of your own children. The terrible practice of so-called honour-killings is a way that families try to claw back what they perceive to be damage to their reputations – here is a grotesque demonstration of the value of ‘reputation’: it is worth a human life.

At a more mundane level it is also why parents worry so about how their children behave and dress, and who they associate with.

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

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