Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution

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Overview

Humans are a striking anomaly in the natural world. While we are similar to other mammals in many ways, our behavior sets us apart. Our unparalleled ability to adapt has allowed us to occupy virtually every habitat on earth using an incredible variety of tools and subsistence techniques. Our societies are larger, more complex, and more cooperative than any other mammal's. In this stunning exploration of human adaptation, Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd argue that only a Darwinian theory of cultural evolution can explain these unique characteristics.

Not by Genes Alone offers a radical interpretation of human evolution, arguing that our ecological dominance and our singular social systems stem from a psychology uniquely adapted to create complex culture. Richerson and Boyd illustrate here that culture is neither superorganic nor the handmaiden of the genes. Rather, it is essential to human adaptation, as much a part of human biology as bipedal locomotion. Drawing on work in the fields of anthropology, political science, sociology, and economics—and building their case with such fascinating examples as kayaks, corporations, clever knots, and yams that require twelve men to carry them—Richerson and Boyd convincingly demonstrate that culture and biology are inextricably linked, and they show us how to think about their interaction in a way that yields a richer understanding of human nature.

In abandoning the nature-versus-nurture debate as fundamentally misconceived, Not by Genes Alone is a truly original and groundbreaking theory of the role of culture in evolution and a book to be reckoned with for generations to come.

“I continue to be surprised by the number of educated people (many of them biologists) who think that offering explanations for human behavior in terms of culture somehow disproves the suggestion that human behavior can be explained in Darwinian evolutionary terms. Fortunately, we now have a book to which they may be directed for enlightenment . . . . It is a book full of good sense and the kinds of intellectual rigor and clarity of writing that we have come to expect from the Boyd/Richerson stable.”—Robin Dunbar, Nature

Not by Genes Alone is a valuable and very readable synthesis of a still embryonic but very important subject straddling the sciences and humanities.”—E. O. Wilson, Harvard University

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Review of Books
There have been a number of more or less complex variants on this . . . metaphor for genetic evolution and it is generally agreed that the most nuanced and sophisticated version is contained in the work of Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, and laid out in considerable detail in Not By Genes Alone.”

— Richard Lewontin

Nature
Drawing on new ideas about multilevel selection, evolutionary psychology and . . . ‘strong reciprocity’ (the bestowing of rewards and punishments even where there is no direct personal gain for this behavior), Richerson and Boyd build a case for a special role for cultural processes in human evolution. . . . It is a book full of good sense and the kinds of intellectual rigour and clarity that we have come to expect from [the authors].”

— Robin Dunbar

Journal of Human Evolution
Ambitious and wide-ranging. . . . The writing is lucid, even eloquent. . . . Richerson and Boyd have done a rare thing: Casting their net widely across a range of disciplines, in order to tackle the most complex phenomenon of our species, and they have achieved consilience. Read and ponder.”

— W. C. McGrew

Bioscience
Writing in a much more accessible form than they have before, Richerson and Boyd lay out their case for the role of culture in shaping the human mind and behavior. . . . . This book provides an excellent account  of Richerson and Boyd's theory, and is a must-read for anyone interested in gene-culture coevolution.”

— Susan Blackmore

Antiquity
[The] subject, the place of culture in human evolutionary dynamics, is relatively neglected, and is rarely as well debated as it is here. . . . Indeed, their text deserves to be considered by all of us in any field of archaeology.

— Don Brothwell

Northeastern Naturalist

"This is an important work that is sure to generate lively discussion on a topic crucial to our understanding of ourselves."
Journal of Bioeconomics
Richerson and Boyd have produced an excellent explication and overview of the current state of the research on cultural evolution . . . and the relative roles of genes and culture in human evolution and behavior from the Pleistocene to the present—and they have done all this in a rigorous but non-technical, easily readable format. I think that both those who are just beginning to explore the evolutionary sources of human behavior and those who are currently engaged in work in this area will greatly benefit from reading this book.

— Adam Gifford, Jr.

The New York Review of Books - Richard Lewontin

“There have been a number of more or less complex variants on this . . . metaphor for genetic evolution and it is generally agreed that the most nuanced and sophisticated version is contained in the work of Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, and laid out in considerable detail in Not By Genes Alone.”
Nature - Robin Dunbar

“Drawing on new ideas about multilevel selection, evolutionary psychology and . . . ‘strong reciprocity’ (the bestowing of rewards and punishments even where there is no direct personal gain for this behavior), Richerson and Boyd build a case for a special role for cultural processes in human evolution. . . . It is a book full of good sense and the kinds of intellectual rigour and clarity that we have come to expect from [the authors].”

Journal of Human Evolution - W. C. McGrew

“Ambitious and wide-ranging. . . . The writing is lucid, even eloquent. . . . Richerson and Boyd have done a rare thing: Casting their net widely across a range of disciplines, in order to tackle the most complex phenomenon of our species, and they have achieved consilience. Read and ponder.”
Bioscience - Susan Blackmore

“Writing in a much more accessible form than they have before, Richerson and Boyd lay out their case for the role of culture in shaping the human mind and behavior. . . . . This book provides an excellent account  of Richerson and Boyd's theory, and is a must-read for anyone interested in gene-culture coevolution.”
Antiquity - Don Brothwell

"[The] subject, the place of culture in human evolutionary dynamics, is relatively neglected, and is rarely as well debated as it is here. . . . Indeed, their text deserves to be considered by all of us in any field of archaeology."
Journal of Bioeconomics - Adam Gifford

"Richerson and Boyd have produced an excellent explication and overview of the current state of the research on cultural evolution . . . and the relative roles of genes and culture in human evolution and behavior from the Pleistocene to the present--and they have done all this in a rigorous but non-technical, easily readable format. I think that both those who are just beginning to explore the evolutionary sources of human behavior and those who are currently engaged in work in this area will greatly benefit from reading this book."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226712123
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 6/1/2006
  • Pages: 342
  • Sales rank: 485,948
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter J. Richerson is professor of environmental science at the University of California, Davis. Robert Boyd is professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Prolific authors and editors, they coauthored Culture and the Evolutionary Process, published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
1. Culture Is Essential
2. Culture Exists
3. Culture Evolves
4. Culture Is an Adaptation
5. Culture Is Maladaptive
6. Culture and Genes Coevolve
7. Nothing about Culture Makes Sense except in the Light of Evolution
Notes
References
Index

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First Chapter

Not By Genes Alone

How Culture Transformed Human Evolution
By Peter J. Richerson Robert Boyd

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2005 University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-71284-2


Chapter One

The American South has long been more violent than the North. Colorful descriptions of duels, feuds, bushwhackings, and lynchings feature prominently in visitors' accounts, newspaper articles, and autobiographies from the eighteenth century onward. Statistics bear out these impressions. For example, over the period 1865-1915, the homicide rate in the South was ten times the current rate for the whole United States, and twice the rate in our most violent cities. Modern homicide statistics tell the same story.

In their book, Culture of Honor, psychologists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen argue that the South is more violent than the North because southern people have culturally acquired beliefs about personal honor that are different from their northern counterparts. Southerners, they argue, believe more strongly than Northerners that a person's reputation is important and worth defending even at great cost. As a consequence, arguments and confrontations that lead to harsh words or minor scuffles in Amherst or Ann Arbor often escalate to lethal violence in Asheville or Austin.

What else could explain these differences? Some feature of the southern environment, such as its greater warmth, could explain why Southerners are more violent. Such hypotheses are plausible, and Nisbett and Cohen are at pains to test them. Northerners and Southerners might differ genetically, but this hypothesis is not very plausible. The settlers of the North and South came mostly from the British Isles and adjacent areas of northwestern Europe. Human populations are quite well mixed on this scale.

Nisbett and Cohen support their hypothesis with an impressive range of evidence. Let's start with statistical patterns of violence. In the rural and small-town South, murder rates are elevated for arguments among friends and acquaintances, but not for killings committed in the course of other felonies. In other words, in the South men are more likely than Northerners to kill an acquaintance when an argument breaks out in a bar, but they are no more likely to kill the guy behind the counter when they knock off a liquor store. Thus, Southerners seem to be more violent than other Americans only in situations that involve personal honor. Competing hypotheses don't do so well: neither white per-capita income nor hot climate nor history of slavery explain this variation in homicide.

Differences in what people say about violence also support the "culture of honor" hypothesis. For example, Nisbett and Cohen asked people to read vignettes in which a man's honor was challenged-sometimes trivially (for example, by insults to his wife), and in other cases seriously (for example, by stealing his wife). Southern respondents were more likely than Northerners to say that violent responses were justified in all cases, and that one would "not be much of a man" unless he responded violently to insults. In the case of more serious affronts, southern respondents were almost twice as likely to say that shooting the perpetrator was justified.

Interestingly, this difference in behavior is not just talk; it can also be observed under the controlled conditions of the psychology laboratory. Working at the University of Michigan, Nisbett and Cohen recruited participants from northern and southern backgrounds, ostensibly to participate in an experiment on perception. As part of the procedure, an experimenter's confederate bumped some participants and muttered "Asshole!" at them. This insult had very different effects on southern and northern participants, as revealed by the next part of the experiment. Sometime after being bumped, participants encountered another confederate walking toward them down the middle of a narrow hall, setting up a little game of chicken. This confederate, a six-foot, three-inch, 250-pound linebacker on the UM football squad, was much bigger and stronger than any participant, and had been instructed to keep walking until either the participant stepped aside and let him pass or a collision was immanent. Northerners stepped aside when the confederate was six feet away, whether or not they had been insulted. Southerners who had not been insulted stepped aside when they were nine feet away from the confederate, while previously insulted Southerners continued walking until they were just three feet away. Polite, but prepared to be violent, uninsulted Southerners take more care, presumably because they attribute a sense of honor to the football player and are careful not to test it. When their own honor is challenged, however, they are willing to challenge someone at considerable risk to their own safety. These behavioral differences have physiological correlates. In a similar confederate-insulter experiment, Nisbett and Cohen measured levels of two hormones, cortisol and testosterone, in participants before and after they had been insulted. Physiologists know that cortisol levels increase in response to stress, and testosterone levels rise in preparation for violence. Insulted Southerners showed much bigger jumps in cortisol and testosterone than insulted Northerners.

Nisbett and Cohen argue that the difference in beliefs between northern and southern people can be understood in terms of their cultural and economic histories. Scots-Irish livestock herders were the main settlers of the South, while English, German, and Dutch peasant farmers populated the North. States historically have had considerable difficulty imposing the rule of law in the sparsely settled regions where herding is the dominant occupation, and livestock are easy to steal. Hence in herding societies a culture of honor often arises out of necessity as men seek to cultivate reputations for willingly resorting to violence as a deterrent to theft and other predatory behavior. Of course, bad men may also subscribe to the same code, the better to intimidate their victims. As this arms race escalates, arguments over trivial acts can rapidly get out of hand if a man thinks his honor is at stake. This account is supported by the fact that Southern white homicide rates are unusually high in poor regions with low population density and a historically weak presence of state institutions, not in the richer, more densely settled, historically slave-plantation districts. In such an environment the Scots-Irish honor system remained adaptive until recent times.

This fascinating study illustrates the two main points we want to make in this book.

Culture is crucial for understanding human behavior. People acquire beliefs and values from the people around them, and you can't explain human behavior without taking this reality into account. Murder is more common in the South than in the North. If Nisbett and Cohen are right, this difference can't be explained in terms of contemporary economics, climate, or any other external factor. Their explanation is that people in the South have acquired a complex set of beliefs and attitudes about personal honor that make them more polite, but also more quick to take offense than people in the North. This complex persists because the beliefs of one generation are learned by the next. This is not an isolated example. We will present several other similar well-studied examples demonstrating that culture plays an important role in human behavior. These are only the tip of the iceberg-a complete scholarly rehearsal of the evidence would try the patience of all but the most dedicated reader. Culturally acquired ideas are crucially important for explaining a wide range of human behavior-opinions, beliefs, and attitudes, habits of thought, language, artistic styles, tools and technology, and social rules and political institutions.

Culture is part of biology. An insult that has trivial effects in a Northerner sets off a cascade of physiological changes in a southern male that prepare him to harm the insulter and cope with the likelihood that the insulter is prepared to retaliate violently. This example is merely one strand in a skein of connections that enmesh culturally acquired information in other aspects of human biology. Much evidence suggests that we have an evolved psychology that shapes what we learn and how we think, and that this in turn influences the kind of beliefs and attitudes that spread and persist. Theories that ignore these connections cannot adequately account for much of human behavior. At the same time, culture and cultural change cannot be understood solely in terms of innate psychology. Culture affects the success and survival of individuals and groups; as a result, some cultural variants spread and others diminish, leading to evolutionary processes that are every bit as real and important as those that shape genetic variation. These culturally evolved environments then affect which genes are favored by natural selection. Over the evolutionary long haul, culture has shaped our innate psychology as much as the other way around.

Few who have thought much about the problem would dispute either of these claims in principle. Beliefs and practices that we learn from one another are clearly important, and like all human behavior, culture must in some way be rooted in human biology. However, in practice most social scientists ignore at least one of them. Some scholars, including most economists, many psychologists, and many social scientists influenced by evolutionary biology, place little emphasis on culture as a cause of human behavior. Others, especially anthropologists, sociologists, and historians, stress the importance of culture and institutions in shaping human affairs, but usually fail to consider their connection to biology. The success of all these disciplines suggests that many questions can be answered by ignoring culture or its connection to biology. However, the most fundamental questions of how humans came to be the kind of animal we are can only be answered by a theory in which culture has its proper role and in which it is intimately intertwined with other aspects of human biology. In this book we outline such a theory.

Culture can't be understood without population thinking

Eminent biologist Ernst Mayr has argued that "population thinking" was Charles Darwin's key contribution to biology. Before Darwin, people thought of species as essential, unchanging types, like geometric figures and chemical elements. Darwin saw that species were populations of organisms that carried a variable pool of inherited information through time. To explain the properties of a species, biologists had to understand how the day-to-day events in the lives of individuals shape this pool of information, causing some variant members of the species to persist and spread, and others to diminish. Darwin famously argued that when individuals carrying some variants were more likely to survive or have more offspring, these would spread through a process of natural selection. Less famously, he also thought that beneficial behaviors and morphologies acquired during an individual's lifetime were transmitted to the offspring, and that this process, which he called the "inherited effects of use and disuse," also shaped which variants were present. We now know that the latter process is unimportant in organic evolution, and that many processes Darwin never dreamed of are important in molding populations, including mutation, segregation, recombination, genetic drift, gene conversion, and meiotic drive. Nonetheless, modern biology is fundamentally Darwinian, because its explanations of evolution are rooted in population thinking; and if through some miracle of cloning Darwin were to be resurrected from his grave in Westminster Abbey, we think that he would be quite happy with the state of the science he launched.

Population thinking is the core of the theory of culture we defend in this book. First of all, let's be clear about what we mean by culture:

Culture is information capable of affecting individuals' behavior that they acquire from other members of their species through teaching, imitation, and other forms of social transmission.

By information we mean any kind of mental state, conscious or not, that is acquired or modified by social learning and affects behavior. We will use everyday words like idea, knowledge, belief, value, skill, and attitude to describe this information, but we do not mean that such socially acquired information is always consciously available, or that it necessarily corresponds to folk-psychological categories. Our definition is rooted in the conviction that most cultural variation is caused by information stored in human brains-information that got into those brains by learning from others. People in culturally distinct groups behave differently, mostly because they have acquired different skills, beliefs, and values, and these differences persist because the people of one generation acquire their beliefs and attitudes from those around them. Hence Southerners are more likely to kill than Northerners because they hold different attitudes about personal honor. The same is true of many other aspects of culture. Different populations exhibit persistent variation in language, social customs, moral systems, practical skills and devices, and art. These and all the other dimensions of culture exist because people possess different socially acquired skills, beliefs, or values.

Population thinking is the key to building a causal account of cultural evolution. We are largely what our genes and our culture make us. In the same way that evolutionary theory explains why some genes persist and spread, a sensible theory of cultural evolution will have to explain why some beliefs and attitudes spread and persist while others disappear. The processes that cause such cultural change arise in the everyday lives of individuals as people acquire and use cultural information. Some moral values are more appealing and thus more likely to spread from one individual to another. These will tend to persist, while less attractive alternatives tend to disappear. Some skills are easy to learn accurately, while others are more difficult and are likely to be altered as we learn them. Some beliefs make people more likely to be imitated, because the people who hold those beliefs are more likely to survive or more likely to achieve social prominence. Such beliefs will tend to spread, while beliefs that lead to early death or social stigma will disappear. In the short run, a population-level theory of culture has to explain the net effect of such processes on the distribution of beliefs and values in a population during the previous generation. Over the longer run, the theory explains how these processes, repeated generation after generation, account for observed patterns of cultural variation. The heart of this book is an account of how the population-level consequences of imitation and teaching work.

Continues...


Excerpted from Not By Genes Alone by Peter J. Richerson Robert Boyd Copyright © 2005 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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