Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind

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Overview

A unique trait of the human species is that our personalities, lifestyles, and worldviews are shaped by an accident of birth—namely, the culture into which we are born. It is our cultures and not our genes that determine which foods we eat, which languages we speak, which people we love and marry, and which people we kill in war. But how did our species develop a mind that is hardwired for culture—and why?

Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel tracks this intriguing question through the last 80,000 years of human evolution, revealing how an innate propensity to contribute and conform to the culture of our birth not only enabled human survival and progress in the past but also continues to influence our behavior today. Shedding light on our species’ defining attributes—from art, morality, and altruism to self-interest, deception, and prejudice—Wired for Culture offers surprising new insights into what it means to be human.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
“80,000 years ago... our genes undertook a remarkable gamble,” writes Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading in England. Our genes “handed over control to ideas,” and as a result, humans became the earth’s dominant species. Culture became “a second great system of inheritance to stand alongside our genes—a new way of transmitting information from one generation to the next, shortcutting the normal genetic routes of inheritance.” Pagel does an excellent job of using evolutionary biology to discuss the origins of religion, music, and art, and the reasons why, cross-culturally, we generally share a sense of morality. One of the more provocative questions Pagel asks is, “Have we been domesticated by culture?” His answer is yes. Culture, he asserts, has altered us in much the same way we have altered wild canids, The technologies we’ve developed exploit our innate, genetically endowed abilities, but they require more domesticated skills—such as mental agility rather than brute strength. Pagel also says that humans have a unique ability to cooperate. This ability, he explains, rather optimistically, allows us to overcome our evolutionary heritage and “makes us capable of moving beyond the divisive politics of race, ethnicity, and multiculturalism.” (Feb.)
Pete Richerson - Nature (UK)
“Pagel's story is...vivid and effective...this is the best popular science book on culture so far.”
Nature (UK)
Pagel's story is...vivid and effective...this is the best popular science book on culture so far.— Pete Richerson
Library Journal
Pagel (evolutionary biology, Univ. of Reading, UK) examines the evolution of human nature in the tradition of Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene. Pagel, taking the gene-focused approach fostered by Dawkins, extends the discussion from bodies as vehicles used to promote our genes, to culture as another, bigger vehicle driven to do the same. Pagel argues humans evolved for culture. Furthermore, culture, not unlike genes and natural selection, was selected for knowledge, beliefs, and practices that contribute to the success and survivability of the human species. This cultural selection has set us apart from other species and continues to drive the selection of genes that extend the biology behind our cultural eminence, such as genes for larger brains. Likewise, cultural selection contributes insights into such other aspects of human nature as the arts, communities, languages, morality, religion, and other behaviors. VERDICT Paul Ehrlich's Human Nature: Genes, Culture, and the Human Prospect explores similar territory but takes a more contrarian position against a gene-driven evolution of behavior. Pagel's book is recommended for readers interested in human evolution and human nature.—Scott Vieira, Sam Houston State Univ. Lib., Huntsville, TX
Kirkus Reviews
Pagel (Evolutionary Biology/Univ. of Reading; Evolutionary Genomics and Proteomics, 2007) examines the human species and the importance of culture and the social environment. He writes that we became "wired for culture" as we developed the capacity to think symbolically and the imaginative ability to speculate about the possibilities inherent in our own actions and those of others. From this emerged language and our ability to tap into the discoveries of people we may never have met. In the process we surpassed the primitive tools for hunting and fishing used by other hominids, developed art forms, pondered the stars and created a new social environment that allowed us to populate the globe. "[B]eing able to jump from mind to mind," writes the author, "granted the element of culture a pace of change that stood in relation to our genetical evolution something like an animal's behavior does to the more leisurely movement of a plant." Pagel extends Richard Dawkins' conceit of the selfish gene, whose purpose is to replicate itself rather than the host body, to describe the role of cultural memes that (metaphorically) used humans to replicate society. Much of the book is devoted to the author's deconstruction of cultural norms such as reciprocity—i.e., cooperation with competitors by adhering to accepted norms of trading. In the process we enlarge our loyalty from just those who share our gene pool to humanity as a whole. The process, however, is not smooth. Pagel traces memes such as love of flag and country to our discomfort in trusting strangers, and he recognizes that there can be survival benefits to deception—even self-deception—as well as to group loyalty. An intriguing combination of information on the latest advances in genomics and epigenetics, with an optimistic prediction of a future global society in which inventiveness and cooperation prevail.
Clive Clarkson - Financial Times
“This richly rewarding work of science explains the evolutionary significance of living in a collaborative culture.
Human evolution may be the hottest area in popular science writing, ahead even of books about cosmology and the brain. Within this crowded field, Mark Pagel’s Wired for Culture stands out for both its sweeping erudition and its accessibility to the non-specialist reader.”
Matt Ridley - Wall Street Journal
“Wired for Culture, a remarkable new book by Mark Pagel... sets out to explain [the] peculiar human property of fragmenting into mutually uncomprehending cultural groups... We use [language] to operate the cooperative but competitive system of social exchange that is a society: to charm, forgive, manipulate, bewitch, embroider, exaggerate, diminish, disparage—to choose just some of the verbs from the key paragraph of Dr. Pagel's (beautifully written) book.”
Nature
“Pagel's story is...vivid and effective...this is the best popular science book on culture so far.”— Pete Richerson
Booklist
“Starred review. Readers of diverse perspectives will recognize [Pagel’s] timely wisdom.”
Financial Times
“This richly rewarding work of science explains the evolutionary significance of living in a collaborative culture.

Human evolution may be the hottest area in popular science writing, ahead even of books about cosmology and the brain. Within this crowded field, Mark Pagel’s Wired for Culture stands out for both its sweeping erudition and its accessibility to the non-specialist reader.”— Clive Clarkson

Wall Street Journal
Wired for Culture, a remarkable new book by Mark Pagel... sets out to explain [the] peculiar human property of fragmenting into mutually uncomprehending cultural groups... We use [language] to operate the cooperative but competitive system of social exchange that is a society: to charm, forgive, manipulate, bewitch, embroider, exaggerate, diminish, disparage—to choose just some of the verbs from the key paragraph of Dr. Pagel's (beautifully written) book.”— Matt Ridley
Pete Richerson - Nature
“Pagel's story is...vivid and effective...this is the best popular science book on culture so far.”
David Eagleman
“Gorgeously written, elegantly argued, Pagel demonstrates that genes are only a small part of the human success story; minds and culture are the larger part. A compelling read that allows us to appreciate everything around us with fresh eyes.”
Nature - Pete Richerson
“Pagel's story is...vivid and effective...this is the best popular science book on culture so far.”
Financial Times - Clive Clarkson
“This richly rewarding work of science explains the evolutionary significance of living in a collaborative culture.Human evolution may be the hottest area in popular science writing, ahead even of books about cosmology and the brain. Within this crowded field, Mark Pagel’s Wired for Culture stands out for both its sweeping erudition and its accessibility to the non-specialist reader.”
Wall Street Journal - Matt Ridley
“Wired for Culture, a remarkable new book by Mark Pagel... sets out to explain [the] peculiar human property of fragmenting into mutually uncomprehending cultural groups... We use [language] to operate the cooperative but competitive system of social exchange that is a society: to charm, forgive, manipulate, bewitch, embroider, exaggerate, diminish, disparage—to choose just some of the verbs from the key paragraph of Dr. Pagel's (beautifully written) book.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393065879
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/27/2012
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 1,177,863
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Pagel is a professor of evolutionary biology at University of Reading. He has published widely on such topics as evolutionary genetics and linguistics, brain size, and human culture. He lives in Oxford, England.

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