Anthropology · Cultural Evolution

What Really Makes Man Different

This is a review of The Secret of our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species and Making Us Smarter.  by Joseph Heinrich, Copyright  2016

Joseph Heinrich is a new kind of scientist.  Heinrich is an anthropologist and professor of psychology and economics.  He is the Canada Research Chair in culture, cognition and co-evolution.  This book brings together economics, psychology, neuroscience and archeology in an explanation of how the human species has been able to succeed as well as it has.

Actually, this combination of many disciplines into a single profession isn’t all that new.  It began in the 1970’s with E O Wilson’s book Sociobiology.  This book pioneered the idea that evolution is behind not only man’s biological evolution but also his social evolution.  This was the beginning of the idea that biology and  evolution, are actually the basis of sociology and psychology and anthropology and even economics and many other disciplines in the social sciences.  It is the basis of the idea that many of the social science  previously thought to be completely separate from and inferior to the hard science of biology actually are not.  And at about the same time, the ideas of cognitive science were being driven by the discoveries of DNA and molecular biology and all kinds of new tools for analyzing the brain.  This also tended to break down the barriers between the social sciences and the hard sciences.  So, now-a-days much of the cutting edge work in science is done in a combinations of disciplines like the area in which Joseph Heinrich works.

The basic idea of Heinrich’s book The Secret of Our Success is that we should stop thinking that human evolution is only biological (genetic), and that it is actually a combination of both biological and cultural evolution working hand in hand.

The Amazon blurb summarizing this book is actually pretty good.  It encapsulates the main idea of the book in a nutshell.  I would suspect that this was not written by Amazon, but by Heinrich himself, except for the fact that Heinrich is a much better writer than whoever wrote this.  Anyway, here it is in its entirety.   It’s very much worth reading.

“Humans are a puzzling species. On the one hand, we struggle to survive on our own in the wild, often failing to overcome even basic challenges, like obtaining food, building shelters, or avoiding predators. On the other hand, human groups have produced ingenious technologies, sophisticated languages, and complex institutions that have permitted us to successfully expand into a vast range of diverse environments. What has enabled us to dominate the globe, more than any other species, while remaining virtually helpless as lone individuals? This book shows that the secret of our success lies not in our innate intelligence, but in our collective brains—on the ability of human groups to socially interconnect and learn from one another over generations.

Drawing insights from lost European explorers, clever chimpanzees, mobile hunter-gatherers, neuroscientific findings, 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 cultural 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. Later on, some collective brains generated and recombined powerful concepts, such as the lever, wheel, screw, and writing, while also creating the institutions that continue to alter our motivations and perceptions. Henrich shows how our genetics and biology are inextricably interwoven with cultural evolution, and how culture-gene interactions launched our species on an extraordinary evolutionary trajectory.

Tracking clues from our ancient past to the present, The Secret of Our Success explores how the evolution of both our cultural and social natures produce a collective intelligence that explains both our species’ immense success and the origins of human uniqueness.”

I think this is a really important book.  The idea that genetics and culture are both responsible for the creation of modern man, and that this co-evolution is continuing even today, is not a really new idea.  Many scientists have been saying this for quite awhile and there are a ton of  recent books that are describing this idea.  What makes this book so good is that it synthesizes what a lot of other researchers are saying very well.  And it puts together a lot of fairly disparate ideas in a very creative way that is also very entertaining reading.  I think this is a really key book about the whole idea of cultural evolution.

I’m still in the process of reading this book, so I’m sure that I’ll have more to say about the book later.

Below is a bibliography of other books that are about this idea of the combination of genetic and cultural evolution as the driving forces in the creation of modern man.  This idea includes the ideas of Man the Social Animal and of Man the Cooperative Animal and of Man the Empathetic Animal.   It is also the partly the basis of the idea of Evolutionary Psychology.   There are a ton of books about all this.  The one’s listed below are just the tip of the iceberg, the ones that I thought were the best, the most interesting, and the most readable.  The length of the list indicates the importance of these ideas.

Other books on cultural and genetic evolution

The Secret of our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species and Making Us Smarter,  by Joseph Heinrich, Go to the book.

How Culture Drove Human Evolution, An article in by Joseph Heinrich. Go to the article. 

Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory can Explain Human Culture and the Synthesize the Social Sciences, by Alex Mesoudi.  Go to the book.

Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind, by Kevin N. Laland.  Go to the book.

From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds , By Daniel C. Dennett.  Go to the book.

The Knowledge Illusion:Why We Never think Alone, Seven Sloman and Philip Fernbach.  Go to the book.

Social: Why our Brains Are Wired to Connect, by Mathew D. Lieberman.  Go to the book.

Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind, by Mark Pagel.  Go to the book.

Evolution, Culture and the Human Mind by Are Norenzayan, Mark Schiller, and Steven J Heine.  Go to the book.

Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, by Peter J Richardson, Robert Boyd.  Go to the book.

War, What is it For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots, by Ian Morris.   Go to the book.

The Triumph of Sociobiology, John Alcock.  Go to the book.

Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth, By Peter Turchin.  Go to the book.

The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture.  By Jerome Barkow and Leda Cosmides.  Go to the book.

The Selfish Gene: 40th Anniversary Edition: by Richard Dawkins.  Go to the book.

The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are; The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, by Robert Wright.  Go to the book.

Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy.  Go to the Book

McDonald Lake at Sunset, Glacier National Park in Montana.  Picture by Hanselmann Photography. 

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