Unselfish genes

Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation, by Mark Pagel, Allen Lane, £25, 416 pages

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.

Pagel, a leading evolutionary theorist, sees culture as “a second great system of inheritance to stand alongside our genes – a new way of transmitting information that allowed knowledge to be passed from person to person and from one generation to the next, shortcutting the normal genetic routes of inheritance”.

To define culture, the author borrows a remark made many years ago by Lord Raglan: “It is roughly everything we do and monkeys don’t.” Some animal behaviourists detect what they regard as culture in other species of mammal and bird – for example, using rudimentary tools to obtain food or developing distinctive songs – but for Pagel these are too primitive to qualify. “They bear as much resemblance to human culture as a ... chimpanzee drumming on a log does to a Bach cantata, scarcely deserving to be compared to the varieties, contrivances, complexities and intricacies of human science, technologies, language, art, music and literature.”

Proper culture, in Pagel’s sense of the word, started to emerge 200,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens evolved in Africa from earlier hominid species. Its development accelerated 60,000 years ago, as our ancestors moved across Europe and Asia and consolidated their position in Africa, producing an increasingly sophisticated series of artefacts from tools and weapons to paintings and musical instruments. Essentially, culture is the whole assemblage of mental attributes and physical objects, produced through co-operation and specialisation, that enable humans to thrive in almost any terrestrial habitat.

Some palaeoanthropologists even believe that Neanderthals too had culture in this sense but Pagel disagrees. In fact, he is almost provocative in the way he dismisses their capabilities. In contrast to the modern humans with whom they co-existed in Europe for at least 30,000 years, Neanderthals could not engrave or shape bones, weave or sew clothes, or make bows and arrows – though with better brains they could have copied such artefacts from the talented newcomers in their midst.

Pagel describes the mental life of Neanderthals as being like that of all other animals: “a plodding, inflexible, literal and unimaginative existence, at least compared to ours”. They did not have language, he maintains, and unlike Homo sapiens they could not adapt to Ice Age conditions. The book has a poignant vision of the last Neanderthals sitting in Gibraltar 28,000 years ago, on the point of extinction, while gazing across the straits to the more hospitable climes of Africa just a few miles away – but unable to make boats to carry them there.

Many factors came together to push Homo sapiens through millennia of culture-propelled evolution, but the key was language. Without a sophisticated means of spoken communication, humans could not develop the complicated forms of co-operation and exchange required for tribal societies to function. We developed language because we are the only species with something worth talking about.

As a professor at Reading University in the UK and the Sante Fe Institute in the US, Pagel is noted for his research on the evolution of languages, and his chapters on this are among the most fascinating. Although language enabled tribe members to communicate together, it was also a means of distinguishing each group from its neighbours. In the densely populated island of New Guinea, there are 800 distinct languages; Pagel quotes examples of tribes deliberately altering their language to make it differ more from their neighbours’ tongues.

This richly rewarding book shows how genes and culture evolved hand-in-hand. Characteristics at the heart of human society, such as altruism and diversity of skills, are based on genetics – but their evolution depended on the survival advantages of living in a collaborative culture. Pagel reconciles the “selfish gene” philosophy associated with Richard Dawkins with the advantages of group selection: people can compete more effectively by co-operating.

Although the industrialised world of the 21st century differs vastly from the tribal societies in which most of our distinctively human genes evolved, Pagel argues convincingly that the old psychology still suits our globalised multicultural existence. The history of humanity is a progressive triumph of co-operation over conflict, driven by simultaneous genetic and cultural evolution. Our DNA is still evolving and so too is our culture.

Wired for Culture ends on a note of justifiable optimism. Looking around the great cosmopolitan cities in 2012, the evolutionary recipe that carried prehistoric humans around the world is still working to give people a sense of shared purpose and shared outcomes.

Clive Cookson is the FT’s science editor

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