Humans are a puzzling species. On the one hand, we struggle to survive on our own in the wild, often unable to solve basic problems, like obtaining food, building shelters or avoiding predators. On the other hand, human groups have produced innovative technologies, sophisticated languages, and complex institutions that have permitted us to successfully expand into environments across the globe. What has enabled us to dominate such a vast range of environments, more than any other species? The Secret of Our Success lies not in our innate intelligence, but in our collective brains—in the ability of human groups to socially interconnect and to learn from one another.
Drawing insights from lost European explorers, clever chimpanzees, hunter-gatherers, neuroscientists, 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 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. Further on, some collective brains generated and recombined powerful concepts, such as the lever, wheel, screw and writing. Henrich shows how our genetics and biology are inextricably interwoven with cultural evolution, and that this unique culture-gene interaction has propelled our species on a unique evolutionary trajectory.
Tracking clues from our ancient past to the present, The Secret of Our Success explores how our cultural and social natures produce a collective intelligence that explains both our species striking uniqueness and odd peculiarities.
Much existing literature in anthropology suggests that teaching is rare in non-Western societies, and that cultural transmission is mostly vertical (parent-to-offspring). However, applications of evolutionary theory to humans predict both teaching and non-vertical transmission of culturally learned skills, behaviors, and knowledge should be common cross-culturally. Here, we review this body of theory to derive predictions about when teaching and non-vertical transmission should be adaptive, and thus more likely to be observed empirically. Using three interviews conducted with rural Fijian populations, we find that parents are more likely to teach than are other kin types, high-skill and highly valued domains are more likely to be taught, and oblique transmission is associated with high-skill domains, which are learned later in life. Finally, we conclude that the apparent conflict between theory and empirical evidence is due to a mismatch of theoretical hypotheses and empirical claims across disciplines, and we reconcile theory with the existing literature in light of our results.
Reasoning about the evolution of our species' capacity for cumulative cultural learning has led culture gene coevolutionary (CGC) theorists to predict that humans should possess several learning biases which robustly enhance the fitness of cultural learners. Meanwhile, developmental psychologists have begun using experimental procedures to probe the learning biases that young children actually possess - a methodology ripe for testing CGC. Here we report the first direct tests in children of CGC's prediction of prestige bias, a tendency to learn from individuals to whom others have preferentially attended, learned or deferred. Our first study showed that the odds of 3- and 4-year-old children learning from an adult model to whom bystanders had previously preferentially attended for 10 seconds (the prestigious model) were over twice those of their learning from a model whom bystanders ignored. Moreover, this effect appears domain-sensitive: in Study 2 when bystanders preferentially observed a prestigious model using artifacts, she was learned from more often on subsequent artifact-use tasks (odds almost five times greater) but not on food-preference tasks, while the reverse was true of a model who received preferential bystander attention while expressing food preferences. (C) 2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The use of socially learned information (culture) is central to human adaptations. We investigate the hypothesis that the process of cultural evolution has played an active, leading role in the evolution of genes. Culture normally evolves more rapidly than genes, creating novel environments that expose genes to new selective pressures. Many human genes that have been shown to be under recent or current selection are changing as a result of new environments created by cultural innovations. Some changed in response to the development of agricultural subsistence systems in the Early and Middle Holocene. Alleles coding for adaptations to diets rich in plant starch (e.g., amylase copy number) and to epidemic diseases evolved as human populations expanded (e.g., sickle cell and deficiency alleles that provide protection against malaria). Large-scale scans using patterns of linkage disequilibrium to detect recent selection suggest that many more genes evolved in response to agriculture. Genetic change in response to the novel social environment of contemporary modern societies is also likely to be occurring. The functional effects of most of the alleles under selection during the last 10,000 years are currently unknown. Also unknown is the role of paleoenvironmental change in regulating the tempo of hominin evolution. Although the full extent of culture-driven gene-culture coevolution is thus far unknown for the deeper history of the human lineage, theory and some evidence suggest that such effects were profound. Genomic methods promise to have a major impact on our understanding of gene-culture coevolution over the span of hominin evolutionary history.