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.
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.