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Cultural ghost in the human machine. Photo ©

Pixabay, reproduced under licence and adapted from the original.

June 2019

Culture is often said to be important. But is it in fact, for better and worse, an inescapable aspect of all human development? Alison Baily examines the findings of Biologist Mark Pagel’s book ‘Wired for Culture’, and examines the evidence for the fundamental role culture has played in the evolution of our species and the structure of our minds.

200,000 years of cultural relations

The success story of the human species is one of cooperation. Our incredible ability to communicate with others, to learn from them and work with them, marks us out from all other species. We have harnessed this ability to our advantage, using it to improve on the knowledge and technology which, over thousands of years, has ensured we survive and prosper. In his book ‘Wired For Culture’, the biologist Mark Pagel explores the critical impact of culture on our evolution, and the legacy it leaves on our modern-day behaviour. 

Culture gave humans the critical advantage they needed to survive and expand out across the world, becoming the dominant species on the planet

Culture is only a relatively recent invention in the history of the human species. It seems that we first developed the ability to acquire knowledge, beliefs, and practices from others about 160,000 to 200,000 years ago. Our predecessors roamed the African savannah for at least a million years as hunter gatherers in small family groups, whereas our more recent ancestors homo sapiens sapiens lived in larger tribal societies where people worked together. In these larger groups, they developed common systems of customs, beliefs, and cultural identities, and learnt new skills, technologies, and languages from each other. Broadly defined as the evolution of 'culture', this enabled humans to cooperate with and learn from people from outside their immediate family group. Culture gave humans the critical advantage they needed to survive and expand out across the world, becoming the dominant species on the planet. 

Looking at these developments from the perspective of an evolutionary biologist, Pagel argues that our cultures have evolved in the same way as our genes: to pass on information that will maximise chances of survival. Drawing a parallel with genetics, he describes social learning as being to ideas the same as natural selection is to genes. While natural selection builds complex organs as the result of the successful accumulation of small genetic improvements made over millions of years, social learning builds complex societies by a process of cumulative cultural adaption as people select the best options from a range of options, improve upon them and mix them with others, creating increasingly complex objects. In this way, our cultural identity provides us with a protective layer of knowledge and technologies, language, cooperation, and shared purpose, which makes us much stronger and safer than if we lived in isolation. 

Culture, in his words, has become our species’ strategy for survival, and our genes have adapted to make best use of their new social environment. In other words, we are all ‘wired’ for culture, inheriting something akin to a software operating system which enables us to acquire cultural identities and to cooperate and thrive in social environments. This is unique to the human species, and influences every aspect of our behaviour and psychology. It’s what makes us all truly social animals. 

A pre-history of the human soul

So why, if culture and language are so fundamental our survival, do we have so many separate ones? It’s certainly not a case of geographical distance. Pagel describes the tribes of Papua New Guinea, where a different language is spoken every few miles. New Guinea, just one island in the Australasian archipelago, is home to 800 - or some 15% - of the world's languages.  There are no obvious explanations for this in terms of political barriers. In fact, it appears that these tribes deliberately alter their languages to maintain their separation from their neighbours. Under this hypothesis, linguistic diversity is a result of our social psychology, which values and preserves distinct languages as a key marker of the cultural identity we rely upon for survival. Separate languages also act as a form of basic intellectual property protection, reducing the ability from those outside of the group to steal the ideas you are communicating within it. For Pagel, our enduring linguistic diversity reflects one key lesson from the cultural history of evolution: the innate and unique propensity of humans to form separate social and cultural identities. 

This brings us to the inherent tension highlighted by Pagel's thesis. Our cultural instincts have given us an unmatched ability to get along with each other. They drive us to do all kinds of things not found in the animal kingdom towards those to whom we are not related - to be charitable to strangers, to look after old people and the sick, to ardently support our local sports team, and to work together to innovate and create knowledge, technology, and spectacular works of art. However, these instincts are a double-edged sword, and, Pagel contends, linked to a much darker side of our nature. For most of their existence humans have faced a continuous struggle to survive, with competition from other humans one of the main threats. He suggests that, as a result, these societies developed hostile attitudes to outsiders, which has left a legacy on our behaviour today, in the form of xenophobia, parochialism, racism and, in some cases, a drive to carry out violence and war. The same instinct can also drive violence against group members who are seen to violate group norms. This, he argues, is because their actions are seen as threatening the sense of togetherness on which the group's survival depends. He cites the Rwandan genocide as an example of where a breakdown in a sense of shared cultural identity contributed to mass violence of this nature.

Societies have a lower sense of cultural relatedness than has been true for the much of humans' evolutionary history, and that this puts under strain social rules which have been developed for different cultures

The book closes with a brief but tantalising consideration of how our cultural psychology, developed over millennia living in (relatively) distinct cultural groups with shared values and allegiances, is adapting to the new age of globalization and the emergence of multi-cultural societies. His analysis is that, on the surface, such societies have a lower sense of cultural relatedness than has been true for the much of humans' evolutionary history, and that this puts under strain social rules which have been developed for different cultures. To maintain cohesion these societies will depend upon the clear enforcement of cultural or democratically derived rules, and they will face pressure as individualistic and self-interested behaviour grows and groups seeks to break away from the whole. However, he is hopeful that our unique social talent for cooperation with others will ultimately trump our parochial instincts and find new ways to build a sense of shared culture and purpose.

At a time when culture and identity is playing an ever more salient role in domestic politics and international affairs in countries across the world, Wired For Culture provides a valuable new perspective on contemporary events. But above all, it is a highly accessible account of the epic and rapid rise of the human species in the earth's recent history. By putting the spotlight on the role of culture in our evolution, this book provides fascinating insights into the deep origins of our own behaviours, values, and identities, and of the scientific underpinnings of culture. Indeed, you might call this a pre-history of the human soul.

The recent British Council report, The Value of Trust explores how increased trust between people in different societies is driven by cultural contact, and perceptions of cooperation, openness, fairness, and willingness to contribute to the development of other countries.

Alison Baily, Senior Policy Advisor, British Council

See also