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03.04.12

Mark Pagel in ‘Wired for Culture’ Makes a Strong Case for Cultural Determinism

Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel argues in ‘Wired for Culture’ that we are driven by cultural mandates every bit as much as by genetics.

It is the voice inside our head.

The culture to which we belong—whatever it happens to be—fills us with its peculiar inventory. We are shaped by its mandates and its expectations, its anxieties and aspirations, its preferences and aversions. The basic texture of our inner lives is sewn from cultural threads.

And all of this even though we got here, wherever we are, only as a matter of chance.

So Mark Pagel reminds us in his new book, Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind.

The culture we inherit, he writes, “is an accident of birth, but it is one to which we show a surprising and sometimes alarming devotion. People will risk their health and well-being, their chances to have children, or even their lives for their culture. People will treat others well or badly merely as an accident of their cultural inheritance.”

How does culture have this kind of grip on us? And what purpose does it serve? These are the central questions of Pagel’s lengthy, multifaceted book.

Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading, belongs to the intellectual hot bed of the edge.org set, a salon of scientific thinkers that has assembled over the years under the auspices of their intriguing host, John Brockman. The ethos of the edge.org crowd is one of unapologetic sophistication; its mission is to bring cutting-edge thinkers together in an ongoing, open-ended conversation, where ideas can beget ideas.

We depend on everyone else to match our loyalties, and when they don’t, we turn on them.

And in his new book, Pagel’s big idea is that culture is the single greatest force for both social and biological change in human history. It has proven itself to be the winning strategy for the survival of our species, bar none. As a result, it has shaped our brains so that they are primed to perpetuate it.

But it wasn’t always thus.

Things were kind of basic, back in the day, circa 200,000 years ago.

It was a lot of blowing dust and rocky terrain, basically, with the occasional highlight of blood spurting up from whatever was being hunted for dinner.

But then, Pagel says, “a competitor to the rule of genes finally appeared.”

“The world was witnessing the final stages of a shift in the balance of power between our genes and our minds. Human beings had discovered culture.”

Where genes had been the only system for transferring information and knowledge from one generation to the next, culture came along like some crazy exponent and changed all of that.

Culture means that “where you are stuck from birth with a sample of the genes that made your parents, you can sample throughout your life from a sea of evolving ideas,” Pagel writes. “For humans, then, a shared culture granted its members access to a vast shared store of information, technologies, wisdom, and good luck.”

“Having culture means we are the only animal that acquires the rules of its daily living from the accumulated knowledge of our ancestors, rather than from the genes they pass to us.”

It’s not clear why culture in its fullest capacity emerged at the time that it did. Our genetic identity was more or less in place 200,000 years ago; yet it wasn’t until 60,000 years ago that we left Africa and began our triumphant occupation of the planet, enabled by an ever-increasing supply of really good ideas. The time in between is known as “the missing years,” and Pagel supports the theory that they can be explained by “random drift,” or, simply put, the accidents and diversions that slow down an evolutionary process.

Pagel argues that the central mechanism for this cultural explosion among our ancestors is the uniquely human capacity for “social learning.” In short: we can copy others. And we can do it with discrimination, so that over time, it’s the good ideas that survive.

It doesn’t even require our entire species to be particularly inventive, just a few of us. The rest of us can simply imitate.

It was the capacity for social learning, Pagel argues, that set our ancestors apart from every other species and hominem lineage, that sent them around the globe, into every climate and condition, whereas, by contrast, “the Neanderthals sat in Gibraltar going extinct while gazing across the straits to the warmer climes of Africa clearly visible only eight to ten miles away, but they were unable to make boats to carry them there.”

Social learning gave us culture, our species’ saving grace. But it has its tradeoffs, too.

“Culture has worked by coming to exercise a form of mind control over us,” Pagel writes. “We willingly accept and even embrace this mind control, and probably without even knowing it.”

At other points in the book, Pagel even likens culture to a kind of parasite, an organism so deft at riding its host to survival, one which “will not necessarily evolve to have our interests in mind but theirs.”

Here as in other places, this book owes a debt to Freud, who in Civilization and Its Discontents described the profound psychic compromise we must strike in order to live peaceably, side by side, in functioning societies.

Culture means having to say you’re sorry. But the rewards are innumerable. It’s a fine balance to keep things going. “Natural selection has duped us with an emotion that encourages group thinking,” Pagel writes. “It is an emotion that makes us act as if for the good of the group; an emotion that brings pleasure, pride, or even thrills from coordinated group activity.”

One of the many analogies that Pagel draws between human cultural groups and other natural phenomena is to the amoeba, which typically exist in solitary little drops, but that, in times of starvation, are programmed to cooperate, to migrate together to form one towering stalk, amoeba piled on amoeba, just so that those amoeba that make it to the very top are lifted up in the breeze, and blown away into a better land, where they have the chance of surviving, and producing the next amoeba generation. As for those lower down in the amoeba tower, they’re pretty much screwed.

It’s a poignant comparison to human behavior, this blind amoeba striving. But it’s also instructive: human participation in society does not spring from a noble selflessness. Just like those amoeba, thrusting themselves onto their pile for the chance it provides them to reproduce, our own culture—into which we thrust ourselves with obedient fervor—represents our best shot at survival.

It makes sense then that we would have evolved an entire psychology that bolsters our tendency to cooperate. Empathy, guilt, shame, pride—all of it functions in the service of keeping us in line, enforcing the rules of membership.

One of the governing principles of our culturally bound groups is “reciprocal altruism,” a term first coined in the 1970s by the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers. We cooperate with those who we intuit to be our fellow altruists, members of our own group, people who we suspect have the same stake in making our mutual situation work out.

Of course, for reciprocal altruism to work, it must be reciprocated. So how do we know that it will be? Automatically, we scan for cultural codes, whether they’re religious beliefs, accents that sound like our own, or even, Pagel points out, table manners. In fact, table manners are all the more potent an identifier for being completely arbitrary. To have mastered them displays a commitment to membership in one’s group.

And this, says Pagel, is the same reason why we become so enraged when we see someone cutting in line or jaywalking in such a way that holds up traffic. Such antisocial behaviors—however small—can fill us with an animal rage, the strength of which might surprise us, even as we’re shooting our finger at the driver who just cut in to the front of a crowded exit lane. The anger we’re feeling in these moments is “moralistic aggression.” It’s the flip side of our adherence to The Group. We depend on everyone else to match our loyalties, and when they don’t, we turn on them. Moralistic aggression has a partner emotion in parochialism—the suspicion, hostility, and even warfare we enact on those outside our group.

In both cases—when one of our own betrays us, or when an outsider threatens us—they become equally alien. They’re now both excluded from the category of “honorary relative,” those fellow members of our reciprocal altruism arrangement.

In a U.S. Army platoon, Pagel points out, a soldier with 30 days left on his tour of duty gets dubbed a “short,” for short timer, a nickname that reminds everyone else in the group that he can no longer be counted on in the same way that he could when his own future was so perfectly aligned with that of the group. Similarly, when a colleague at work gives notice, we begin, almost imperceptibly, to withdraw from him.

Our groups are so finely and exactly defined. Pagel points to Papua New Guinea, where there is a different language spoken every few miles. “It is where people are found most closely packed together—the least geographically isolated—that we find the greatest diversity of cultures,” he writes. Here again are echoes of Freud and his evocative phrase “the narcissism of minor differences,” by which he meant, the closer together two groups are, the more inflated they want to believe the differences between them to be.

And it’s not just the Papua New Guineans. We’re one species, yet there are more than 7,000 languages spoken among us, which means, of course, that we can’t all communicate with each other. This simple fact is an allegory for the fundamental tension of our modern world. We like our groups. We like belonging to them, knowing them, being able to recognize the signifiers of our cohort. And now, in 2012, we’re faced with all the world, with all of its groups and all of its languages. We’re buying things on eBay from some guy in Beijing. How do we know we’re going to get it? What will reciprocal altruism look like as our cultures and their inventions continue to evolve?

These are resonant questions, but there’s a certain paradox that limits this book, one of which Pagel himself doesn’t seem aware. This is a book that argues for the shaping power of one’s culture without acknowledging the particular culture it comes from. For instance, Pagel draws out an exhaustive list of comparisons in nature—the behavior of RNA, DNA, viruses, amoebas—to bolster his argument about human behavior. Invoking science in this way, with the implicit assumption that it’s the perfect truth that proves everything, represents Pagel’s own culture and the worldview that shapes it.

That impulse shows how little we've traveled as a cohort of science cultists since the Victorian age. However much better we “understand” the “science”—we’re still essentially telling fables about our own coming mastery of the universe.