Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind
by Mark Pagel. W. W. Norton, 2012
Human populations have faced bottlenecks over time that put them in peril. Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel believes that humans overcame these forces by banding together in larger groups, which may have propelled their brain capacity to greater heights.
In Wired for Culture, Pagel proposes that humans learn best through imitation. Aggregating into larger clusters allowed social learning to truly flourish, ultimately leading to the formation of societies, technology and culture. Humans are unique among other primates, however, in that they did more than simply pick up the latest spear technology by observing and mimicking their peers. As they developed more complex communication skills, they were able to adapt and pass on these tactics to the next generation.
Pagel theorizes that the evolution of language ratcheted up the exchange of the ideas and skills that eventually formed the basis of different cultures.
Yet this collaborative spirit did not extend to make humans altruistic, Pagel concludes. As a species, we join forces only with those whom we trust and whose actions we anticipate will be similar to our own. In fact, he proposes that thousands of different languages exist in the world because we are inclined to promote trust within our own social circles but confusion among outsiders. Language allowed us to pass along individual cultures as much as it segregated, and even protected, us from different ones.
The book’s narrative is diffuse, veering offtrack as Pagel attempts to explain lofty concepts. Also problematic is that Pagel appears to build his theory on the absence of contradictory evidence—our brain and behavior differ from those of other primates, so the human mind must help explain these distinctions. He cites theories from philosophers and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who argues that people who are genetically related are more likely to behave altruistically toward one another.
Despite these issues, the main themes are worth exploring. If Pagel’s theory is correct, the success of the human race largely depended on culture, which spawned not just from neural connections within the brain but also from the social connections people made within their communities.