Sunday, March 18, 2012

Forget fittest, it's survival of the most cultured

Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel enters tricky terrain to argue that social structures are key to human evolution in Wired for Culture

FOR decades, proponents of the power of culture in human development have been tribal enemies of those who champion the power of evolution. The former have been vilified for portraying humans as blank slates; the latter scorned for embracing genetic determinism. The middle ground was no-man's-land.

Now, at last, the war might be over. A consensus is emerging that humans have an impressive capacity for open-ended change, much as culturalists have claimed, but that this is a result of genetic evolution - and is itself an evolutionary process. Culture can now be approached from an evolutionary perspective, while evolutionists have much to learn from the "natural historians" of cultures.

Mark Pagel, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Reading, UK, is well placed to write on these recent developments. In Wired for Culture he frames cultural development in the language of Richard Dawkins's selfish gene theory, in which genes are replicators that build individual bodies as vehicles for their own survival. Dawkins famously coined the term "meme" as the cultural analogue of a gene. Pagel's argument goes one step further.

Memes, he says, have built vehicles around themselves made up of groups of people. We live inside "cultural survival vehicles" that allow us to collectively survive and reproduce in any given environment. Pagel argues that there are thousands of such vehicles, each adapted to different environments, exemplified by humanity's wealth of languages. Genetically we remain a single species, but culturally we are worlds apart, comparable to dinosaurs, birds and mammals.

Wired for Culture explores the implications of the emerging consensus across the breadth of human experience, from religion, the arts and economics, through consciousness, deception, conflict and the very idea of truth.

Pagel writes well, and the ideas within the book are engagingly expressed. But in a book which overcomes the traditional separation between evolutionists and culturalists, Pagel has difficulty surmounting tribal boundaries within his own field.

Evolutionary biologists are divided on the subject of group selection - the view that adaptations can evolve "for the good of the group". Acceptance of group selection in the context of selfish gene theory hinges on the question of whether groups can be vehicles of selection. Dawkins and other selfish gene theorists such as Daniel Dennett are sceptical about this possibility, and their scepticism extends to ideas about culture and religion. Indeed, both have famously argued that religious memes are like parasites that are detrimental to their human "hosts".

Pagel departs from Dawkins and Dennett by portraying cultures as group-level survival vehicles, correctly in my opinion, but seems to think that in employing the language of selfish gene theory he is rejecting group selection. This is a failure of translation. When he makes statements such as: "Any group that failed to acquire these cultural forms could find themselves in competition with others that had", he is invoking group selection, pure and simple.

This is an issue for everyone: books like The Selfish Gene had a huge impact because they brought issues like group selection into the public realm. Much of the work Pagel cites openly acknowledges the role of group selection in the evolution of human society, and to deny its importance is a disservice to public understanding. It is a pity that Pagel, whose speciality is the evolution of languages, cannot seem to translate among the languages spoken within his own discipline.


Wilson, David Sloan. 2012. "Forget fittest, it's survival of the most cultured". New Scientist. Posted: March 5, 2012. Available online:

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