Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Wired for Culture by Mark Pagel – review

An account of what separates man from the beasts ... and other men

The search for the sharp dividing line between us and other species may be a wild goose chase. But as Mark Pagel's comprehensive history of human co-operation shows, there are capacities we have in abundance that appear as mere traces in the animal kingdom.

Chief among these is our remarkable sociability, which gives rise to what has the best claim to be the distinctive mark of the human: culture.

Culture is made possible by social learning. We can imitate and copy others to an extraordinary degree – no other creature comes close. Once homo sapiens learned this trick, all sorts of innovations could be passed on from person to person, group to group, meaning culture could change and diversify at a rate that far exceeds the glacial progress of biological evolution. Interestingly, there are more languages (around 7,000 in total) spoken by just one species of mammal than there are species of mammal.

Social learning depends on co-operation, which allows individuals to specialise to a degree which is unique in the natural world. Look at any group of animals and every member of each sex will be pretty much doing the same thing. Look at even a small human settlement and you will see different people doing a wide variety of tasks. This division of labour enables a thousand cultural flowers to bloom.

But how did evolution (which Pagel not uncontroversially takes as a survival competition for genes) permit co-operation to flourish? Simply because "together your outcomes are better than if you acted alone".

Pagel borrows a stark illustration of the icy, selfish logic of social bonding from Sebastian Junger's book War. While following a small platoon of US soldiers in Afghanistan's Korangal Valley, Junger was struck by their willingness to die for each other. But their bond was not love of country or even their fellow-man. Rather, says Pagel, they simply realised that they "were individually more likely to survive when they were all prepared to die for each other". Like the starving slime-mould amoebae who form a tower so that a few can be blown away to survive in more fertile land, the fact that this is near-suicide for most is better than certain death for all.

Co-operation can also make sense when the goal is selfishly to keep as much of a resource for yourself as possible. In a timely example, Pagel suggests that the reason the other EU countries are willing to cough up to bail out Greece is simply because the money they are giving away is worth less than the cost to their own economies if Greece defaults. In the end, richer Eurozone countries keep more of their wealth by giving quite a lot of it away.

Culture gives rise to a number of such paradoxes, such as the fact that it is precisely our exceptional ability to co-operate that makes us the most divided species on the planet. Put a Neanderthal in a time machine and take her to another Neanderthal culture 1.5m years later, and she would not notice the difference. Take a gorilla and put it in another troop, and it would know exactly what to do. On the other hand, if you took an inhabitant of Milan and put him in a mountain village in next-door Francophone Switzerland, the poor devil would be at quite a loss.

Social learning enables small groups of otherwise identical humans to create distinctive cultures. One purpose of the diversity this creates is to provide cues that enable group members to recognise people as "one of us" – someone they can trust.

This creation of an in-group, however, entails a clear differentiation from outsiders, and this is sometimes the explicit goal of cultural change. A community of Buian language speakers on New Guinea, for instance, once decided at a meeting to switch all of its masculine and feminine gender agreements at a stroke in order to distinguish its dialect from that of nearby villages. This need to differentiate becomes more important the more closely packed people are: 15% of the world's languages are spoken in the 312,000 square miles of the island of New Guinea.

The same drive that pulls people together can also make them turn on anyone different they perceive as a threat. Hence the alarming rapidity and viciousness with which it was possible to make Hutus massacre Tutsis in Rwanda, or for Jews in Germany to be identified as the enemy under the Third Reich. So too can the value of reputation. This is so important for securing trust, but can quickly damage us. Massacres and dictatorships are chilling examples of when culture comes to "exercise a form of mind control over us".

In these and other ways, co-operation's base roots in selfish survival do not always grow into more nourishing fruits. Culture has its thorns and toxins too. And because it is tied to self-interest, our willingness to co-operate is vulnerable. Authoritarian regimes, for instance, keep a very tight grip on power by spreading suspicion within social groups, undermining trust, and thus disabling co-operation. In Pagel's view, that is precisely why such regimes cannot sustain themselves indefinitely.

It is with a hopeful political message that he concludes this compendious account of the interaction between biological and social adaptation. What we need to do in a changing world is to work with our evolved capacities to create the kind of trust, common values and shared purposes that the crude markers of language, ethnicity and cultural differences cannot provide. And he sees evidence that this is already happening in the large cosmopolitan cities where people of all shapes and sizes rub along more or less contentedly together.

"Nothing in our evolutionary history specifically prepared us to live in large societies," he says. But in a refreshing rejoinder to the argument that creatures who evolved to hunt and gather in small groups on the savannah can never flourish in the contemporary world, Pagel adds "almost everything about the way culture works does."

The clarity of Pagel's absorbing account is enhanced by the fact that he looks at everything through the one lens: evolution. No doubt other histories of cooperation from other perspectives would have different, perhaps conflicting, things to say. But partial though his view may be, he paints a broad picture, impressive for its detail, accuracy and vivacity.

Baggini, Julian. 2012. "Wired for Culture by Mark Pagel – review". The Guardian. Posted: February 23, 2012. Available online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/feb/23/wired-for-culture-pagel-review

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