Wired for Culture: Mark Pagel at the RSA

Audio file

Image from Mark Pagel’s home page

We used to look to religion to define what it is to be human. Now, we turn to evolutionary biology. Dr. Pagel explains how our evolutionary past makes us what we are.

The bit which was new to me was his emphasis on how no other animal has cultural progress. His evidence is that homo erectus never changed its basic toolkit over more than 40,000 generations, while ours changed almost with every generation. There is something unique about modern humans which allows us to “get it” when we mimic someone else, and this is what sets us apart from all others.

Now, as to how evo bio shaped us, this story has been told before, and Dr. Pagel tells it well.

We evolved to work in small clans. The clan is almost an extension of the self. The clan is defined by culture, the shared set of practices/tools which allows survival. Our almost limitless generosity to those in the clan is then to be expected, but Pagel’s twist is that it is the culture we seek to preserve, as opposed to say the shared gene pool of a wasp or termite nest.

This also explains our (often extreme) aggression towards that which threatens our cultural similarity.

Humans also seem to have learned that cooperation often brings greater reward than competition. This allowed us to move from small clans to tribes, to larger groups, to cities, to nations, …

The hope is that we extend our definition of who is a member of our society to include the whole world; or at least our definition of who is a cooperation partner (and thus not a competitor/threat). We certainly see a trend towards this. How else could a city exist?

Fun personal note. He often speaks of our dual nature. But something with his accent and mp3 compression makes this sound like “jewel.”




Posted on May 21, 2012, in evolution, Social Organisms. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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