Yesterday I heard a talk on culture and evolution by Professor Mark Pagel, who has a new book out on the topic. This is a summary (drawn from the talk and assorted reviews of the book):
Mark Pagel’s hypothesis is that humans evolved the capacity for culture – essentially, an enhanced ability to learn, store and transmit information – around 160,000 years ago, and this is certainly the most important development in human history, possibly in the history of life on Earth. (He is quite anthropocentric!)
“What separates our social learning from other animals’ learning skills is that it allows for a great deal of adaptation and variation. If you put a Neanderthal from 1.5 million years ago in a time machine and sent it forward a million years, he would find Neanderthals with almost the same skills and cultures. Human cultures vary dramatically across radically smaller distances in time and space (Pagel uses linguistic diversity as a marker – one volcanic island holds 1200 people and five separate languages).
“This makes culture a far faster vehicle for change than genetic variation – in fact what we see more often is genetics playing catch-up with culture. Cultures that herd cows become more lactose-tolerant than cultures which don’t, for instance.
“Culture allows humans to behave in very unusual ways. On the one hand it helps us co-operate to a degree very unusual in nature – we can tolerate the extremely close proximity of very large numbers of our species, even though from a strictly evolutionary perspective these should be the individuals we’re in competition with. In fact, says Pagel, the history of culture makes co-operation an advantage – it allows us to specialise as individuals (something no other species does, apparently) and form very large interconnected and interdependent groups.
“The flipside of this is that we also use culture to differentiate our group from others (sometimes very explicitly) and create distrust and antagonism. Pagel’s optimistic view is that the course of human history shows the forces of co-operation and specialisation to be stronger, on balance, than the forces of antagonistic differentiation.”