Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation
By Mark Pagel
Why do we humans have a tendency to form into small tribal groups rather than living as one large and homogeneous society?
There are currently as many as 7,000 different languages spoken, or 7,000 mutually unintelligible systems of communication in one species, marking out at least 7,000 distinct societies.
This cannot be a simple consequence of geography, and if we are a species with a predilection to form into societies with separate and distinct identities, then this is something that we are going to have to come to grips with in a modern world.
We are capable of great acts of charity, helping others in distress, and of simply being kind, generous, and friendly. No other animal does such things, and so it is a capability we have evolved only relatively recently. But why?
Today, we take our possession of culture for granted, but it was a development that had to await nearly the entire history of life on Earth.
Our cultural inheritance is something we take for granted today, but its invention forever altered the course of evolution and our world. This is because knowledge could accumulate as good ideas were retained, combined, and improved upon, and others were discarded.
Having culture means we are the only species that acquires the rules of its daily living from the accumulated knowledge of our ancestors rather than from the genes they pass to us.
Most of us assume without reflection that it has always been this way, that human beings have always occupied the world, and that somehow we are the natural and rightful rulers of its domains. But we are new on the scene, and even newer around the world, having only ventured permanently out of Africa probably sometime in the last 60,000 to 70,000 years.
In fact, genetic studies now reveal that our ancestors might have dwindled to as few as 10,000 individuals—some say even fewer—making humans as endangered 80,000 years ago as a rhinoceros is today.
Almost everything around you in your bustling everyday lives is owed to the new evolutionary world in which ideas could accumulate on top of ideas, and most of those ideas were first thought up by someone distant to you in time and space.
But we are not primed to acquire any particular culture. The one we do inherit is an arbitrary story, an accident of birth, but it is one to which we show a surprising and sometimes alarming devotion.
There are places all over the world where a child born into one of these religions might peer across a fence at children from another whose parents are sworn enemies of its own, and only then because their parents labelled them.
The question is often asked, What makes us human? Quite apart from its interest to anthropologists and other scholars, it is a question that invades nearly every aspect of our lives, our psychology and behavior.
Here is something we will have to get used to: all of us carry around in our minds something akin to a software “operating system” installed without our consent by our parents and others in our societies. It defines who we are and is our internal voice. It frames our social and cultural identities, and fundamentally influences the course of our lives. No other species has such a system.
The nature of our culture will tell us why we alone as a species have language, why it is that we alone can show kindness to strangers, and even to other animals, but also why we can be callous and murderous.
We will see that our cultures can even get us to kill our own children—so-called honor killings—and at the same time can get us to behave so selflessly that we would have to travel all the way to bees in a hive or to the cells in our body to see anything else like it in nature.
For many people, I think one of the most distinctive and salient features of life in human societies is the sense of belonging to a particular cultural group to which they often feel a surprising attachment and allegiance, one that can even extend in some circumstances to giving up their lives for it.
In countries such as China and India, over 1 billion people fall under the rule of a small elite, and in all of the major countries of the world millions are ruled by a few. That creates a dilemma for the thesis of this book: If humans have evolved a tribal nature that revolves around life in relatively small and exclusive cooperative social groups, how do we explain the enormous social groupings of the modern world—the observation that so many can be willingly led by so few?
For many of us, a slight directed at our culture or even just a piece of cloth that represents it elicits emotions of defensiveness, confrontation, or even aggression. Where do these emotions come from and why do they arise so naturally? The argument of this Prologue—explored in the chapters of Part I—is that culture has worked by coming to exercise a form of mind control over us.
With the advent of culture, another sphere of evolving entities arose that does not share the same route into the future as our genes. This new sphere of evolution was the world of ideas. They are cultural replicators that exist by inhabiting our minds, and their “purpose” is to get us to transmit them to other minds.
Once that idea has lodged in my mind, it might invite other beliefs such as that people who believe in other gods are a threat to me, and to my way of life. And this might make my mind vulnerable to the further idea or meme that people who stop believing in my god, or people who profess a belief in other gods, should be punished, maybe even killed. These memes are structuring my mind and working together to promote each other.
E. O. Wilson once said that people are “just DNA’s way of making more DNA,” and what will emerge throughout the rest of this book is that culture—that software collection of ideas, routines, rituals, and behaviors written into our brains—is the most successful way there has ever been of making more people.
We have good reason to expect that human children have been shaped by natural selection to absorb information about their culture from their parents and other teachers, rather than rely on instincts coded by genes. We have to be that way for the simple reason that we rely more than any other species on the accumulated knowledge of our ancestors to survive and prosper.
Still, it is not enough merely to say that culture has been successful. It would have collapsed long ago as an evolutionary gamble if people could have achieved success without succumbing to its control. In return for this allegiance to culture, we are entitled to expect that it will have evolved ruthlessly to promote our existence.
Realizing that both of these things can be true is a large part of what this book is about.
Wherever humans are found in large numbers the ecological world around them has been stripped of its diversity, with most of the animals and many plants having been driven out or made extinct. Vast swathes of Northern Europe are devoid of nearly all the mammal species that would have been present when modern humans first appeared. It is a trend we have continued right up into the present day.
The title of Rachel Carson’s famous paean to ecology, Silent Spring, is a lament to the near eradication of songbirds in America.
Proponents of what is known as group selection believe that Darwinian evolution can choose among groups, thereby selecting for sets of behaviors that make it likely that one group will outcompete another.
It is an account of our nature and individual psychology which has us content to accept that we are part of a larger organism that looks out for its interests, even if this means sacrificing some of its individuals.
This sense of submerging ourselves in the group is also thought to be why we do such things as help the elderly, give money to charities, put on identical silly shirts to attend football matches, obediently wait in line, and why we positively ripple and snort with righteousness and indignation when we think others don’t do some of these things.
Despite what seems like daily reports of suicide bombings, the numbers of people who do this are negligible compared to those who could if our motivations really were to promote our groups at our own expense.
If we really have evolved to do things for the good of our groups, what are we to make of our tendencies to cheat, deceive, manipulate, and coerce? Why do we need so many laws, police forces, jails, surveillance cameras, and tax offices? Why do we gossip incessantly about others’ behaviors and reputations; why do we compete so strenuously to get ahead and pay so much to get our children educated?
What seems far more likely than that we are somehow nobly disposed to the idea of self-sacrifice is that natural selection has duped us with an emotion that encourages group thinking.
Cooperative altruism of the style we can find in our species has paid handsome dividends in our past—dividends that arise from assembling a powerful and cohesive social vehicle made up of individuals committed to cooperating with each other. It is this that makes human culture the survival vehicle that it is, and we have evolved an entire psychology around it, from our acts of kindness and self-sacrifice to our xenophobia, parochialism, and predilection to war.
The cooperation on which human society rests depends upon exchanges among people, trust, and a sense of fairness, and so we expect those dispositions to be widespread. But of course the more widespread they are, the more they present a target for others to exploit.
Societies might only ever have room for a few sociopaths; but those opportunities will always exist, and that might be why we always seem to find them lurking in boardrooms, running companies, or shouting from a dictator’s pulpit.
Most of us would agree that a society that promotes “equality of opportunity” is a desirable one. But we must also recognize that if there are inherent differences among individuals that make them more or less suited to a particular role or job in society, an inevitable consequence of equality of opportunity is to produce a society differentiated by innate predispositions, a genetic meritocracy. It will produce this meritocracy because equality of opportunity merely ensures that everyone has a fair chance of being delivered to the doorstep of a job or role in society, but does not ensure that everyone has an equal chance of being good at those roles.
Increasingly, there is little need for the backbreaking physical labor that might have built our modern societies, and so little need for the physiques that did this work. Instead, the modern world will call for a more domesticated set of abilities, among them mental agility, concentration, and communication skills. Culture has not yet finished sorting us by our talents.
This account of the evolution of cultural forms treats our minds as passive receptacles. But of course they are not. We have biases in the ways our minds work, and we have likes and dislikes.
Our biases extend to religions, where all or nearly all of them draw on a restricted range of typically human forms with magical powers, such as the ability to be everywhere at once; they can subvert causation, pass through physical barriers, or create something out of nothing. All or nearly all promise things that we can never attain on our own, such as salvation, redemption, or immortality, and for which demand is unquenchable. But why do religions so often take these particular forms, usually headed up by a God who has a purpose? Ironically, the answer might lie in the nature of our minds as organs designed by natural selection to understand our world.
Or, as Voltaire put it, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” *
Still, how can we so easily and uncritically accept this sort of religious stance when it asks us to believe things that are palpably false—that there are beings that can pass through walls, have no weight, live forever, and otherwise break the laws of physics
n pass through walls, have no weight, live forever, and otherwise break the laws of physics.
To a thirsty person, unable to predict when the next rain will fall on their parched savannah landscape, whatever they happen to be doing just before it does finally come might come to be associated with making it happen, and in the blink of an eye a religious or superstitious belief would be born.
We have a great ability to use our behaviors to change our world, and ways that suit us, and so natural selection will have strongly favored dispositions to have hunches and to try things out.
Some religions get people to hug trees or to worship animals, to hit themselves with sticks, recite mantras, starve themselves, prance around, and move their bodies from side to side. They also get us to perform strange rituals of bowing, genuflecting, burning incense, chanting and singing in special buildings we call churches, all in the hope of bringing about things we want to happen, but which are utterly out of our control.
To expect that only “good” things will evolve is to miss an important point about Darwinian evolution. Natural selection does not wear moral glasses; it promotes collections of genes and ideas that triumph in competition with other collections of genes and ideas.
If religion has been an enhancer in our past—a bit of social technology—we shouldn’t look to understand its grip on us by expecting it to do good.
Their particular forms might have evolved because they have proven to be good at giving us courage and hope, at coordinating our actions, uniting us against common foes, controlling weaker people, or suppressing those we think challenge the norms that glue society together, even if these norms are arbitrary. Then, those individuals and the societies that adopted them would have been at an advantage over those who did not.
The message for societies is clear: groups that can somehow come up with psychological and social mechanisms that strengthen the links among people will be at an advantage over less strongly linked groups. The second message is that conflict is an endlessly creative force of evolution because once one set of cooperative ventures arises, another might follow, and then these two might compete.
There will always be a temptation to render your rivals impotent or even to destroy them, and the payoffs for doing so can be great. So, we don’t expect conflicts to disappear. But we can expect the constant force of conflict to create increasingly sophisticated acts of cooperation, not just because it is nice to be nice, but because this cooperation can serve everyone’s interests.
An optimist would say that the course of our recent history has been one of increasing interdependence, cooperation, and reduced violence around the world. Together, the institutions and the norms that emerge from interdependence can reach to the highest level of worldwide cooperation. In 2010, the nation of Greece was bailed out of a financial crisis by the alliance of nations known as the European Union, followed by a similar bailout of Ireland in 2011. These nations are all economic competitors but recognize that financial instability in Greece and Ireland is bad for everyone’s economy, for the simple reason that all of the economies of the European Union trade with each other—their fates are interdependent.
There will always be a conflict of interest between doing what is best for you and your kin and doing what is best for your group. The more you do for yourself, the worse your group might perform; but the more you do for your group, the worse off you and your family might be.
This leaves people in a quandary. If you have to share your resources, and you really can’t get away with cheating, or at least not very often, there is very little incentive to get up off the ground and do much. In the modern world, we might recognize this problem in the controversy surrounding public benefits.
The message is that if you can get more out of being an altruist than you can out of looking after your own well-being, you will choose the former. You are willing to contribute to the public good because the benefits you derive from doing so are distinct from and thereby in addition to any “good” you might get from the public good:
The wider picture of this public-spirited behavior is that our psychology has been shaped by the fact that our cultures have acted as units for our survival in a way that strongly linked our fates, and these are the conditions that favor public-spirited dispositions.
You can actually do things that provide direct benefits to the group and at a cost to you, because those costs are more than erased by the enhancement of your reputation. As soon as this becomes possible, you might be encouraged to become public-minded about just about anything you were particularly good at because you can sell it for reputation points in your community.
We have seen the terrible violence that human groups are capable of directing at one another, and speculated that parochialism might be an emotion that arises to make it more likely you will vanquish a competing group in battle. And we have seen how false beliefs about another group can indeed make it easier to conduct violence against them.
You and the members of your cooperative group know that the people in another group have formed their own allegiances: these people by being committed to their group have positively demonstrated their lack of commitment to yours.
Our success as a species has lain in using our cooperative group to generate shared knowledge and technology. This shared resource clothes and feeds us, it protects us, it puts a roof over our heads, and it allows us to project ourselves into new territories. Would you give away things of such value without a fight or even just inadvertently to the wrong people?
It bothers us because as human beings it conflicts so directly with our self-image as good and cooperative people.
We are the only animal that continually constructs new lifestyles and ways of life on a scaffolding of progressive cultural evolution.
Our brains, at around 3.25 pounds (1,400–1,500 grams), are three to four times the size of a chimpanzee’s or a gorilla’s brain. They are the largest brain for a given body size of any animal known, roughly seven to eight times larger than expected of a typical 130–180-pound mammal. A giraffe’s neck, long as it is, is not seven or eight times longer than that of a comparably sized grazing animal such as an eland.
Our individual capacity for inventiveness, even in the sciences, might be far less developed than we like to think. In the entire history of science and natural philosophy, the list of people whose ideas have profoundly shaped our lives is short.
As our societies become ever more connected and “globalized” it will become increasingly easy for most of us not to innovate at all—to become intellectually lazy and docile, at least in matters of inventiveness. The irony is that this might be happening at a time when more innovation is needed than ever before just to maintain the levels of prosperity many of us already enjoy, and to raise it for those who have, up to now, been less fortunate.
If individual inventiveness per se hasn’t played the role in shaping our intelligence that we might have thought, a capability that is difficult for others to copy by social learning might have. That capability might turn out to be our social intelligence.
If you can’t simply copy social intelligence, then your only alternative is to become a social innovator, working out for yourself how to manipulate society, and this requires a big socially intelligent brain. This is just the opposite of what we concluded for inventiveness, where most of us can get by just fine copying others.
This pressure to be able to think about and imagine what is going on in the mind of your competitor may have been the force that gave rise in humans to what we now recognize as our conscious minds. With consciousness, an animal can “bring to mind” the things it ought to be thinking about, consider alternatives, and devise plans.
The trend for culture to select our genes by domesticating us means that modern humans are far more closely related on many of their genes than the passage of time might suggest. The reason is that “natural selection” is really just a euphemism for selective death. Strong selection means those who lack certain combinations of genes are more likely to die before reproducing, while those lucky few who have them become the progenitors of the rest of us.
Our genome is made up of about 3.3 billion of the chemicals called bases or nucleotides. It turns out that a mutation or change to a single one of them confers the ability to digest milk as an adult.
Chances are that if you see someone near you drinking a latte and you are both either of European or African ancestry, the two of you will share a very recent common ancestor—someone who probably lived in the last few thousand years and was lucky enough to have had this gene. There could not be a clearer demonstration of the power of human culture to shape and select our genes.
Crime has been falling steadily for at least 1,000 years, and we have every reason to believe that it has been falling for the last 10,000 years, or ever since we began to live in larger communities. Remarkable statistics kept for the last millennium in the United Kingdom show that crime rates have declined throughout that period, and have shown especially sharp drops at periods in history when militias or other gun-bearing groups have been disarmed.
Violent and antisocial people are increasingly being pushed to the margins of society, where they have fewer job prospects and fewer opportunities to reproduce. They may be put in jail, or even executed. The world can sometimes seem a violent place, but we are steadily becoming a more democratic and peaceful species, more cooperative, kinder, more empathetic, and more generous, descended from more aggressive ancestors in our not-too-distant past.
You posses the most powerful, dangerous, and subversive trait that natural selection has ever devised. It is a piece of neural-audio technology for rewiring other people’s minds. You have a way to implant thoughts and ideas from your mind directly into someone else’s mind, and they can attempt to do the same to you, without either of you having to perform surgery. Instead, natural selection has equipped you with an apparatus for producing action at a distance. It is not a roar or a bark, but something far more sophisticated. It is your language...
We use our language to be deceptive or charming, kind and forgiving, or spiteful and vindictive. We use it to manipulate or bewitch others, to collude with them, or to foster or defuse factional disputes. We use language to embroider and exaggerate our own dossiers and gently diminish or disparage those of others. We alter our speech or dialect strategically—linguists call this code switching—to signal our connection to a group or individual.
Just as wings open up an entirely new sphere to be exploited, language opened up the sphere of cooperation, and genes for human language would have quickly spread.
Increasingly, cognitive science teaches us that our perceptions and memories are not just fallible; they are stories our brain concocts to prop up our egos, justify our decisions, and condone our actions. They are the stories we want to see and hear and they often bear little resemblance to what “really” happened.
For the religious philosopher Martin Buber, the “I and thou” expressed our relationship to the eternal thou or God, but we can easily imagine that “thou” to be our genes. They are the truly eternal players that our minds will have had to answer to, having been engaged in a struggle for survival since long before the continents separated into what we know as our modern Earth.
For one, the inner “I” that you think you know so well probably doesn’t exist. It is an illusion, the construction of a mind that is in turn a construction of its genes, genes that have been selected to produce brains that further their ends.
Those brains will use false beliefs, copying, lies, deception, self-deception, and just about anything else they can lay their neuronal hands on to promote our—and consequently their—survival and reproduction.
The unease or alarm such a thought can cause is only alarming so long as we cling to the reality of this “I” that we think exists inside us, rather than concentrating on what really matters to genes, which is to develop strategies that promote their survival.
Our social organization, based on cooperation with people we are not related to, means that we engage in a nearly continuous stream of exchanges of favors, goods, and services. Successfully deceiving others can therefore produce a nearly continuous stream of rewards as we tip these exchanges in our favor, getting just that little bit more of our share of the benefits of cooperation from each of them.
On the other hand, if deception can return the rewards we think it does, then natural selection will also have favored keen abilities for detecting it.
Whereas deception is a “zero-sum” interaction—someone must lose when you gain—cooperation is a “win-win” strategy.
In cities all over the world millions of people live and work side by side ruled by a small elite, and in countries such as China and India over 1 billion people fall under the rule of a few.
There is something both strange and remarkable about this behavior: hypersocial and hyper-orderly. Apart from the social insects, no other animals can work together in such large numbers.
And yet this poses a dilemma for one of the main ideas of this book: nothing in our evolutionary history specifically prepared us for this. If humans evolved a tribal nature that revolves around life in relatively small and exclusive cooperative societies, how do we explain the enormous social groupings of the modern world in which so many can be so willingly led by so few?
Paul Seabright in The Company of Strangers suggests that human societies have been able to grow large because we have acquired an ability to trust strangers.
Rather, what we have acquired throughout our brief evolution is a taste for the benefits of cooperation and some rules that can make it work in the right circumstances. Thus, when we do appear to trust strangers, it is probably because they are not really strangers—we know or think we know something about them, the institutions they work for, or we think there are institutions such as the police, banks, or insurance companies ready to protect us from them.
We learn from this that our capacity to live and work in large societies exploits the tactics we have acquired throughout our evolution for making cooperation work, and even then we begin with the most tentative of exchanges. So, if nothing in our evolutionary history specifically prepared us to live in large societies, almost everything about the way culture works does.
One of the remarkable discoveries of the field of study known as complex systems is how order, or what physicists term a lack of entropy, can be created out of seeming randomness by individuals or agents following a small number of very simple local rules, and without anyone specifying in advance what the outcome will be.
As we have seen in nearly every chapter of this book, many of the features and processes that make our bodies work have been rediscovered by cultural evolution.
If the properties of self-organization tell us how it is we can produce large societies and develop within them merely by following local rules, they cannot tell us why we allow them to grow so large and be led by so few. So we need to know why large societies of people in their millions or even billions have been useful when our pattern and our instincts throughout our history have been to live in small tribal societies.
Why have humans so willingly allowed themselves to be taken over in these large societies by a small number of leaders who often wear absurd costumes, demand taxes and the performance of ridiculous rituals, and make questionable claims to be connected to the gods?
Here we must remind ourselves that large societies don’t exist for the good of the masses, but because we as individuals get more out of them than we would from a smaller grouping or even no grouping at all. So, there is no expectation that the leaders that emerge in the new chiefdoms and nation-states will be fair-minded, equitable, or even moral. We expect that the most charismatic, socially shrewd, sociopathic, and powerful will rise to the top and do everything they can to enshrine their rule, even becoming kleptocrats along the way to whatever extent they can get away with it.
One of the themes of this book is that the cooperative enterprise of society is always finely balanced between the benefits that derive from cooperation on the one hand and the benefits that derive from trying to subvert the system toward your own gain without being caught or overpowered.
Having abolished precisely those features of our social lives that have motivated our cooperative societies throughout our history, it should not surprise us that no authoritarian or planned state has ever flourished.
What our history has demonstrated is that we humans will get along with anyone who wishes to play the cooperative game with us. The returns of cooperation, trade, and exchange that derive from that part of our nature have historically trumped our guesswork based on markers of ethnicity or other features. And they always will.
The key is to provide or somehow create among people stronger clues of trust and common values than might otherwise be suggested by the highly imprecise markers of ethnicity or cultural differences that we have used throughout our history, and then to encourage the conditions that give people a sense of shared purpose and shared outcomes.