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20160813 Wired for culture



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The main idea here is to review balance of power between genetic makeup of humans and cultural constructions that they create and internalize via socialization. Based on the review of history of human biological and cultural development author proposes general solution to the problem of creating stable and effective society through self-organization of free individuals with common objectives and shared results.



At the beginning author provides an interesting summary of culture: everything that humans do and monkeys don’t. After that, however author moves to clarify that he sees humans as carriers of two somewhat supplemental, but somewhat contradictory informational sets: one defined by genes and another defined by memes or in other words by culture. The human history could be seen as process of change of balance of power between these two sets with culture slowly taking upper hand not only by defining human actions, but also by creating completely new artificial environment that did no exist in nature. This fact should be considered the main differentiation of humans: other animals mainly adapt to existing environment, while humans consciously build their environment within framework of nature. Author introduces notion of small tribe as cultural survival vehicle built on the top of human bodies that are physical survival vehicles.


PART I Mind Control, Protection, and Prosperity

This part is to answer question of how our cultures have been able to organize us into small tribal groups: cultural survival vehicles.

CHAPTER 1: The Occupation of the World

This chapter starts with review of human biological history including multiple relatives such as Neanderthals then switching to history of humans expansion throughout the world and elimination of all competitors for the same ecological niches – the process accompanied by constant generation of new cultures and languages within confines of small tribes. Here author’s attention is directed at development of multiple cultures as survival vehicles based on genetic functionality of humans that allows acquiring language, ideas, and norms of behavior from whatever culture they are born into, essentially becoming an integral part of the tribe. Author also looks at culture’s impact on flow of genes and flow of information and ideas both inside and outside tribe. The final point is that humans not only were able to support demographic rule of two (meaning stable numbers of people in next generation), but dramatically exceeded it, multiplying all over the planet in nearly infinite number of local ecological niches.

CHAPTER 2: Ultra-sociality and the Cultural Survival Vehicle

This starts with discussion of visual theft when observers copy some invention or process without any benefits for inventor. Author calls this social learning and defines humanity as ultra-social species versus eusocial insects. From here author traces development of cooperation and its biological roots – all the way from DNA-RNA “cooperation” to complex patterns of cooperation and altruism between humans.

CHAPTER 3: The Domestication of Our Talents

This is somewhat unusual and interesting approach to role of individual within society. Author characterizes humans as domesticated to fulfill a specific role in the society mainly via division of labor, which opens opportunities for individuals to use their specific abilities to maximize both total resource generation in society and their own share of these resources. This follows by usual discussion about born vs. made with reasonable conclusion that it is both. The final part is about cultural impact on our genetic evolution and discussion of future technological feasibility to actually define our own genetic makeup.

CHAPTER 4: Religion and Other Cultural “Enhancers”

This chapter looks at what author calls cultural enhancers: religion, art, music, and such. All these enhancers create environment that provides necessary intellectual and psychological benefits (brain candy) from belonging to some specific cultural tradition. Author pays special attention to ideological, mainly religious part of culture to discuss potential pluses and minuses for individuals and, most important, cultural survival of the group as unique entity clearly distinct from any other similar entity of humans.


PART II Cooperation and our Cultural Nature

This part is an analysis of cooperation between individuals often completely unrelated as key to effectiveness of culture for survival.

CHAPTER 5: Reciprocity and the Shadow of the Future

This chapter looks at reciprocity as a source of cooperation. Initially it is somewhat going into linguistics analyzing the phrase “God Save The Queen” as set of replicators where each word can survive only as a part of the phrase. After that it goes into 4 modes of being social: altruism, selfishness, spitefulness, and beneficial cooperation as in prisoners dilemma. Author highlights a strategy that he believes moved humanity for a long time: win-stay and lose-shift. Also the issue of fairness and trust is analyzed as a beneficial set of rules that support intragroup cohesion.

CHAPTER 6: Green Beards and the Reputation Marketplace

This is analysis of individual evaluation method of reputation as the tool necessary for cooperation. The analysis here is based on hypothetical scenarios such as green beard being genetically assigned symbol for specific behavior. The analysis goes through multiple behavioral patterns: nationalism, reputation development and marketplace, morality, shame, self-sacrifice, parochialism, and xenophobia. All these are tools used to achieve effective cooperation, which is the key to our success as species.

CHAPTER 7: Hostile Forces

This chapter is about conflict and it starts with an interesting idea that the main function of our big brain is to handle interactions and conflict of interests within and without groups of our species, rather than manage interactions with nature and environmental forces. Our huge advantage obtained from this highly expensive part of our bodies is ability for social learning and accumulation of knowledge and know how that allow us not only adjust to existing environment, but also change environment to adjust to our preferences. Author stresses two important characteristics of humans: the first is that social knowledge became so complex that nobody really has complete knowledge of any technology and the second that we are still in process of continuing evolution that could be accelerating with our newly acquired ability to consciously direct it.


PART III The Theatre of the Mind

This part analyses how culture formed individual ability to use it in order to obtain advantage in resource acquisition.

CHAPTER 8: Human Language – The Voice of Our Genes

This is an analysis of human language and its use. An interesting point here is that humans are the only beings that have something to talk about: stories about past that allow reordering of experiences real or imagined, which in turn allow planning and design of future actions. Author goes a bit into biological details of DNA and their relation to language. There is also discussion about power of the language with reference to Cyrano de Bergerac and language role in forming and maintaining our identity. The final and quite interesting point is about extinguishing of languages and increasing use of English as lingua franca of the world, but not in its pure form, but as a skeleton language around which continuously growing flesh of adapted words and rules develops a natural universal language of humanity.

CHAPTER 9: Deception, Consciousness, and Truth

This chapter uses quite interesting approach to use of language. It looks at it not as communication tools that supposed to transfer truthful information, but as cooperation tool that used to build believes and actions instrumental for our survival. Whether communications transferred between individuals are truthful, deceitful, or anything in between is actually irrelevant as long as objective of survival is achieved. Here author looks at stories of use of deception by criminals, spouses, and even by newly born babies. Babies’ deception is genetically based: all babies are born looking the same and only after few months of development they begin demonstrating individual similarities to their parents. It seems to serve purpose to prevent rejection by adult males who could have doubts about their parenthood. The baby who was able to hide similarities to other man from father of the family long enough to create reliable bond, has better chances to survive. Another interesting discussion here is about self-awareness and self-deception both of which could be powerful tools for survival.


PART IV The Many and the Few

The final chapter is trying to understand how humans who are optimized for live in small tribal groups manage to create large scale stable societies that includes billions of individuals who generally accept rule of small elite and more often than not comply with rules established and directives issued by this elite.

CHAPTER 10: Termite Mounds and the Exploitation of Our Social Instincts

Author compares large-scale societies with termite mounds and tries to identify difference in mechanisms that make multitude of humans and termites work together. He looks at idea of trust to others, but rejects it as unrealistic. He seems to prefer explanation of cultural experience of interaction with others when people learned how interact by looking at interactions between others. Actually this is mechanism well developed in small tribal societies that practically scale-free. Typically we behave as is we live in small tribal society with dynamically changed personalities who behave according to specific roles. However author points out that our ability to create large-scale societies does not explains why they were created. After that author discusses role of local rules in self-organization of large-scale societies and economy of scale that seems to be promoting increase in size. Author also looks at mechanics of dictatorial regimes and their live cycles, especially revolutionary processes just before regime dissolution. Finally author discusses individual behavior in the group, specifically subordination to authority, rejection of authority and social ties between people that pretty much define societies. The final world about effective scale-free society construction is: “creation of strong clues of trust and common values and then encourage the conditions that give people a sense of shared purpose and outcome”.


It’s very nice review of cultural development of humanity with, also very nice, recommendations of what needs to be achieved. However it is not going into issue how to achieve it. The idea of continuing recombination of genetic and cultural characteristic in various forms of human society is quite interesting and could be a source of large-scale research on actual historical societies and how they were using specific genes and cultural memes during their live cycles. If it were done, we would probably find quite a few similarities in process of society formation, development, maturity, and eventual destruction, leading to better understanding of processes in our own society and, hopefully, better management of its live cycle.


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