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20170211 – Not by Genes Alone





Culture is the necessary feature of human existence and has deep biological roots providing for coevolution of individual and group with successful group supporting genetic selection of the most fitting individuals, while at the same time providing much more flexible and adaptable set of features supporting group’s cultural survival.


Chapter 1 Culture Is Essential

The nature of culture as essential feature of human condition is demonstrated here by looking at well-established and well-known pattern of US Southern vs. Northern Culture. The key points here are:

  • Culture is critical for understanding human behavior
  • Culture is part of biology

The way it works is this: humans genetically predisposed to acquire cultural patterns of behavior from other humans during their childhood and maturation. After such patterns acquired and fully established, they define biological reaction of human organism consistent with this patterns. For example a casual insult to Southerner causes immediate activation of biological response to fighting situation, while similar insult goes practically unnoticed by Northerner’s organism.

Authors provide a nice definition of culture as “information capable of effecting individual’s behavior that they acquire from other members of their species through teaching, imitation, and other forms of social transmission.”

The core theory of culture that authors are supporting is population thinking, that is thinking about a group and its characteristics as much as about individual. They also discuss link between cultural characteristics and individual characteristics formed by genetic and cultural evolutions correspondingly. The connection is strong and clearly has two way character when survival of individual and survival of the group interdependent, albeit not always simultaneous. Generally effective group outcompete less effective, but then normally provides opportunity for inclusion for individuals from defeated group. At the same time individual belonging to winning group quite often had to forfeit individual survival for the sake of the group. This creates an interesting interplay between features promoting individual and group survival.

This logic goes back all the way to Darwin who clearly understood connection between individual and group with culture being practically all covering media between them. However his thought was pretty much ignored by social sciences.

Chapter 2 Culture Exists

The main point here is rejection of popular view that culture is not important and analysis should start and pretty much end at the level of individual. The reasons provided in order to reject this view are:

  • Cultural differences account for much of human variation
  • The “common garden experiment’ – mental experiment of transfer individual between drastically different environments demonstrates impossibility of survival without possession of appropriate culture.
  • Example of natural experiment provided: variance in behavioral patterns between farmers of different cultural background in the same natural environment in Illinois
  • Natural experiment of group competition between Noer and Dinka in Africa
  • Multiple other examples.

Most important inferences: environment does not explain difference between group in full despite little to none differences in genetic makeup.

Authors also look at dynamic development of culture and find multiple samples of group evolution either internally driven or via process of adaptation from other more successful groups. Also important point is that culture normally evolves via small changes that happen all the time, leading eventually to huge variances in cultures that allow explaining magnitude of human variations.

Chapter 3 Culture Evolves

This is about process of culture evolvement or in other words evolvement of information content of brains that consequently expressed in behavior of these brains owners. Authors look at the acquisition process for believes, skills, and attitudes that actually are culture and define behavior. Here is a nice graphic presentation of the process:



Chapter 4 Culture Is an Adaptation

This chapter is designed to prove that the meaning of culture is adaptation for the group. This is different from usual perception that culture just simplifies individual learning by postulated higher level of knowledge than individual brain is capable of obtaining, leading to qualitative difference between individual and group adaptations. Here are main points that authors make:

  • Culture is derived trait in humans
  • Social transmission of behavior is common, but much more complex in humans than in other animals
  • Cumulative cultural evolution is practically unique for humans
  • Cultural transmission based on imitation with selective learning that allows for cumulative improvement
  • Culture is adaptable when learning is difficult and environment is unpredictable.

Authors discuss how culture had evolved and present and interesting idea that it could be because of dramatic increase in climate fluctuations making quick adjustment to a change via cultural modification on the same genetically unchanged basis effective tool for survival of human species. Here is graph demonstrating that such increase in fluctuations coincides with human development:


Chapter 5 Culture Is Maladaptive

This chapter is about another side of the story: culture can easily be maladaptive and there are multiple examples of this. Authors point out that it is quite similar to individual evolution when change is tested by environment that define validity of the change whether it increases chances for survival, decreases them or just neutral. They review multiple samples of adaptation and maladaptation driven by culture. The main conclusion here is that culture is built for speed not comfort.

Chapter 6 Culture and Genes Coevolve

This is about coevolution meaning that some cultural features cause genetic selection starting with typical example of lactose tolerance mutation clearly connected to cultural development of animal husbandry. Authors provide quite detailed analysis of egoism vs. selfless behavior within group and then discuss survival rates of groups as continuing process of selection most fitting cultural features. One interesting thing is that failure of a group not necessarily means extinction of its members. Much more typical is incorporation of members of failed group into the winning group with superior cultural features. The final point is that our modern institutions are based on tribal social instincts and that cultural and genetic evolution is practically indivisible and represents one process, albeit clearly two-sided.

Chapter 7 Nothing About Culture Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution

The final chapter is designed mainly as response to the question: is dual inheritance theory the proper theory of cultural evolution? The obvious response is yes. It also calls for synthetic theory of human behavior that would include both micro and macro influences that define behavior according to genes, environment and individual psychology, but also includes macro impact from the culture of the group.

The final word is that key for understanding is evolution both genetic and cultural.


This book contains the great amount of supporting scientific material for my believe that human individuals being the product of combination of genes and environment, which to very high degree is defined by the culture of the group individual belongs to. However I would be very careful in applying mathematical methods just because the level of complexity is incredibly high. For beginning in contemporary world individual belongs to a multitude of groups by nationality, ethnicity, locations, and such. It is quite common for individual to go through multiple locations in different periods of live and so on. We’ve got far away from formative experiences of our first 90,000 years as humans, when we lived in the simple world of one person – one group at the time. I think it would take a lot more complex analysis and research to understand dynamics of constantly changing hierarchy of groups and loyalty to them that impact both formation of individual psychological self and everyday behavior in continuously changing circumstances. However the main dynamic: individual survival in interplay with group cultural survival remains key feature of human behavior.


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