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by Mark Pagel

It appears that society’s culture vulture, that highbrow zenith of our civilized world, actually belongs at the other end of our timeline out of the primeval sludge. They now say it was arguably our lust for culture that calmed the savage breast and civilized us… not vice versa. So all of you knuckle-draggers out there who dismiss culture as elitist and exclusive better pick up your nearest fiddle and bang out some Mendelssohn. After all you wouldn’t want to get left behind now would you?

As I write, I am on a train whizzing through the English countryside watching scenes float past my window that could be straight from a Constable painting. I am on my way to a literary festival in the beautiful ‘Lake District’ region to talk about my book, Wired for Culture. My publishers have been good enough to plump for a first class rail ticket, and so it is quiet. I sit at a reasonably sized table, coffee is served, there is an electrical socket on the wall and the train even has WiFi. So, my laptop is plugged in, emails regularly ‘ping’ into my inbox, and texts ‘buzz’ into my cell phone.

I glance at a few of the slides I will use in my talk – just pretty pictures really, no daunting tables or figures – and my eyes fall on a pair of photos I use of chimpanzees. In one they are using sticks to ‘fish’ for termites, and in the other they are cracking open nuts with a rock. We are often told this ‘tool use’ is evidence of their great intelligence, and we are increasingly reminded that we are over 98% identical to the chimpanzees in the sequences of our genes – our two evolutionary lineages having separated from a common ancestor only around six million years ago, a mere blink of the eye when stacked against the 3.8 billion years there has been life on Earth.

But has the subversive thought ever entered your mind that if these chimpanzees really are intelligent, why do they use sticks to get termites and rocks to crack open nuts? Why don’t they dig the termites out with a shovel or just call in to the local store and buy a bag of nuts? After all, that’s what we do. If we really are just jumped-up chimpanzees, why this great technological divide between us and them? Why do we have trains with WiFi, cell phones, toasters, space-shuttles and nano-scale technology, and most of these things in the last few decades alone, while the chimpanzees remain largely unchanged?

For most people the answer is simple – we are smarter than them. Okay, but what do we mean by that? Can you, for example, start a fire without matches? Do you know which mushrooms you can eat from the forest? Could you make a shoe? Do you know what the best mortgage or life insurance policy is? And do you even have the faintest idea how your cell phone works or what is really going on at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva?

We are intelligent, but as these examples show, our intelligence doesn’t simply grant us the ability to think hard about things and get the right answer. Instead, it turns out that our intelligence arises from an ability in our species to pool our ideas – to acquire, as it were, a ‘collective intelligence’ or a vast shared brain. This collective intelligence represents a uniquely human ‘capacity for culture’.

Sometime around 160,000 to 200,000 years ago when our species first emerged on the African savannah, we created a new kind of evolution. Alone among all animals, humans can acquire knowledge, beliefs, and practices merely from watching others. This simple step opened up a vast cultural space because ideas could now jump directly from one mind to another, with good ideas being retained, others being improved, and yet others discarded. Minds sorted among ideas as natural selection sorts among genes.
Over time, and by a process of ideas accumulating one on top of another, humans have been able to build objects of great complexity and sophistication. First it was simple hand axes. These gave way to shaped clubs, blades, spears, bows and arrows, nets, and clothing. When someone had the idea to combine a shaped club with a hand axe the first hafted axe was born.

This human capacity for culture creates an unbridgeable gap in the evolutionary potential between us and all other animals. Where all other species are limited to the parts of the world their genes adapt them to, our ability to adapt at the cultural level – by acquiring local knowledge, by building shelters, or working out how to hunt the local animals – allowed our species to walk out of Africa sometime around 60,000 years ago and go on to occupy nearly every environment on Earth. By comparison, we could go away for a million years and the chimpanzees would still be fishing for termites with the same old sticks and cracking open nuts with the same old rocks.

Today you inherit a vast cultural knowledge in much the same way that you inherit your genes, it is just that your ‘cultural genome’ is handed down the generations from mind to mind. And, just as you probably have little or no understanding of how your genes build and operate your body, most of us have little or no understanding of where most things in our societies come from. You are almost certainly carrying around in your pockets or in your handbags and briefcases objects that have been produced by cumulative cultural adaptation which no single person on Earth could produce. Even something as simple as a pencil requires the knowledge and technology of many people.

So, human culture has been a development of revolutionary social and genetic effect, easily the most potent trait the world has ever known for converting new lands and resources into more humans, and their genes. This was an evolutionary bandwagon worth jumping on. It tells us to expect that the defining features of our nature will be found in a suite of social and psychological traits we have acquired for living in the prosperous social environments of human culture, and not in or shared history with the other animals.

What form might that uniquely human nature take? Our capacity to share ideas has meant that humans have reaped great benefits from pooling their knowledge, wisdom and skills. So those of us who had the social tendencies to cooperate would have been at an advantage, leaving more children than our more solitary minded or greedy contemporaries; children who would have inherited our social tendencies.

Added to this cooperative nature, as our species marched out of Africa to occupy the world, it did so in small tribal societies that would have been in competition with others like themselves. As a result, humans have developed a unique set of dispositions for defending their groups because it is that very group that has historically provided them with the protection, knowledge and cooperative society needed to survive and prosper.

We see these dispositions today in that we are oddly group-focused as a species, capable of great acts of coordination. We think nothing of wearing matching silly shirts to sporting events. We are altruistic to a fault, routinely holding doors for people, giving up seats on trains, contributing to charities and even risking our health and well-being for others – as when we jump into a river to save someone from drowning. We might even risk our lives fighting for our countries in a war. You will not see any of this in a chimpanzee.

At the same time, we are only too aware of our dual moral nature. Capable on the one hand of extreme kindness, we can abandon that kindness in an instant, treating other members of our species as sub-human in our tendencies to be wary of strangers, or in our xenophobia, bigotry or extreme acts of violence in war. Just compare your emotions at the news of one of your own country’s soldiers dying in battle, to those you feel when another country’s soldiers are killed.

Both these sides of our nature are dispositions and emotions we have acquired to make the cooperative ‘vehicles’ that were the tribal societies of our past, work for us. So, how will this tribal psychology play out in our modern, globalized and interconnected world, in which more than ever before, people of different backgrounds find themselves living side by side and in ever larger social groups?

Ironically, it is our evolved tribal nature that offers a glimmer of hope. The reason is this: if nothing in our evolutionary history specifically prepared us for the modern world we now inhabit, it turns out that everything about the way human culture works does. Cooperation in other animals is limited largely to helping relatives, but we have been positively selected to develop the rules that allow us to share ideas, thoughts and skills.

This unique ‘ultra-sociality’ borne of our capacity for culture is why we can live in large social groups, walking among millions of people who are effectively strangers, so long as we are convinced they are playing by the same social rules as us. If you take this for granted, imagine 100,000 hyenas in Times Square.

The next century is going to be a time of great uncertainty and upheaval as resources, money and space become ever more scarce. It is going to be a bumpy road with many setbacks and conflicts. But if there was ever a species that could tackle these challenges it is our own. It might be surprising, but our genes, in the form of our capacity for culture, have created in us a machine capable of greater cooperation, inventiveness and common good than any other on Earth.