Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind

Mark Pagel

My review 2023-04-28

Mark Pagel writes well about how culture is a central feature in an evolutionary understanding of Homo sapiens. Altruism, selfishness, group formation, compassion, enmity and many other topics are discussed from the evolutionary point of view. Culture has emerged out of human sociality, but as any emergent phenomenon, it partially transcends its origins, and becomes a force of its own.

Pagel argues that once culture got started, maybe 200,000 years ago, it quickly caused a very strong evolutionary pressure for humans to become better at interacting with each other in a cultural setting. Culture became a new, vast ecological niche. The changes accelerated by approximately 40,00 years ago, and Pagel speculates that this is due to strong selection for cultural competence.

The discussion stresses the conflicts between different strategies and solutions to problems of cooperation and survival that is the human condition. There is a strong undercurrent in much political philosophy that there is - has to be - some kind of unity underlying the awful complexity o the conflict-ridden reality. This book carefully explains why this is not so. "Our societies are perched on a shaky pillar of conflicting interests." Our excellent cooperation skills may be due to the conflicts between groups that occur routinely in our social lives.

Pagel discusses creativity in a particularly sharp way. We humans are not masters of creativity. Rather, our culture relies on us being extremely good imitators and learners, rather than inventors of new ideas. We are hyper-imitators, often copying actions that are not strictly necessary to achieve a specific goal.

There are many more topics covered in this book. It is worth reading.