The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

by Joseph Henrich

Paperback, 2017


Princeton University Press (2017), Edition: Reprint, 464 pages


"Humans are a puzzling species. On the one hand, we struggle to survive on our own in the wild, often failing to overcome even basic challenges, like obtaining food, building shelters, or avoiding predators. On the other hand, human groups have produced ingenious technologies, sophisticated languages, and complex institutions that have permitted us to successfully expand into a vast range of diverse environments. What has enabled us to dominate the globe, more than any other species, while remaining virtually helpless as lone individuals? This book shows that the secret of our success lies not in our innate intelligence, but in our collective brains--on the ability of human groups to socially interconnect and learn from one another over generations. Drawing insights from lost European explorers, clever chimpanzees, mobile hunter-gatherers, neuroscientific findings, ancient bones, and the human genome, Joseph Henrich demonstrates how our collective brains have propelled our species' genetic evolution and shaped our biology. Our early capacities for learning from others produced many cultural innovations, such as fire, cooking, water containers, plant knowledge, and projectile weapons, which in turn drove the expansion of our brains and altered our physiology, anatomy, and psychology in crucial ways. Later on, some collective brains generated and recombined powerful concepts, such as the lever, wheel, screw, and writing, while also creating the institutions that continue to alter our motivations and perceptions. Henrich shows how our genetics and biology are inextricably interwoven with cultural evolution, and how culture-gene interactions launched our species on an extraordinary evolutionary trajectory. Tracking clues from our ancient past to the present, The Secret of Our Success explores how the evolution of both our cultural and social natures produce a collective intelligence that explains both our species' immense success and the origins of human uniqueness."--provided by publisher.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member ben_a
Excellent non-fiction on the concept of cultural learning, cultural evolution, and gene-culture interaction. Henrich argues that the success of the human species derives from the capacity to pass on complex cultural information and practices, and that this capability must be understood as a
Show More
selected trait. He makes a compelling case, and one studded with wonderful pieces of detail. My favorite was the pellagra story: detoxification rituals (which pre-columbian cultures used to un-fix niacin in corn and avoid pellagra), and then how Goldberger finally traced the cause. But there were a number of others -- the co-evolution of exhaustion hunting with water containers, tracking, and target identification, the unfortunate Tasmanians who *lost fire* and the Inuit who (post an epidemic) lost fishing tridents and kayaks.

Some thoughts/criticism:
1. Chili in food as an analogy for morality. It starts as an unpleasant necessity, but becomes an acquired taste.
2. Henrich over-eggs the argument. Cultural learning is a tremendous boon. But humans are also smarter than chimps. Henrich makes much of the struggles of fish-out-of water westerners set down in hostile environments. Sure, but let's see how a chimp does when dropped on an ice floe.
3. The augury as a randomization tool argument I just don't buy. It's ingenious (randomization is hard, behavioral biases could be maladaptive) but it's just a bit too neat, and I would want more correlation between the practices where randomization helps and the practice of augury. Henrich refers to some -- but it does not mesh with my understanding of Greek and Roman augury, which seemed to be used all the time for crackpot purposes. (I should ask Tim!).
4. If you train up chimps and then test them against human infants, you have my respect. But Henrich also cites many social-psych style experiments that I just generally discount to zero. Perhaps unfair.
5.Culture/biology co-evolution is just terrifically compelling (lactose tolerance, shorter large intestines, etc., etc.). Hard to believe it does not translate to cognition, and psychology, with the evolution of color terms in language a terrifically suggestive example. It also could providea compelling explanation for the Flynn effect, and relatedly why getting people incrementally better at Raven matrices has not yielded 10x more Galoises and Ramanujans.
Show Less
LibraryThing member ifisher
Wow! The first three chapters are amazing; short and packed full of information and insight. I cannot wait to devour this book.
LibraryThing member ohernaes
Heinrich starts out with the observation that we humans are individually not very impressive in how we function in nature - we are weak and needy in many respects and would have a hard time surviving in nature, despite our large brains and purported intelligence. Yet we dominate the earth and have
Show More
come up with one ingenuity after another. How? Because of our culture, or how we combine with each other, arrived at through a long process of "cumulative evolution". Culture has both (self-)domesticated us and enabled amazing feats, such as surviving and thriving all over the world. Often through "complex, cultural packages" - illustrated by European explorers and settlers not coping with alien environments and needing help from indigenous people. Who often do not understand their own practices, e.g. for preparing food wrt toxins. Historically, innovation and development have often been lost and have had to be re-learnt from others or re-discovered through trial and error. A key lesson in the final chapter is that we now see farther than others, "not because we stand on the shoulders of giants or are giants ourselves. We stand on the on shoulders of a very large pyramid of hobbits (p. 323)." Much more details, particularly about the "cumulative, cultural evolution", in the book. Recommended.

H/t: Ole R√łgeberg
Show Less
LibraryThing member steve02476
Lots of interesting stuff here, although I couldn't follow all of it. The ideas of cultural evolution lead to a lot of great questions.




0691178437 / 9780691178431
Page: 0.1253 seconds