The Secret of our Success

Joe Henrich

Joe Henrich

(Harvard University)

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Date: May 17, 2017


Humans are a highly cultural species. Unlike other animals, we are entirely dependent on a vast body of culturally-transmitted tools, techniques, skills, know-how and other cultural-psychological adaptations to survive and thrive in an immense diversity of environments. In light of this, how can we build an evolutionary approach that properly seats our species within the natural world while at the same time providing a framework for understanding our, often peculiar, behavior, psychology, anatomy and physiology? Addressing this question, I’ll begin by applying the logic of natural selection to understanding cultural learning and then consider when and where these learning abilities give rise to the process of cumulative cultural evolution. This non-genetic evolutionary process, not found in other species to any significant degree, generated increasingly rich and complex cultural products, such as cutting tools, fire, cooking, words, throwing spears and social norms (institutions), which in turn became potent selective pressures on our anatomy, brains, motivations and cognitive abilities. Having shaped our species for over a million years, these culture-gene coevolutionary processes provide a synthetic framework for understanding many aspects of our species’ psychology and lay a foundation for explaining—not merely documenting—the immense psychological variation observed around the globe today.

Created: Friday, May 19th, 2017