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Book Review: A History of How People Cooperate - And Why

Editor’s Note: We found this review by Frank Bures in the February 2013 issue of The Rotarian magazine. Since it resonates with a previously published interview with anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake and helps to explain how and why the arts are so ingrained in our collective psyche, we thought readers with the same fascination might also be interested.


The debate over what culture is, and the role it plays in human history, has gone on almost since Edward Burnett Tylor wrote about it in his 1871 book, Primitive Culture. Tylor and others at the same time viewed culture as something that Europe had, and that the rest of the world didn’t.

Since then, views have changed, and in Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind (W.W. Norton, 2012), Mark Pagel offers a wide-ranging exploration of how culture and biology have intertwined to create modern human beings. Pagel is an evolutionary biologist, so he starts at the beginning. About 60,000 years ago a small group of humans set off in to the world. Those people were more like us than others who came before them: They had abstract art, jewelry, tattoos, tools, traps, and nets. Our separation from other upright species such as Neanderthals had begun to accelerate. But why?

To find the answer, Pagel looks further back, to the period from 160,000 to 200,000 years ago, when humans became genetically recognizable as us. They began to be capable of having culture – systems of beliefs, ideas, skills, and technologies – and had a new ability to use “knowledge, belief and practices acquired from watching, imitating, and learning from others.”

This expansion of our ability to cooperate helped us work in bigger groups and was humanity’s real survival advantage. However, it has left a complicated legacy; Shared ways of thinking and learning resulted in a sense of kinship among those who are part of our own culture – and created a sense of otherness toward those who are not.

Pagel concludes on a hopeful note. Our received culture is more like software than hardware, he writes. Whereas other animals, from apes to ants, are hard-wired to hate outsiders, he says, we are not. “What our history has demonstrated is that we humans will get along with anyone who wishes to play the cooperative game with us.”

– Frank Bures

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