Magazine Masthead
category: Culture

Why Our Culture Is in Our Genes

Post: March 3, 2012 12:12 pm
Author: Matt Ridley         Source: Wall Street Journal

The island of Gaua, part of Vanuatu in the Pacific, is just 13 miles across, yet it has five distinct native languages. Papua New Guinea, an area only slightly bigger than Texas, has 800 languages, some spoken by just a few thousand people. "Wired for Culture," a remarkable new book by Mark Pagel, an American evolutionary biologist based in England, sets out to explain this peculiar human property of fragmenting into mutually uncomprehending cultural groups. His explanation is unsettling.

Evolutionary biologists have long gotten used to the idea that bodies are just genes' ways of making more genes, survival machines that carry genes to the next generation. Think of a salmon struggling upstream just to expend its body (now expendable) in spawning. Dr. Pagel's idea is that cultures are an extension of this: that the way we use culture is to promote the long-term interests of our genes.

It need not be this way. When human beings' lives became dominated by culture, they could have adopted habits that did not lead to having more descendants. But on the whole we did not; we set about using culture to favor survival of those like us at the expense of other groups, using religion, warfare, cooperation and social allegiance. As Dr. Pagel comments: "Our genes' gamble at handing over control to...ideas paid off handsomely" in the conquest of the world.

Read more at the Wall Street Journal.


Post: March 5 2012 5:20 pm By: JOHN JACOB LYONS

Of course our culture is in our genes! Any behaviour that is both consistent and adaptive (i.e. increases the expected number of offspring of the individuals manifesting the behaviour) will set up an inter-generational feedback loop with the genome. Over evolutionary time, this will prime the genome toward gene variants that encourage/ support that adaptive behaviour. In due course, all individuals in the species will be ‘Genetically Primed’ for the behaviour needing just a simple environmentally trigger to manifest it. This, in a nutshell, is the ‘Genetic Priming’ theory. Please see for more on this topic.

Genetic Priming only works for culture that is adaptive; which explains why only culture that has a history of being adaptive for Homo sapiens is ‘in our genes’.