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.