Some years ago, Richard Dawkins published "The Selfish Gene", explaining how gene survival was fundamental in natural selection. He also coined the term "meme" to explain the dissemination of ideas across societies. Almost immediately, there was a strident chorus of objection, based on the theme of "you can't say that about humans!" The outcry hasn't ceased, but in the case of Richerson and Boyd, it's become somewhat muted. This book is designed to gently persuade you that human evolution rests on a solid "cultural" base. Biology is under there somewhere, but for humanity, cultural impact overwhelms our genetic roots.
The authors would like to abandon the dichotomy of what's usually referred to as the "nature versus nurture" debate. That's admirable, but not only has that contest been challenged elsewhere, finding anyone adhering to either position as an absolute is difficult, if not impossible. Who claims "genes" are the sole behaviour drive? Not even religions, the most dogmatic element in our society, any longer label infants as "blank slates" to be moulded at will. Individuality and expression may be curtailed, but not constrained. Yet that curtailment, even if only mindless imitation, is the foundation of this book. Instead of the chaos of individual response to environmental pressures, "culture" guides behaviour to the extent that groups become predictable in their activities. For them, "culture" is a sort of behavioural umbrella keeping families and small communities from unravelling the fabric of society.
Richerson and Boyd gather a wide spectrum of studies to erect their cultural edifice. They examine studies of social animals, scrutinise the grim world of economics and wonder how it is that of all species, human beings filled nearly every environmental niche. They accept the complexity of human society as naturally hierarchical. That organisation, coupled with a strong imitative/cooperative sense enabled our species to readily adapt to so many ecological niches. Where some say, "If it works, don't fix it!", Richerson and Boyd counter, "If it works, imitate it!" Human beings, they contend, are better imitators than other species because we can judge long-term impacts of actions. This talent, coupled with language, provides our unique adaptability in varied environments. We can test for success and pass our findings to our neighbours. This gives groups within our species both unique abilities and the means to improve them. Not all of humanity is but one culture. It's a melange of groups, each culture representing a regional or social norm.
"Group selection" is the offshoot of an older, flawed, evolutionary concept - "species selection". With the idea of "species selection" quickly demonstrated as false, group selection arose to replace it. A close look at group selection reveals that it's but another mechanism to keep humanity separated from the remainder of the animal kingdom. If you downplay any similarities between us and other beasts, you are able to retain a "divine spark" or other metaphysical notions for humanity. And only humanity. Richerson and Boyd's use of animal behaviour studies to ameliorate this distinction are a welcome addition to social studies. However, these examples are carefully selected and interpreted by the authors. They aren't set in an evolutionary context, but are given solely as a contrast to the also carefully chosen aspects of human behaviour. The book raises a number of interesting questions, but answers few of them satisfactorily. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]