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Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation [Hardcover]

Mark Pagel
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (67 customer reviews)

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Book Description

1 Mar 2012

Since humans left Africa less than a hundred thousand years ago there has been a staggering explosion of cultures. What caused this blooming of diversity? Why are there so many mutually incomprehensible languages, even within small territories? Why do we rejoice in rituals, wrap ourselves in flags, or define ourselves in opposition to others? In Wired for Culture Mark Pagel, one of the world's leading experts on human development, shows how our facility for culture is the key to our success as a species.

Humans are usually seen as differing from other animals because of our inherent traits of consciousness, language and intelligence. But Mark Pagel shows we've had it the wrong way round. Many of these things would not exist without our propensity for culture - our ability to co-operate in small tribal societies, enabling us to pass on knowledge, beliefs and practices so that we prospered while others declined. Mark Pagel's extraordinary history of the role of culture in natural selection shows how humans developed a mind that is hardwired for culture - so that it has outstripped our genes in determining who we are, how we think and speak, who we love and kill - and how it equips us for the challenges of life in the modern world.

Weaving together evolutionary biology, anthropology, natural history, philosophy and Pagel's years of observing human behaviour around the globe, this extraordinary book sheds light on everything from art, morality and affection to jealousy, self-interest and prejudice. It will change how we view ourselves, not just as individuals, but within the wider story of our species.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Allen Lane (1 Mar 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1846140153
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846140150
  • Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 24.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (67 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 162,136 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


Selected by the Guardian as a literary highlight for 2012 (Guardian)

Gorgeously written, elegantly argued, Pagel demonstrates that genes are only a small part of the human success story; minds and culture are the larger part. A compelling read that allows us to appreciate everything around us with fresh eyes (David Eagleman, author of Tales of the Afterlives and Incognito)

An intriguing combination of information...with an optimistic prediction of a future global society in which inventiveness and cooperation prevail (Kirkus Reviews)

Pagel does an excellent job of using evolutionary biology to discuss the origins of religion, music, and art, and the readson why, cross-culturally, we generally share a sense of morality (Starred Review Publishers Weekly)

The clarity of Pagel's absorbing account is enhanced by the fact that he looks at everything through the one lens: evolution. [Wired for Culture is] Impressive for its detail, accuracy and vivacity (Guardian)

Human evolution may be the hottest area in popular science writing, ahead even of books about cosmology and the brain. Within this crowded field, Mark Pagel's Wired for Culture stands out for both its sweeping erudition and its accessibility to the non-specialist reader (Clive Cookson Financial Times)

A remarkable and beautifully written book (Matt Ridley The Wall Street Journal)

It's a clear and convincing read, and it wouldn't look out of place alongside Pinker and Dawkins (Tom Chivers Telegraph)

About the Author

Mark Pagel is head of the Evolution Laboratory in the Division of Zoology, School of Biological Sciences, at the University of Reading, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He is the editor-in-chief of the award winning Oxford Encyclopaedia of Evolution and co-author of The Comparative Method in Evolutionary Biology, which is regarded as a classic, as well as the author of a number of articles in Science, Nature, and other journals, and he has also been a contributor to numerous monographs. Statistical methods that Pagel has developed are used by researchers all over the world to study evolutionary trends across species.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
By bomble TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
If you've ever wondered what life would look like through the lens of the evolutionary biologist, then Mark Pagel's challenging and lucid book is for you. Although I am reluctant to accept a proportion of what is presented as fact in this book (based on lack of supporting evidence rather than any particular preconception), I have high praise of this work for being a successful balance of the scholarly and the accessible.
In fact it is a book that has had me mulling over ideas hours after I each time I put it down. That in itself is a very good sign - even if I might disagree with an author, it's a real delight to have conceptions challenged by someone who has clearly given his subject some very deep thought.

There are some meanderings that shoot off from the main thrust of Pagel's argument but overall he puts a compelling case. Do I now consider that spiteful acts could be a form of altruism? Before I would have said `how could they be?'... Now I ask myself if perhaps they could. He says it himself - language is an amazing technology for implanting ideas from one mind into another and he has succeeded in doing just that with me.

What does bother me about the logic of this narrative is that it relies heavily on a few dogmas of the discipline. For example, there are underlying assumptions that behaviours of all kinds can be traced to an evolutionary advantage that allowed them to thrive; that suppositions - such as that an individual is more likely to help a sibling than a cousin - are true and causally linked to genetic similarity etc. Simply being with a sibling for more time might well be a reason for such a connection, if indeed one exists. And what does it say about sibling rivalry and discord that can all-too-often lead to complete disconnection of family ties.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating book, could do with editing 9 Mar 2012
By Mr. D. N. Sumption VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
In this book, Mark Pagel takes the reader on a journey in which he coherently (ish - see below) explains how evolution can account for all that is unique about human behaviour - from our incredible acts of altruism through to the destructive and petty acts of revenge we sometimes carry out. The key to this is that co-operation and learning (unique to human society) has allowed us to carry out far more complex tasks than we could ever do in small kinship groups; the resulting increased reproductive success means that genes which support co-operation will flourish. However, because we need to be reasonably certain that those we help will also help us in return, the same behaviour can be turned on its head if we encounter people whom we suspect do not share our co-operative values and the rituals we develop around them.

I am glad that I read this book from cover-to-cover, but that was very nearly not the case: it is (as others have stated) over-long, and Pagel often tries to prove his point by heaping anecdote upon anecdote and hoping that the resulting pile of words will be enough to convince the reader. This seems especially the case towards the beginning of the book, and it is a shame: if the author could make his points more gracefully and succinctly then this book would have far wider appeal. I was also nonplussed that Pagel frequently makes strong assertions without giving any indication of what evidence he is using to back these up (for a science book, there is a noticeable lack of science here); he also repeatedly speaks of small societies and tribal groups as "unrelated", without ever explaining what he means by this (surely as homo sapiens, all members of a group will be related, and one suspects that any small tribe living tens-of-thousands of years ago would show a fair amount of shared genes between its members).
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Mark Pagel's underlying thesis in Wired for Culture is that evolutionary biology explains not only why humans cooperate, but why they have evolved language not only to communicate but to obfuscate, and why other aspects of culture which seem intuitively unimportant are wired into our genes not as fixed destinies but, at the least, as definite tendencies.

Whether Pagel knows he is doing this or not, this is another biologist's assault on post-modernity, an assertion that there is a single meta-narrative that explains everything, including that other meta-narrative, religion. Subliminally, it also makes the case (though Pagel doesn't push this) that the arts are a branch of biology, thereby engaging with that other great debate of the early to mid-twentieth century.

When he sticks to evolutionary biology, Pagel is sure of his ground, summoning chapter and verse (it does at times feel like that) and accurately nuancing the difference between evidence, evidence-based theory, and speculation. His style is perhaps a little on the patronising side. We really don't need as many words italicised, and the long preamble of the first few chapters could really be taken as read by most informed readers.

However, once he moves into other fields, he begins to wobble. Does he really believe that the English word 'good' is derived from German? Or has he decided that any explanation of the origins of English in Anglo-Saxon and *proto-West Germanic would be too much for the reader. Likewise, does he really believe that French was England's official language, or does he know that it was Anglo-Norman and refers to it as 'French' in order to avoid confusing us. The French bit is forgivable -- only a philology geek would be concerned about Anglo-Norman.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Read if a little heavy
This is a interesting read. The author's main point is that while we humans are similar to animals in some ways. We are very different too. In the way we live of our lives... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Birmingham Book Reader
5.0 out of 5 stars The best all-round book on the subject, bar none.
A book in my favourite genre: social science. It's a delight - well explained and up-to-date but not overly simplified. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Roger Sharp
5.0 out of 5 stars "Only connect"; the search for my tribe
Just this last week I said to a friend "I've had a really cultural week" because I had been to the theatre twice, once to see a production of Samuel Beckett's... Read more
Published 2 months ago by David Spanswick
4.0 out of 5 stars Culture and Co-operation
The history of human culture is less than 100,000 years old. When modern type humans left Africa they brought with them a good deal of social baggage. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Mr. M Errington
4.0 out of 5 stars Erudite but flawed
Mark Pagel is professor and head of the Evolution Laboratory of the Division of Zoology in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Steve Benner
5.0 out of 5 stars Enthralling, convincing, humane.
Although looking at the development of 'human co-operation' only in evolutionary terms, this is an engrossing, persuasive read. Read more
Published 6 months ago by bookworm8
4.0 out of 5 stars Psychology got there first!
Long ago, I tutored an OU course on Developmental Psychology which basically concluded by suggesting that human beings are transmission units for two kinds of code, one genetic and... Read more
Published 11 months ago by D E Barker
4.0 out of 5 stars A bit of a tome...but I loved it!
I really loved the idea of this title as it speaks to some of the most contentious areas of human existence that truly affect our current state of being in this age, namely our... Read more
Published 12 months ago by Mr. A. C. Thorne
4.0 out of 5 stars Pop anthropology going high brow.
There are many things to like about this book. The vivid examples given throughout the book are vivid and provide food for thought. Read more
Published 13 months ago by Jack Chakotay
3.0 out of 5 stars Why do we do it?
Pagel spends a lot of time writing about the elements and characteristics of language that differentiate one language from another and the impact and consequence of the culture... Read more
Published 14 months ago by artemisrhi
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