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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Vague meta-narrative that does not answer its own questions, 27 May 2012
This review is from: Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation (Hardcover)
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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. The Anglo-Saxon bit, though, one would imagine was such common knowledge that it hardly needed explaining at all.

Many of the areas which he tries to persuade us of discursively have been settled definitively by experiment -- but he doesn't seem aware of this. The more he moves into culture and away from biology, the more he gives us discussion supported by anecdote.

This might be acceptable if this were a relatively light-weight book, but it isn't. It's 416 pages by someone who has written for the journals Science and Nature, and almost fifty of those pages are given over to the references, bibliography and index.

It's in these references that my frustration with this book is most pointed. Instead of giving us proper footnotes (these seem to have gone out of fashion -- authors: footnotes are much easier on the reader than end-notes) or even end-notes, Pagel simply gives us a list of references which relate to each chapter, with a brief (sometimes tantalisingly brief) note about them. What he doesn't tell us is which part of the argument they relate to, and whether or not they are the missing evidence for an assertion, or simply an interesting sidelight on the topic. What's more, many of the biology-related references will mostly go over the heads of readers, as they are to learned journals, whereas citations from newspapers seem sufficient for non-biology related ones.

I found this a hugely frustrating book. If he is advancing a thesis which is at the very least novel, and perhaps controversial, Pagel should be arguing in a much more procedural fashion, so that the reader can weight up what he says. This is of course risky. In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, for example, Jonathan Haidt making a similar case gives the reader enough material to persuade us that he is wrong. However, without it, this is little more than an extended speculation. On the other hand, if he is presenting to us the new consensus on the issue, he should tell us so, and give us an outline of how the consensus came to be formed and what the opposing views are.

Ultimately, this book does not answer the questions it sets for itself, it merely gives answers which are plausible and which are compatible with existing knowledge. It's a good read if you want to pick up facts about genetics on the way, but Pagel never seems to navigate the journey between his area of expertise and the answer to the question he is discussing.
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