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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking and well written - popular science writing as it should be., 16 Aug 2012
This review is from: Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation (Hardcover)
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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. My point is not that Pagel is wrong about any of his suppositions; just that they are largely untestable when you try to correct for other factors that might lead to the same results.

I also found that he frequently places the results of natural selection as if they were in some way in control of their own destiny. It may well be true that humans who possessed a particular genetic trait were favoured by their environment but this does not equate to saying that the trait itself was `trying', `wanting' or `acting' to exist. In fact, it existed... and by chance it proved advantageous within the environment and hence was amplified through the generations. I understand the draw to anthropomorphise while describing such details but Pagel's work is slightly tainted with such language that could confuse a reader who isn't familiar with the underlying science.

Funnily enough, I spent much of the book wondering whether the behaviours that Pagel highlights as evidence of the power of natural selection at a cultural level could be what system specialists call `emergent properties' and that they might have arisen from underlying forces rather than being centre-stage. And then, towards the end, I reached the section of the book in which Pagel does take a look at this field, albeit fleetingly. It's a shame he didn't explore this a bit more in my opinion, as it would have been a wonderful interdisciplinary synthesis.

In summary this is a book that has given me reason to think and reason to debate the ideas with my friends. If that isn't the goal of a lay-science work, then I don't know what is! Highly recommended.
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