Customer Review

4.0 out of 5 stars Erudite but flawed, 15 Jan 2014
This review is from: Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind (Paperback)
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. His "Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind" is, as one might expect, a scholarly tome, which discourses at length on the nature of mankind's so-called "cultural vehicles" -- our communities, societies, tribes etc, together with their various trappings such as laws, languages, customs, and so on -- and the ways in which we, uniquely as a species, have evolved to function within them. The basic tenet of the book's thesis is that those very traits which most people think defines Homo sapiens as a species -- our intelligence, capacity for reasoning, language and consciousness -- have not so much shaped the cultures in which we have come to live but rather themselves arisen as a direct consequence of our evolutionary tendency towards mutual cooperation within small but competing tribal groupings.

The idea is a not a new one - Darwin himself came close to proposing something very similar in his "The Descent of Man" of 1871. In fact there are times when I think Darwin came closer to getting things right -- for Pagel clearly builds much of this argument on the thinking of Richard Dawkins of the 70s, holding to many of the tenets of "The Selfish Gene" (albeit modified to a more "gene expressionistic" mode of thinking) and consequently departs considerably from the latest thinking of many human biologists with regard to what drives evolutionary pathways, as well as what lies behind the workings of the human mind. "A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution" by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis contains stronger and better documented evidence for a somewhat contrary view -- that it was early Homo sapiens' physical adaptations for the bearing and utilisation of weapons (we are uniquely evolved to throw things with great accuracy) which equipped us in due course with a natural proclivity to wage war and which, in turn, led to the (evolutionary) need for us to acquire a degree of morality to keep that proclivity in check. Bowles and Gintis also give greater (and, again to my mind, more proper) weight to the role of a human awareness of values and societal norms internalised as preferences in their consideration of what lies behind so much innate human behaviour. Their conclusion is that our species is far more truly altruistic in nature than purely self-serving, contrary to what Mark Pagel would have us believe.

To Pagel's credit, he certainly knows how to pitch his material for the lay reader as much as to the scholar; nobody should have any problem following the arguments he presents in his text. Personally, I think that the book's formidable bulk could have been reduced substantially with some tighter editing -- especially of the countless repetitions that make up so much of the material. Those of a more rigorous bent could well complain that the text is often more philosophical than scientific, with much of the narrative supported more by supposition than based upon empirical evidence. More worrying to my mind is the fact that empirical evidence is actually ignored where it undermines the author's narrative, especially in those sections that wander away from evolutionary biology per se. Ultimately, though, I would say the book's main failing is that while presenting a plausible narrative for how Homo sapiens could have evolved as we did, the author -- as he himself readily concedes on numerous occasions -- can present absolutely no evidence that things happened this way. More damagingly, there are times when he seems to ignore a certain amount of evidence to suggest that, in fact, they didn't.

This book can be recommended for the many thought-provoking and challenging ideas that it presents in an admirably readable form. The serious student of these matters would be well advised to read more widely around the subject for a fuller picture of modern thinking in this area, however.
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