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on 2 January 2015
The blurb on the front of this book claims that it is 'remarkable' and 'beautifully written'...I haven't read much specifically on this topic, but my previous readings in psychology, philosophy and evolutionary biology (by no means extensive) had pointed to the basic concepts put forth in this book. At no point is a 'new' idea posited, and the whole book seems to go round in circles 'proving' it's thesis by simply restating the same things over and over. As for 'beautifully written', it probably is, but this is not what I want from a book like this...the author digresses so often from the actual topic - alternating between making a point of how 'special' humans are in relation to our nearest Great Ape relatives (often making claims about the lack of co-operation in ape societies that, based on previous reading, frankly just are not true) and anthropomorphising the co-operative behaviours of amoeba and insects (another fundamental error) - that it seems like he is reaching far beyond his own field of expertise. I appreciate it is intended as a book of 'popular science', and I do appreciate that it is written in an understandable manner without too much jargon, but it seems so lacking in actual new ideas or genuine explication that I could not recommend it - you'll learn far more from an introductory text on evolutionary psychology and a subscription to New Scientist.
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on 22 January 2016
I breath taking perspective of the rise of culture in humans. Pagel writes beautifully and every page is full of revelations. Indeed every page could be the topic a book itself.
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on 27 August 2015
HighLy original and thought provoking
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Brilliantly readable and wide ranging book which argues that cooperation amongst humans around a ‘culture’ is key to human development. I say wide ranging as it covers topics from biology in terms of evolution, the development of art, the importance of practiced religion, and the role of music. The book also discussed common morality which tends to link across humanity. Whilst reflecting the authors background in Biological Sciences I am not surprised at this surefooted handling of evolution, or evolutionary biology in particular. What is surprising is the expertise that he extends the discussion so widely. However, and the reason I’ve dropped a star, is the fairly strong insistence that evolution forms the basis for almost all our activities from sibling favouritism to religiosity. I don’t quite buy in to the predestination theory the book advocates, but I’m not an evolutionary biologist. What was worthwhile was seeing how far the argument could be pushed in a reasonably convincing way. What the book largely lacks is supporting evidence for the theories put forward. That said, this is not designed to be a textbook.

You can decide if culture leads to human development or human development leads to culture. The book helps along the way
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VINE VOICEon 31 August 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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 one cultural. This book claims to show how the cultural code could be genetically underpinned and when those genes could have appeared in our evolutionary history. The key to our cultural evolution, according to Dr Pagel, is not only our ability to observe and imitate others (ie social learning) but also our ability to choose who we imitate and improve our performance (ie self efficacy). These, along with our language abilities, an innate ability to recognise and prefer those in our in-group, and a propensity towards fairness, lead to a history of cooperation resulting in humans being able to live in ever-larger, more energy efficient, societies. The overall conclusion seems to be that,thanks to the modern human mind's capabilities, culture is now outstripping our genes in determining who we are.
The book is a fascinating, if rambling, read. However, it has several weaknesses. It makes no mention of my hero, Albert Bandura, who discovered the importance of social learning and self efficacy over a generation ago. Even more surprisingly, given Dr Pagel is supposed to be a biologist, there is no mention of the discovery of mirror neurons which make social learning possible. Indeed, instead of experimental evidence, Dr Pagel presents us with conjectures about our evolutionary past, personal anecdotes, and endless diatribes about termites, various other critters, and people who believe in God! If this is science, then I'm a badger...
Anyway, I would recommend this read to all developmental and social scientists. The basic thesis is sound, but psychologists should claim back the science as their own.
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VINE VOICEon 16 April 2015
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Interesting but also somewhat confusing

There is a lot of of information to read in this book. It is packed with theories and facts that need to be reread and digested, making it a dense rather than accessible read.
There is a lot of ground covered. The subtitle is "The Natural History of Human Cooperation"
It will take me months not weeks to read this properly.

I also note that even with my scant knowledge I do not agree with everything the author has written,
In writing about language he states that while French was the official court language after the Norman invasion and half the English language contains words from Italinate roots the other half is from the Germanic past.
I thought that was because of the Angles, and perhaps Saxons those ancient tribes, that came from what is now Germany and Denmark rather than Germanic.
Does this matter? I have no idea. I will carry on reading but also try not to take on everything as definitive.

While this book contains a lot of interesting material it does tend to go around in circles quite a bit making it harder to absorb the information.
A huge subject that is hard to write about concisely but perhaps the book would benefit from being signposted more clearly in chapters as to which part of our huge history is being looked at.

Overall I would say this is a fascinating book . Dense and with a tendency to ramble but well worth reading if you have any interest in this subject which is about all of us and the lives, languages, cultures and countries we have evolved.
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VINE VOICEon 15 January 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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: The Natural History of Human Cooperation" 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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VINE VOICEon 26 April 2012
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
A really great read. And if that sounds like a lame comment, just bear in mind the subject matter. All too often these mainstream, well marketed polemical tomes are great as ideas, but once bought, soon become like chewing through dangerously sticky toffee: a bit of a gooey challenge. Not Wired For Culture. This is a really enjoyable book, and a high-scorer for its accessibility. Yes, it's got some interesting, unique ideas to discuss, but it's all done via a thoroughly engaging voice. And, what's more, within the first few pages you'll be looking at the world around you differently. Which is no bad thing.

Wired For Culture is, as the title hints, about the increasingly complex and inter-reliant relationship of man and culture. It's an interesting idea: what came first, the new-born baby who will think culture into action; or the amorphous presence of a thing called culture, which will define that baby's personality, behaviour, opinions, and ultimately guide it through its life?

In the prologue, Pagel compares culture to a virus: an independent entity which latches onto us in order to survive; using people as carriers, allowing it to move on to 'infect' greater numbers of hosts. And if culture has become so crucial to our surviving/navigating/evolving society, were we always physiologically programmed to accept culture? Or, has culture, over time, changed us - refashioned us to accept it more simply?

Broken down into four specific parts, Pagel seeks to explore what culture is and how it came to be; what it demands of us; how those demands are met; and how (and indeed, whether) culture is a necessary part of our continued existence as a species. The book asks why it is that the difference of a nationality can make all the difference in terms of what culture demands - and what that says about culture itself. And how is it that culture pulls together and feeds and exploits so many, otherwise basic, human actions. In short, Pagel gets the reader to really think about what culture actually is... and how it has become as intrinsic as food to our everyday lives.

If all that sounds a bit highfalutin don't worry - it isn't. Far from it. Wired For Culture is far from dense or dull... but it could have been, had Pagel not rendered these otherwise complex ideas to be so accessible. In fact, Wired For Culture is a genuinely engaging read.

Highly recommended - for all.
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VINE VOICEon 6 May 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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 "Endgame" and secondly Goldsmith's "She Stoops to Conquer" fairly diverse theatrical delights you might say and yet I noticed just how similar they were as they were both about language. The Goldsmith played mischievously with language and manners and acceptability, the Beckett almost denying the presence of language as a means of communication and brutality, denial, mockery were the accents and yet I, as audience, could enjoy them both equally.

Being fairly intelligent and articulate kind of gent who enjoys some of the finer thing of life I fell upon this mighty tome with relish and greedily devoured as much of it until I experienced intellectual indigestion as there was just so much to take in.

There is no way I can begin to write in this review space anything like what this book contains. It is the summation of many years work and research by Mark Pagel into whys and wherefores of our obstinate animal becoming "king" on planet Earth. Truly it is our abilities to communicate verbally that might make us superior to most animals and yet the ambiguities in that very language that cause extraordinary strife and indeed divisions through misinterpretation or deliberate misunderstandings. If you shout loud enough a foreigner will understand you!!

"Culture is roughly everything we do and monkeys dont" !! Like maim, torture, hate ~ we are hardly the apex of evolution. Pagel's wonderfully complex and very readable volume will draw me back to it time and again as there is just SO much to digest. He raises fundamental questions from the ubiquitous use of language to the co operation of termites that this might well stay by my bedside for many years to come.

Becoming who I am and valuing what I do has been the work of centuries and generations of folk who have willingly left their cultural legacies for me to adapt as I choose. And monkeys? I wont hear a word against them
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VINE VOICEon 20 February 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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. The ability to transmit knowledge, beliefs and practices is as important as the ability to out-compete other groups. Co-operation in small groups of hunter gathers was the key to survival in the Ice Ages and the trigger for expansion into a wide variety of environments.
These small groups established their own cultures, languages and patterns of behaviour. This explains the tribal attitudes we now have. It is the ability to remember, no matter how inaccurately, what out cultural history is. The Author argues that culture is responsible for language, intelligence and conciousness, rather than those leading to culture. This is an intriguing argument and one which points a way forward. It explains why we display so many aspects of tribal behaviour and rejoice in our differences. Knowing why we act in this way should enable us to better co-operate with other cultures and individuals outside our own culture.
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