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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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on 12 April 2013
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A wonderfully written book, elegant style, engaging and endearing, making this a bit of a gem. It is basically about the complex relationship of man with culture. It covers what culture is and how it came to be; its demands on us and how they are met; and how it is a part of humanity and our existence. It explores the role and interaction of nationalities and how it impacts upon many of our day to day actions and thoughts and processes.
The author has managed to portray how the ethereal abstract concept of culture has substance and meaning and how it impacts upon us all as individuals as well as society. A fascinating read, stimulating and thought provoking.
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VINE VOICEon 14 May 2014
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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... The selfish gene, drives everything. I found it at times a hard book to get into. Although I agree with the author when he says that religion (of what every form I suspect) is one of the driving forces that glue society together.
The author is very much draws on the Darwin theory of the survival of the fittest...this is why we humans do so well.

A complex read. A book i may return to in a short while.
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VINE VOICEon 31 August 2013
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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 9 March 2012
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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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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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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 5 September 2012
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As much as I wanted to like this book (I am intrigued by human psychology and sociology) I found it a very tedious and rambling read. In fact, if I hadn't originally requested to review it through the "Amazon Vine" programme I would have given up on it. As it was, I soldiered on, in the vain hope of finding some worthwhile inspirational insight until the very last page; a page at which I was ultimately much relieved to arrive.

The author's essential thesis is that, as a species, our brains are "hard-wired" to engage effectively with our fellow man/woman and that this attribute allows us to compete at group (cultural) levels as much, if not more, than we compete at the level of the individual; moreover this unique capability has equipped our species to achieve planetary dominance (and BTW the extinction of all other higher animal life-forms).

The author is a wholly committed Darwinist, in that he believes that all of our individual and cultural attributes have arisen through the epoch-long tailoring of "survival of the fittest". This implies that all of our attributes must have (or had) practical advantages to species survival that led them to come into being.

In consequence of the strictures of his beliefs, the author struggles with the benefits of altruism. He justifies acts of benevolence and self-sacrifice on the basis of assisting in the survival of kindred genes and/or winning acclaim and higher societal status. I think he extends these arguments too far. Many acts of charity are carried out on an anonymous basis and in the case of animal charities, in support of species other than our own. The author doesn't consider this fact, perhaps because it doesn't reconcile with his strict Darwinist philosophy and outlook ?

Personally I am of the view that, while the nature and capabilities of our species have indeed arisen through the harsh regime of "survival of the fittest", evolution has (perhaps quite accidentally) equipped us with capabilities, insights and an emotional spirit that vastly exceed our simple animal need for basic survival.

This view is best (and beautifully) described by Loren Eiseley in his books, "The Immense Journey" and "The Unexpected Universe". Eiseley travels beyond the bleak mechanistic picture of a dog-eat-dog world, "red in tooth and claw", to give us a glimpse of a higher spiritual plane that transcends our base animal nature.

So, yes, my recommendation: Skip this book, read Eiseley.

P.S. "The real challenge is not to survive. Hell, anyone can do that. It's to survive as yourself, undiminished." - Elia Kazan
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VINE VOICEon 25 February 2012
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Mark Pagel's weighty tome is not something to dip into as a bit of light holiday reading. The author's account of just what it is which seperates the human mammal from his animal variants is an extensive and wide ranging study of the evolution of culture within our species.
The author posits that the development of 'culture' is based on cooperation and to a certain extent,mimicry. Within human society we have developed over 7000 languages which apparently is more than the number of species of mammal. The fast development of distinct and unique cultures within these language and ethnic bases are,the author suggests, based on the idea that to cooperate in a mutual way is ultimately beneficial to the individual. By surrendering one's individual goals to achieve a greater good for the majority will ultimately benefit the individual. Basically...united we stand...divided we fall. In this the author focuses on areas such as warfare and political alliances where cooperation is the name of the game.
Fascinating and thoroughly researched.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 22 February 2012
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I had previously read other broadly similar works which were far less comprehensive. Some are more limited in their scope and perhaps based either on archaeological, religious, linguistic or other research fields in isolation. This book, far more academic and comprehensive than any other I have read on this subject, includes all the above and more. It is not an easy read or designed for a casual read.

Well documented with comprehensive sources of reference, it is a serious study and is quite well-written. The author is one known in his field and who has contributed to the science of theoretical genetics. The surprise to me is that his university is not Oxbridge or Ivy League but the red-brick Reading.

If you have any interest in the topic, this book is highly recommended.
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