Monday, October 31, 2022

Review of The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter by Joseph Henrich

This review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Genre = Sociology
Book Club Event = Book List (12/10/2022)
Intriguing Connections = 1) To Cooperate Or To Defect?, 2) How to Teach? How to Learn?

Watch Short Review


“Beyond status, culture transformed the environments faced by our genes by generating social norms.  Norms influence a vast range of human action, including ancient and fundamentally important domains such as kin relations, mating, food sharing, parenting, and reciprocity.  Over our evolutionary history, norm violation such as ignoring a food taboo, botching a ritual, or failing to give one’s in-laws their due from one’s hunting successes meant reputational damage, gossip, and a consequent loss of marriage opportunities and allies.  Repeated norm violations sometimes provoked ostracism or even execution at the hands of one’s community.  Thus, cultural evolution initiated a process of self-domestication, driving genetic evolution to make us prosocial, docile, rule followers who expect a world governed by social norms monitored and enforced by communities.” – Joseph Henrich, Chapter 1: A Puzzling Primate, Page 23

“Cultural learning refers to a more sophisticated subclass of social learning abilities in which individuals seek to acquire information from others, often by making inferences about their preferences, goals, beliefs, or strategies and/or by copying their actions or motor patters.” – Joseph Henrich, Chapter 2: It’s Not Our Intelligence, Page 31

“What these cases teach us is that humans survive neither by our instinctual abilities to find food and shelter, nor by our individual capacities to improvise solutions “on the fly” to local environmental challenges.  We can survive because, across generations, the selective processes of culture evolution have assembled packages of cultural adaptations – including tools, practices, and techniques – that cannot be devised in a few years, even by a group of highly motivated and cooperative individuals.  Moreover, the bearers of these cultural adaptations themselves often don’t understand much of how or why they work, beyond the understanding necessary for effectively using them.” – Joseph Henrich, Chapter 3: Lost European Explorers, Page 45



Culture is prepackaged information accessible to local individuals.  A package composed of knowledge, skills, habits, and values.  Cultural informational content has the ability to improve over generations, making culture adaptive.  Informational content that is learned from other people.  Culture enables a collective brain, rather than individual insight.  As members learn from each other, they do not need to start understanding ideas from nothing, but can proceed from the foundation culture has already enabled.  Success derived from faith in the already accumulated wisdom, rather than just intuition and personal experience.

Natural selection favored individuals who were better cultural learners, as they were able to access and utilize the ever-expanding body of adaptive information available.  The interactions between cultures and genes caused them to coevolve.  Cultural evolution led to the self-domestication of the human species as those who violated norms were punished, while those who complied with norms were rewarded.  Culture overrides many private self-interested decisions, with social self-interest.  Culture makes member behavior more predictable, which facilitates cooperation. 


Individual Knowledge Versus Culture:

Humans have adapted to deal with local environments using group intelligence.  Humans do not have instinctual ability or individual capacities to quickly adept to novel local environments.  There are dire consequences to putting humans into environments they do not know, for they will misapply their knowledge to wrong contexts.  Even with food preparations, taking unprepared food from different cultures causes problems, because transferring the raw food does not transfer the knowledge of how to appropriately prepare the food to make the food safe to eat. 

Humans have survived and thrived because of the process of cultural evolution, knowledge that has come in assembled packages of cultural adaptations.  Practices and beliefs acquired over previous generations.  Knowledge that cannot be devised within a few years by intelligent and cooperative individuals.  Not even the bearers of cultural adaptations understand how or why something works, as they only know what is needed to make effective use of them.  The process of learning and attending other members tends to be unconscious.  Knowledge as an unintended consequence of interactions between learning minds over time.

Survival is based on the inheritance of a vast body of knowledge from previous generations.  Information that is stored in daily routines, rituals, and beliefs.  Using information stored in the culture, facilitates development of complex knowledge that is designed to meet local challenges.  Social and generational development, rather than a product of any specific individual’s ingenuity in applying logical skills.  Cultural evolution is often smarter than the individuals.  Complex adaption emerged because natural selection favored individuals who have faith in their cultural inheritance.  Faith in accumulated wisdom from prior generations, rather than their own intuition and personal experience.   

Rather than thinking as individuals, culture enables a group’s collective brain.  The group’s collective brain is limited to the population size and the social interconnectedness.  Members loss or becoming disconnected reduces the transmission of cultural information, which can lead to loss of skill and complex technologies. 

Those copying the practices of highly skilled and knowledge expert, often do not become as skilled or knowledgeable as them.  As copies can be worse than the original, there can be generational information loss.  Cumulative cultural evolution has to overcome the information loss, and is best able to do so when there is a large population that is highly socially interconnected.  While most individuals will be worse than the guide used to learn from, there will be individuals who develop skills and knowledge surpassing their teachers. 

As more individuals are trying to learn something, there is a higher chance that someone can become better than the individual they are learning from.  Interconnectedness means that more individuals can access skilled and successful guides, thereby increasing the chance of exceeding them.  Access to different highly skills and knowledgeable guides means that the information can be recombined in creative ways. 

Westerners are trained to seek out behaviors that explain why something happened.  Within this culture, claiming that the behavior was the outcome of custom is not an appropriate reason.  There is a lot of pressure for explicit reasons which makes them have an illusion that people have explicit causal models and clear reasons, even though they do not. 



Cultural evolution self-domesticated the human species.  As culture developed social norms, those who violated the norms provoked ostracism or removal from sociality.  Making the members of the community prosocial and rule followers in which members of the community monitor and enforce social norms.

Culture and evolution are intertwined.  Genes have evolved brains with abilities to learn from others.  Ability to learn from others disseminates knowledge across society, giving rise to large amount of knowledge about a lot of things.  Rather than hunting abilities, humans as cultural species can copy others.  But not just any other person.  Learners use a wide range of cues to find out to whom they should selectively pay attention to and learn from.  Cues that help determine who in the community is likely to possess the required knowledge and skills that would enable development of individuals’ skills.  Teaching is the other side of cultural learning.  Guides become active transmitters of information.

Cultures influence society development even at an early age.  As children play out and practice adult roles and skills.  Maturity involves apprenticeships that develop complex skills and areas of knowledge, and an understanding of how to build romantic and peer relationships.

Individuals seek to cooperate with others, but also do not want to be exploited.  Social norms solve that social dilemma problem.  As more individuals trust each other, there are more opportunities for exploitation.  But culture has enabled third party monitors, and mental models to overcome trust inhibiting situations.  Locally transmitted and shared rules can be enforced by third parties who monitor, reward, and sanction.  Culture contains information on how to handle situations and relationships that makes people more prosocial and directs away from exploitative opportunities.

Communities are forged by social norms that harness, extend, and suppress social instincts.  Social rules are learned by observing others, and are then internalized.  Judging others is based on cultural learning, which create self-reinforcing stable social behavior.  People would not be as cooperative without social norms and beliefs.  The human species have constructed social environments that penalized antisocial individual and norm violators, while reward the more sociable individuals.  What makes community members cooperative and coordinate with each other is the social norms, beliefs, and worldviews which facilitate an anticipation of each other’s behavior.

Culture enables biological modification, without the need for genetic changes.  Individuals become psychologically rewarded for agreeing with others.  Changing individual preferences and valuations.  Society functions depends on the cultural packages of social norms.  What makes people do the appropriate behavior and avoid inappropriate behavior, is not self-interest, but automatic norm following.  Cultural learning systems have the ability to override may instinctual or innate inclinations.  Acquiring values and practices that appear to go against instinctual or innate inclinations.

Languages have evolved for improved cultural transmission.  Changed in response to local contexts, physical environments, and social norms.  Enabling communication to become more efficient and have higher quality.  Communications includes not only verbal language, but many non-verbal elements.  Linking meaning and inferring intentions of communication to an immense range of behaviors.


Prestige Status or Dominance Status:

The availability of adaptive information in the minds of others facilitated a prestige status.  Status based on cultural learning, rather than just the genetic dominance status.  As evolution made humans cultural learners, the question became whom to learn from.  Guides were those who possessed information likely to be valuable to the learner.  Learns need to be with their guides for long durations, and at crucial junctures.  Learns benefit more from guides who are willing to share nonobvious aspects, or not actively conceal the secrets of their success.  Individuals developed a motivation to seek out skilled and knowledgeable models, and became willing to defer to the guide to gain their cooperation or acquiescence.  Deference is a reward that enables the prestigious individuals to share their information to the learners.

Within dominance relationship, individuals follow the dominant out of fear.  Submit or cooperate to not provoke the dominant.  Individuals seek out prestigious individuals.  Learners then to shift their values and practices to become more similar to the prestigious individual.  Learners pay deference to prestigious individuals and learn from them, while prestigious individuals are rewarded by individuals willing to defer to their values even if they do not agree with them.

Dominance and prestige based strategies influence groups in different ways to gain their status.  Dominance strategies tend to give credit to themselves, humiliate other, manipulate, and be overbearing.  Prestige based strategies tend to give credit to the group, and self-deprecate.

Prestige status is associated with individuals with great skill, knowledge, and successful outcome in tasks and activities that people care about.  Prestigious people are sought for knowledge in their locally valued domains, and deferred to which makes them very influential across a wide range of domains.  Prestige status forms the basis of leadership even in egalitarian societies, with no formal leadership roles or hierarchy.  Prestigious people tend to be known for their generosity, and are rarely ill-tempered or erratic. 

Prestigious individuals are generous to improve their statue, this generosity makes their social network more overall prosocial.  The individual increases the probability that other people become more generous and cooperative. 

Culture has made older individuals important information resources.  Culture changed the relationship between older and younger individuals, as there is information transmission within the relationship.  In noncultural species, individuals are limited to what can be acquired through experience which is little use to others because they lack the learning abilities to extract the information.  Aging can diminish the physical body, but for a species with cultural learning, those aging possess valuable information that they can transmit to younger generations.  Knowledge becomes less useful when the contexts change.  Knowledge from older individuals is beneficial when faced with similar contexts as older generations. 

Media exposure, for whatever reason and even without trying, creates attention cues for others to unconsciously perceive that individual as a worthy model.  The individual becomes a shared point of reference for everyone, making other seek out what they think.  Generating emulation within the group.  Creating a feedback loop where people want to hear more from the individual, because of a mistaken belief that others were attending to that particular person. 


Culture, and Food:

Most natural food is toxic, to deter predators from eating them.  The reason why there appears so much food available, is because of the already detoxified products in stores.  Cooking has become the modus operandi way of consuming food, which influenced genetic evolution to make humans addicted to cooked food. 

Cooking makes for more accessible to digestion, and does a lot of pre-digestion activities such as detoxification.  Cooking increases energy available through consumption.  Facilitating energy saving that reduced gut tissue, while also preventing diseases associated with gut tissue.  Every saving that facilitated the species to be able to have and maintain bigger brains. 



This book features primarily the beneficial aspects of culture.  Although there is an acknowledgement that cultures can have harmful aspects, there is a lack of ways to recognize the harmful aspects.  This leads to the problem of identifying what cultural aspects are beneficial or harmful, which are dependent on perspective, and contexts.  Contexts can change how a cultural aspect impacts its people, by making prior beneficial or harmful aspects have different consequences.  As much of culture is unconscious, what is missing are ways to recognize cultural aspects and values, and if experimentation with the aspects can find and promote an understanding of better alternatives. 

Although there are examples of gene-culture evolution, they have mixed qualities and add to a confusion.  Some are based on seeing the result, and rollbacking to identify the process that made the result.  But there could have many different unmentioned factors that influenced the process and result.  Other times there is a clear understanding on how gene-culture coevolved.  

Humans are compared and elevated above animals.  But there is research indicating that other animals have culture, with many of the same implications.  Animals might not have had best gene and culture combination to make them dominate, but that is no reason to diminish them.  Animals have adapted to fit their environments, using their physiology.


Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest the book?
•What is culture?
•What is a cultural species? 
•What is cultural evolution?
•How did humans self-domesticate themselves?
•Do humans use instinctual ability or individual capacity to survive?
•What information does culture possess?
•Why is culture referenced as being usually smarter than the individual? 
•From whom do people learn?
•Why can culture have information loss?
•How can culture overcome information loss?
•How did culture and genes coevolve? 
•What is prestige status?
•What is dominance status?
•How is cultural learning different from social learning? 
•What are some marriage norms and how are they enforced? 
•How did complex communicative tools develop? 
•How do social norms spread to other groups? 
•Are there harmful consequences to social norms? 

Book Details
Publisher:         Princeton University Press
Edition ISBN:  9780691166858
Pages to read:   340
Publication:     2015
1st Edition:      2015
Format:            eBook

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall           5