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Origins of the Human Social Mind

by Mark Pagel

Pub Date: Feb. 27th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-393-06587-9
Publisher: Norton

Pagel (Evolutionary Biology/Univ. of Reading; Evolutionary Genomics and Proteomics, 2007) examines the human species and the importance of culture and the social environment.

He writes that we became “wired for culture” as we developed the capacity to think symbolically and the imaginative ability to speculate about the possibilities inherent in our own actions and those of others. From this emerged language and our ability to tap into the discoveries of people we may never have met. In the process we surpassed the primitive tools for hunting and fishing used by other hominids, developed art forms, pondered the stars and created a new social environment that allowed us to populate the globe. “[B]eing able to jump from mind to mind,” writes the author, “granted the element of culture a pace of change that stood in relation to our genetical evolution something like an animal’s behavior does to the more leisurely movement of a plant.” Pagel extends Richard Dawkins' conceit of the selfish gene, whose purpose is to replicate itself rather than the host body, to describe the role of cultural memes that (metaphorically) used humans to replicate society. Much of the book is devoted to the author’s deconstruction of cultural norms such as reciprocity—i.e., cooperation with competitors by adhering to accepted norms of trading. In the process we enlarge our loyalty from just those who share our gene pool to humanity as a whole. The process, however, is not smooth. Pagel traces memes such as love of flag and country to our discomfort in trusting strangers, and he recognizes that there can be survival benefits to deception—even self-deception—as well as to group loyalty.

An intriguing combination of information on the latest advances in genomics and epigenetics, with an optimistic prediction of a future global society in which inventiveness and cooperation prevail.