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A note on human evolution: how culture shapes us

| Friday, December 2, 2016

Humans are culturally crafted creatures. Our 6 million years of unique evolutionary history has left us like soft balls of clay. We come into the world skilless but eager and equipped to learn. Where other species have genes that teach them what to do and govern their possible actions, we arrive with much more freedom, trusting in culture instead to teach us the things we need to get through life. It is because of the role that culture has played in shaping our lives that we are so incredibly unique within the animal kingdom.

While we are not the only species that demonstrates having culture, no other ‘cultural’ species comes close to the quality or quantity of culture that we possess. As I said above, this has led to some curious evolutionary modifications of our bodies and minds over the course of a few million years. On the physical side, consider what has happened to our teeth. Once we invented cultural toolkits for cooking and externally processing food, we began passing them down to successive generations of offspring, and having strong and functional teeth eventually became unnecessary for survival. As a result, many of us have naturally terrible teeth, and orthodontists can make a living fixing them.

On the mental side, consider any of the many accounts of lost European explorers. These adventurers, finding themselves stranded in a new environment, almost always starved to death. This is because the cultural toolkits they learned to navigate life in a European civilization, or onboard a fully stocked caravel, were useless in an Amazonian jungle or an Arctic tundra. For proof of this, consider the few cases where they did manage to survive, by befriending a group of indigenous people and begging or bartering with them to obtain their locally adapted cultural toolkit (which often included both intangible skills and the special, tangible tools with which to employ them).

The point is that our minds and bodies do not come pre-stocked with the set of programs and tools for survival that most species have. Instead they begin blank, but ready to learn what has worked for our ancestors. Through the channels of religion, family, school and any other non-genetic means of acquiring information, the information we need to survive in our immediate environment is transmitted to us. This is why people around the world have different forms of the above channels. They live in different environments and have thus evolved different cultural assemblages to navigate them.

The picture we have painted above should make it clear that we are utterly and completely dependent on our culture for survival, but the belief that we have stopped, or even worse finished evolving, is far from true. Culture just makes it seem like this, because in some ways it partially shelters us from the harsh clutches of natural selection (think of cultural adaptations such as clothing, that enable us to survive where thermally speaking we should not be able to). Although we attempt to hide behind this shield, we continue to evolve, and so do our environment-specific toolkits.

Understandings this essential fact of our evolutionary history is the first step to imagining how a creature as strange as us has managed to become so successful. Similarly, the reason we have such a difficult time believing that we play by the same rules as the rest of life on Earth, is because in a way, we don’t. Successive generations of our ancestors found a way around the solely genetic evolutionary highway traveled by every other Earthly life form. By using culture to accumulate and improve the innovations of each generation, instead of having to start over from scratch, they managed to catalyze our evolution in a sense.

Our ability to do this was brilliantly augmented by natural selection. Once we had enough culture in place to make being better at learning it advantageous, evolution was able to select humans that were better social learners and transmitters. Over many generations, selection for these and similar traits increased our ability to learn and invent new things. This, in turn, created even more cultural opportunities, and thus, our expanding cultural toolkits influenced our biological evolution, and vice versa.

What this means is that we must begin to view culture as much more than simple differences in the ways we grow up. It is an adaptation essential for survival, much like a spider’s web or a bird’s nest, that has and continues to influence our evolution. It is not static; and there is no ‘right’ culture, just as there is not a single ‘right’ way for birds around the world to make their nests. Humans are not formed with a single cultural toolkit in mind. We are prepared to be molded by whatever culture we are born into, because it is expected that that cultural toolkit contains the skills necessary for survival in that ecosystem. In fact, the secret to our success lies in the plethora of unique cultural toolkits that we have developed to survive and thrive in almost every corner of the Earth, and each of these represents a rich chapter in the history of humankind.

Matthew Williams


Nov. 27

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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