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Not By Genes AloneReview - Not By Genes Alone
How Culture Transformed Human Evolution
by Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd
University Of Chicago Press, 2004
Review by Maura Pilotti, Ph.D.
Nov 22nd 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 47)

In Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd explore the issue of the interplay of nature (genes) and nurture (culture) in determining the evolution of the human species. One may ask whether another book that deals with the nature vs. nurture controversy can add anything to our understanding of human evolution. The answer to this question is a resounding "Yes!" This is because the authors of the book do not focus their attention, as so many others have so tirelessly done, on separating the contributions of nature and nurture to human action. On the contrary, they rely on the metaphor that nature is very much like a recipe whose ingredients are determined by nurture. They treat culture as the glue that combines heredity and learning, and focus on natural selection as a guiding factor for human evolution.

The authors build their claim of the critical role of culture in human evolution by observing that culture is what makes the human species different from other species. This rather predictable way of setting the foundation for a discussion on human evolution may shatter readers' expectations of a groundbreaking and original approach and thus may discourage further reading. However, those who venture through the pages of this tightly written volume are sure to be pleasantly surprised by the originality of the authors' discourse and their captivating analyses. This is indeed the case of a book that should not be judged by its opening remarks!

In the pages of this interesting book, the authors address two critical claims in a bold but fact-based manner:

(1) Cultural factors are central to our understanding of human activities.

(2) Culture is rooted in human biology.

With respect to the first claim, Richerson and Boyd present a wealth of empirical illustrations that point to the role of culture in accounting for human behavior and that discount or minimize the role of other external factors (e.g., economics, climate, etc.) and of heredity. One of the best illustrations of this rich assemblage of data regarding the role of culture in shaping behavior is presented at the beginning of the book. There, the authors make the case that differences in people's beliefs and attitudes regarding personal honor can account for differences in aggressive behavior between Southerners and Northerners. They rely on an impressive variety of evidence collected by Nisbett and Cohen (1996), ranging from laboratory data to ethnographic facts, to support their assertion. For instance, the authors report statistical patterns of homicide rates that illustrate that Southerners are more likely to be violent than Northerners in situations that can damage a person's reputation in his/her community (i.e., personal honor). The authors claim that this curious contextual difference in homicide rates is supported by a difference in the beliefs that Southerners and Northerners hold about violence and the circumstances that can justify it.

The second claim embodies Richerson and Boyd's most daring proposal. These authors put forward the thesis that cultural (in addition to natural) environments have shaped the survival of individuals in groups, thereby affecting which genes are transmitted to the next generations. Interestingly, the authors do not deny that the way human beings process environmental and personal information is shaped by natural selection. They simply acknowledge that natural selection is influenced not only by natural environments but also by cultural ones. Thus, culturally acquired variations in the way Southerners and Northerners engage in violent acts can be assumed to have been preserved across generations not only via direct learning of beliefs from one generation to the next but also via natural selection.

Both claims rely on the concept of "population thinking" through which Richerson and Boyd explain how some beliefs and attitudes survive across time in some social groups and other beliefs and attitudes simply disappear. This concept allows the authors to generate an account of cultural evolution in which culture can rapidly bring into being useful behavioral changes (adaptations to altered environments). Thus, culture becomes, in the view of the authors, a compensatory mechanism for the adaptations that biology would need considerably more time to implement.

One of the most captivating aspects of the book is its reliance on diverse domains of knowledge such as Anthropology, Psychology, Political Science, Sociology, and Economics. The authors navigate each domain skillfully and purposefully on a mission to select evidence that can be used to test their claim that culture is a critical factor in human evolution. As skillful scientists, they examine all the different kinds of evidence objectively, whereas as clever writers they arrange their findings into a sturdy edifice that can weather not only many assaults from opposing parties but also the mere passage of time.

The book is unquestionably an engaging read for scholars and students of human evolution. Notwithstanding the large number of attention-grabbing examples that the authors rely on for their theoretical arguments, the book can become a challenging enterprise for readers who are not familiar with this area of knowledge. Not surprisingly, the bibliography at the end of the book can provide useful material for in-depth analyses of the claims that the authors put forward and the facts that they select to support such claims. However, a solid background in the Social Sciences is required to fully appreciate the authors' theoretical arguments and their selection of supporting evidence. Thus, this is not a book for novices in the field of human evolution. Rather it is a step forward in a long-standing debate that is continuing to be controversial and whose appreciation requires a great deal of prior knowledge.

2005 Maura Pilotti

 

Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Dowling College, New York.


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