Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Mark Pagel's "Wired for Culture"

Mark Pagel is a professor of evolutionary biology at University of Reading. He has published widely on such topics as evolutionary genetics and linguistics, brain size, and human culture.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book just happens to be the opening page of Chapter 3 entitled "The Domestication of our Talents" in which I explore the idea that our cultures have cultivated our various talents in a manner not so different from the way we have domesticated the dogs into their numerous varieties.

Because more than half the page is taken up with the chapter number and title there isn’t enough text to complete the argument that begins this chapter. Therefore my excerpt spills over onto page 100:
Go out into the wild sometime and observe a group of animals. Maybe it is a flock of birds, or a herd of cows, or if you are lucky you might travel to Africa and watch giraffes or monkeys. One of the things you will realize after you have been watching for a while is that, apart from the usual division of labor between males and females, all of the animals in these groups will be doing more or less the same things. If it happens to be cows you are watching, they will all have their heads lowered to graze, they will be twitching their tails, and lowing and mooing. If you are watching a group of monkeys, they will be feeding, grooming each other, and occasionally grimacing or shrieking. If it is a flock of birds wheeling around the sky, there won’t be leaders and followers, at least not for any length of time; the birds’ positions in the flock will be in a constant state of flux. In all of these groups, most of the individuals will routinely do a little bit of everything. Now imagine yourself up in the air—perhaps having climbed high up a tree—looking down on a human settlement maybe 40,000 years ago….even by that time in our history someone might be making a musical instrument, carving a figurine, or crafting jewelry. Someone else might be flaking a stone blade or making an arrow or a spear. Someone else might be building a shelter, making a net or bow, and someone who spent the day foraging might trade some of his or her food for one of these efforts. These humans are doing different things and trading what they produce or acquire for things others have built or acquired.
Humans have a surprisingly large range of abilities. Some of us are good at music, others at mathematics, design, language or sport, and all of these have been shown to be influenced by genes. Now, natural selection is the process by which some genetic varieties survive at the expense of others. It favours melodic singers among songbirds, and fast runners among lions and their antelope prey — poor singers remain lovelorn (and childless) and slow runners hungry or dead. We might therefore expect differences among us to get erased by natural selection.

How, then, can we explain the diversity of human talents and skills? I believe our variety is a striking example of how our cultures have cultivated differences among us. Uniquely among the animals, humans practice a division of labor: we can exchange skills, goods and services – maybe, for example, you are good at making spears and I am good at climbing trees for honey. We take this for granted but once a division of labour was possible, those who specialized at what they did best would have had the most to trade with others.

This raises the possibility that human cultures have sorted us genetically throughout our evolutionary history, encouraging sets of skills to co-exist. It is a scenario we should recognize, having inflicted it onto countless domesticated animals, notably dogs. Breeds ranging from Chihuahuas to Newfoundlands bear the genetic marks of having evolved specialized temperaments, skills and morphologies in response to the social environment of human whims.

Our genes might have been equally content to specialize to the various opportunities our societies have created. We instinctively recognize this in the sporting world – basketball players are tall and jockeys are not, but it might also be true of other roles in society if these roles require differing talents that have some genetic basis.

If human society has cultivated us this way, it could have unintended consequences in our modern world. Most of us support the societal goal of ensuring equality of opportunity. But if people have different innate skills, then such a policy could produce a ‘genetic meritocracy’, a society differentiated by innate predispositions. It could produce this outcome because equality of opportunity only ensures that people have an equal chance of being delivered to the doorstep of a job, but it does not ensure that everyone will be equally good at that job.
Learn more about Wired for Culture at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue