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The One Culture: Four new books indicate that the barrier between science and the humanities is at last breaking down
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Few essays have the longevity of “The Two Cultures”, written by the scientist/novelist C.P. Snow in 1959. Working as a physical chemist by day and socializing with his literati friends at night, Snow could testify that his two groups of associates were worlds apart. His scientist friends couldn’t be bothered to read Dickens and his literati friends couldn’t define mass or acceleration. The two cultures coexisted without interacting not only at Cambridge, Snow’s academic home, but around the world.

If Snow’s essay remains current, it is because the problem he identified—broadly, the disconnect between the sciences and humanities—has seemed insuperable. Until now. The breakthrough is easy to understand, at least in retrospect:  The domain of the humanities—variously described as “studies about human culture” (Wikipedia) or “the study of how people process and document the human experience” (Stanford Humanities)—are successfully becoming the object of scientific inquiry. If a scientist who studies physics knows little about culture or a humanist who studies human culture knows little about physics, then that doesn’t interfere much with their work. But if human culture becomes the object of scientific inquiry, then the very distinction between science and the humanities disappears. Scientists must respectfully consult humanist scholars in the same way that Darwin respectfully consulted the naturalists of his day. After all, it is the humanist scholars who have compiled the vast storehouse of information about human cultures around the world and throughout history. It is also the humanists who have done most of the hard thinking about topics such as the nature of symbolic thought. The humanists aren’t necessarily wrong, any more than the naturalists consulted by Darwin were wrong in their observations about plants and animals. What Darwin added was a new way of organizing existing knowledge and the search for new knowledge. That’s also what contemporary evolutionary scientists are trying to add to the study of the humanities. It simply cannot be done without collaboration.

Four new books provide a sample of this collaboration in action. Joseph Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success explains how we became such a cultural species in the first place and how culture has been driving genetic evolution for many thousands of generations. Peter Turchin’s Ultrasociety explains how the scale of human society increased by orders of magnitude over the long sweep of human history, based largely, although not entirely, on warfare. Dominic Johnson’s God is Watching You illustrates how the study of religion—a branch of the humanities by anyone’s definition—is being placed on an evolutionary foundation. Robert A. Paul’s Mixed Messages interprets cultural diversity through the lens of dual inheritance theory, which posits both a genetic and a cultural stream of information that is transmitted across generations.

Before describing their works, the biographies of the authors provide a clue that commerce between science and the humanities has been in progress for a while, even if it is not yet widely known. Each is like an intellectual world traveler capable of navigating to any port of call. Joseph Henrich disembarked from college with a degree in anthropology and briefly became an aerospace engineer before returning to get his PhD in anthropology at UCLA. It was there that he encountered a new brand of anthropology that is centered on evolution and integrates not only the four-field partitioning of that discipline (biological, cultural, archeological and linguistic) but all of the other human-related disciplines as well. He held a 2/3 appointment in psychology and a 1/3 appointment in economics at the University of British Columbia before joining Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, his current port of call.

Peter Turchin’s father was the distinguished Russian physicist and dissident Valentine Turchin. Peter became a mathematical biologist specializing in non-linear population dynamics. At mid-career, he decided to employ the same mathematical and theoretical tools to study human history. He is currently assembling a world history database that he describes as the cultural equivalent of the human genome project, which he can only do with the help of traditional historians.  His primary academic home remains the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut, but he has joint appointments in the Anthropology and Mathematics Departments and prefers to call himself an evolutionary anthropologist.

Dominic Johnson originally aspired to be a natural history filmmaker but switched to an academic track after reading The Selfish Gene. That led to a PhD from Oxford on the evolution of sociality in carnivores. A year at Harvard on a Kennedy scholarship broadened his horizons. He now saw history, politics, economics, religion, and evolutionary biology as all cut from the same cloth. After earning a second PhD in political science and numerous ports of call, he is currently Statutory Professor of Politics and International Relations at Oxford.

Robert A. Paul earned his PhD in cultural anthropology in 1970 at the University of Chicago, where he acquired an exceptionally integrated form of that discipline’s four-field approach. He joined Emory University’s Institute of Liberal Arts in 1976 and helped to build Emory’s anthropology department. His academic specialty is Buddhist symbolic thought. Along the way, he became a licensed psychoanalyst and currently directs Emory’s Psychoanalytic Institute. His current book is influenced by some of the faculty that he hired, including Robert Boyd, who later went to UCLA and became Joseph Henrich’s mentor, and Henrich himself, who made Emory one of his ports of call before moving on to the University of British Columbia.

Perhaps all four of these people are like C.P. Snow—unusually broadminded in contrast to their peers. That would be boring. Far more interesting and likely to be true is a change in the intellectual climate that makes it possible for anyone to become world travelers like these four people. The change is a maturation of evolutionary theory. Put another way, the same theory that unified the study of the rest of life during the 20th century (which continues) is now unifying the study of humanity as part of life.

Already I can imagine some readers of this essay scrambling to grab the rhetorical weapons that were wielded in past battles, such as the controversy over the publication of E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975 and the so-called “adaptation war” waged on the pages of the New York Review of Books in the 1990’s. But those weapons won’t do, any more than the cavalry could be used to fight in World War I. Moreover, what’s happening now is not a war but a constructive enterprise that requires turning weapons into plowshares.

One way that evolutionary theory has matured is by expanding beyond genetic evolution. Darwin knew nothing about genes and defined evolution in terms of variation, selection, and heredity–a resemblance between parents and offspring. Once the genes first discovered by Mendel gave rise to the field of genetics during the 20th century, however, they were treated as the only mechanism of heredity. Say “evolution” and most people hear “genes”, as if the only way for offspring to resemble parents (or more generally for information to be transmitted across generations) is by sharing their genes.

That’s patently false, but it has taken a long time for evolutionary theorists to return to their roots and define evolution in terms of heredity, not just genes. This single move expands the view to include other mechanisms of heredity, such as epigenetic mechanisms (trans-generational changes in gene expression rather than gene frequency), forms of social learning found in many species, and forms of symbolic thought that are distinctively human.

On the humanities side, a common formulation is that evolution explains the rest of life, our physical bodies, and a few of our basic urges such as to eat and have sex, but has nothing to say about our rich behavioral and cultural diversity. This is the apartheid that has kept C.P. Snow’s essay current all these years, but it’s important to realize that both sides–the gene-centric life sciences and the gene-phobic humanities—have contributed to the separation.

Before providing an overview of the four books, I would like to anticipate and forestall two objections that are likely to arise in humanist quarters. First, many humanists celebrate diversity and resist the idea that any one thing can be said about all cultures. That is not the meaning of the phrase “The One Culture”, however, any more than Snow was trying to assert that only two things can be said about all cultures. Snow’s point was that the academic world is partitioned into two cultures. “The One Culture” signifies that this partition is breaking down, which is something to be welcomed on both sides. The One Culture is all about the study of cultural diversity, just as evolutionary biology is all about the study of biological diversity.

Second, many humanists are extremely wary of grand narratives that exclude other narratives, which colors their attitude toward evolutionary theory and science as a whole. There are plenty of misuses of evolutionary theory and science in the past to justify such skepticism. One reason that the study of human cultural evolution got off to a bad start is because most European scientists took it for granted that their own culture was superior to all other cultures.  The current generation of scientists doesn’t necessarily have it right either. At the same time, it is widely acknowledged that relativism becomes self-contradictory and useless when it denies the possibility of objective knowledge. The One Culture affords an opportunity for humanists who are acutely aware of cultural differences and the rights of minorities to work constructively with scientists.


The best of our current knowledge about human genetic and cultural evolution is well told for a general audience by Joseph Henrich in The Secret of Our Success. He starts by reminding us of our frailty as a species. We can’t climb trees or outrun predators on the ground. Our stomachs, colons, and teeth are wimpy compared to other mammals with roughly the same diet. Our babies are born ridiculously premature. And, despite our large brains, we’re not that smart as individuals. Culture is the secret of our success and it has been playing a key role for so many generations that it has redirected genetic evolution, resulting in our odd suite of physical and mental characteristics.

Henrich uses anecdotes in addition to scientific studies to hammer home the point that we owe our success to culture and not our individual intelligence. A whole chapter is devoted to European explorers who got stranded and were unable to survive on the land without the help of native people. Generations of accumulated experience were required, not smart people figuring out what to do on the spot. Hardy European explorers were helpless, but a single native American woman who became stranded on her home island in California’s Channel Islands when the rest of the population was evacuated survived for eighteen years on her own. As Henrich tells the story:

[T]his lonely castaway ate seals, shellfish, sea birds, fish, and various roots. She deposited dried meats on different parts of the island for times of sickness or other emergencies. She fashioned bone knives, needles, bone awls, shell fishhooks, and sinew fishing lines. She lived in whalebone houses and weathered storms in a cave. For transporting water, she wove a version of the amazing watertight baskets that were common among the California Indians. For clothing, she fashioned waterproof tunics by sewing together seagull skins with the feathers still on and wore sandals woven from grasses. When finally found, she was described as being “in fine physical condition”…After overcoming an initial scare at being suddenly found, the lone woman promptly offered the search party dinner, which she was cooking at the time they arrived.

Even indigenous populations can lose their ability to survive if cultural information becomes lost.  Sometime during the 1820’s, an epidemic killed many of the oldest and most knowledgeable members of an Inuit population that lived in an isolated region of northwestern Greenland. The loss was like a collective stroke for the culture. The survivors were unable make effective bows and arrows, heat-trapping entrances to their snow houses, or build kayaks. Even they were unable to recreate this knowledge and their population had dwindled by the time they were contacted in the 1860’s by another Inuit population from around Baffin Island. Only then did the northwestern Greenland population begin to expand, thanks to the replenished cultural toolkit obtained from the Baffin Island population. Another “collective stroke” took place in Australia when what is now the island of Tasmania was cut off from the mainland by rising sea levels. The population stranded on the island was not large enough to collectively remember and transmit the knowledge of the culture and they lapsed into a more rudimentary existence.

Readers who are not already familiar with stories such these will be impressed by the amount of knowledge that is required for native people to survive and reproduce in challenging environments, which is not in their genes. Nevertheless, a genetic evolutionary story is required to explain why we are the only species on earth that can transmit learned information across generations to this degree. And a psychological (and ultimately neurobiological) story is required to understand the proximate mechanisms that make cultural retention and transmission possible. These are the pieces of the grand puzzle of humanity that are beginning to fit together. Seeing the whole puzzle is what it means for “The Two Cultures” to become “The One Culture”.

Turning to the psychological piece of the puzzle, consider the following experiment: Preschool children watch a video of two people (called models) manipulating the same object in two different ways. In the video, two bystanders enter, look at both of the models, and then preferentially watch one of them. The video goes on to show the two models selecting different foods, drinking beverages of a different color, and playing with a single toy in two different ways. After watching the video, the preschool children are given the opportunity to choose between the different foods and beverages and to play with the toy any way they want. The results: children were four times more likely to eat the food and drink the beverage and thirteen times more likely to play with the toy in the same way as the model that the bystanders were watching.

Or consider an experiment that involved adult men and women copying the hand motions of a same-sex or other-sex model while their brains are being scanned. Copying the same-sex model resulted in higher activation of the nucleus accumbens, dorsal and ventral striatum, orbital frontal cortex, and left amygdala—the same circuitry that is activated by receiving a reward such as money for getting a correct answer. Copying from some people rather than others is neurobiologically more rewarding.

These and many other experiments recounted by Henrich demonstrate that while some genes might code directly for human behaviors, many other genes code for a complex system for acquiring behaviors from one’s culture, which operates largely beneath conscious awareness and begins before birth. Critics of biological determinism have been proclaiming “Not in our genes!” all along, but a scientific account of the human cultural acquisition system that does emanate from our genes can only make their argument stronger. Indeed, without a scientific account, it is difficult to see how the humanities can achieve its own stated goal of understanding how people process human experience.


The new evolutionary story goes not only beyond genes, but also beyond selfishness. A theory called multilevel selection, which began with Darwin but was rejected for much of the 20th century, has become indispensible for understanding human genetic and cultural evolution. As Peter Turchin puts it in Ultrasociety:

Such a multilevel nature of organization of economic and social life has profound consequences for the evolution of human societies–just how profound we are only now beginning to understand, thanks to Cultural Evolution. The central theoretical breakthrough in this new field is the theory of Cultural Multilevel Selection.

Cancer provides a quick way to describe multilevel selection. Malignant cancer cells proliferate faster than their neighboring normal cells, making them perversely adaptive from an evolutionary perspective. Organisms that manage to suppress cancer proliferate faster than organisms susceptible to cancer. Natural selection therefore operates at two levels: a lower level that favors cancerous traits and a higher-level that favors “for the good of the organism” traits. Eons of higher-level selection has resulted in multi-cellular organisms that are remarkably (although by no means perfectly) resistant to cancer.

Now frame-shift upward so that the lower level is comprised of individuals competing within social groups and the higher level is comprised of social groups competing in a multi-group population. While you’re at it, contemplate a multi-tier hierarchy of groups within groups within groups. At every rung of the hierarchy, lower-level selection tends to favor traits that are cancerous at higher levels.

Most animal social groups reflect a combination of within- and between-group selection—some cooperation mixed with a lot of disruptive competition. To the best of our current knowledge, our ancestors managed to suppress disruptive self-serving behaviors within their groups to a remarkable degree, so that between-group selection became the dominant evolutionary force. This is called a major evolutionary transition and it has happened before in the history of life, including the evolution of social insect colonies, multi-cellular organisms, nucleated cells, and perhaps even the origin of life itself as groups of cooperating molecular reactions.

Nearly everything distinctive about our species can be understood as a form of teamwork made possible by a major evolutionary transition, including our ability to encode information in symbolic meaning systems and transmit large amounts of information across generations—in other words, our very capacity for culture. However, multilevel selection doesn’t make everything nice. It is part of the theory that teamwork within groups is forged by competition among groups. Among group competition need not take the form of warfare—but it often does.

Turchin disagrees with Steven Pinker’s thesis in The Better Angels of Our Nature that the incidence of warfare has been declining since the earliest times. Turchin regards an inverted U-shaped curve as more likely: Not much warfare when population density was low and human groups could be widely dispersed, then more as population density increased, and then less over the course of recorded human history. At a finer grain, human cultural evolution can be seen as an eternal conflict between levels of selection with a net gain for higher levels of functional organization, leading to the remarkably well-organized mega-societies of today–although with many reversals and much carnage along the way. Historians, archeologists, and paleontologists are required to interpret the fossil record of human cultural evolution in terms of this overarching theoretical framework.

Following Turchin, let’s drop in on two periods of human history, as revealed by written inscriptions on clay and stone tablets. The first is from Tiglath Pileser I, who ruled the Assyrian Empire from 1114-1076 BCE:

Then I went into the country of Comukha, which was disobedient and withheld the tribute and offerings due to Ashur my Lord: I conquered the whole country of Comukha. I plundered their movables, their wealth, and their valuables. Their cities I burnt with fire, I destroyed and ruined…Their fighting men, in the middle of the forests, like wild beasts, I smote. Their carcasses filled the Tigris, and the tops of the mountains…The heavy yoke of my empire I imposed on them.

And here is one from Ashoka the Great, who ruled the Mauryan Empire in the region of current day India and Pakistan during 268-239 BCE:

Beloved-of-the-Gods speaks thus: This Dhamma edict was written twenty-six years after my coronation. My magistrates are working among the people, among many hundreds of thousands of people. The hearing of petitions and the administration of justice has been left to them so that they can do their duties confidently and fearlessly and so that they can work for the welfare, happiness and benefit of the people in the country. But they should remember what causes happiness and sorrow, and being themselves devoted to Dhamma, they should encourage the people in the country to do the same, that they may attain happiness in this world and the next.

Even adjusting for boastfulness in both Emperors, what they chose to boast about speaks volumes about a brutal despotic culture on one hand and a more gentle inclusive culture on the other. What accounted for the flowering of social justice (relatively speaking), not just in the Mauryan empire but throughout Eurasia? According to Turchin, not the cessation of warfare but an increase in the scale of warfare.  The bullying tactics of despots who declare themselves to be Gods don’t work above a certain scale. An equitable society that holds even its kings accountable is required to create a mega-empire that spans millions of square kilometers and includes tens of millions of people.  The religions and philosophies that evolved during the so-called Axial Age (roughly the 8th to 3rd centuries BCE) provided the social glue capable of holding such large societies together.


For reasons that are largely serendipitous, The One Culture has coalesced around the topic of religion sooner than other topics such as history. Religions puzzle the secular imagination because their beliefs depart so flagrantly from factual reality and result in practices that seem so wasteful. It’s easy to understand why people make blankets, but why do they burn them in sacrifice to Gods for whom there is no verifiable evidence? This question has two potential answers: First, religious beliefs and practices might be just as irrational and wasteful as they seem and persist as byproducts of psychological and social processes that are useful in non-religious contexts. Second, despite appearances, religious beliefs and practices might have their own logic and utility after all.

Emile Durkheim was an early proponent of the latter view. He famously defined religion as “A unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things…which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” Durkheim also stressed the importance of symbolic thought in the organization of human societies: “In all its aspects and at every moment of history, social life is only possible thanks to a vast symbolism”.  Nevertheless, over a century of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences has not led to a consensus on the “secular utility” of religion, as Durkheim put it. The tradition of functionalism that he initiated peaked in the mid-20th century and is currently disparaged in many quarters. When I was writing my own book Darwin’s Cathedral at the turn of the 21st Century, the most authoritative theory of religion was a byproduct theory inspired by economics, which held that Gods are imaginary beings that people invent to bargain with for goods that can’t be had, such as rain during a drought or everlasting life.

Evolutionary biologists are accustomed to studying whether a given trait qualifies as an adaptation vs. a byproduct, the unit of selection, and so on. When this theoretical toolkit started to be applied to religion, it established a consensus that did not previously exist: Appearances notwithstanding, most enduring religions have an impressive degree of secular utility at the level of the religious community, much as Durkheim posited. Religions are also replete with byproducts, just as biological adaptations are, but the view of religion writ large as a byproduct has been authoritatively rejected.

Dominic Johnson’s God is Watching You is built upon this foundation and can therefore ask a more refined question: How do religions cause people to cooperate? The answer to this question comes in three parts. First, cooperation in any species can evolve only if certain conditions are met. This is not just a human universal; it is also an evolutionary universal. In particular, when members of a group are not genetically closely related (and often even when they are), the ability to detect and punish disruptive self-serving behaviors is required for cooperative behaviors to evolve. “Policing” has become a key term in the study of multi-cellular organisms and social insect colonies, no less than the study of human societies.

Second, a suite of policing mechanisms evolved by genetic evolution in our species and operates in nearly all cultures (there is also ongoing genetic variation and selection for these mechanisms). These include a strong bias toward thinking that good behavior will be rewarded and bad behavior will be punished over the long term. Few of us can shake this feeling and nearly all cultures exhibit the bias in both religious and non-religious manifestations. In the plays of Henrik Ibsen, for example, the characters are often tormented by the 19th Century European belief that one’s own moral failings will be passed, like a disease, to one’s offspring. This was not a religious belief, but it had the same effect on policing good behavior as a belief in heaven and hell.

Third, a common set of genetically evolved psychological mechanisms is like a bucket of Lego blocks that can be used to build a nearly infinite variety of cultural forms. This is why the One Culture is capable of explaining human cultural diversity in addition to human cultural universals, from the cosmologies of hunter-gatherer societies, to the moral high Gods of the Abrahamic religions, to Buddhist doctrines of reincarnation. As an intellectual world traveler, Johnson, like Turchin and Henrich, establishes trade routes between the biological sciences, human-related sciences, and humanities to explore a theme that most people would associate with the humanities alone—fear of God.


I have included Mixed Messages in this review to emphasize how much someone trained in the humanities, such as Robert A. Paul, has to offer the One Culture. Most of the knowledge that we possess about human cultural diversity, including the interpretation of human cultures as symbolic meaning systems, resides in academic disciplines associated with the humanities. The knowledge is largely descriptive, lacking the trappings of modern science, but so was the knowledge of the natural historians that Darwin relied upon to piece together his theory of natural selection. Quantification refines, but does not define the scientific process. In this spirit, Paul interprets some of the vast storehouse of information accumulated by socio-cultural anthropologists, which is often dumbfounding from the perspective of genetic evolution alone but makes sense from a broader evolutionary perspective.

Consider adoption, the practice of raising children that are not your own. A narrow genetic view holds that people around the world should favor raising their own offspring or those of their genetic relatives. Adopting offspring from other cultures seems inexplicable. From a broader evolutionary perspective, the basic demographic equation for a culture includes two inputs, birth and immigration, and two outputs, death and emigration. A culture that becomes organized to supplement its own offspring with offspring absorbed from other cultures will grow faster and potentially gain a competitive advantage over neighboring cultures, especially under conditions of chronic warfare. As expected from this broader perspective, the adoption of children captured in warfare was a common practice in cultures around the world and was even the primary demographic input in some cultures, such the Marind-Anim of New Guinea. The Shakers and other celibate religious sects provide examples from social contexts other than warfare. Indeed, childlessness in all its forms ceases to be such a mystery.

Dual inheritance theory can even explain the widespread view that one’s culture is “higher” than biological reproduction, which is by no means restricted to our own culture. Paul puts it this way at the start of a chapter titled “The Asymmetry of Cultural versus Genetic Reproduction”.

[M]atters relating to motherhood and birth are frequently conceptualized as dangerous, polluting, repulsive, shameful, or in other ways problematic, and even as threats to the integrity of society and of human life and health. At this point in my own argument, I hope this situation is not surprising. It is a consequence of the different agendas pursued by the genetic and the cultural programs. The birth of every individual as a helpless organism from a woman’s womb is perhaps the most fundamental scandal challenging the integrity of the claims of the cultural system to independence from biology, and as such it is very widely (although not universally) culturally devalued in one way or another. In this chapter I focus on some ways in which human social systems denigrate, devalue, restrict, or otherwise oppose the biological process by which new human phenotypes are created to populate and thus reproduce those same social systems.

How ironic, that the same asymmetry might explain the widespread view in the humanities that culture cannot be “reduced” to “mere” biology. As someone from the humanities who has joined the One Culture, Paul has created a trade route that hopefully will become well traveled by his colleagues.

I am not bothered by the longevity of C.P. Snow’s essay because when it comes to cultural evolution, the future is not predicted by the past. Anyone with an adventurous bone in their body should be excited by the prospect of becoming an intellectual world traveler, like these four authors. They are not special people, or at least no more special than the many thousands of gifted authors who preceded them. They are merely employing a way of thinking that enables them to visit any port of call in the biological sciences, human-related sciences, and the humanities. Read these four books (I recommend the order that I have reviewed them), and you might well be on your own way.



Join the discussion


  1. Ted Howard says:

    While I generally align with the main thesis, to me some of the core conceptual steps and linkages have been left out that mean it is still opaque to most people.

    These come under the following 4 major headings:
    The nature of evolution;
    The nature of human beings;
    The nature of reality;
    The nature of complexity.
    And also include many subheadings.

    The nature of evolution:
    Most people think of evolution in terms of competition. That is not at all accurate.
    Evolution is about differential survival of variants in different contexts.
    Sometimes competition is an important aspect of a context, at other times cooperation dominates as the most important aspect in survival. The key to understanding evolution is getting that it is all about survival. Cooperation and competition are just two of the factors influencing survival probabilities – there are many others.

    When it comes to thinking about cooperation, Axelrod demonstrated that raw cooperation is always vulnerable to exploitation and overwhelm by cheating strategies, so suites of attendant strategies (“Policing strategies” in a sense, a limited sense) are required for cooperation to work.
    It seems that all major advances in the complexity of living systems can be characterised by the emergence of new levels of cooperation.
    That appears to be a potentially infinitely recursive process, with every level requiring a potentially infinitely extensible suite of attendant strategies to prevent cheating. That idea can cause some headaches, and it is worth spending some time on.

    Another key idea is that levels of selection entity may vary over time and space, and all levels present are acted upon simultaneously by all the “pressures” present. These levels include atomic, molecular, cellular, etc right up through levels of culture to levels of individual abstraction and awareness beyond (or in advance of) anything generally culturally available.

    The nature of human beings:
    We all have deep cultural and genetic selection for cooperation or competition, depending on context. Human beings are not simple at any level, though in certain contexts behaviour can be remarkably consistent. Beware of generalising such observations beyond the contexts present.

    We all have both a physical and “spiritual” existence in this sense: It seems that we each have physical bodies, with brains that exist in the cosmological/physical reality that we all share, and it also seems that we each, as experiential entities, only get to experience the slightly predictive subconsciously created model of reality that our subconscious biological brains assemble for us.
    So in this sense, we each get to experience our highly personal and greatly simplified model of reality that is for the most part kept entrained to reality by the sensory information supplied by our senses. And under some conditions the degree of entrainment can vary substantially, sometimes approximating zero.

    It is important to get that all understanding seems to be of models within models. We must all start out with simple models. The simplest of models contain binaries – ideas like true/false, right/wrong, hot/cold, light/dark etc. As our models mature such simplicity must give way to complexity in all dimensions, leading to probabilistic understanding in all things.

    Eleizer Yudkowski has done an interesting collection of many of the biases that human beings are prone to “Rationality: AI to Zombies”, it is an extensive list (1813 pages), and it is only a start.

    And it is important to get that all understanding involves heuristic “hacks” – rules of thumb that work in practice at some level in some contexts. It is often difficult to distinguish when such things are out of context, particularly when they are part of the subconscious systems that create our experiential reality.

    The nature of reality;
    Reality is really complex. The numbers involved in each of us are mind numbing. Just to see all the people on this planet, all 7 billion of us, would take about 70 years if they ran past single file, 3 per second. We are each composed of about 10,000 times as many cells as there are people on this planet (meaning at 3 per second it would take a million years just to glimpse all our cells). And inside every cell is about 5 times as many atoms as we have cells in our bodies. And most of those atoms are moving fast. If we could somehow take a movie of action at the atomic level, and slow it down so that we could see the action at a single enzyme site, such that the average water molecule took about 1 second to cross the screen, then it would take about 30,000 years to watch one second’s worth of live action at that one molecular site.
    The idea that anyone, ever, could ever have certainty about something that complex, is a logical nonsense.

    The nature of complexity.
    Complexity is worse than being human.
    Wolfram has shown that all classes of computational spaces contain examples of maximal computational complexity – like Rule 30 in the case of a simple one dimensional array.
    Biology seems to include a large class of instances such complexity, and as such is, in many aspect, not predictable, even in a theoretical context where one has perfect knowledge, let alone in practice where all aspects of knowledge come with fundamental uncertainties.
    It seems that reality contains many classes of aspects that are fundamentally unpredictable at any and all levels. So the very idea if perfect prediction is a logical nonsense.

    It seems that we humans had better start developing systems for cooperation at the highest levels we can find (and everything below), and keep on searching the spaces of possible algorithms to use as stabilising strategies for our cooperatives – as the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

  2. Ed Gibney says:

    What a masterfully produced collage! Truly, only the One Culture seems capable of producing such a wide-reaching and far-seeing article. Thank you for putting this great signpost together for others to follow.

    My only confusion was in the use of the term “humanists” for academics coming from the humanities culture. Maybe it’s because I’m steeped in the atheistic / secular humanist crowd, but I might have termed the people coming from the humanities as “liberal artists” instead. Maybe there’s an even better term out there still?

  3. Ishi Crew says:

    nice essay. turchin is someone I’ve followed for quite a while though very few people I’ve met have heard of him.boyd and richerson introduced me to the term dual inheritance theory though I also read ‘genes mind culture’ by lumsden and Wilson (lumsden gave me the book) and Feldman/caveili-szvorza’s (bad spelling ) book . The math in lumsden-wilson is basically the same as in brian Arthur on ‘economic path dependence’ and derives from standard classic statistical mechanics (especially H Haken’s syntergetics series, some with weidlich). classic paper was in review of modern physics 1975 on ‘cooperative phenonomena in nonequilibrium systems’. To me that is basically ‘group selection’.

  4. Helga Vierich says:

    During the development of early state systems the archaeological record indicates the scale of warfare increased. It was a cultural change – towards an expansionist predatory political economy that used violence and coercion not just to expand territory but also to create and perpetuate deeper gradients of inequality even within the society. I think we might question whether cultural evolution in this direction is inevitable – or even sustainable. Ultimately, less democratic states may turn out to be a rather unfortunate detour from more cognitively sophisticated cultural ecologies.

    • Joe Brewer says:

      I think a lot about this too — how an “expansionist predatory” political economy arose in early agrarian states and rapidly increased their social complexity through the processes of cultural evolution in the centuries that followed. Now that we are experiencing extreme levels of inequality and environmental harm around the world, it is a vital question to explore… how do we apply insights from cultural evolution to get beyond this category of human social development?

    • Aaron says:

      While I sympathize with your dislike of “expansionist predatory” practices, it must be said that humans have this in common with every other life form on Earth. I hope we can overcome our biology and do better, as we have done in other areas, but I think it would take a lot of effort–if it is even possible.

  5. Helga Vierich says:

    Further to the comments by Ed Gibney and Ted Howard, I just wanted to add that we do need to deal with the issue of complexity, and perhaps to also challenge the idea that there really can be any merit in viewing “humanities” – or anything about human culture, as outside of the scope eo the natural world.
    Culture (a term referring to the overall system generating collective cognitive niches) is CLEARLY contributing strong selection pressures on the genome – it might well constitute an “environment of adaptation”, certainly an overwhelming one in the case of human cognitive evolutionary trends. Moreover, this environment is continuing and rather consistent – it is not something that happened in the past and then stopped. In my own estimation, the direction of the selection pressures within all human cultures is exactly the same as it has been many millions of years, although the pace has certainly varied.

    Cultures are not just made up of symbolically communicated ideas (you can call them memes if you want) and behaviours, all cultures also have properties that are consistent despite their apparent variety. They all have some acquired use of technology and skills for extracting calories and materials from an ecosystem and of distributing and consuming these (in other words, they all have an economy); a system of organizing reproductive and economic activities involving more than one individual (“social” institutions – like kinship, marriage, friendship, task forces, social controls, politics.. – thus, relationships of nurture and solace) as well as explanations (symbolic, metaphorical, empirical) that permit individuals to share a common set of “rationalization” for their own necessary conduct and activities… in other words, I suppose, what we might call “ideology” as well as collective received wisdom (science would be part of this, don’t you think?).

    So can we agree on this much – all cultures have these three tiers in common; economy, “institutions”, and coded explanatory realm that rationalizes what is expected of a person in a particular culture? If so, then “cultural evolution” is the study of how adaptive changes occur throughout these inter-related components.

    More critically, if we seek to test hypothesis about such change, we are talking about causes and effects. We need to clearly distinguish between dependent and independent variables. If we view culture as a replicator, what are the selective forces operating upon it? Since cultural systems all sit embedded, as it were, in the planetary ecosystem (and physical properties and structures of the planet), then to what extent do local variations of this embedding became independent variables setting in motion local cultural change? We must find a way of testing how much each local cultural adaptation is, in turn, acting as an independent variable setting off changes in the environment, don’t you think?

    Culture (a term referring to the overall system generating collective cognitive niches) is CLEARLY contributing strong selection pressures on the genome – it might well constitute an environment of adaptation, certainly an overwhelming one in the case of human cognitive evolutionary trends. Moreover, this environment is continuing and rather consistent – it is not something that happened in the past and then stopped. In my own estimation, the direction of the selection pressures within all human cultures is exactly the same as it has been many millions of years, although the pace has certainly varied.

    4) Cultures are not just made up of symbolically communicated ideas (you can call them memes if you want) and behaviours, all cultures also have properties that are consistent despite their apparent variety. They all have some acquired use of technology and skills for extracting calories and materials from an ecosystem and of distributing and consuming these (in other words, they all have an economy); a system of organizing reproductive and economic activities involving more than one individual (“social” institutions – like kinship, marriage, friendship, task forces, social controls, politics.. – thus, relationships of nurture and solace) as well as explanations (symbolic, metaphorical, empirical) that permit individuals to share a common set of “rationalization” for their own necessary conduct and activities… in other words, I suppose, what we might call “ideology” as well as collective received wisdom (science would be part of this, don’t you think?).

    So can we agree on this much – all cultures have these three tiers in common; economy, “institutions”, and coded explanations? If so, then “cultural evolution” is the study of how adaptive changes occur throughout these inter-related components.

    More critically,

    5) if we seek to test hypothesis about such change, we are talking about causes and effects. We need to clearly distinguish between dependent and independent variables. If we view culture as a replicator, what are the selective forces operating upon it? Since cultural systems all sit embedded, as it were, in the planetary ecosystem (and physical properties and structures of the planet), then to what extent do local variations of this embedding became independent variables setting in motion local cultural change? We must find a way of testing how much each local cultural adaptation is, in turn, acting as an independent variable setting off changes in the environment, don’t you think?

    All known hunter-gatherers appear to be (and likely were always) managing their ecosystems. Humans evolved as a keystone species, and their cultural systems adapted pretty rapidly to play this role in every ecosystem on the planet. No doubt you have been hearing about keystone species like wolves in Yellowstone, beavers, otters, and starfish for a while now.

    Not all species are keystone species, of course. I know it begins to feel that way when you first discover the concept. 󾍇 All beavers need is an environment with moving water runoff and anything – rocks, mud, vegetation – that they can use to block the flow. Once they do that, the dam they make holds back the water, and this, with not much further input from the beavers, creates an aquatic ecosystem (remember “self-organizing” complexity?) which in turn, by raising the water table in surrounding land, self-organizes the sprouting of seeds of reeds, rushes, bushes, all kinds of herbs and weeds, pioneering trees, and finally a forest… and of course, this all supplies the beaver family with the food they need.

    Wolves – just acting as pack hunting predators – (doing instinctive behaviours just like beavers) set off a chain of behavioural changes in prey species like elk and bison, behavioural changes that alter the grazing pressures on the whole ecosystem. The riverbanks no longer get over-grazed, and neither do the areas around beaver ponds! So both areas can have enough plant growth to support frogs and birds and smaller mammals… and enough berries to keep the bears fat ☺.

    So let us situate our human cultural evolutionary drama squarely within the empirical evidence we have about our role in the various ecosystems inhabited but human cultures. I found evidence that the Kalahari hunter-gatherers were actually increasing the range of plant species they liked. They were also careful about not killing too many of the antelope species they preferred to hunt, and they did this consciously. All of this was keeping the central Kalahari biomass high, and stable. It was within a smaller area, just 10,000 square miles. It is people from outside this area, hunters with guns from the BaTswana tribes, and European hunters, who have been decimating the elephants, the Rhino, and the lions.

    The Kua had a different way of seeing their place in nature. They saw themselves as living within a sacred balance. It was not exploitative attitudes, so much as reverence and thankfulness, that characterized their hunting and their harvesting of wild food plants.

    Overall, it seems to me that this is what humans have been doing for as long as we can imagine back in time. We also do something even more remarkable: while we were hunter-gatherers, we were constantly bringing with us, into every new place, at least some of the species from our favoured ecosystem – we humans move around within a cloud of species – an “anthro-ecology” of co-adapted animals and plants. And we did this long before we actually domesticated any of them – except, maybe the dog.. the dog would have been the first species that went into our anthro-ecology headfirst. I think there was a kind of sub-Saharan African wolf that did this and never looked back. It joined our world, our version of “wild” – our particular cloud – so it teemed up and made of us a kind of double-barrelled keystone species combo.

    And we have been moving other species along with our cloud all along, without necessarily domesticating them at all… because, like a keystone, we dragged at least some bits of the arch wherever we went.

    Check this out:

    “For at least the last 50 000 years, humans have played an important role in faunal redistribution [1,2], with early people moving animals for both food and cultural reasons [3]. In the case of islands that could not have been colonized naturally, wildlife distributions and phylogeographic patterns can inform us about human maritime movements [4]. There is evidence for the maritime colonization of Europe by Neolithic people of the Near East via the Mediterranean [5], with isolated long-distance sea travel around the Mediterranean as early as the Mesolithic [6]. There are fewer such examples of ancient sea travel in northern Europe, although it is thought that humans introduced fur-bearing species to the Scottish Isles from the Neolithic onwards [7] and transported red deer (Cervus elaphus) from Britain to Ireland during the Irish Bronze Age [8]. There is also evidence of long-distance movement of wildlife (Orkney vole) by Neolithic people between continental Europe and Orkney [4]. An increased knowledge of wildlife movements during the Holocene can help us to describe the nature of the historical relationship between humans and animals, and to better understand the role that humans have played in shaping evolutionary processes in wildlife throughout history [3]…”
    link to

    Compare it with this:

    “People were most likely manipulating plants from as early as 50,000 years ago in the lowlands, Jones says. That’s around the time humans likely first arrived. Scholars had long classified these early inhabitants as foragers—but then came the studies at Niah Cave. There, in a series of limestone caverns near the coast, scientists found paleoecological evidence that early humans got right to work burning the forest, managing vegetation, and eating a complex diet based on hunting, foraging, fishing, and processing plants from the jungle. This late Pleistocene diet spanned everything from large mammals to small mollusks, to a wide array of tuberous taros and yams. By 10,000 years ago, the folks in the lowlands were growing sago and manipulating other vegetation such as wild rice, Hunt says. The lines between foraging and farming undoubtedly blurred. The Niah Cave folks were growing and picking, hunting and gathering, fishing and gardening across the entire landscape.” [1]

    [1] link to

    Humans did not evolve as destructive creatures within their ecosystems, despite Jared Diamond’s tendency to attribute megafaunal extinctions, in some ecosystems, to some inevitable result of human hunting.

    The shift to negative trophic flows is archaeological observable as the “birth of civilization”. This occurs along with several notable events: massive deforestation, land laboriously and forcibly kept cleared for cultivation, the extinction of large predators, and the increased frequency of large-scale warfare.

    Those of us, who have been caught up in this shift, kidded ourselves for millennia about how much better life was. Our monumental buildings, our ploughs and wheels, our gods and weapons, and above all our intelligence and written records, all reassured us that we were the vanguard, the creme, the cutting edge of human evolutionary progress. Some of our brightest minds continue, to this day, to tell us that we become better angels, live “longer”, and are getting ever richer and healthier and more literate due to the civilizing influences of our complex economies. We have entered, not just the industrial age, but the space age!

    Meanwhile, some also note that we have entered the Anthropocene. No. We have merely slipped into ignorance, ignored our most ancient intuitions about our keystone role, and either accepted – or fearfully catered to – the misconceptions of a powerful elite who cannot see past their own self-affirmation fallacies. An elite essentially created and almost inevitably perpetuated by the process called civilization. It is not their fault, nor anyone’s. It was a function of cultural change cumulating over time, each tiny step along the way occurring due to somebody solving some problem – with the food or water supply, with finding building materials, with patching leaky roofs or pipes, with the stench and disease attendant to life in settled villages and towns, with transport and exchange of more and more goods over longer and longer distances, with squabbles over rights to log, to cultivate, to hunt, to graze, to sleep, to raise children, or to just go somewhere; and squabbles between whole communities… read Derrick Jenson’s latest book on why human supremacy is a myth. Most of the myth has been perpetrated by those who sought to exonerate us for civilizations’ effect on their ecosystems, by proclaiming that humans are special and exempt from the inevitable extinction of species that cause their ecosystems to collapse. Well, sorry, but I have to say it: how dare we lump all the cultural economies, that have and continue to have, positive effects on their ecosystems, along with the cultures based on eco-busting tactics?

    Can we get back to positive trophic flows? If we need to figure out anything, please focus our cleverest attention on that. No matter what it takes.

    • Mark Rego-Monteiro says:

      I recognize your comment for the extent of its description of the immediate situation and context facing modern society/ies. I would add that those ecosystem trophic flows are linked to social systems.
      We can observe two case scenarios in Saudi Arabia where Totalitarian monarchy lies behind the 9/11 terrorists and the US election of Trump.

      Along with that from the ecosystem issue side and the operation of psychological processes, Wells and Lekies identified that people pre age 11 who played unsupervised in nature are more likely to develop an environmental ethic (see J Whitty in Mother Jones, “The Thirteenth Tipping Point”).
      Ray Anderson of Interface Carpet was a CEO awakened by his response to colleagues and a client into strong environmental ethics. Inroads into economic theory include Whole Cost Accounting by Herman Daly and Chris Cobb, and even religious participation by John Cobb, a process theologian. The integration of religious thought with scientific considerations, social, and ecological thought creates a further “Whole Cost, Whole Process” treatment which can address the multiple levels down to “self and world”.
      Is it incessant warfare? Is it our tool using/hunter gather extended tribe / policing capacities? Jesus’ message of a loving God figure and the imperative of achieving interactive non-hate is a fundamental cultural trait underlying all this science stuff. “Tool use” cognition and interpersonal communication by Homo habilis, Homo erectus et al
      gives us additional context besides mere “warfare” calculations.
      Indeed, Michael Harner the anthropologist developed shamanic techniques that identify non-ordinary states of consciousness as part of that “extended tool use/interpersonal” capacity.
      Greenpeace style organizational tactics along with University academics in pursuit of breaking the blinders of socioeconomic taboos, such as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Ralph Nader, Francis Lappe, Vandana Shiva and so on are key. Indeed, Love Canal’s toxic waste killed and harmed people. Germany and Denmark are modern states that have strong citizen democratic components, as Emiglia Romana Italy, Mondragon Spain, and Vermont USA also do. May those positive trophic flows, as Herman Daly’s ecological economics pinpoints them in biophysical processes and ethicosocial ones get the recognition extinction requires in the rightly named Anthropocene era.

    • Mark Rego-Monteiro says:

      In fact, specifically, we are talking in whole or in part about agroecology like organic certification, Fair Trade, living wage, recycling, renewable energy, decentralized models, member-owned and managed co-operative (not “cooperative”) / ESOP business models, green chemistry as in Greenpeace’s Greener Industry campaigns and MB Design Chemistry’s Cradle to Cradle certifications, LEED cert, and anti-LEED corporate campaigns, for example. The winners of the Right Livelihood Award and Goldman Environmental Prize offer numerous examples which would make excellent food for evolutionary reflection.

      • Mark Rego-Monteiro says:

        In terms of the importance of non-ordinary states of consciousness, related considerations would be meditation and its health, emotional, and other psychological benefits, it having particularly strong roots in Asian culture, along with the work of Eugene D’Aquili et al and one of my all time favorites, Eliot D Chapple.

        From the point of view of social movements, in my restricted opportunities for research in general, Klandermans’ work with such social psychological factors as “cognitive liberation” providing interesting bases for discussion of evolutionary framing.

  6. David Eric Larson says:

    This is a great article and continues to my object of fascination & intense study. I have tried to understand the universals of culture in a somewhat different light, by trying differentiate cultural behavior from evoked innate psychological behavior. Since culture is a product of social exchange and social interaction, it is rooted in all that enables social interaction in domains like physiology, consciousness, emotions and social interaction.

    I’ve sought to get to the heart of it by gathering all the components of the human Social Engagement system across different disciplines and aligning their analytical models along two universal dimensions to see the pattern that emerges from an integral perspective across all levels.

    I’ve finally written a (rather) short overview

    link to

    which explains my evolving theory. While I likely have many mistakes and much editing in the main text, I’m convinced of the methodology and have already figured out more than I had ever envisioned, which explain:

    – a unification of emotion theories and the generation of an emotion taxonomy and periodic table of emotions
    – how mind/body are a unity which embody and model the environment and self
    – how implicit inference and conscious inference interoperate and what their underlying mechanism
    – how social connection is limited by our threat reactivity & inability to regulate affect
    – how consciousness works and evolves according to expanding awareness of affect
    – how Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development are related to Social Inference, operant conditioning & the E/S paradigm of Emotion
    – how Cultural worldviews pattern in a hierarchy of moral developmental stages
    – the shortest path towards changing culture in the direction of prosociality & social connection

    The overview contains some pretty graphs & pictures that say more in a glance than I can explain. Who else better to share this with than the Evolution Institute and DSW, who’s conference pointed me in this direction.

  7. Roan Jenkins says:

    Creative writing – I am thankful for the information – Does someone know where my business could find a blank a form example to fill in ?

  8. Yarwain says:

    This is simply laughable. It is sad that natural scientists who know very little about the social sciences and humanities will be deluded and tricked by it just like they were with sociobiology. Sloan Wilson’s biological anthropology is highly distortive of social sciences and humanities. The audience somehow gets sucked in by Wilson’s superficial pseudo-philosophy – he doesn’t even know if he is a ‘humanist’ or not and shows no shame for his exaggerations of evolution *everywhere*. D.S. Wilson is so fanatically hyper-evolution he probably thinks the name on his own birth certificate ‘evolved’!

    • Mark Rego-Monteiro says:

      Certainly you have some grounds for pride in the studies and accomplishments of social scientists. Moreover, the operation of mutliple levels needs to be kept clear. However, you don’t seem to embody a spirit of inter- and multi-disciplinarity which is at issue here, and of extreme importance.

      Additional resources which would be helpful to deepening the views here would be Eliot D Chapple’s work which drew on Pavlov’s principle of conditioning to study and explain the nature of semantics cross culturally, for example. The numerous Inuit words for “snow” for example relate to their high rate of interaction with the stuff.

      You pose an interesting question about the name on his birth cerfticate. Off the cuff, David Wilson seems to be American with Anglo-Saxon roots, and along with the Judeo-Christian “David” certainly reflects historical developments. As one of the examples cited contrasts a brutal king from the Ancient Levant and another the more gracious Ashoka from Asia, that kind of analysis could then be examined to understand the cultural developments which have left tribal Anglo-Saxon vestments in the past and Hollywood. What has the influence been then of the philosophical, cultural, and technical developments since then? What dynamics can we identify in terms of continuity and discontinuity? Can we frame Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman morality in assessing things like the Nuremberg Trial in similar ways? The Nazi’s waged all out violent war to the death

      • Mark Rego-Monteiro says:

        There certainly is a spectrum of contexts to consider, following Steve Pinker’s basic observation, say, that learning a Language appears to be a human genetic trait, although its component concrete processes involve immediate cause and effect, psychoneuro and social processes that need to be appropriately framed in discussion. Clearly, concepts that value such things as biodiversity and cultural diversity need to be made explicit, as issues of validation and invalidation inevitably arise.