Book of the Decade! Reviewed August 28 2017

Joseph Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success: How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species and making us smarter. (Princeton University Press, 2016)
Across my lifetime I have read a great many wonderful books – the best of them generate what Dennett calls the “universal acid” of ideas that burn irreversible truth or understanding into your mind. I can name a handful over a lifetime and now comes this masterful work, which also has the supreme virtue of being superbly written and not overlong – though I was sorry when it ended. I wanted more, and I’ll say something about that in a moment.

In this wonderful book, Henrich, a Harvard professor of human evolutionary biology, is expounding the ramifications of culture-gene coevolution. This is something I’ve been trying to write about for a while now, but this book takes the topic to a much higher level. Here is a masterpiece of original thought – every page pulses with fresh insights, superbly integrating across the life sciences in a coherent and compelling narrative.

The key idea is that we humans have triumphed as a species not because of our big brains and language but our compulsion to watch, imitate, and learn from each other. Indeed, the enlarged brain, the powerful deployment of language, tool invention and use, the design of our limbs and physiognomy, have all progressed by a reciprocal and irresistible dance with our evolving sub-cultures. This is a million miles from the we-can-make-it-up-any-way-we-want naïve and sloppy social constructionist argument that infects much social science. Henrich’s closely argued narrative is profoundly biological and underpinned by evolutionary precepts. Look no further than his brilliant synthesis around the notion of “self-domestication”, via the evolution of social forms such as mating systems and belief systems, that enhance our fitness, collectively and individually.

Apologies to Henrich, for my description of his achievement sounds more prosaic than it should. The tour he takes us on, through our primate inheritance, social forms, regional and ethnic variations, laws and rituals, intergroup competition, communication tools, is a tour de force of marshalled evidence and argument – completely riveting and wholly convincing. Take for example his treatment of the concept of “race” – whose categories in common use capture only 7% of total species genetic variation. Natural selection works on lesser group dimensions than these amorphous categories which conflate pigmentation, ethnicity, nationality and other markers, but racial categories and associated stereotypes persist because they tap into our “human universal tribal psychology to carve up the world in particular ways”.

Which brings me to the issues raised by these analyses. If we can self-domesticate in so many inventive and useful ways, why can’t we do a better job of running the world and our affairs? Henrich, wisely perhaps, is silent on this thorny question. Should we happily run in the direction of Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist or are the forces of cultural identity and inter-group competition – tribalism, warfare, and environmental nest-fouling – going to bring us gloriously unstuck as a species?
Do we have our fate in our hands? On the one hand we can be amazed at how we have found the “better angels of ourselves” as Stephen Pinker has brilliantly argued, in our enhanced empathy, advancement of human rights, and liberating institutions. On the other hand, the rise of populism, nationalism, sectarian conflict and environmental pillage offers a bleak vision of species extinction, pathologies of inequality and suffering, and ultimate self-impairment.

Two terms that are absent from the index of Henrich’s book are will and agency. They and their mysteries pose the fundamental challenge – whether through intentional social innovation we can self-domesticate ourselves to safety, or whether our wilful demons will prevail. Just which elements of destiny are in our hands remains the troubling unanswered question.

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