Yet another Interlibrary Loan book, this one from Tufts. I believe I put
it into my to-be-read list when I came across the author, Joseph
while reading Matt Ridley's
Evolution of Everything.
It's a fine "big idea" book, as you can tell from the subtitle. What
unlikely process, asks Henrich, has brought the human species to
dominate more terrestrial environments than any other land mammal? We
aren't very strong, not very fast, and not that good at tree-climbing.
Why weren't our ancestors all Tiger Chow
millions of years ago?
Well, we're smart, you say. But Henrich argues convincingly that
we aren't that smart either. His thought experiment: dump fifty
humans and fifty capuchin monkeys into a central African jungle. ("To be
kind we would allow the humans—but not the monkeys—to wear clothes.") Come
back two years later and it's a safe bet that there will be a lot fewer
surviving humans than monkeys. There are a couple of tragic real-world
examples presented: groups of "civilized" humans accidentally finding
themselves in an environment in which they rapidly die off, even in the
midst of native populations that are doing just fine.
Instead, Henrich argues, we're uniquely well-suited to cultural
evolution, the process by which knowledge and skills are transmitted
from one generation to the next. In addition, good old genetic evolution
co-evolves with the culture, to the extent that our species'
hardware/firmware is optimized
to handle cooked food, written language, throwing small, heavy objects with
deadly accuracy (Craig Kimbrel excluded), run long distances, and the
It's a wide-ranging tale, and Henrich runs through his argument with
clarity and occasional understated humor. As is typical with these sorts
of books, a variety of research is cited from anthropology, psychology,
economics, and related fields. Some of these results I'd heard before,
As with most results of "dumb luck" evolution, the beneficiaries
often don't understand "the secret of their success". I was able to
impress my nutritionist wife with the mystery of why South American
natives put wood ash (or burned seashells) into their corn dishes before
serving. Why? The alkalinity of the ask
makes the niacin in the corn available to the
human digestive system.
When corn was introduced into "civilized" countries, this technique was
discarded, since nobody knew why it was useful. The result: pellagra,
caused by niacin deficiency. And (tragically) the cause of pellagra
remained a mystery until the mid-20th century.
Also very mind-bending was Henrich's discussion of the brain's
"firmware" for recognizing written language. We English-readers can look
at (for example) "READ" and "read" and know within milliseconds:
that's the same word, even though the letters don't look anything alike.
Multiply that feat over myriad font shapes and sizes. How could
that skill, developed only a few thousand years ago,
be a result of sluggish Darwinian processes? Cultural evolution, baby!
And there's a lot more. As always: there are controversies, and Henrich
is only giving his side. So maybe not the last word on this topic.
Nevertheless, a fun and fascinating read.