Allen Lane, £25, 416pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation, By Mark Pagel

 

One day, the people of a village in New Guinea decided to change their word for "no", to distinguish their speech from that of a neighbouring village. Another community swapped the masculine and feminine genders in its language to stand out from its neighbours. The principle of a local language for local people is cherished on the island, with the result that it is home to 800 of the world's 7,000 tongues. The New Guineans' ability to pass rules obstructing mutual comprehension might well be envied by European linguistic nationalists, whose powers are generally limited to words for things like computers and aeroplanes. Yet it is only a difference of degree. The New Guineans' attitude is instantly recognisable, because parochialism is universal.

Why so many languages? Mark Pagel, who heads the Evolution Laboratory at the University of Reading, once put that question to a nomadic pastoralist in northern Kenya who spoke six but had rarely gone more than 30 miles from his birthplace. It's a profoundly difficult one to answer in any language. Throwing into relief humankind's apparent compulsion to cluster in groups, it is one of the most significant questions we can ask.

We can start to answer by asking a more fundamental question: why do we uniquely have such large and capable brains? Pagel's view is that "we owe our big brains less to inventiveness than to conflicts of interest among social minds engaged in an arms race to be the best at manipulating others". It wasn't the computing power needed to make stone tools; it was the pressure of life as intensely social beings, depending on each other while competing with each other. Our distant ancestors needed unprecedented brainpower to understand and influence what was going on in the brains of those around them.

As Pagel's phrasing illustrates, this view of the evolved mind is not rose-tinted. Its fundamentals are competition and self-interest – but what fascinates it is how self-interest leads so abundantly to co-operation. Pagel condenses several decades of thinking about the social brain and the evolution of cooperation to tell a story in which the most sophisticated forms of learning – the ability to imitate another's actions, with a degree of insight into their purpose – are a relatively recent evolutionary arrival. This is a somewhat obtuse reading of the artefacts earlier hominins left, and what we can reasonably surmise about how they may have lived. But there's no doubt that anatomically modern humans brought about the first cultural spring the planet had ever seen. Art and adornment flourished; toolkits diversified.

Pagel does not see this as a universal explosion of creativity, though. We are most of us imitators, he argues; only a few are innovators. Our distinguishing intelligence is our ability to assess what others are doing and copy the best examples. Culture is principally an imitation system; and in such a system, nothing matters more than reputation.

That encourages cooperation, because what individuals gain in reputation by cooperating may well exceed the costs they incur by doing things for the benefit of others. The regard of others is of such paramount importance that language, Pagel argues, is "principally a social technology for managing and exploiting the benefits of reputation and the cooperation it enables".

Culture reduces conflicts of interest by aligning people's behaviour and values. The more you share somebody's culture, the better you will be able to predict their behaviour, and the easier it will be for you to decide whether you can trust them to act in your interests in any given situation. The stricter the culture's rules, the more predictable and trustworthy its members will be to each other – and the more suspicious they are likely to be of everybody else. Language can be used as a technology to strengthen bonds within a community by frustrating connections with outsiders. It promotes what Pagel calls tribalism.

He builds his argument the way it should be built, recognising that in the beginning there is self-interest, that culture should be considered as an evolutionary adaptation that promotes the replication of genes, and that to be human is to be social. It is a compelling account, though readers unfamiliar with the territory may have some difficulty seeing the wood for the trees, and will find little in the way of aesthetic nuance.

But having begun with a question, he leaves another one hanging. Encouraged by the cultural diversity of modern cities, he expresses his confidence that people are beginning to find new markers of trustworthiness to replace traditional ethnic and cultural ones. Let's hope he is right – but what exactly are these brave new markers that have the power to end our species's tribal history?

Marek Kohn is the author of 'Trust: Self-Interest and the Common Good' (Oxford).

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links