Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution

 by Staff

Humans are a striking anomaly in the natural world. While we are similar to other mammals in many ways, our behavior sets us apart. Our unparalleled ability to adapt has allowed us to occupy virtually every habitat on earth using an incredible variety of tools and subsistence techniques. Our societies are larger, more complex, and more cooperative than any other mammal’s.


In this stunning exploration of human adaptation, Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd argue that only a Darwinian theory of cultural evolution can explain these unique characteristics. Not by Genes Aloneoffers a radical interpretation of human evolution, arguing that our ecological dominance and our singular social systems stem from a psychology uniquely adapted to create complex culture.


Richerson and Boyd illustrate here that culture is neither superorganic nor the handmaiden of the genes. Rather, it is essential to human adaptation, as much a part of human biology as bipedal locomotion.


Drawing on work in the fields of anthropology, political science, sociology, and economicsand building their case with such fascinating examples as kayaks, corporations, clever knots, and yams that require twelve men to carry themRicherson and Boyd convincingly demonstrate that culture and biology are inextricably linked, and they show us how to think about their interaction in a way that yields a richer understanding of human nature.


In abandoning the nature-versus-nurture debate as fundamentally misconceived, Not by Genes Aloneis a truly original and groundbreaking theory of the role of culture in evolution and a book to be reckoned with for generations to come. “I continue to be surprised by the number of educated people (many of them biologists) who think that offering explanations for human behavior in terms of culture somehow disproves the suggestion that human behavior can be explained in Darwinian evolutionary terms.


Fortunately, we now have a book to which they may be directed for enlightenment . . . . It is a book full of good sense and the kinds of intellectual rigor and clarity of writing that we have come to expect from the Boyd/Richerson stable.”Robin Dunbar, Nature ” Not by Genes Aloneis a valuable and very readable synthesis of a still embryonic but very important subject straddling the sciences and humanities.”E. O. Wilson, Harvard University


In Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd explore the issue of the interplay of nature (genes) and nurture (culture) in determining the evolution of the human species. One may ask whether another book that deals with the nature vs. nurture controversy can add anything to our understanding of human evolution. The answer to this question is a resounding “Yes!” This is because the authors of the book do not focus their attention, as so many others have so tirelessly done, on separating the contributions of nature and nurture to human action. On the contrary, they rely on the metaphor that nature is very much like a recipe whose ingredients are determined by nurture. They treat culture as the glue that combines heredity and learning, and focus on natural selection as a guiding factor for human evolution.

The authors build their claim of the critical role of culture in human evolution by observing that culture is what makes the human species different from other species. This rather predictable way of setting the foundation for a discussion on human evolution may shatter readers’ expectations of a groundbreaking and original approach and thus may discourage further reading. However, those who venture through the pages of this tightly written volume are sure to be pleasantly surprised by the originality of the authors’ discourse and their captivating analyses. This is indeed the case of a book that should not be judged by its opening remarks!



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