Joseph Henrich’s “The Secret of Our Success”

How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species and making us smarter

Reading the introduction arouses some ideas that I have been mulling over. Culture is biology. Culture is constrained by our DNA. Study of culture, like biology, is best understood in the context of evolution. This is an uncommon notion in anthropology.

L 154:

Yeah! Someone said that hardly anything in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.

L 210:

That pregnant fact had not occurred to me.

L 318:

Henrich has a good operational definition of “smart” which forces this conclusion.

L 375: Most animals speciate to adapt to differing climates and niches. Humans use their adaptive culture instead.

I would call it division of labor (aka specialization). Is there more to cooperation than division of labor?

L 407: I think that Henrich is heading is to what I might call ‘collective knowledge’. This is not the communist sort of collective where we all share something rivalrous and thus none of us have much of it; it is non-rivalrous knowledge that a few of us have and can pass on to others who express curiosity whereupon both of us have it in full. The latter requires language which the three earlier mechanisms did not posit.

L 417:

Henrich is heading in Hayek’s direction. I like it. It comes clearly into view about L 1957.

L 434: On ‘Cultural Evolution’: It is indeed evolution but ‘survival of the fittest’ part of evolution may not refer to the biological organism, but to the idea. The biological brain is part of this causal chain. That sort of evolution can happen much faster than the biological sort.

L 516:

This is typical evolutionary psychology speak. But I don’t buy the pejorative choice of words here. We learned to cooperate and often cooperation requires some individual to propose actions and get the other individuals to follow—generally to their mutual benefit. I agree that there are cheaters but only because of the effectiveness of the above which is the faculty that evolved. I have not read Machiavelli closely enough to exclude a mutual benefit interpretation of what he says, but mutual benefit is not what Machiavelli is famous for. At L 1156 Henrich makes a similar point, with evidence.

L 524: The game described here is fascinating. It is a non-zero sum game and unless side payments are somehow prevented the correct strategy is for matcher to give 2 units to mismatcher each tine they both choose left. That is a test of cooperation. Side payments are often the solution to non-zero-sum games. note

L 1467:

I recall that other primates seem to understand the same categories.

L 1539: Regarding our outrunning prey: If we are to outrun some beast, we cannot take time-out to find water. Like faddish bicyclists, we must carry our water in cultural containers.

L 1010: Henrich says that we try to learn from those in our own ethnic group. In our EEA we seldom met anyone in another group, but perhaps Africa was different.

L 1270: By this point Henrich gives pretty good evidence that humans are much more social than their predecessors, especially with complex culture. It covers the period somewhat before my speculation.

L 1852: I am surprised that copy count of the AMY1 gene seems to be the principle control over how much amylase we have. How much such redundancy is in our genome?

L 2255: Is “cultural evolution” not included in “natural selection”? Does cultural evolution not bottom out in survival of the fittest? Is prestige an effective alternative? I did not understand how the right people got prestige in order for this logic to work.

L 2357: Regarding prestige, Henrich proposes that skill leads to achievement reports of which spread by word of mouth, or earlier by subtler admiration signals.

L 2757: I have heard the sauerkraut story before. It is well told here.

L 2805: This is the beginning of some possibly important claims.

I think that reciprocity is not the same as altruism. I think that altruism came first because it is easier. It requires recalling those you have interacted with. Perhaps reciprocity came first because it does not require recognizing kin. They might well coevolve.

I think that Henrich proposes that one or both of reciprocity and kin altruism are in our culture and perhaps less or not in our genes. I grant that if this is so it is a big deal.

Henrich proposes that there are genetic underpinnings to either of these. I propose that time scale of these properties is highly relevant and that genetic time scales are usually much longer than cultural time scales. They overlap some. By time scale I refer to how long it takes to respond to some selective pressure, not how long patterns last.

Does Henrich suggest that people are more malleable regarding cooperation—malleable because it is cultural instead of entirely genetic? Most communists were sure that people were malleable on a short term historical scale. This is an interesting conjunction with Henrich’s implicit support of Hayek’s thesis that we don’t understand why our cultural rules are adaptive.

L 3047:

Well yes but an only slightly more subtle question is “stripped of our social norms, how long would it take our DNA to restore some such, and would we survive in the meantime? Deciding whether it is in our genes or memes is a delicate question and even the meaning of the question is unclear. I grant that our DNA makes us great thru enabling our culture, along with some other things such as speech.

Henrich uses his anthropological experience well making relevant observations on the nature of the evolution of culture.

Henrich scarcely mentions language and its role in culture. Much of the book could be easily transformed into an argument as to why language was our critical advantage—all without much changing the meaning. There is more to culture than language, but language enables huge swaths of culture. There can be a great deal of culture without language but even agriculture 10,000 years ago would have been very difficult without.

Human collective intelligence as distributed Bayesian inference
a is probability that Matcher chooses Right.
i is probability that Mismatcher chooses Right.

Mat gets (1-a)(1-i)4 + ia = 4 - 4a - 4i + ai
Mis gets (1-a)i2 + (1-i)a2 = 2a + 2i - 4ai
(define (A a i) (+ (* (- 1 a)(- 1 i) 4) (* i a)))
(define (I a i) (+ (* (- 1 a) i 2) (* (- 1 i) a 2)))
If a = 0.5 and i = 0.8 then
(define a 1/2)
(define i 0.8)
(A a i) ; => 0.8
(I a i) ; => 1
With the Nash equilibrium the total take is 1.8 . With the side payment the total take is 4.