Borrowed ideas

Casey Schwartz writes: It is the voice inside our head.

The culture to which we belong — whatever it happens to be — fills us with its peculiar inventory. We are shaped by its mandates and its expectations, its anxieties and aspirations, its preferences and aversions. The basic texture of our inner lives is sewn from cultural threads.

And all of this even though we got here, wherever we are, only as a matter of chance.

So Mark Pagel reminds us in his new book, Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind.

The culture we inherit, he writes, “is an accident of birth, but it is one to which we show a surprising and sometimes alarming devotion. People will risk their health and well-being, their chances to have children, or even their lives for their culture. People will treat others well or badly merely as an accident of their cultural inheritance.”

How does culture have this kind of grip on us? And what purpose does it serve? These are the central questions of Pagel’s lengthy, multifaceted book.

Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading, belongs to the intellectual hot bed of the set, a salon of scientific thinkers that has assembled over the years under the auspices of their intriguing host, John Brockman. The ethos of the crowd is one of unapologetic sophistication; its mission is to bring cutting-edge thinkers together in an ongoing, open-ended conversation, where ideas can beget ideas.

And in his new book, Pagel’s big idea is that culture is the single greatest force for both social and biological change in human history. It has proven itself to be the winning strategy for the survival of our species, bar none. As a result, it has shaped our brains so that they are primed to perpetuate it. [Continue reading…]

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