On Becoming Modern

  • Mace R
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Unlike other animals, humans cooperate with nonrelatives in coordinated actions, decorate their bodies, build complex artefacts (useful or otherwise), talk, and divide themselves into linguistic groups. To understand the evolutionary basis of such behaviors, anthropologists must consider not only issues connected to social evolution in animals, but also the implications of the possible coevolution of genes and culture. Two articles in this issue examine aspects of human social evolution: On page 1293, Bowles (1) investigates the origins of altruism toward one's own social group, while on page 1298, Powell et al. (2) study the emergence of cultural complexity. Based on empirical evidence and modeling, both studies suggest that the demographic structure of our ancestral populations determined how social evolution proceeded. If, like me, you were brought up on The Selfish Gene (3), you learned that selection acts on individuals or genes, and you are trained to be wary of group selectionist explanations for behavior. Group selection is generally rejected as unimportant because even a tiny amount of migration between groups quickly destroys the genetic differences needed for group selection to act. But recent literature on social evolution has reopened the debate, arguing that in some circumstances group selection might be important, especially in a cultural species like humans. Genetic and cultural traits are both heritable and subject to evolutionary processes, but cultural traits are not transmitted in a Mendelian way; they can be inherited from almost anyone, including people who may not share your genetic interests. This could lead to evolutionary outcomes not seen in other animals (4). Perhaps the central difference between genetic and cultural transmission is that we can change our cultural phenotype during our lives—for example, to conform to group norms. Cultural differences between groups might be easier to maintain than are genetic ones, due to processes such as conformist social learning and punishment; several models show that if these processes occur, cultural group selection could explain the evolution of prosocial or altruistic behavior (5). Bowles now makes a more radical claim: that the demographic structure of hunter-gatherer populations allowed group-selected genetic traits to evolve in humans. He argues that lethal warfare was endemic and that altruistic, group-beneficial behaviors that hurt the survival chances of individuals but improved the likelihood for groups to win conflicts could emerge by group selection. This argument was originally espoused by Darwin, but few formal tests of it have been done. (...)"The beginning of the new millennium has seen a renaissance of biological metaphors of pattern and process of change in the domain of cultural evolution (Mace and Holden 2005)" (Temkin & Eldredge, 2007: 147)

Author-supplied keywords

  • Epistemology in Anthropology
  • Epistemology in Biology
  • Ethology, ancestral behaviour
  • Prospectiva, Foresight

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  • R Mace

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