Humans are immersed in culture from birth. It is so fundamental to our experience, and what it means to be human itself, yet we often overlook the consideration that “cultural practices might have transformed the selection pressures acting on humans” (Laland, Odling-Smee & Myles, 2010, pg. 137).
In the deliberations over humanity and its perceived uniqueness, a link is frequently made between our ability to support a rich, diverse culture and the origin of complex human behaviour. Yet what is often overlooked in our view of these two, clearly connected phenomena is the thread that weaves them together: the ability to coordinate behaviour. We need only look at the products of our culture, from language to religion, to see that any variant we may deem successful is contingent on coordinating the behaviour of two or more individuals. Still, what is truly illuminating about this ability is that, far from being a uniquely human feature, the ability to coordinate behaviour is ubiquitous throughout the many organismal kingdoms.
If, like me, you generally like the Guardian’s science features, then please avoid reading Tim Radford‘s book club discussion of Jared Diamond‘s Guns, Germs and Steel. Ever since I noticed this book was on the Guardian’s reading list, it’s been an ongoing curiosity of mine as to how they will tackle the subject. Mainly because Diamond’s book, along with Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, urged me to move into studying evolution. Sadly, and perhaps not very surprisingly, you get little from the discussion bar an unequivocal acceptance of Diamond’s central thesis: that of environmental determinism.
Nowhere is there a mention of ideas that stand somewhat in opposition to Diamond’s, such as those in the 10,000 Year Explosion. Namely, the consequences of agriculture on recent human evolution, and the growing mountain of evidence supporting the contention that different human populations have adapted to their local environments.
And just to be clear: I think Diamond’s book is a well-written, scholarly account of human history, and it’s influence is not to be understated. But I also think he overlooked a large portion of the argument.