The Secret of Our Success
Humans are a puzzling species. On the one hand, we struggle to survive on our own in the wild, often failing to overcome even basic challenges, like obtaining food, building shelters, or avoiding predators. On the other hand, human groups have produced ingenious technologies, sophisticated languages, and complex institutions that…
Why read it?
7 authors picked The Secret of Our Success as one of their favorite books. Why do they recommend it?
My work focuses on fulfilling values and resolving conflicts among goals as the key to well-being. This can sound very individualistic, so it’s important to understand what a fundamentally social species we are.
In this book, the evolutionary biologist Joseph Henrich explains how our social nature, especially our ability to learn from each other, has been essential to our success as a species.
There are other ways of learning about our social nature – the importance of relationships is everywhere in the literature on happiness, for instance – but this book gives a wonderful big-picture view of how interdependent we…
Ask any anthropologist and they’ll readily tell you that the secret of our success as a species is culture. But few—if any—will be able to offer such a comprehensive argument as to why and how. This book tells a tale of two forces, human culture and the human genome, which co-evolved to make us more successful than any other species, not by making us faster, stronger, or even necessarily smarter as individuals, but by making us better cultural learners and therefore allowing us to become wiser as a species.
Henrich threads together the data and the theory to explain the nature of human culture, the character of its most important institutions, and how environments interact with our genetic inheritance over a couple of hundred years right up until the present to make us psychologically and socially the kind of animals we are. It’s Darwin without the nature/nurture dead ends, without the silly Social Darwinism Darwin never believed himself, and without the crazy hereditarianism of the racists.
Joe Henrich is a major figure in cultural evolution research and this book represents his big-picture overview of how cultural evolution has transformed humans into the globally dominant species that we are today. He explains how cumulative cultural evolution produces cultural adaptations that solve challenges in our environments usually solved by genetic adaptation, and how cultural evolution has shaped our brains, bodies, and even our genes. Henrich has held positions in anthropology, economics, and psychology departments and this shows in the breadth of research upon which he draws. This book provides the theoretical basis for many more recent works, including…
You probably think humans evolved because we’re so darn smart. I know I did. I was very wrong. We are far, far weirder than that. We are actually a sort of very slow hive mind. Henrich’s book challenges all the lies we tell ourselves – that innovation is good and following tradition is bad, that invention springs from a few brilliant minds, and that humans are individually smarter than animals.
If you’ve ever wondered why people seem so stubborn, so reluctant to adapt to new information, so mired in old ways and so sensitive to groupthink — it’s not because…
Do you believe that genes determine our success as individuals and as a species? By the time you finish this book, I’ll bet that psychologist and polymath Joseph Henrich will have broadened your perspective. Our genetic endowment developed through a process of culture-gene coevolution that favored the survival of individuals who were better able to tap into the growing body of cultural knowledge. The “secret” is that the collective brains of our communities make us smart due to their vast repertoires of tools and techniques; the key to success is not the intelligence of individual minds within those communities. Our…
How have human groups been able to adapt themselves to almost every kind of ecology on the planet – from rain forests, to savannah, to deserts, to high altitudes, and even to the frozen arctic itself?
Henrich shows how our capacity for cultural learning is the key, enabling knowledge and skills to accumulate across generations. And that capacity, in turn, depends on a suite of cognitive adaptations (for mentalizing, for language, for moral thinking) that likely evolved through forms of gene-culture co-evolution from simpler versions previously present in other animals.
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