The Secret of Our Success
- Joseph Henrich
Humans are not naturally much more intelligent than other apes such as chimpanzees or orangutans.
When an intelligence test was conducted, toddlers, orangutans, and chimpanzees performed at nearly the same level, except for in the social learning category, where toddlers blew the other apes out of the water.
Similarly, humans do not perform decisively better on memory tests or even games of strategy compared to chimpanzees, despite what we would expect. In fact, we often make systematic logical errors whereas the apes do not.
Our intelligence does not come from more capable brains.
The reason that humans are successful, and why adult humans are smarter than toddlers, while adult apes are no smarter than child apes, is because of culturally imbued Mental Representations such as the basic concepts of fire, springs, adhesives, language, a base-ten counting system, and so forth.
These skills allow us to reason at a higher level in the same way that a professional chess player is “smarter” at chess than the average person.
We do not adapt quickly to new environments. When explorers survive in unknown territory, it is almost always the case that they befriended the native people.
The Inuit, for example, thrive in the arctic because they have devised tools and techniques to do so as a culture over the centuries. If a group of them were to somehow forget this knowledge, however, it is unlikely that they would be able to re-derive it before perishing.
Genetic evolution has given us brains with a propensity for learning from others.
Instead of evolving natural hunting instincts, we evolved the instinct to copy others.
Even children as young as fourteen months seek out the most competent people in their environment and emulate them.
This is what drove cultural evolution and is responsible for the cultures we observe today.
Around 2 million years ago, cultural learning ability became the primary driver of genetic evolution.
When evaluating who to copy from, humans innately value skill, success, prestige, and self-similarity.
self-similarity: humans naturally derive more satisfaction when learning from someone of their own sex and ethnicity.
prestige: already, toddlers will emulate those who are regarded favourably by others.
While human brains are not the largest (blue whales have us beat), we have the highest degree of gyrification—folding of the brain—resulting in more neural connections.
Myelination, the process by which the neuron’s are insulated, results in more efficient but less plastic pathways.
This is why children are better learners than adults.
Human brains remain significantly less myelinated for longer than other primates.
In humans, expensive tissues like excess muscle have been replaced with fat to provide energy for our large brains.
Humans are excellent endurance runners,
- Whenever a quadruped runs, its lungs are compressed with each step. Consequently—like a horse modulating between walking, trotting and galloping—these animals have preferred running speeds. A skilled hunter can run at just the right pace so that the animal exhausts more quickly and collapses.
Race does not convey much, if any, information about either culture or genetics, except for the broad migratory patterns of ancient civilizations. There are startling similarities between disconnected populations and rich diversity between neighbouring cultures.
We are predisposed towards faith because those who disregarded their intuitions and accepted cultural practices that may have seemed unnecessary, like detoxifying plants, were more likely to survive.
However, this predisposition to copy others exactly can result in overimitation, where we copy actions that are clearly unimportant.
- For this reason, we often see patterns where there are none and are subject to cognitive biases.
The leading theory for why we like spices in our food, despite most of them providing little nutritional content, is that many of them have antimicrobial properties.
There are two forms of social hierarchy, dominance and prestige.
- In the absence of any clear markers of prestige, we look up to those who are the most generous.
The reason that humans live multiple decades beyond their reproductive lifespan is so that they can pass on their knowledge to their descendants. This includes knowledge about hunting, farming, raising children etc.
Anecdote: Captain Cook brought sauerkraut on an expedition to the south Pacific to prevent scurvy. Worried that his men would reject it, he ordered that it be served only at the officer’s table. Within a week, the men requested it too.
The reason why stricter fidelity bonds are placed on women than men in most societies is because, while women know exactly who their children are, men do not necessarily to whom they are fathers. When they do, however, they care more for the children who end up healthier.
Inter-group competition predates cultural learning. It is found in other primates, and is thus theorized to be biological.
Violence is more prevalent during periods of Climate Change, since resources are stressed.
Historically, 85% of societies permitted polygamous marriage in some form.