Culture or Neurons?
Posted on Mar 8, 2012
By Susan Okie
“Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind”
“Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are”
What makes human beings unique? What accounts for our species’ planetary dominance, for our self-consciousness and awareness of our mortality, for our impulses to create art, to help others, to cling to our memories of childhood, to believe in a deity, to seek riches or fame?
Two new books view modern humans through very different lenses and suggest distinct approaches to such elemental questions. In “Wired for Culture,” British evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel contends that we owe both our diverse talents as individuals and our success as a species to our ability to form cultures—tight social groups that have accelerated our acquisition of knowledge, skills and technology. In “Connectome,” neuroscientist Sebastian Seung argues that the software defining each of us as a unique person is coded in the myriad connections among the brain’s 100 billion nerve cells, and that until we can map and study each of those connections in a human brain, we will not begin to fully understand ourselves.
The culture we live in and the inconceivably complex neural network inside our skulls are both essential to our identities. These books are speculative, drawing on current knowledge about the brain, evolution, genetics and social behavior to expound researchers’ current theories about such conundrums as why humans have engaged in genocide, whether we possess free will, why we go through life with the sense of a consistent self, and whether the software for that self might someday be uploaded onto a server, allowing a person’s consciousness to “live” on after the body dies. In many cases, the evidence for the theories being presented is still indirect, scant or nonexistent. For example, Seung predicts that proving how the connections among our nerve cells store memories will require the use of technologies that haven’t even been invented yet, while some of the theories about human social behavior described by Pagel may never be provable. Nonetheless, both of these books challenge our assumptions about what makes us who we are, and offer provocative new insights.
Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind
By Mark Pagel
W. W. Norton & Company, 416 pages
Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are
By Sebastian Seung
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 384 pages
Although today’s humans may harbor mixed feelings about our species’ recent track record in settling Earth’s land masses, wiping out numerous other life forms, turning forests into farmland and achieving exponential population growth, our success viewed in biological terms has been spectacular. And our remarkable longevity and reproductive success stem from our ability—absent in other animals—to form close-knit tribal groups made up of unrelated individuals who speak a common language and can acquire new knowledge through social learning. The innate capacity to acquire culture unites us: Any newborn infant, born or adopted into any culture on the planet, will absorb the language, beliefs, values and norms of that society. Yet our distinct cultures so powerfully influence our behavior that it can be argued that each culture makes use of its members as a strategy for propagating itself, rather than vice-versa.
As Pagel writes, our cultures are “responsible for our art, music, and religion, our unmatched acts of charity ... our sense of justice, fairness, altruism, and even self-sacrifice;” but also for our self-interest, our ethnic and racial prejudices, our distrust of strangers, our wars—even for our willingness, at times, to kill our children or ourselves for a religious, ethnic or national cause. Moreover, he writes, there’s no evidence that our cultures’ hold on us is weakening. Despite living in increasingly dense, interconnected populations, we continue to speak as many as 7,000 separate languages and to cling tenaciously to loyalties and customs that differentiate us from our neighbors. Just think about teenage gangs, football and soccer rivalries, antipathies between Democrats and Republicans, or the deep-seated distrust among the nations belonging to the European Union.
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