Gene-Culture Feedback Loop

T[amler ]S[ommers]: A couple of things about the book [Why Humans Cooperate (2007)]: one methodological. Your book brings together research from many fields within the sciences -- mathematical modeling from evolutionary theory, behavioral experiments in economics, and thick ethnography. [...] This hasn't been done before, has it?

J[oseph ]H[enrich]: As far as I know, it's not been done. Certainly not the particular combination of things we have. The problem is in the way social science works with the training. If you're trained in anthropology, you're trained how to do thick ethnography. You know zero about how to do experiments. But if you're trained in psychology -- I'm in a psychology department right now -- you learn how to do laboratory experiments with undergraduate kids, but you learn nothing about how to observe life and make systematic recordings about how people interact in real life. And in neither of those places do you learn much about evolutionary biology and how to make formal models of social interaction. So our effort is to pull all three together and how how each can tell part of the story and work synergistically.


T[amler ]S[ommers]: [...] The dominant view in anthropology is still that evolution has no effect on how humans behave.

J[oseph ]H[enrich]: Yeah. It's fine for talking about stones and bones, but any kind of interesting social behavior -- no. This is cultural anthropology. There's also biological anthropology [...].

T[amler ]S[ommers]: [...] And your view is that evolution does play a large role in influencing human behavior, but that it interacts with culture, too, and there's this feedback between the two.

J[oseph ]H[enrich]: Right, so you need evolution and you need gene-culture coevolution, which means that part of our genetic evolution has been shaped by culture. And then there's just plain "We're a cultural species, we're heavily reliant on learning from other people." That's just cultural evolution. All of these things play a role in explaining human behavior, and the relative importance depends on the particular problem one is examining.

-- Tamler Sommers , Joseph Henrich

from "A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain"

Quoted on Thu Mar 15th, 2012