Steve Fuller

Surviving Darwin

Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation

By

Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 416pp £25 order from our bookshop

Anyone who proposes a Darwinian account for any remotely human activity always needs to be reminded of the lost traveller who, upon asking the way to Dublin, was told, ‘I wouldn’t start here.’ Too late for Mark Pagel, though, who sets off in Wired for Culture to explain the beside-the-point by the just-so. Like all good Darwinists, Pagel wants to understand what it is that separates Homo sapiens from other primate species. As the book’s title suggests, the answer lies in making biological sense of ‘culture’, a god-of-the-gaps concept in evolutionary circles. Marcel Mauss, the original student of gift-giving societies, recognised the folly of posing the question this way a hundred years ago: what an investigator identifies as unique to someone else’s culture is usually no more than a recognition of difference from one’s own culture. While Mauss had in mind an anthropologist’s encounter with an alien tribe, the point can be extended to cover the evolutionist trying to say something interesting about humans, that most alien of biological species. 

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