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.
As Mauss might have predicted, the last 150 years of evolutionary thinking about what makes Homo so sapiens follows trends in our self-understanding as beings alienated from the rest of the natural world. Fifty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, the Nobel Prize-winning ethologist Konrad Lorenz penned