Biology, Books for the News

Culture is Essential to Human Evolution

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How has drinking milk changed the human genome? It used to be that humans switched off the gene that digests lactose shortly after being weaned from their mothers’ milk, but Northern Europeans keep the gene switched on until adulthood. How did that happen? It’s a direct effect of culture shaping evolution.
The theory that human culture can play an evolutionary role is relatively new; it used to be thought that human culture slowed or stopped evolution. Two of the earliest proponents of this new approach to genes and culture coevolution are Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson, and they were the centerpiece of a recent New York Times article on the theory.

The idea that genes and culture co-evolve has been around for several decades but has started to win converts only recently. Two leading proponents, Robert Boyd of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Peter J. Richerson of the University of California, Davis, have argued for years that genes and culture were intertwined in shaping human evolution. “It wasn’t like we were despised, just kind of ignored,” Dr. Boyd said. But in the last few years, references by other scientists to their writings have “gone up hugely,” he said.

And they’ve been working on this for quite a while. In 1985, the Press published Culture and the Evolutionary Process, which proposes that biological, psychological, sociological, and cultural factors change societies over time. More recently, the Press published their Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, which abandons the nature-versus-nurture debate as fundamentally misconceived and argues instead that our ecological dominance and our singular social systems stem from a psychology uniquely adapted to create complex culture. Their book has been praised widely, everywhere from the pages of scientific journals to the New York Review of Books, who called their argument “nuanced and sophisticated.” After you read the Times article, be sure to take a look at the book excerpt.