The Secret of Our Success
This book by Joseph Henrich, (or more accurately, this book review by Scott Alexander) has really given me a lot to think about lately. As Scott Alexander mentions in his review, at first glance the thesis of the book seems pretty inconsequential: culture is the key to human success. Before you read any further, go ahead and read the review. It will be worth your time.
Ok, so when I was young I was a rational actor. I had preferences and objectives, and I went about evaluating those objectives and choosing actions that would lead to the best outcomes.
It was embarrassingly late in life that I realized what it really meant to say that my rational actor was really just the tip of a sub-rational iceberg. My real life is hidden from view, and my rational story is tacked on after the fact to provide me with a coherent narrative. But my actions are largely determined by subconscious tides, and my emotions are the result of subconscious strategies for navigating my social situation.
Yeah, sure, my conscious thoughts have an important effect on my life. I am not just surfing the wave of my subconscious. But it was humbling when I finally began to see how many of my decisions were driven by tectonic movements below the surface of my thoughts.
Ok, so the first change is: from the rational actor model to the active rationalizer model. The transition has led me to believe that in order to be truly happy we need to integrate our subconscious needs, which (in my view) largely have to do with finding status and security in our social community. In other words, even if we satisfy our conscious goals, we can’t truly be happy if we aren’t in the right social context. This explains my recent preoccupation with trying to construct a social bubble, or tribe.
Now for the next big shift. Henrich argues that what sets humans apart isn’t our ability to reason (as I once believed) or even our ability to cooperate (which I assumed was a key result of our subconscious striving for community). Rather, the thing that thing that makes us human is our ability to observe and adopt patterns of behavior with a relatively high fidelity (i.e., cultural transmission).
The ability to replicate behavior based on observation (rather than say, behaviors being hardwired in our DNA) allows humans to adapt to a wide variety of circumstances more quickly than if our behavioral changes had to be based in genetics. And Henrich makes it very clear that our ability to replicate behaviors does not depend on our ability to understand them. In fact, he argues that rationality can sometimes get in the way of cultural transmission, so humans have a built-in capacity to adopt an almost religious adherence to (and feeling about) behavioral practices that we don’t understand (see, for example, the discussion on removing cyanide from manioc).
In a way, our ability to replicate culture unquestioningly is like our cultural DNA. But as with DNA, the real beauty (i.e., adaptation) happens when a high fidelity means of transmitting information is faced with a constant mutation pressure. In a way our consciousness and rationality (i.e., the tip of our subconscious iceberg) serve this role of mutation pressure on our baseline tendency to replicate culture.
So what are the implications? Well, for one, this gives me a new framework to analyze a lot of what is going on around me. What are the patterns of behavior that allow me and those around me to survive? What emotions and tendencies help us to determine which patterns we replicate and which we reject (especially if rationality isn’t the deciding factor). Is it useful to consciously try to adopt and transmit cultural patterns?
This last question is key. To what extent can I (and should I) try to pass on my cultural patterns to others around me (e.g., my daughter Alberta). How much do we learn from our family, from our community, from our prevailing national (or global) culture? Is there anything wrong with the culture that Alberta will pick up if I follow the traditional American model, which essentially outsources a lot of the cultural transmission to friends, media and school?
Something that keeps coming back to me is this circumstance where my in-laws are very unsatisfied with the extent to which they have been able to transmit their religious beliefs to their children (a problem that seems fairly common). If we have evolved to see cultural deviation in our children as fundamentally threatening, we all may just be doomed to be unhappy with the extent to which we pass on our way of life (and our way of thinking).
At this point, I am far from having digested this whole “human as uncomprehending cultural transmitter” concept, but I feel like it is an extremely important perspective that will probably have wide ranging implications in my thinking.