A Key Theme from The WEIRDest People in the World

A Key Theme from The WEIRDest People in the World

A key theme from The WEIRDest People in the World by Joseph Henrich is the idea that cultural evolution can have real biological and psychological impacts on humans. Culture is often thought of as something that sits on top of our biology, influenced by the biological changes that evolution favors. But Henrich argues that culture can also shift our biology, by changing our brains.
In the introduction to his book, when calling this out as a key theme, he writes, “beliefs, practices, technologies, and social norms – culture – can shape our brains, biology, and psychology, including our motivations, mental abilities, and decision-making biases. You can’t separate culture from psychology or psychology from biology, because culture physically rewires our brains and thereby shapes how we think.”
For Henrich, this is evident in the way in which reading changes the physical structures of our brain. Our brains can adjust and change based on what we need them to do. Asking them to read a lot changes how brains are internally organized and structured, and that ends up creating further changes in how we perceive the world, how we think, and how we behave. Cultural practices can shape the brain which can then shift the way our thinking operates.
That is why we cannot separate culture and cultural evolution from psychology, biology, and human evolution as a whole. How we interact with and cooperate with others, what traits are favored and passed along, and what cultural practices spread and evolve are all intertwined in complex ways.
Cultural Evolution Changes Humans

Cultural Evolution Changes Humans

I have long thought that biological evolution and cultural evolution were distinctly separate phenomenon. I thought that biological evolution changed the actual individual creatures where cultural evolution only changed behaviors and institutions, largely as a downstream consequence of biological evolution. My view was similar, and possibly influenced by, modern computer technology. We don’t really think about the software and programs we run on computers as changing the hardware. But cultural evolution, it turns out, does make biological changes to the individual.
Joseph Henrich demonstrates this at the start of his book The WEIRDest People In the World. By showing how reading changes brain structures Henrich demonstrates how cultural evolution and biological changes in individuals took place simultaneously. Henrich writes, “learning to read forms specialized brain networks that influence our psychology across several different domains, including memory, visual processing, and facial recognition.”
New technologies enabled reading and reading became a new cultural practice and phenomena. As people began reading more, their brains literally changed. Parts of the brain which had specialized for certain functions throughout human evolution took on new roles and functions. This changed the psychology of many people all at once, changing the culture.
Henrich writes about the ways in which reading becomes automatic and unconscious, showing how cultural evolution, which changes how our brains operate, isn’t always a conscious act. If you see words in English you will automatically read and understand the word, even if you only see the word for the briefest moment. “Although this cognitive ability is culturally constructed, it’s also automatic, unconscious, and irrepressible,” writes Henrich, “this makes it like many other aspects of culture.”
We do not realize how drastic and important culture can be to how our brains function. Our psychology can be shaped by many cultural factors, as a result of changes in brain processes and structures. It is not just biological evolution that can have real changes in humans. Cultural changes can have similar results. This is important for us to think about when we consider how we relate to each other, our ancestors, and to the global species we want to be in the future. I fear more understanding of this type of cultural evolution could be used to discriminate against cultures, but I hope that it is instead used to demonstrate the dangers of oppressing cultures. Instead of a justification of discrimination it can be a bridge and an invitation to help cultures grow and evolve to live on a planet where all humans cooperate and can coordinate for a healthy and sustainable future.
The Biological Possibilities of He and She

The Biological Possibilities of He and She

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “most of the laws, norms, rights, and obligations that define manhood and womanhood reflect human imagination more than biological reality.” Throughout human societies, imagined orders and hierarchies define the way that humans interact and relate to one another.  These hierarchies matter in terms of how people understand their role in the world, understand what is good and evil, and understand how they should behave. However, these hierarchies are not necessarily grounded in any scientific fact or objective reality. They are often influenced by chance historical events and myths that societies adopt as they develop. Some myths are helpful for development. Some myths lose their grip and cease to function in a helpful way over time. And other myths never manage to get beyond a fringe group.
Often, the status quo that is produced by chance events and myths become entrenched and defended as natural. Those who stand to benefit from the status quo, and those who do not wish to believe that their lives are driven by myths, will argue that biology, economy, or other seemingly objective sciences inevitably produced the society and culture in which they live. But this is a mistake. We can see that throughout time and space human societies have differed in many important ways. There is far more variation possible than we often recognize. “Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities,” writes Harari. Whatever organization we choose to adopt, for whatever reason we choose to adopt such organization, can be defended as natural. Harari continues, “whatever is possible is by definition also natural.”
This can be seen in the ways in which cultures and societies relate to concepts of gender. Biology is often used to define men and women as purely XY and XX, as having male anatomy and female anatomy, and as occupying certain roles that are determined and entirely influenced by biology. But if Harari’s quote from earlier is correct, much of the way we think about masculinity, femininity, and gender is not based in biology, but in human constructs. Perhaps our sex chromosomes and the biological differences that our genes reliably produce (in most individuals) is the basis for the differences we see in how we understand gender, but that doesn’t explain why the picture of manliness changes so much throughout time or why so many people don’t seem to fit with the dominant gender roles of any given period.
Harari contrasts a picture of King Louis XIV of France with a picture of Barack Obama. Both men are in poses of masculine domination, but the pictures could not be more different in how they demonstrate masculinity. King Louis XIV is wearing tights, has a long flowing wig, is dressed in something like a ball gown, and is even wearing make-up and high heeled shoes. President Obama, on the other hand, is wearing a dark relatively fitted suite. He has little jewelry on and the only thing with any shine are his polished black dress shoes. He sits on the desk in the oval office with a confident, yet calm look on his face. The masculinity presented in each photo could hardly be more different.
Our ideas about gender are not set in stone and constantly change and evolve. Technology, global relationships, and the type of labor that is rewarded in society can all influence what is manly, what is feminine, and what is acceptable within both spaces. Throughout history the way masculinity and femininity have been defined has hardly been stable, and has hardly been fair. “Gender is a race in which some of the runners compete only for the bronze medal,” Harari writes to describe the inequalities that women have faced throughout much of history. There is no reason this inequality  has to exist. It is not truly biologically based, though men and women typically do have predictable biological differences, and there is no reason we have to consider such discrimination natural. The biological possibilities of he and she are greater than what we usually realize and accept.