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Richerson, P. & Boyd, R. 2005. Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Inside flap

Nature versus nurture. Biology versus culture. Programming versus environment. Despite decades of debate, the arguments over how and why humans develop have yet to progress beyond these fundamental dichotomies. The particular genius of Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd's long-awaited Not by Genes Alone is not only that it moves beyond these tired formulations; it also argues a startling proposition - that culture is part of biology, not separate from it. This view of culture, as the coauthors demonstrate here, is based on the work of a group of interdisciplinary scientists who, over the last quarter century, have created a theory of cultural evolution derived from population thinking that biologists use to understand organic evolution. On the one hand, cultural information is like genes because it is passed from person to person. Working from the general principles to the specific details, Richardson and Boyd offer a radical book that will lift the debate over human development out of its rut and help readers come to radically new understandings about culture and how it sustains us.

How the precepts of evolutionary biology can be applied outside that field has been a vital and controversial issue, popularized mainly by the work of the late Stephen Jay Gould. Social scientists in particular have found the theories of evolutionary biology compelling, but as Robin Dunbar remarked in Nature, neither Gould nor the social scientsts had the evidence to back up the marriage between evolutionary biology and social organization. Peter Richerson, an environmental scientist, and Rob Boyd, a cultural anthropologist, provide just that evidence here, drawing on fascinating examples and posing provocative questions that will have you rethinking your understanding of human development. Why, for example, are humans the only species to move from small-scale cooperative groups to large, socially complex groups? And are you aware that you are participating in perhaps the most striking maladaption to face Darwin's theory of natural selection yet - reproductive restraint in the midst of affluence?

Richerson and Boyd combine the research in their respective fields - as well as many others - to promote their groundbreaking view of human evolution, and they illustrate their points with a wealth of examples, from !Kung societies to kayaks and from Anabaptists to kitchen gadgets. Nature versus nurture, they prove, is no longer a productive distinction. Instead, we must come to understand how culture is critical to understanding human behavior and that culture is surprisingly inextricably linked to biology.


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