Weapon of Choice: Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution
By Peter J. Richardson and Robert Boyd
In South Africa, there’s a tribe called the Xhosa. In 1856, the Xhosa experienced a “national suicide”, brought on by their unshakable belief in magic and the supernatural. Many thousands died of self-imposed starvation, and it’s been suggested that 200,000 head of cattle were intentionally sacrificed by fanatical Xhosa in this one year. Families were wrecked and dispersed and fights broke out over the tiniest scraps of food. The old were left to die, leather goods were cooked and eaten, and cannibalism of deceased neighbors was common. Total chaos. Absolute madness. How did such a thing come to pass?
The story is that one day, in 1856, a Xhosa prophet was visited by some spirits. The spirits told him they would help the Xhosa send get rid of the white man conquerors once and for all. But there was a catch. The Xhosa would first need to first exterminate all their cattle, throw away their grain and stop planting crops. Once the white men were banished back to the sea, the faithful Xhosa would be rewarded with bigger stronger cattle, and more grain than they could ever eat. The spirits (apparently) also told the prophet that those Xhosa who didn’t follow the game plan would be swept up in a mighty hurricane.
At first, the Xhosa thought the prophet’s message was insane and the sacrifice too onerous. But then, slowly, the idea started to gain momentum. And then it spread like wildfire. Other, crazier, stories began appearing, bolstering the prophet’s claims – for example, that white men would be turned into frogs and mice and ants. And so the Xhosa destroyed all their food, even as those around them were starving to death. They kept this up until finally, on the morning when the warrior spirits were supposed to appear, the grim realization sank in that they’d been duped.
Not all the Xhosa hopped aboard the crazy train. But enough did that the fabric of their society was destroyed. In 1857, the surviving Xhosa were forced to beg the white conquerors for food and shelter, and they’ve lived on white owned farms ever since.
The Xhosa tale is an example of a set of ruinous beliefs taking that negatively impact the survival of one’s genes. Human history is packed to the gills with examples of deeply stupid, maladaptive beliefs spreading like the plague. Witch hunts, suicide bombing, fruititarian diets, Jihadism, and the anti-vaccination movement are some well-known examples.
Another, very different example is a modern tribe that’s developed in the Western world. This tribe avoids having children and instead devote their lives to writing things that please other members of their tribe. Tribespeople obsessively enumerate their “liked” writings in documents called “curriculum vitaes”. Tribespeople take great pride at the size of their curriculum vitaes, much as an African tribesman might at his very large family. If you haven’t guessed, this group of people is our professorial class – academics. Although much different than the Xhosa, this too is an example of a set of beliefs taking hold that remove genes from the gene pool. As much as it pains me to say it, I have to admit that leading a life of the mind can be hazardous to one’s genetic fitness.
The Crux of the Matter
How do we make sense of the fact that counter-productive beliefs often take hold among large numbers of people? Humans are the smartest. We weigh reasons and generally want what’s best for ourselves. So why, throughout recorded history, have so many of us fallen prey to beliefs/ideas that are contrary to our biological interests?
Peter J. Richardson and Robert Boyd’s book Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution provides the theoretical tools for making sense of non-sensical situations.
Illustration of the Imitation Adaptation
Humans are world-beaters when it comes to imitating one another. No other species even comes close to the accuracy in which we can mimic each other (and that includes apes). By accurately imitating each other, new, advantageous behaviors can spread through a population with lightning speed. Lots of imitation, coupled with a dash of individual learning here and there, has allowed humans to become the dominant species on the planet.
We have three basic, innate drives that influence who and when we imitate. And whether you like it or not, these drives exist because they helped us survive and thrive better in Paleolithic environments:
1) We generally imitate successful or prestigious people (or those like ourselves)
2) We do what’s most common or most rare
3) We gravitate toward behaviours/ideas that are easier to remember
Modern humans have these three innate drives NOW because such tendencies generally would have helped our Paleolithic ancestors avoid dying. And we often follow these innate rules where we know it or not.
In the case of academic tribespeople, young academics are likely to imitate older, more successful academics. Older more successful academics got where they did by not having large families and instead focusing on publishing books and papers. And eventually those young academics themselves become prestigious older academics, influencing a new crop of wide eyed punters. And so the cycle goes.
In the case of the Xhosa, the respected tribal elders first decided to slaughter their cattle and burn their grain. Then regular tribesmen followed suit. This made the practice more common. The fact that the practice became more common itself caused more people to do it. And so the cycle continued until the tribe came face to face with total extinction.
We are essentially now hard-wired to be parasitic conformists. As a general rule, we imitate the herd and/or prominent people because it’s a quick, easy way of choosing what to do among a bewildering array of options. Love it or hate it, imitation is a great survival strategy. Being a non-conformist requires a LOT more time and brain power since an exhausting array of cultural variants need to be evaluated (this is, of course, a labour of love for connoisseurs). Imitators, on the other hand, have it easy – they can free ride on the learning of others. Non-conformity may be a very cool thing in our contemporary society, but on the plains of Africa 500,000 years ago, it would have been lethally inefficient way of living.
The dark side of imitation
As the story of the Xhosa makes clear though, there’s a dark-side to our amazing ability and drive to imitate. We’re so instinctively prone to imitate others, we’re at risk of “catching pathological superstitions” – that is, we sometimes unthinkingly adopt beliefs and behaviours that do us harm. Wacky beliefs can spread rapidly simply because they’re touted by a prominent person and are easy to remember. And patently false beliefs can spread simply because they endow you with bigger families. As the authors of the book so eloquently put it, “our propensity to adopt dangerous beliefs is part of the price we pay for the marvelous power of cumulative cultural adaptation”.