The Secret of our Success (as humans)
Reflections on Joseph Henrich's book & its implications
I'm David Gasca and this is Mystical Silicon, a weekly newsletter on mindfulness, how to make the world more alive, and a variety of other things I find interesting.
Let’s talk about the book “The Secret of our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating our Species, and Making us Smarter” by cultural anthropologist Joseph Henrich. It captures something that I’ve felt but couldn’t put my finger on until this book. Since reading it I can’t help but see its echoes all around me. Let’s get to it…
HUMANS ARE SUCCESSFUL ANIMALS BECAUSE OF CULTURAL LEARNING
The short version of the book is that we (humans) are above all social animals and we’ve evolved to be extremely good at cultural learning - in many cases to a fault. Cultural learnings is what sets us apart from other species. Humans aren’t more successful than other animals because of our raw intelligence or our ability to make tools (two common reasons we teach our kids). What is most special about us is that by copying each other, we have been able to produce practices much smarter than any individual. It’s this overall accumulation of “mental tools (e.g., integers), skills (differentiating right from left), concepts (fly wheels) and categories (basic color terms) that we inherit culturally from earlier generations” that is the real secret to our success.
William MacAskill describes this thesis succinctly on Tim Ferriss:
“[…] why are humans the most powerful and ecologically dominant species on the planet? And people often say, “Oh, it’s our big brains.” And [Henrich is] like, “No.” Our brains are several times the size of a chimpanzee’s brain, but that’s not the distinctive thing. The distinctive thing is that we work together, essentially. We’re capable of cumulative cultural evolution, where I can learn something, and then my children will pick it up from me, even if they don’t really understand why I’m doing it. And that means that the way humans function, it’s not like a single brain that’s three times the size of a chimpanzee, it’s tens of thousands of brains, all working in concert, and now millions of brains over many generations. And that’s why there’s such a big gap between chimpanzee ability or intelligence and human intelligence, where it’s not a scale up of three X, it’s a scale up of 300,000.”
One of the main ways Henrich hammers home this thesis is showing how time and again throughout history when otherwise “very smart and motivated humans” were dropped into new places, they all died terrible deaths.
“As our heroes sought to confront the recurrent challenges faced by our paleolithic ancestors, like finding food and water, they struggled. No foraging modules fired up and no fire-making instincts kicked in. Mostly, they just fell ill and died as a result of blunders that any local, indigenous adolescent equipped with cultural know-how inherited from earlier generations could easily have avoided.
It’s not merely that people in modern society need culture to survive. Hunter-gatherers, as well as other small-scale societies studied by anthropologists, are massively dependent on large scale bodies of cultural know-how, relating to tracking, food processing, hunting and tool manufacture. This expertise is often complex, well-adapted to local challenges, and not casually well understood by most practitioners… All human societies, whether they live as hunter-gatherers or not, are entirely dependent on culture.”
It’s only through the acquired cultural know-how from generations that one can survive and prosper.
WE’VE EVOLVED FOR CULTURAL LEARNING
Another key part of The Secret of our Success is that we’ve evolved for cultural learning: from the moment we are born we’re constantly scanning our world to try to learn and copy what is around us. We are amazing at mimicry and this has shaped who we are (biologically and culturally).
One corollary from this is that humans are highly dependent (and constantly looking for) markers to help us understand who to learn from. The most ingrained heuristics for this are status and power - our brains scan other people for reference points that show these traits and use them as proxies. This is one reason celebrity endorsements can have so much influence.
Cultural learning is also one reason that paying attention to and learning from elders was a great heuristic for so long. If most of the way that we navigate the world successfully is learning from and building on the cultural past, then learning from elders is valuable. One of the challenges we face, however, is if a society is rapidly changing because then “knowledge accumulated by someone over decades will become outdated rather quickly. Age is only a good proxy if the world faced by the new generation is pretty similar to that faced by the oldest generation.”
(I’ll stop the recap of the book there. I’ve just scratched the surface... If you’re interested in more, here is a good comprehensive online summary and here is a YouTube video on it as well.)
IF IT’S ALL ABOUT CULTURAL LEARNING, WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS??
So if the main way that we’ve been successful as humans is by copying and building on our what we collectively learn, then systems that encourage more successful cultural evolution end up succeeding:
[Once technologies] get complex, it's pretty hard for the uninformed to improve complex technologies, even with luck. Thus, in more complex societies, technological accumulations will depend heavily on the size and inter-connectedness of the subpopulation at the knowledge frontier - that is, the number of people who know enough to potentially take the next baby step or to recognize a lucky mistake. Getting lots of people to the knowledge frontier will depend on the particular cultural transmission institutions (that is, the educational institutions) of the society.
Once we understand the importance of collective brains, we begin to see why modern societies vary in their innovativeness. It's not the smartness of individuals or the formal incentives. It's the willingness and ability of large numbers of individuals at the knowledge frontier to freely interact, exchange views, disagree, learn from each other, build collaborations, trust strangers, and be wrong. Innovation does not take a genius a village; it takes a big network of freely interacting minds.
There are few takeaways for me from all of this:
1. We should find ways of copying each other faster and building on those innovations
The first implication for me from Henrich’s work is that finding ways at accelerate and improve our cultural evolution is one of the main ways to accelerate growth.
Through this lens, it’s interesting to see how various countries have moved into “copying mode” for exponential growth: Some examples include the opening up of Japan in the mid-1800s; South Korea in the second half of the 20th century; and China in the late 20th century. China’s growth had a very explicit policy of copying (i.e., stealing IP was rampant). This industrial copying helped accelerate industrialization towards the technological frontier and was a key part of China’s growth story. Of course this was also often a huge violation of international IP law...
Similarly, through this lens, management consulting “best practices” looks slightly different: cross-pollinating ideas that work well in certain companies & economies into other companies that are struggling is a great way to catalyze growth even if it’s not truly “innovation” (e.g., moving Toyota Production System / Lean methodologies across companies and industries). We see similar cultural learning when certain large companies disband and become diasporas taking a set of corporate practices cross-company - e.g., the “PayPal mafia” leading to dozens (hundreds?) of companies; and high-innovation metro areas in general as strong centers of technological know-how and cross-hybridizing.
(On a speculative note, I wonder how much copying speeds up as English becomes the lingua franca of the internet and as machine translation improvement continues…)
2. Tech that allows us to copy each other is symbiotic with cultural evolution
If cultural evolution is our secret sauce, then technologies that accelerate this are symbiotic and expansive.
Through this lens it’s not surprising that so many of the biggest social platforms are so popular: e.g., YouTube is magical and under-rated as it allows us to copy and learn from anyone in the world; the internet and Google Search are incredible information facilitators; Facebook Groups and Reddit are likely under-rated as vehicles for new group synthesis and cultural evolution; and of course, TikTok’s viral remixing abilities takes a lot of these trends and turns them turbo. On the more cautionary side, since we cultural animals are constantly scanning for status and prestige, these tools also make us particularly susceptible to influencers and negative mimesis. Cultural copying can quickly turn negative and psychologically all-consuming which means it should also be no surprise that these same social tools lead us astray (especially for people that are still forming identities)…
In terms of other symbiotic technologies, APIs as a concept are a super-innovation as they let us tap and leverage huge amounts of knowledge in a compounded way while abstracting away complexity. Even though APIs are by no means new, I can’t help but think they are still under-utilized (e.g., “gig economy” overall can be seen as versions of APIs that interact with the real world, however, these are exceptions vs. the rule).
Same goes for open source software projects - is there anything more clearly beyond the range of one person and geography than the creation of these long-lived open source ventures? These “permissionless innovation” systems enable us to move so much faster. You can see this most clearly with how much has happened post-Stable Diffusion vs. post-DALL-E.
Improvements to collaborative software are also likely under-rated: e.g., Figma for design, Google Docs, Replit for coding. Simultaneous object co-creation globally might seem run-of-the-mill today but think of how revolutionary it is compared to the letter-based collaboration that existed not that long ago.
From the opposite perspective, inhibitors to copying are everywhere and it’s interesting to think about them from a cultural evolution perspective. The consequences of IP and copyright laws – and regulation more generally – shape what gets copied and what areas of culture can be remixed. Of course there are pros and cons to all these regulations, but these are social choices we make…
3. AI is a massive accelerant
One other consequence of looking at human success through the lens of cultural evolution is that it makes you less focused on Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) as some special barrier and more focused on AI as a whole.
AGI fears are rooted in the idea that human intelligence is humans’ differentiating factor. If the secret of our success isn’t our intelligence but instead our cultural evolution, this makes AI even more compelling & promising (and also more frightening): computers are already way better than us at copying and with generative models, we should look carefully as they also expand into directions that look like a whole lot like innovation & creativity: generative text-to-image models like DALL-E use historical visual expression as inputs and accelerate idea synthesis. We also see this with AlphaFold: it allows us to take all our knowledge of protein structures and expand it onto proteins whose structures we don’t know...
AI that enables us to accelerate cultural evolution will be transformative. We are just at the beginnings of this expansion…
4. We should explicitly teach ways to make the most of existing cultural learning
A final takeaway from Henrich’s thesis is that we should more explicitly teach people how to copy each other and build on existing cultural evolution. In the past, this was the most natural form of education: apprenticeship models are fundamentally about cultural learning. As education has become more siloed from the real-world, it can be abstracted away from real applications to such a degree that people can graduate from school without “real skills.” How much more useful would it be to teach how best to adapt, expand and use existing technologies? Here is the world you’ve inherited (Google, YouTube, TikTok, our existing business and cultural institutions) - go create something new!
Learning how to activate human, social, cultural, business, internet, and AI networks that exists in the world is one of the most important education we can impart on the next generation. Some people are much more adept at this than others and we could certainly improve our pedagogy (e.g., see Mr. Beast using YouTube + the internet to bootstrap a giant set of businesses from scratch).
I’ll leave you with this quote from my post “Longevity everywhere around me:”
Every day and moment we are living in an enmeshed web of cultures and technologies that stem from hundreds and thousands of years of co-development and interlinking.
Everything we touch can trace its roots to thousands and millions of people - people alive and those long passed.
This keyboard. My genes. The water I drink. A glass of milk. It’s all interconnected…
Remember you’re just a part of a much bigger chain.
We live in a golden era for human expansion if only we are able to tune in.
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