Henrich on cultural success, silence on cultural failure

Cleopatra and Caesar

Culture has made human beings who they are. Leading human evolutionary biologist Joseph Henrich compellingly makes that point in his recent book, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Henrich declares:

The answer to why humans are different is that we crossed the Rubicon. Cultural evolution became cumulative, and then both this accumulating body of information and its cultural products, like fire and food-sharing norms, developed as the central driving forces in human genetic evolution. … Having crossed the Rubicon, we can’t go back. The impact of this transition is underlined by the fact that, despite our long evolutionary history as foragers, we generally can’t survive by hunting and gathering when we have been stripped of that relevant culturally acquired knowledge. … So, yes, we are smart, but not because we stand on the shoulders of giants or are giants ourselves. We stand on the shoulders of a very large pyramid of hobbits. The hobbits do get a bit taller as the pyramid ascends, but it’s still the number of hobbits, not the height of particular hobbits, that’s allowing us to see farther. [1]

Henrich’s explanation draws upon an ancient Roman rhetorical figure involving Julius Caesar, J. R. R. Tolkien’s influential fictional creation of hobbits, a reference from a twelfth-century Latin text of Bernard of Chartres, and perhaps an allusion to the Great Pyramid of Giza, a monument of bureaucracy. No other organism creates such linguistic figures. Yet that reality differs subtly from the claim that culture is domesticating us and making us smarter. Human cultural evolution doesn’t support a master narrative of inevitable progressive enlightenment. Cultural evolution can make humans more brutal and more stupid.

In Henrich’s view, humans get smart in evolutionary and development time through social learning. Human toddlers outperform chimpanzees and orangutans not in cognitive tests concerning space, quantities, and causality, but only in social learning.[2] Social learning depends on making sense of presence of another like oneself. Long duration, broad bandwidth, synchronous, ephemeral communication, e.g. in-person communication among associates, supports sense of presence and social learning more than does short, narrow bandwidth, asynchronous, stored communication, e.g. short text messaging. Cultural evolution in which communication time shifts to the latter makes persons dumber.

Henrich associates greater population size and greater interconnectedness of individuals with greater cultural development. Those mechanisms suggest the importance of concentrating persons in factories and in cities in spurring the industrial revolutions of the past two centuries. However, England and Wales (and probably other European countries as well) over the past two centuries has experienced a significant cultural change: a massive flattening of the given name distribution. In contrast, symbolic markets in which a larger number of individuals can communicate with each other more cheaply and more quickly tend to promote blockbuster economics. Blockbuster economics involves social success that undermines objective justification for status and exacerbates wealth inequalities. Blockbuster economics also favors cultural homogenization and concentration of symbolic power. Masses who are more easily manipulated are less likely to advance collective intelligence. If the secret to our success is acting like sheep, crossing the Rubicon points to how charismatic leaders like Julius Caesar or Hitler can greatly change human societies.

A good case study of cultural evolution is twelfth-century Europe. That century experienced elite promotion of men’s subservience to women in love (“courtly love”). Some scholars have even interpreted knights brutalizing other knights in service to idealized women as a means of civilizing and domesticating men. That cultural development remains influential in competition for prestige. Thus a best-selling author recently credited feminization of civilization for contributing to the long-run historical decline in violence. That author approvingly proclaimed an astonishing cultural development:

At the top, a consensus has formed within the international {elite} community that violence against women is the most pressing human rights problem remaining in the world. [3]

In the U.S. today, four times more men than women die from violence. Around the world, violence overwhelmingly occurs against men. Elite consensus that violence against women is the most pressing human rights problem in the world today shows that social learning can powerfully promote stupidity.

For social learning to develop a humane, rational collective mind, human societies need intellectual counterbalances to gynocentrism. Henrich promotes ideals of elite intellectual culture:

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. [4]

As the recent persecution of Nobel-prize-winning scientist Tim Hunt has made clear, any deviation from the narrow path of social propriety in speaking about women can today cause anyone enormous harm. Men’s biological inferiority to women in social communication has been well-established in scholarly literature. Cultural cognition and the structure of current academic prestige competition has produce comically tendentious experiments, mind-numbing academic “scientific” rhetoric, and wide-spread dissemination of grotesque, highly damaging falsehoods about men.

Preventing the collective mind from going insane requires supporting recalcitrant masculine voices like those in medieval Latin literature. In medieval Europe, men writing in Latin freely expressed outrageous views about wives, the church, and women in general. Latin provided a language for views that couldn’t be expressed in commonly spoken languages. Medieval Latin literature addressed violence against men in ways far more intelligent than currently fashionable anti-men bigotry (talk of “toxic masculinity”). Medieval Latin literature played a crucial role in limiting the damage to the collective mind from vernacular gynocentrism.

With U.S. universities leading efforts, within existing conditions of mass incarceration, to criminalize men for ordinary sexual interactions, the future of the collective mind looks grim. But the die is not cast. Joseph Henrich’s new book The Secret of Our Success underscores the importance of culture. From an economic and political perspective, the most important cultural issue today is collective understanding of women and men in relation to each other.[5] Under particular human biological predispositions, the twelfth-century European cultural inheritance, imperatives of collegiality in academic competition for prestige, overwhelming mass media patronage of women, and particular national-political circumstances, cultural evolution is making us humans less humane and less intelligent. To become more humane and more intelligent, today’s human culture must embrace medieval Latin literature of men’s sexed protest and similar recalcitrant masculine voices.

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[1] Henrich (2015) pp. 317, 323.

[2] Id. pp. 13-5.

[3] Pinker (2011) p. 414. For related claims, see note [2] in my post on violence and enlightenment.

[4] Henrich (2015) p. 325. Underscoring his emphasis on techno-elite culture, Henrich further states:

It bears emphasizing that once the body of know-how becomes sufficiently complex, cultural evolution will often favor an increasingly complex division of labor (really, a division of information). In this new world, the size of the collective brain will be influenced by the size and interconnectedness of people at the knowledge frontier {emphasis in the original}, the place at which individuals know enough to have any chance of making improvements on existing forms.

Id. Persons in their teens have written highly successful mobile phone apps. Persons who dropped out of college have founded and led enormously powerful, high-tech corporations. The most important and most difficult aspects of culture concern human relations. Life experience and broad literary study contribute greatly to thinking about the most important aspects of culture.

Henrich briefly recognizes that cultural poetic sophistication is more important than factual knowledge:

The framing of the message and the messenger are crucial, but the mini causal models (the “facts”) are merely secondary — only necessary to support any acquired practices or social norms.

Id. p. 328.

[5] Marsupials, once a gregarious species, are now solitary mammals. The significance of that development shouldn’t be minimized. Human pair bonding is being challenged by social promotion of female promiscuity (celebrating slut walks) and men’s opportunistic response to that development. In addition, Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) is one of the most significant social movements of our time.

[image] Cleopatra and Caesar. Painting, detail. By Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1866. Thanks to Mezzo-Mondo and Wikimedia Commons.


Henrich, Joseph. 2015. The secret of our success: how culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Pinker, Steven. 2011. The better angels of our nature: why violence has declined. New York: Viking.

2 thoughts on “Henrich on cultural success, silence on cultural failure”

  1. I refer to your essay on ‘Human Evolution And Culture’ presented at AVfM, as I have the honour of being barred from commenting there. I presume you meant ‘Great Pyramid of “Giza”‘. There is a typo and you have written Gaza regarding ‘a monument for bureaucracy’.

    May I take this opportunity to commend you on your excellent work. I invariably find it informative, thought provoking and as with the above piece on ‘fake rape’, entertaining.

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