Here is another in the CONVERSATIONS AT EDGE series, in this instance a conversation with Joseph Henrich. As he explains, “The main questions I’ve been asking myself over the last couple years are broadly about how culture drove human evolution. Think back to when humans first got the capacity for cumulative cultural evolution—and by this I mean the ability for ideas to accumulate over generations, to get an increasingly complex tool starting from something simple. One generation adds a few things to it, the next generation adds a few more things, and the next generation, until it’s so complex that no one in the first generation could have invented it.
“This was a really important line in human evolution, and we’ve begun to pursue this idea called the cultural brain hypothesis—this is the idea that the real driver in the expansion of human brains was this growing cumulative body of cultural information, so that what our brains increasingly got good at was the ability to acquire information, store, process and retransmit this non genetic body of information.
“Part of my program of research is to convince people that they should stop distinguishing cultural and biological evolution as separate in that way. We want to think of it all as biological evolution.”
To watch a video of the conversation and/or read the transcript, please click here.
Joseph Henrich holds the Canada Research Chair in Culture, Cognition, and Evolution at the University of British Columbia, where he is appointed Professor in both Economics and Psychology. His research interests include evolutionary approaches to psychology, decision-making, and culture with an emphasis on the cognition foundations of cultural learning; culture-gene coevolution, human sociality, prestige, leadership, and large-scale cooperation; economic behavior and the emergence of complex human institutions and societies; cultural and evolutionary origins of faith and religion, and its relationship to cooperation and societal complexity. Area interests in Amazonia, rural Chile, and Fiji.
Methodologically, his research synthesizes experimental and analytical tools drawn from behavioral economics and psychology with in-depth quantitative ethnography. Trained in anthropology, Dr. Henrich’s work has been published in the top journals in biology, anthropology, and economics. In 2004 he was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award, the highest award bestowed by the United States upon scientists early in their careers. In 2009 the Human Behavior and Evolution Society awarded him their Early Career Award for Distinguished Scientiﬁc Contributions.
In 2010, Henrich, in collaboration with cultural psychologists Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan, published “The Weirdest People in the World?” in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, which was summarized in Nature. The paper presented their findings that that whenever psychological measures were available from diverse populations, Westerners were at the far end of the distribution. They dubbed these psychological outliers “WEIRD people,” because they were from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic societies. Their work on “WEIRD” was reported widely in the popular press—e.g., the New York Times dubbed their playful acronym “WEIRD” one of “The words of the year”.
Henrich is the co-author (with Natalie Henrich) of Why Humans Cooperate, and he has written pieces for Science and Nature. His work is routinely covered in popular media outlets ranging from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to New Scientist and The Economist.
To watch all the CONVERSATIONS AT EDGE videos, please click here.
John Brockman is Editor and Publisher at Edge. To learn more about the organization from him, please click here.
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