Chapter 7, From Genes to Culture

This chapter is about “gene-culture coevolution.” Also, this is the point in the book where Wilson mentions C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” (which I discussed here almost six years ago.)

Key points in this chapter:

  • Wilson defines culture: The total way of life of a discrete society—“its religion, myths, art, technology, sports…”
  • Genes don’t prescribe culture; they prescribe behavior, which in turn, along with history and environment, create culture, in a back and forth process called gene-culture coevolution, a concept Wilson (and his collaborators) had developed since the 1980s, particularly in Promethean Fire (with Charles J. Lumsden) in 1983;
  • We’ve found specific genes that affect some diseases, like schizophrenia;
  • The hereditary basis of human nature comes in three parts: the universals of culture; the epigenetic rules of social behavior; and through behavioral genetics;
  • The universals of culture include a tendency to break all relationships into two-part classifications, e.g. in group/out group, child/adult, kin/nonkin, married/single, sacred and profane, good and evil; and how moving from one division to another is invariably marked by ceremony; with a note about “structuralism” (a 20th century philosophical movement) and mythic narratives;
  • A well-known genetic example is how different cultures have different numbers of words for colors — in a predictable sequence, from black and white in cultures with only two color terms, with red being the third, etc., to the eleven color terms present in English.


  • The way Wilson describes how populations can be assessed, but not individuals, echoes Isaac Asimov’s notion of psychohistory, which applies to entire peoples but not individuals. An example of how intellectuals of various sorts have long intuited the principles later developed by scientists.
  • And the tendency to break relationships into two parts might seem simplistic, but complex thinking had to start somewhere, and making distinctions of any kind from within a complex landscape was the inevitable start. Still, as I’ve pointed out many times, this black and white thinking is retained by today’s conservatives, who fail to realize that the actual world is more complex than black and white (or good vs. evil); this is what I’ve called the savanna morality, here identified as base human nature, seen in the most primitive cultures whose only words for color are black and white. While some of us intuitively realize that the world is not only black and white, but shades of gray and many colors!
  • Also, Wilson mentions, in one paragraph, “structuralism,” which has a similar flavor, in which virtually everything can be seen as one side of a dichotomy. (Coincidentally I’ve read a bit about structuralism elsewhere, which I’ll report on soon.)
  • And not that Wilson engages in special pleading, since the evidence is overwhelming, but he does point out that for his grand scheme of consilience to work, the mind must be materialist, with no supernatural counterpart involved.
  • (What if that were not true, and different rules of reality applied in different realms? A common fantasy scenario. Magic, and all that. And a default religious thesis.)


We know enough of the natural sciences to be confidant of “the principle of universal rational consilience” across them. Now we come to the edge of culture. Many consider the two domains, scientific and literary, distinct. Author thinks we can try to reassess the boundary between them.

The division between the two cultures is a perennial source of misunderstanding and conflict, citing C.P. Snow. An example is the perpetual nature/nurture controversy. The root cause is an overspecialized educated elite. Public and media intellectuals are trained in the social sciences and humanities; natural sciences are divided into so many narrow compartments, there is no language to speak across the divide. We must view the boundary as a terrain that can be explored by both sides. The nub of the problem is how biology and culture interact. At present no one has a solution. But some scientists, including author, think they know what form in will take. It’s the idea of gene-culture coevolution.

Author outlines principles, in several italicized paras pp127-8. Culture is created by the communal mind, and each mind is the product of a genetically structured human brain. And so on. With running example of how serpents appear so often in dreams and are used by shamans. To how some culture norms survive and reproduced better than others, and more quickly than genetic evolution. Then follows a brief outline of evolution by natural selection, as has been “massively documented.”

Then author acknowledges than many people prefer special creation as the explanation for the origin of life. In 1994 23% reject evolution. Growing up in the south, author is a bit empathetic to these feelings. Maybe God did create all life in one stroke just a few thousand years ago – but he also salted the planet with “false evidence in such endless and exquisite detail” as to make us think it evolved over billions of years. Surely He wouldn’t do that?

So cultural evolution is parallel to genetic evolution. What is culture? The total way of life of a discrete society—“its religion, myths, art, technology, sports…” And a 1952 definition by Alfred Kroeber and another.

The nurturist view that has prevailed for most of the 20th century is that culture is a thing unto itself, unrelated to genes; an emergent property. It’s true that each society creates culture and is created by it. Only humans do this, though some chimps and gorillas can be trained to use language in a limited way. The great apes are mostly silent all the time. Whereas humans can be called the babbling ape; they never shut up. The great apes do exhibit elements of culture. Human infants imitate those around them as early as 40 minutes after birth. All behaviors of our ancient ancestors, alas, have vanished. Fossil bones do show how the voice box developed over time. Artifacts grew and only recently exploded into our technological culture. The next mystery: when did symbolic language arise, and how did it ignite cultural evolution?

P134. Perhaps an insoluble puzzle. But we might ask, what is the basic unit of culture? One clue is the distinction between episodic memory and semantic memory, 134b. Next we can envision concepts as “nodes” in semantic memory. Concepts and symbols, labeled by words, are transmitted between these nodes; the linkage is the essence of meaning. A unit of meaning, like ‘the hound chases a hare’, is a proposition. Above that is the schema. Author trusts the neuroscientists will figure all this out. Example of recognizing a fruit. Cultural units have been discussed for thirty years, with Dawkins’ word ‘meme’ becoming the most popular label. Author’s definition is more focused, posed by him and Lumsden in 1981. The study of this will enrich, not replace, semiotics.

P136. We don’t speak of a gene that prescribes culture. It’s much more complicated than that. Rather, it’s gene-culture coevolution, an interaction. The “norm of reaction”… example of the leaf shape in the arrowleaf. The leaves change shape weather grown on land or in water. Another example is human body weight. Sulloway’s 1996 book Born to Rebel shows how such interactions effect human biology, including social behavior. (Summary of this is similar to Pinker’s.) To understand such variations we need to understand both heredity and environment. Such discussions are valid for populations, not individuals, and twin studies contribute to them. Heredity gained controversial attention in the 1994 book The Bell Curve. The are subtleties to such studies, 140. There is no gene for playing the piano well, but a host of genes that go into musical intelligence. The environment affects how variability in heredity plays out. Heredibility of IQ comes in about 50%. Should we wish to change this? 141m. Probably not, for reasons. Both schizophrenia and autism were thought to be environmental disorders; now they’re recognized to be partly genetic. And vice versa for alcoholism. …

These are mentioned to clarify the endless nature/nurture debate, or nurturist v hereditarian. Empirical studies have resolved some their disagreements. They generally agree that differences between societies are due to history and environment, while differences between individuals are due to genes.

The next step is the location of genes that affect behavior. An example is the study of schizophrenia, which afflicts about 1% of people around the world. Mental activity breaks with reality. A 1995 breakthrough found a cause in fetal brain development. Another study located a particular chromosome involved.

Note a key point in the previous chapter is that, for consilience to work, the mind must be materialist; no supernatural counterparts involved.

Why haven’t things like love been studied? It’s a matter of what kind of traits get funded, with schizophrenia conditions that might have a single genetic cause. Examples of others, 145b. And it works for a surprising number of conditions. Less so for human behavior. Evidence comes from house mouses. Some genes cause a condition, e.g., only half the time, depending on environment. Summary of this section, 147.3.

Meanwhile, what we know about the hereditary basis of human nature comes in three parts, 147m. First, the 1945 compendium of universals of cultures. 67 universals on that list. (147b). Aren’t these inevitable for any complex species? That’s easily refuted. An example of termites. Author presents an ethical code for termites, 148.5. Further evidence is the remarkable convergence of Old and New World cultures, isolated for 12,000 years. Description of the similarities, 149.3. Including priesthoods. And tribes. And empires.

Still, fine details vary widely. Author has argued since 1978 that genetics leads us to see the world in a particular way, and learn certain behaviors; it’s not memes that are genetically transmitted. Prepared learning *is* adaptive. One way of seeing this is through evolutionary psychology, 150.6, which is in effect identical to human sociobiology.

Following altruism, the central problem in sociobiology was gene-culture coevolution, in the 1990s. This involves how epigenetic rules operate at two levels. The senses impose the primary ones, by breaking down experience into discrete colors, or sounds. Examples of how babies do this. Preferences in taste develop. Most sensory words, around the world, concern hearing and vision. Second rules involve facial expressions, which are mostly invariant throughout the human species. Example experiment to show this, 152b. Smiling is especially important.

Secondary epigenetic rules follow a process called reification: the telescoping of ideas and complex phenomena into simpler concepts, which are then related to familiar ones. One way is through the dyadic instinct, to break relationships into two-part classification: in group/ out group, child/ adult, kin/ nonkin, married/ single, sacred and profane, good and evil. (153b). Moving from one division to the other requires various kinds of ceremonies, e.g. rites of passage. All cultures do this. This gave rise to Levi-Strauss’ “structuralism” in which everything is a binary. Man/woman, endogamy/exogamy, earth/heaven; with these transitions are resolved by mythic narratives, 154t. Author thinks its problems include a lack of realistic connection to biology and cognitive psychology.

[[ we can expand on this as an example of the conservative way of black/white thinking. Perhaps it *is* intuitive, or genetically inspired. But it’s still simplistic. ]] [[ we already noticed the similarity of this to wilson’s consilience – an attempt to show how everything is unified in some way, at least by analogy. ]]

P154, Next: what is the genetic basis of epigenetic rules? Author cautions that this is an infant field, vulnerable to ideologues who are unkind to it… A preliminary finding is that variation in virtually every aspect of human behavior is heritable to some degree. This does not entail the identification of particular genes. This technical aspect is very difficult. Among known mutations include one that causes dyslexia. Other examples. Only a beginning. More often sets of polygenes influence behavior. Also, pleiotropy, where a single gene causes multiple effects. These are convoluted. Author expects that in the first two decades of the 21st century, the human genome will have been mapped. [[ it was done in 2022. ]] For the immediate future, study will focus on mental disorders, and gender difference and sexual preference. Both attract strong public interest, and thus funding. Much about gender differences is already known, 157.

P157, Author summarized gene-culture coevolution so far. The final step is that altered epigenetic rules change the directions of cultural acquisition. This involved the problem of the genetic leash. That is, over the past 100,000 years, cultural evolution has accelerated far beyond genetic evolution. So, how tight is the genetic leash? In general, visibly constraining. [[ ie culture can’t just develop in any random, imaginary, direction… ]] Even has cultures have dispersed widely. Some real cases, for example. Even without language, humans would still retain a variety of signals to communicate, from odors to touching to facial expressions. We can study these across cultures. One example is eyebrow flashing. A second case: color perception and language. Color is only how we interpret light of different energies. Details. Other animals would perceive things very differently. Human perception evolved genetically, not altered by learning. In the 1960s an experiment was done asking members of various languages to describe their color vocabulary. Societies had anywhere from two to eleven colors words. Where only two color terms were present, they were black and white. Where three, the third was red. The fourth was yellow or green. The fifth was the other of yellow and green. And so on, in a predictable pattern. English uses all eleven: black, white, red, yellow, green, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange, and gray. 162.5. This reveals that our genes prescribe how we see different wavelengths of light. However, some cultures invent further words to describe other qualities of light, 163.

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