My guest today is Joseph Henrich, a professor at Harvard, and an expert on the evolution of human cooperation and culture. I am a big fan of his book, “The Secret of Our Success” and he just published a new one called the Weirdest People in the World about people who fall under the acronym WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Through his research, he explains culture’s role in evolution. He shows how evolutionary theory can help us learn, innovate, and share knowledge.
We begin this episode by talking about the role big Gods play in cultural evolution. Then we talk about the time Joe spent living with small-scale societies in rural Peru and Fiji. He talks about how he learns the language, plans the trips, and assimilates into societies so he can study them. Towards the end of the podcast, we talk about what economists can learn from anthropologists and the evolution of attraction. My favorite part of the conversation was learning about the tradeoffs between having an open or closed society, and how those factors contribute to innovation. Please enjoy my conversation with Joseph Henrich.
Keep up with the podcast
Enter your email to receive information about every new podcast.
Emails will include links, quotes, videos, and exclusive behind-the-scenes features.
Find Joe Online:
2:06 – How the role of God has evolved over time and why bigger and bigger Gods have become the norm.
4:50 – Why acting as a third party for people made Gods culturally and socially so much more important.
8:36 – Marriage across cultures and religions and why they diverge sometimes wildly from what Western culture considers “normal”.
13:44 – Why many religious restrictions that created the Western norm of a nuclear family also set up the stage for heightened individualism.
16:58 – How and why social safety nets transitioned from kin-based institutions to the states and governments.
18:46 – What surprising similarities and differences Joe saw between Americans and the Machiguenga of the Peruvian Amazon.
22:22 – The role of humor in enforcing social norms, why Joe thinks it is absolutely universal, and the other universal ways trust is built-in communities.
28:35 – How narcotics and psychedelics are utilized in different cultures and the way their roles differ.
31:20 – Why cultural imitation does not always yield positive outcomes.
33:11 – How the introduction of agriculture changed family relationships and culture.
39:36 – The biggest takeaways Joe got from Guns, Germs, and Steel.
43:28 – Why Joe believes that religion is innate in human beings.
50:31 – The possible implications of losing rituals that for millennia have brought families and clans closer together.
52:24 – What the clock and a universal time have done to human psychology.
1:01:16 – What the collective brain is and why it is so prevalent throughout creative booms in history.
1:04:55 – How the proliferation of information helps and hurts creativity, and why the internet hasn’t had the impact people thought it would.
1:08:26 – How information is affected by biases and manipulation and why humans are so susceptible to them.
1:11:39 – How the technology, institutions, and tools we use affect the way that we think.
1:15:12 – Why learning disabilities should not be looked at as purely negative and the benefits that cognitive diversity brings to humanity.
1:19:00 – The way gossip in a society helps define the collective philosophy of its people.
1:21:07 – How imitative education is currently at its peak and what doors it opens for people around the world.
1:24:36 – Why rituals and multiple gods were so common in the past and are so uncommon now.
1:28:40 – How Jon would alter the current research practices in the social sciences on “WEIRD” people and why.
1:31:39 – Why certain assumptions about humans are actually specific to a region or population, and why they don’t represent humanity as a whole.
1:35:10 – Why the top-down lecture model is not serving education as well as it should, and why it shouldn’t be replaced completely by Youtube.
1:39:20 – The selective physical and cultural evolution of certain populations and why it happens the way it does.
1:42:12 – What Jon finds to be the most interesting elements of culture to study and why.
1:45:33 – Why Jon’s aerospace engineering degree is so valuable in his anthropology career.
1:47:41 – The problem with focusing solely on models in research and studies.
1:53:20 – Why humanity seems to be stagnating in intelligence but rocketing upward in cultural development.
David: How did we come to have big gods? What is it about big gods and the scale of societies that you’ve seen in your work?
Joe: So I’ve been interested in this idea of how it is that human societies went from the relatively small scale gods that we see in hunting and gathering and other kinds of societies, up to the big, powerful moralizing gods that we see in the world today. And that’s actually a transformation that a lot of people aren’t aware of. When people think of gods, they tend to think of these powerful moralizing gods, but there’s actually a huge variety. And in the smallest scale of human society, sometimes gods might have a moralizing function and they might get angry with people for not sharing or not conducting certain rituals, but it tends to be very local to the degree that it exists at all. And many gods are whimsical and you can often buy them off, you can bribe them, you can trick them.
So these are all things that go on in small-scale societies. And my colleagues and I have made the case that as society scaled up, one of the things that allowed larger and larger groups to cooperate and interact with strangers. And to expand the circle has been a cultural selection pressure on gods that were more powerful, more moralizing, and specifically concerned with those elements of human social behavior that would allow societies to scale up. So, fairness with strangers, say.
David: Talk about fairness of strangers, what do you mean by that?
Joe: Well, so in lots of places when societies are rooted completely in subsistence, there’s no need to do very much trading and trading is often done through personal relationships. But as societies scale up, there’s a lot of economic opportunities in trading with people who have different skills or have access to different resources. But then it’s also easier to steal from those people. So there’s this push-pull and the more through which people can engage in mutually beneficial transactions, the better, the more economic benefits they can have.
But that’s hard because there’s always a chance the other guy might defect in a sense and steal from you or exploit you. Or sell you something that’s of low quality that is purported to be of higher quality. Of course, that’s still a problem in the real world. But at this point in the evolution of human societies, we’re just trying to get trade going at all. So the more you have a god that’s concerned about that, the easier this is. And we see this really clearly in the Mediterranean when traders would actually go to altars and swear oaths to, if they believed in the same god, they would swear to that god. And this seems to have facilitated trade, a number of historians have argued that.
David: So here, you’re talking about scaling up with big gods. Have you looked into the idea of heaven at all? You were talking about defection and it seems intuitively that if you have an omnipotent god looking down on a society, you have this third party judge looking at interactions. What have you seen there in terms of the game theory of interaction and defection?
Joe: So lots of humans everywhere have always been concerned about being observed by third parties. One of the key things about humans is that we’re concerned with social norms. If you violate a social norm, you get a bad reputation and that can affect future interactions in lots of ways. So what the cultural evolution does is it puts a watcher, a third party, an imaginary one that can potentially be all-knowing, although that seems to have scaled up over time, and have increasingly powerful ways to punish or sanction you or reward you. And so in the case of afterlife, most human societies didn’t believe that gods could control a contingent afterlife. So they may have believed people continued after death, but it might’ve been in some ghostly form and your behavior in this life didn’t affect what was going to happen to you in a next life.
So the key thing about afterlife for what we’re talking about is a contingent afterlife, where say a god can have control over that. You behave a certain way now and you can get benefits or penalties in the future if the god doesn’t like that way of behaving. So, that seems to appear relatively late in human history, one historical estimate is around 500 years before the common era. And in a number of different experiments and other kinds of data, it does seem that believing in hell actually does most of the work. Believing in hell has real effects on people’s behavior.
David: So hell actually is more of a deterrent than heaven is like a Valhalla that people want to ascend to?
Joe: Yeah, it’s interesting and there’s this asymmetry. You even see it in experiments, so people who believe more in hell will behave, say they’ll cheat less than a simple experiment. If you look at the degree to which heaven and hell beliefs predict economic prosperity, believing in hell seems to have a big effect, believing in heaven relatively less. And the idea here is that heaven is pretty easy to believe in, it’s a nice thing to believe in. It’s appealing to think that you might live forever and go to this nice place. Hell is not so appealing, and to know that you might slip up and end up in hell is not such a pleasant thing. So, that’s the one that has to be favored by cultural evolution and it’s the one that can make societies behave better. It can prevent people from cheating when they might have otherwise cheated because there’s an omniscient watcher who might penalize you in the future.
David: When it comes to your studies on Christianity and how they’ve influenced weird societies. And we can get into the kinship elements and the family elements, but I want to start off with the Christian elements. How have you seen the relationship between heaven and hell changed throughout the history of the Catholic church? And then we can work our way through some other parts of the basic structure of weird societies.
Joe: So in a point I make in The Weirdest People in the World is that a number of different religious communities have figured out these afterlife tricks. And you see it popping up and it spreads through a number of different religions. So I don’t think that’s something that distinguishes Christianity and in particular, it doesn’t distinguish the Roman Catholic church, which is one of the central actors in what I lay out, in The Weirdest People in the World. What is interesting is that this one brand of Christianity, not Christianities in general, but the Roman Catholic church began to have taboos and rules and prescriptions about how to organize families. About who people could marry when they could marry, whether those marriages could be arranged, those kinds of things. So incest taboos began to spread and apply to lots more people than just brothers and sisters.
David: You mentioned arranged marriages. What might some of the benefits of arranged marriages be? Once, probably about a year ago, I read a just fantastic article on the way that arranged marriage actually lowers divorce rates. And it was an argument from an Indian writer saying, “Hey, you guys in America, in Europe, should actually be more receptive to this idea.”
Joe: Arranged marriages are, one way to think of them from an anthropological perspective is that they allow families to build strong relationships with them, between themselves. So it brings two families closer together, and this is part of a network so if you have a few different children, you’re marrying your children off to different families. And that’s building your bonds with other families and that’s making you more productive, it’s giving you more political opportunities. If something bad happens, it’s potentially more of a social safety net. So it’s strengthening a whole bunch of things about your social and economic world. So there’s lots of benefits there and it’s the interdependence created by these marriages that probably reduces things like divorce because people become so enmeshed in a web that if you were to leave the web, you have no social safety net and little protections.
David: And also a wealth preservation tactic for different families. I couldn’t believe that I was talking to a friend in Saudi Arabia probably two months ago, and so we’re talking. And I’m like, “Hey, tell me a little bit about yourself.” And she goes, “I’m 27, got married at 22. I’m married to my cousin, we marry within the family.” They’re a very conservative Saudi Arabian family. “We marry within the family because we want to preserve the wealth and it just makes things easy.” And then she just keeps going on and on. And she starts telling me all these ways that it makes life easier and how the meaning of life for her is much more tied to raising really successful kids. And this one I was actually quite receptive to, having kids for her at 22 years old meant that the grandparents could raise the children, which is so much easier than… I was talking to my grandma last night and she’s in an old person’s home. And is just miserable, and I’ve probably only met my grandma seven, eight, 10 times.
Joe: So it really, these intensive kinship structures really bring the grandparents in, gives them high status, they’re often the purveyors of wisdom. The cousin marriage that you’re talking about, in the book I make the case that, building on other people’s work. That often in Islamic societies, you would marry a father’s brother’s son. And this would, because land is owned patrilineally, their wealth is often passed down patrilineal and so that keeps the wealth in the same household. Whereas in typical societies, you would marry your cross cousin or some other more distant cousin. And that would mean the wealth would leave with the woman if she gets any.
Now, the interesting thing about Islam is the Qur’an doesn’t say anything about cousin marriage, but it does say that girls have to inherit half of what their brothers inherit. And in lots of pre-Islamic societies, the daughter would’ve inherited zero, so that wouldn’t have been a problem. But once the Qur’an says that you got to inherit half, then you’re going to lose a portion of your wealth every time you marry a daughter off. But if you marry them to your father’s brother, or if she marries her father’s brother, then you keep the wealth in the family.
David: So what we see in America right now with some decline of the nuclear family, and I don’t want to be too dramatic about this. But it is happening at some level, especially compared to the Islam societies that we’re talking about here. How big of an anomaly is this through human history, people having kids late, hyper-individualism? And if it isn’t an anomaly, what other cultures are similar to this? And how can we look at those cultures to predict how American culture is going to evolve?
Joe: It’s pretty anomalous so if you look at the database, there’s this thing called the ethnographic Atlas which has over 1200 different societies in it. We have independent residence so when a couple gets married, they set up shop independent of their mother and father, of the mother and father of the bride and the groom. And that’s neolocal residence, that’s very rare, only 5% of societies in the database have that. And if you begin to add all the other kinship traits we have, like inheritance through both males and females, monogamy only, you add those things up, you get a vanishingly rare fraction of societies. So in that sense, the kind of families we’re accustomed to are very rare in human history, maybe unique.
And what’s happening now in the modern world, in the 20th century is even the monogamous nuclear family is breaking down because we have enough impersonal institutions. The economic prospects for women are better, so that makes them independent. If you have enough money, you don’t need a spouse to raise children. So we’re basically breaking society down to the individual. So even the nuclear family is now fracturing and that’s just the spread of individualism.
David: Got it. So the nuclear family, draw that correlation to me between the nuclear family and individualism. How is that played out, is the correlation really strong? And so it sounds like what you’re saying there is, as individualism rises, nuclear families will necessarily become a smaller and smaller part of the way society functions. Is that right?
Joe: Well, the key idea in the book is actually the causal. I think the causal arrow goes both ways, but in the book, the causal arrow is that the church took actions that broke these intensive kinship structures down. So where you have these cousin relationships and you have these economic and political relationships, the social safety net, the sense of identity, the connections across the generations. It breaks all that down with all these rules about the family and you get mostly monogamous nuclear families in many parts of Europe. So then, you’re not quite an individual but you’ve got to make your way in the world. You’ve got to cultivate your own attributes and achievements. And the way you’re going to find friends and business partners and spouses is by having something unique about you, or something that at least sets you apart from the next person, to begin to build this future relationship.
Where in the other world, the world of your friend from Saudi Arabia, all of her relationships are set by her birth, essentially. So she has all these cousins relationships, and people she works with and the people who are going to take care of her children were all predetermined by her position in the genealogy. So that’s quite a different world than having to make your way in the world and find business partners, friends, and spouses on your own. So, that leads to greater individualism. And then the case I make is with this change in psychology, this change in social structure, Europe gets what historians call voluntary associations. So guilds, you join as a member, they give you a social safety net. They’re a lobbying organization for your interest of your little group, these eventually became occupational groups. Universities are a kind of voluntary association, monasteries pop-up and begin proliferating as voluntary associations.
Joe: So people are finding strangers with shared interests or shared goals, shared views of the world and they’re forming an organization. And those eventually become political parties and towns become… You had to join the town to get citizenship, and that would give you rights and privileges. So, this takes Europe on a different cultural evolutionary path than we’d seen in other places. So what we see later in history is eventually we get things like social safety nets. So the Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1600 for the first time lay a government safety net underneath people so that if you don’t have any family connections, you can still get money from the government. If things go bad, you don’t have a job or something like that and that allows people to be independent, even more of their families.
David: You talk about social safety nets. And what are some of the structural conditions that enable social safety nets to emerge? So let me give you a hypothesis and you can tell me right or wrong, of one factor that could contribute to this. Maybe a lack of diversity is correlated with a strong social safety net, so if you take an area like Scandinavia. Scandinavia is known as having strong social safety nets, high taxes, but the government is there to help you with free health care. And maybe there’s a tension between allowing immigrants to come in and people who, citizens say, “Hey, you know what? They’re not like me.” And then the decline of a social safety net, is that right? Or what are some of the other factors that actually enable safety nets to arise?
Joe: In terms of the ideas I lay out in the book for most populations in over most of human history, the social safety net has been provided by these kin-based institutions. Now with the emergence of states, so we’re thinking pre-modern states here, the government sometimes did a few things to help out, but it would be help at the community level. So they would help your town, not you as an individual. And then once the church begins to break down these units, the church becomes one of the main safety nets. And then you get this patchwork of safety nets that are provided by these voluntary associations, which included sometimes church organizations, but guilds were also social safety nets, and et cetera. And then it’s not until England and a few of the Northern European countries, they begin to take over the safety net job, in particular with the spread of Protestantism. So Protestantism plays a role here in giving the job to the government.
Now, in terms of the politics of the modern world and how much of a safety… The U.S. is known to have a poor social safety net, but there’s still unemployment insurance, there’s still Social Security. So compared to lots of places in lots of times, there’s a huge social safety net, it’s just not as big as what’s been built in places like Sweden and elsewhere. But the more independent and individualistic you are, and the more mobile you are, the more you need a safety net. So it may hit Americans particularly hard because we’re unusually mobile. So things go wrong for you and you’re in a city, you moved away from your family years ago, you got a big problem.
David: So I want to switch gears here a little. So you lived with the Machiguenga people in the Peruvian Amazon. Talk about that experience, it’s just so cool and so unique. And what do you think the biggest thing that you’ve taken from that experience and how you’ve applied it to your work? What has that been like for you?
Joe: Well, that was really quite an eyeopening experience because, so that was the first fieldwork I did. And I just, my first trip, I flew in on a missionary plane and I started going from village to village by dugout canoe. And I was studying people’s decision-making and cooperation. And I was really impressed by how independent individuals were and households were. So this gave me a little bit, my first glimpse, this was like individualism but without higher-level society institutions. So the Machiguenga traditionally live in single-family or small family hamlets scattered throughout the forest. So they don’t have higher-level institutions, there’s no government, there’s no chiefs or anything like that.
So people are quite independent and if there’s a disagreement, say with another family or another someone else in the village, people will just go away for a while. Or move away to, they have gardens often far off by them tucked away in some corner of the tropical forest, and they’ll go there for several months or longer. So this keeps problems with other, other families at a minimum, but it’s very much a social adaptation where people move around. So it’s just the way of seeing a group that were culturally similar to me in some interesting ways, fiercely independent but also without the impact of all this, higher-level social institutions and whatnot.
David: What do you think stuck out? I’ve had one experience like that, that really comes to mind and it wasn’t even close to on the same magnitude. But one of the things I do remember vividly from being a kid was going to rural China and having not very black hair, but almost brownish hair. And people coming up to me and touching my hair as if they thought it wasn’t real. And then I was with my cousin who had blonde hair and the kids would run up to them. And insist on taking photos with him, I couldn’t believe it. It was like they had seen a tiger in their living room.
Joe: People are always fascinated by these phenotypic differences among populations, I have green eyes and people consider that unusual. The key as an anthropologist is you want to get beyond the initial phase where people think you’re an interesting oddity and you want to blend into the background. So I always enjoy it, it takes a couple of weeks sometimes before people basically stop paying special attention to you and then you can get a good sense of how life goes on. One of the striking things was having worked among the Machiguenga and then I later did work in Fiji. And in many ways these are just villages, they’re growing root crops, they’re doing some fishing. So in some economic way, the communities were similar, but Fijians traditionally have chiefs. And so there’s a chief in the village and when people needed to work together, the village would just hum like an anthill. And the men would all come up, everybody would show up, they’d get to work. There were a couple of slackers which would be, people would joke about the slackers and stuff. And sometimes they’d come into line.
But in the Machiguenga village, people are so fiercely individualistic and independent that when they needed to do community projects, a time would be picked. But people wouldn’t show up when it was time to actually do the work and they’d be doing their own thing. They’re working but they’d be out in their own garden or something like that. So this is when I first began to think about the role that social norms play in driving cooperation because it didn’t seem like the Machiguenga had social norms for some of these kinds of cooperation. They didn’t have institutions, sets of social norms. Whereas, the Fijians had a whole bunch of them and they had a top-down hierarchy. And it was clear who was boss and who could give who orders. And that made things run.
David: I liked that idea of contribution. I’m doing my own little anthropological experiment, so maybe I’ll write a sequel to your book. And what it is, is it’s six friends living in an Airbnb for four months and it’s been fascinating. What is it like to live with a bunch of friends your age? And one thing that’s really interesting, so I’m a terrible chef. If I cook, guests are getting food poisoning and what… I’m just not good at it. So what that means is I’ve had to figure out my role in the food preparation. And so for me, it’s washing dishes, cleaning the plates in the morning, and we have a policy that we’ve all agreed to where we don’t wash dishes at night. So we enjoy our dinner and then we get to celebrate throughout the night, really.
We have dinner together every single night and then the morning after, you got to wash dishes. And it was funny what you just said about the people would joke about the people who didn’t really contribute. And we saw that, so we had friends over the other night and everyone had been drinking for a while. And so I was just tired from drinking, so I sit down while everyone’s clearing the plates. And all of a sudden everyone goes around the circle and starts making fun of me. And it was really interesting, I’ve seen how humor is this way of casually ribbing people to basically say, “Dude, get off your butt, do your part.”
Joe: That’s a nomination for a human universal. So I’ve seen that from the Machiguenga to the South Pacific and red it in lots of ethnographies saying the same thing. This joking, ribbing that you use. In Fiji, it’s interesting. There’s a certain kind of cousin relationship, which is a joking relationship. So not everybody can rib you but if you get out of line, you have certain cousins who will tee off and they’ll just rib you mercilessly until you can get back into line.
David: So how do you do this? Because you don’t speak the language, so what do you do? You just go out with a field notebook and you just watch? Do you worry that you miss subtleties when you don’t speak the language? I’m sure you’ve got great strategies for getting around this, what are they?
Joe: Well, the main strategy is to try to learn the language. So with the Machiguenga, I spoke Spanish. There was a fair amount of Spanish and I was studying Machiguenga the whole time I was there, picked up some. And in Fiji at various points, I’m probably not very good now but I got good enough to pick up things in conversation. If I didn’t understand something, I could check with someone. And I also work with a team approach, so I have Fijians that I’ve hired from the main Island who were there working with me. So they’re making observations, too. A lot of times we might be at a party, if there’s something I don’t pick up I’ll check with my research assistant, who was also there. I’ll be like, “So-and-so said this and I didn’t understand what he said,” and then my RA will often clear things up. Tape record things, there’s a lot of good tricks.
David: How do you do this logistically? How do you find research assistants? How do you actually connect with the tribe? Do you just show up and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, I will be living here for the next six months.” You probably don’t do that, so what do you do?
Joe: As with so many things, you’ve got to figure out the relationship connections. So while I was visiting the capital, I was pitching my project in a number of different offices in the Fijian capital, national government offices. And I met, I think she was the assistant secretary of the ministry of education. And as I was describing my project to her, I was suggesting places where I might do some work and she mentioned that she had an uncle there. And so I felt, well, that’s pretty interesting. And so eventually I got her to write a letter for me, introducing me to the uncle. And then once I got there, I talked to the uncle, he seemed open to it and so just making a chain of relationships. I did the same thing with the Mapuche in Chile. I had a friend who had a friend in Santiago, who had a woman who cleaned his house, who had a cousin in the southern part of the country. And I followed that chain of relationships into the community.
David: Wow. That’s so exciting, just the unpredictability of it all. That’s really cool.
Joe: Yeah. You got to just make it up as you go along. Just on the research assistant, I just put up posters at the University of the South Pacific and I did interviews in this little place I was staying.
David: I like the term that you used earlier when I said that’s a universal and another sort of universal that I would assume exists is, when it comes to relationship building. Gift-giving, humor, are those universals? And what are the other universals that allow people to build trust, to build liking with each other, and to build community?
Joe: Well, whether there are true universals or just widespread, it’s hard to say without doing serious research, but certainly gift giving pops up in lots of places. Ritual, communal dancing, drinking or some intoxicant is not a universal but it’s certainly widespread and certainly use for lots of bonding. So those are some of the things that come to mind.
David: And with gift-giving, what in particular… For example, maybe there’s a margin where it actually has diminishing returns. So if I give you a small gift when I come to your house, let’s say you invite me over. You’re just outside of Boston and I bring wine, that probably helps our relationship. But if I bring you a car, you’re probably like, “What are you trying to get from me right now?” And so it changes the relationship, so it’s not really just gift-giving, there’s these subtleties within it.
Joe: And there’s lots of customs and there’s lots of places where people will reject gifts that are too large. So it’s exactly the case you described is if someone gives you a gift too large in New Guinea, for example, it’s smart to reject it because if you accept it, then you’re going to owe a debt to that guy. And that debt is enforced by third parties. So in our case, probably no one would care and they would just think you’re silly for giving me a car that I accepted. But in other places, my acceptance of that would constitute basically, a longterm commitment to you to pay back that debt in some way. And other people would care that I behave properly in that way. In that case, I would reject it because I wouldn’t want to incur that deep longterm debt.
David: It’s interesting with gifts, so I’ve a lot of family in Holland. And in Holland when we show up, it is a family rule, we do not enter the house until we have a gift in our hands. In a way, that’s just not the case with my American family.
Joe: That’s very common in lots of places. Just to give you an example for my fieldwork, when I go to the communities that I study in the South Pacific, I always have to take kava. So that’s this root crop that you mix up and you drink out of a coconut cup, gives a mild narcotic effect, numbs your tongue and stuff. And that’s the required gift, basically. And I give that to the chief and I’m not allowed to move around the village until that gift has been delivered.
David: Is it hard to get?
Joe: You just go to the market and buy it, they’re just selling a lot of it. And it’s also, the way you would buy it if you were just buying it to have a party with friends or something, is just in a powdered form. But I actually buy the big, long roots, which are the traditional way the gift is given and packaged. So I’m giving this guy this big bouquet of roots and that they then have to pound up. And in some sense, it’s like getting fresh coffee, you get the fresh cup.
David: Oh, cool. Within narcotics kind of going into psychedelics, a lot of people who are pro-psychedelics that I know. They say, “Look, a lot of cultures around the world do psychedelics all the time. And actually, our American 2000 and/or 21st-century culture, we’re actually an anomaly for not doing psychedelics. Is that true, false, somewhere in the middle?
Joe: Again, you’d have to do the research and pull the numbers together. It’s certainly true that lots of societies use psychedelics. So the Machiguenga traditionally used ayahuasca, the communities I lived in didn’t but there’s another anthropologist who lived for years with the Machiguenga. In the remote communities of Manu which is a national park in Peru, and there they were using ayahuasca. And it was a common part of life. And lots of shamanistic societies say, I have a student who works in Indonesia, you find that pretty widespread. But then there’s lots of societies that don’t have it so you’d have to tally them up. I think it would be less than 50% actually, but not a lot less.
David: Do you see times, where there’s issues of too much imitation of what cultural imitation allows us to do, is advance as a culture? And you can almost think of like, as a free riding in a good way, but are there times where cultural limitation actually leads to really bad outcomes, like say financial bubbles or something?
Joe: Yeah. And I think that’s one of the powers of the theory is that the idea is that our capacities for learning from others evolve to be because they get us the right information, they get us adaptive information on average, in the kinds of environments we evolved in. But doesn’t mean they always did that in the environments we evolved in and they especially don’t always do that in the contemporary world. So the, kind of the most kind of in your face striking example of this is what’s called the demographic transition. So since about 1870, the wealthier you are, the fewer kids you have. And the more education you have, the fewer kids you have. From a genetic fitness point of view, that’s highly maladaptive. And so the things that people are copying and trying to emulate and stuff are exactly the things that lead them to have lower fitness from a genetic perspective.
So that’s a case of maladaptation. You also see it in things like stock market bubbles, and also the nature of prestige in the modern world. So because of media and stuff, we can access these huge distributions of people. And sometimes people get famous just because of luck or whatever, and then they’ll get copied by others. But it’s because we’re queuing off the fact that others are paying attention to that person. So you can get these bandwagon effects where initially there was some random event which brought someone into the public eye. People looked at that person, other people will go, look, everyone’s paying attention to that person. They must be worth learning from. So this is prestige bias transmission. And then you can get the diffusion of maladaptive practices or just unusual practices.
David: Yeah, you know that saying, famous for being famous?
David: How did kinship change once agriculture was introduced? I mean, I would guess that agriculture created property rights because you would actually be harvesting the land. What else changed about familiar relationships?
Joe: Yeah. So you put your finger on, I think a key idea, which is that once you begin planting stuff in the ground, you’ve got to have access to that same land again when it’s time to harvest and you have to protect it from other people harvesting ahead of you. So human society’s cultural evolution needed to look for ways in which to guard the land in some sense and then eventually share production and distribution. So you get the increase in the scale of the level of cooperation. So because humans are a type of primate, we have some basic instincts that revolve around kin-based altruism, our incest aversion, and our ability to pair bond, which we share with gorillas.
And so I think cultural evolution harness these basic instincts and began to build additional or extend human institutions. So small scale mal adaptation populations have these kin-based institutions and they help people to kind of stay connected over a vast network, covering a lot of territory. But as you get at the beginning of agriculture, these things kind of turn in on themselves and begin to consolidate cooperation to around plots of land, essentially. So you get the emergence of clans and kindreds and eventually various extensions of clans. So you get a more intensive set of kin-based institutions instead of the extensive institutions that we see amongst mobile foragers.
David: So you mentioned a really interesting word here, instinct. And I would assume that human instinct doesn’t change that much over time, but I think that there’s actually nuance in here, that instinct can change. And that’s really interesting because there’s something kind of contradictory about that. So how does instinct begin to change once agriculture’s introduced?
Joe: Right. So the idea is that we have an evolved psychology say for helping close relatives, but culture can manipulate that. So we have a sense of how we might want to treat our brother or our father or our sister. And then what we see in kinship system after kinship system that culturally evolved independently around the world is that we extend those categories to more distant relatives. So in lots of societies, there’s a set of cousins that you would refer to as siblings and that carries with it all your intuitions about how you’re supposed to treat them. So you’re supposed to treat them well and people can know that you didn’t treat them well because they know well it’s your brother, you’re supposed to treat him like a brother. And also if it’s a cross-sex relationship, then there’s no sex or marriage.
So that begins to define a set of relationships. And if you have a patrilineal clan, it means that all the women in the clan are effectively sisters often. So you’re not competing with the other men for the other women in the group. And the men are brothers of various kinds. And sometimes all the older males are fathers, because you call your father’s brother, uncle, for example, often in a patrilineal clan. So it’s extending some of these basic relationships. Now there’s still norms in the sense that if you violate them, other people will get mad at you. But the idea is that we have some intuitions that come from these instincts and they can be extended to these other relationships.
David: And then you mentioned pair-bonding earlier. It seems like from my reading of your work, monogamy is actually a relatively new standard to have. So what happens with the introduction of monogamy? It seems like it reduces a lot of the competition among men and sort of spreads out a lot of the reproductive success for men. One of the things that I’ve found to be very interesting is in the data from online dating apps, how tall attractive men just do extremely well, actually do better than attractive women a lot of the times. And what you have is that men can go on these dating apps. They can say basically anything and they will attract a ton of women. And so I think that that relates to monogamy because I would assume that in a pre-monogamous society, you would have a small percentage of men who were giving birth to the vast majority of people.
Joe: Yeah. And that’s actually something that was so powerful that we think we can see it in the DNA. So you see a big crash in the frequency of Y chromosomes relative to X chromosomes after the origins of agriculture. And that may correspond with the emergence of clans as the primary unit. So groups of related males were banding together and they were becoming a kind of military force, and they were wiping out other groups of Y chromosomes and then taking lots of X chromosomes into their group, which requires high levels of polygyny or at least reasonable levels of polygyny. But let me back up for a second.
So pair-bonding doesn’t imply monogamy. This implies that a male and a female combine efforts for the purposes of reproduction, but there’s nothing that says you can’t have multiple pair bonds. So I mentioned gorillas, gorillas have pair bonds, but big male Silverback gorillas have multiple pair bonds. And that means they have multiple dyadic relationships with female gorillas. We see the same thing in polygynous human societies. There’s no such thing as, or at least, there’s no evidence of group marriage in human societies, but there’s lots of evidence of various kinds of polygamy. So men taking multiple wives is the usual form, and there’s a small scattering of societies where women sometimes take additional husbands, maybe 0.1%.
And so what’s rare is the kind of monogamy that we see in the modern world. And this pops up occasionally amongst hunter-gatherers. But it probably isn’t normative in the sense that if the men were sufficiently different, they could attract additional wives. But if men are sufficiently equal, there’s not much to choose between. And so you don’t end up with men accumulating additional wives. But even in relatively small scale, you get egalitarian foragers like in Australia. You can get men accumulating five or six wives.
So I guess it’s like the dating app except with a smaller pool of fish. And so what’s interesting is that in the Western tradition, probably beginning in Athens before the classical period, you begin to see the very beginning of monogamous marriage getting imposed where Greek men were limited to only one Athenian wife. Although they could have as many select sex slaves and other concubines. And then Christianity really doubles down on this and ends the sex slaves and concubines, and then monogamous marriage begins to spread out as Christianity spreads out across Europe and then eventually around the world.
David: Let’s see. What from Guns, Germs, and Steel did you take the most from?
Joe: Yeah, so that’s definitely one of my favorite books and it’s really inspired me over the years. And in my new book, I make the case that Diamond was essentially correct, that these differences in biogeography across continents do help us to account for why Eurasia has the most complex societies, that develop the fanciest technology, that have the largest scale empires. But that there’s still a puzzle to be explained as to why Europe took the path that it did and why after 1500, Europeans expand around the world.
So I think for simplicity in my book, I mark Diamond as being roughly correct at about a year, 1000, that most complex societies do all appear in Eurasia, India, the Islamic world, China, are all-powerful empires. But then there’s this backwater in Europe around this time and that this eventually expands and becomes the dominant power 1,000 years later. And so the question is why that? So how do you explain variation within Europe? It’s not that Scotland or England or the Netherlands were endowed with particularly good biogeography so you can’t use the biogeography story there. And so that’s part of what my book’s about.
David: Well, how much do you expect that to change over time? Because you mention some of the societies that succeeded and there seems to be a strong geographic component there. But there’s two things that stand out. One, sort of looking back 50 years, one looking forward 50 years. Looking back 50 years, what you have is the success of Singapore. Geographically, it’s a huge anomaly. Most of the successful cities that we have are roughly between 20, 35 degrees of what would it be? Latitude, I think, above the equator.
And then looking forward 50 years, there’s a really interesting theory that what remote work does is it will change the sort of epicenter of how humans coordinate from being on the same length on the equator to then being in the same time zone. So what you have is, say that a lot of companies are based in America. Well, it doesn’t really make sense, even though San Francisco and like Madrid, Spain are roughly the same number of degrees above the equator. It makes a lot more sense not to hire for Spain, but to hire down in Mexico because the time zone differences disappear. So what I’m trying to get at here is what are some of the ways that a lot of the very naturalistic ideas of Jared Diamond are going to disappear or have disappeared already?
Joe: So the ideas of Jared Diamond are relevant in the sense that some populations derive from societies that have had agriculture and state level institutions for a long time. And at least as long as their states or states are the dominant political form, those populations are going to have some advantage. But I think we’re going to see the same thing we’ve seen in the past where you have competition amongst groups, large empires often expand and then collapse from the interior under their own weight often after they’ve eliminated most of the competition. So there’s going to be some new institutional forms, which out-compete the old institutional forms. There’ll be some new psychologies associated with those. They’ll take the heritage of the prior institutions but then build on them in some new and creative direction.
So the kind of thing you’re describing is how new technologies are going to call for new institutional forms. And one of the main points in my book is that’ll call for different kinds of psychology. It’s really hard to look ahead over the millennia actually, people who try to predict the future are almost always wrong. So we shouldn’t be hubristic about being able to predict the future recently. Although I think what we can predict is that there’s going to be change and the future is not going to look like the present.
David: Moving on to religion here. How much do you see religion as like an innate component in the human mind?
Joe: Yeah, so I very much think that in order to understand religion, you have to begin with reliably developing features of mind. So things like our capacity for mentalizing. The way that evolved, it gives us the ability to conceptualize, mentalize agents that can have properties and beliefs and desires, demands without having any kinds of bodies. So it allows us to think about supernatural agents that have say special powers. So that provides a kind of foundation. And that’s something that wasn’t a design intended by natural selection as it was building human brains. But it was a kind of byproduct that ended up there as it was building our minds to be better at learning from others. So building up our theory of mind or mentalizing capacities.
So then the argument my colleagues and I have made is that cultural evolution grabs a hold of that. And it begins selecting for supernatural agents who can get people to behave in more cooperative ways that allows their group to succeed in competition against other groups. So increasing people’s cooperation, fostering greater solidarity within the group, this can involve particular religious beliefs like you’ll get punished if you’re not nice to other members of your own group. I could also involve the performance of rituals, which create more bonding amongst the group. But it helps answer the question, is why gods are so interested in doing these rituals, because it may bring people together and then foster the proliferation of beliefs in that supernatural nature.
David: Talk about rituals. I mean, I think that what you’re saying here about them bringing people together is definitely one aspect. How about some of the common knowledge in society, the way that it creates shared beliefs and then allows coordination or take something like fasting. In the Jewish tradition, there’s Yom Kippur and what that does presumably from reading the science fasting is really good for you. And so there might be a lot of wisdom in the tradition of these rituals. Like another one is that I was home and I was with my dad and I was sucking the blood off of the plate and it was a buttery steak blood. It was delicious. And my dad said, “Don’t do that.” In the Jewish tradition, we do not drink the blood of animals. And I started looking it up.
Joe: You’re also mixing milk and meat.
David: Yeah exactly.
Joe: That’s another thing.
David: And there is likely a lot of wisdom behind that.
Joe: Yeah. So rituals are a complex grab bag. So I had in mind, these communal rituals where there’s a lot of singing, dancing, celebration, sometimes there’s terrifying rituals. And those have been decomposed by psychologists and show how the different parts of the ritual actually build greater solidarity amongst the group. There’s another set of rituals, kind of these devotional practices that you were talking about, where people might repeatedly do prayers, they might get up at dawn and pray towards Mecca or something. And that may increase our self-regulation. So that could be favored by just a plain old individual level, copy of the successful people. People who do that ritual get greater self-regulation and then they go on to prosper in other domains of their life because of the way the ritual builds this capacity. Whereas the other rituals are more of a group thing. So that gives the group more cooperation and allows them to proliferate. So one of the things cultural evolutionary theory does is allows us to develop hypotheses about why these different cultural practices might have evolved and then figure out how to test them with data.
David: Have you looked into rites of passage at all?
Joe: Yeah, so I personally haven’t done research on that, but there’s a very successful, I think focus in anthropology, working with psychologists led by Harvey Whitehouse, which Harvey did some interesting work in New Guinea, which has many societies that engage in these terrifying rites of passage. And then the idea is that if you go through a terrifying experience with a peer say, this bonds you, this creates a tight, psychological bond between you and the peer. So we see this in the US for example, in the Band of Brothers phenomenon. So when soldiers have experienced combat together, they often form this lifelong tight bond and they’ll remain friends for life. And what these terrifying rituals do is they take that piece of psychology, which only gets activated in this case in war, and put it into a ritual so that every generation gets bonded like a band of brothers. And so it rebuilds the band of brothers every generation with the terrifying rituals. And that’s recurrent across many societies in the anthropological record.
David: Yeah. I’m interested in these bonds. One of the things that the Dutch do is they basically throw children in the woods and make them find their way back home. And obviously, there’s a lot of fraternity rituals that are very common traditionally in American culture and they’re ridiculous. Just absolutely ridiculous and often funny. But if you talk to people who’ve gone through them together, you can actually see the evidence of a close-knit relationship due to the way that they can share a laugh about those experiences. And they can look at the other people and they can say, you went through that. I went through that. Basically, no one else I know went through.
Joe: Right, yeah. So these things do have real psychological effects. They can also, for the societies I’m talking about, all males have to go through them. So it doesn’t have this club like effect. But in other places where it’s a voluntary membership, then there’s also a club like thing. Like in order to get into this club, you got to show your seriousness. And in order to do that, you’re going to have to do this costly, painful, scary ritual before you can get in. And it guarantees a kind of commitment to the group, a seriousness about being in there.
David: Yeah. You know what’s funny? So you know the adulting meme? Like hashtag adulting?
Joe: I don’t, what is that?
David: So what this is, is basically it is very popular among sort of millennials and it’s like, I need to go wash the dishes. I need to go clean my clothes, hashtag adulting. And it’s sort of like this sort of playful thing of basically saying, I don’t feel like being an adult today, but I’m going to be proud of myself for being an adult today. And it’s sort of like this, wow, go me. And it’s born out of some combination of laziness and I think a lot of the coddling that young people grew up with. And what I find to be particularly interesting as we’re talking about rituals is it doesn’t seem like a lot of the coming of age rituals that have been in more traditional societies actually apply today.
And that there’s no day where you just become an adult. I mean, in the Jewish tradition, I was bar mitzvahed at 13 years old. And supposedly that meant that I was going to become an adult, but I was too young at the time. It didn’t have that much significance. What are the implications of us losing a lot of these coming of age rituals?
Joe: Yeah. That’s an interesting question that I haven’t thought much about. Certainly, one thing that’s happening in our society is kind of the amount of training you have to do. So if you think about people going on for additional education or other kinds of training after high school, there’s kind of this extended adolescent period. And then, of course, one obvious transition to more of an adult status would be marriage. Certainly having a child can transition you pretty quickly. But short of those, we have no other marker for that. And fewer and fewer people are getting married. We’ll see how long that lasts. But yeah, so that is interesting. So I guess we get more extended adolescence period, which could be good for creativity and there can be lots of positives to that. So it’s not obviously a terrible thing. There’s going to be costs and benefits I predict.
David: Why would that be good for creativity?
Joe: Well, so you don’t get burdened down with a lot of adult tasks, so you have more time to go off and just think creatively about things or do things differently, try new things that you wouldn’t otherwise. Once you start behaving like an adult, of course, there’s certain responsibilities. You’ve got to take your kid to basketball practice and ice hockey practice and lots of tasks that require less creativity.
David: There’s an idea from a book called Einstein’s Dreams written by Alan Lightman And it’s a series of dreams. It’s a fiction book that’s sort of inspired by Albert Einstein. And one of my favorite ideas is the difference between body time and mechanical time. What body time is, is it’s sort of the circadian flow of life. I feel like doing this, I feel like doing that, eating here, sleeping there. Whereas mechanical time is time that’s very driven by what time it is. Right now, I know it is 1:24 PM. I like to do a thought experiment with people to say when was the last time that you went an entire day without looking at the time? And most people can’t remember that. What has the clock done to our psychology?
Joe: Yeah. I mean, that’s something I’ve thought a lot about. And I really think that I mean so the clock appears, 15th century, 14th century, and it begins diffusing through different European towns and it’s kind of a prestige thing. If you want to be a proper town, you need a clock. And then they attach bells to the clock so they can ring it every hour. And then everything gets tied tightly to the clock. So this really kind of created a new time psychology I think. There was already a sign of psychological push within European societies to regulate themselves. So people were using candle lengths and hourglasses and all this to kind of chop the time up. And you can think of it as an effort to kind of be more productive or use your time in a wise way. This is tied up with religion, monks were doing it.
So I think it’s very much changed the natural rhythms of the day, that kind of governed humanity over most of our evolutionary history and began to make us more productive, began to change how we think about the time, wage labor pops up during the late medieval period. So people begin to equate time and money. So if you think about the Western way of thinking about time, we’re always trying to save time or make time, or buy time. It’s like it’s a coinage. And of course, we get paid sometimes by the clock too. So time is literally money. Where that hasn’t been the case and time ebbs and flows, depending on how entertaining a situation is. And people lose track of time for long periods and the day length is always changing. So if you’re going by sun up and sundown, that’s constantly stretching and moving across the year. So yeah, I think these technologies have a big effect on how we think, might change notions of patience.
David: In what way?
Joe: Well, the big thing is, so we know from studies of other animals that we think logarithmically about time. So it’s more or less linear when we’re thinking about things that are in the near future, but things in the far future can seem much further away than they actually are. So when we learn to tell time using a clock, the clock is a linear, like the clock a line. I mean, they bend into a circle, but each hour is exactly the same distance apart. So calendars, you can look at calendars and all the days are the same distance apart. The end of the month doesn’t look further away than the beginning. But that doesn’t mesh with our kind of natural animal way of doing it. So we’re in some sense retraining ourselves to think about time as linear. So the difference between 29 days from now and 30 days from now, that’s just one day. But if we’re thinking about that kind of intuitively, that’s just basically the same. It’s 30 some days in the future and mas or menos one day. So it changes how we conceptualize time differences, especially when thinking about the future.
David: Yeah. That’s an interesting idea about how time no longer stretches or contracts. So you would think that as the days get really long in the summer when it’s hot, that would biologically be a time where you work less. Where maybe the winter, when this is very sort of a Scandinavian idea. In the winter, you really kind of come close and you sort of bundle up with your friends and family, but the clock doesn’t have those swings. And so it has a way of homogenizing every day.
Joe: Yeah. And I think that is a big effect. It makes the annual cycle less important. And it means we don’t experience that annual cycle as much as we would have in former times, but before the clock and before we were kind of time obsessed. So one of the things I do in the book is I look at the kind of time obsession like you were saying when was the last time you went a day without looking at the clock and very few people who you might interview here would have gone a day without looking closely at the clock. Whereas when I was working in the South Pacific with my Fijian researcher assistants, I had trouble getting them to look at their watches because they just weren’t tuned into the clock the way I was constantly obsessed with the clock. And I actually bought them watches as an encouragement so we could run a little bit more efficiently, but it took some practice before we got that working.
David: And like, if you were to argue for the wisdom in that perspective, what would it be?
Joe: Well, I think there’s a lot of wisdom in not tuning into the clock. So I kind of wish I could become more like my Fijian friends who can disconnect from the clock. So I think it’s a good discipline or it would be a good devotional ritual to just shut off all your clocks or something and go a day with no clock time, just to see how it feels and remember how it feels.
David: I agree, man. I think it’d be really fun. It’s almost as if it’s like the new on the road, like in the 1960s. People got on the road or went into the wild and they went across the country to do something crazy like that. Maybe the new one is just to get away from time and the way that it demands productivity from you, the way that it tries to get you to squeeze time out of every single day. When I first asked the question, you said, “I’ve thought a lot about that.” What drew you to this idea?
Joe: Well, so the main thing is I was thinking about the changes in people’s psychology in Europe over the last millennium. And I know there’s this rise in individualism, there’s also a rise in the time that people spent working. And also you have this massive diffusion of mechanical clocks that’s occurring. And there’s a couple of things that struck me is the mechanical clock spread rapidly throughout Europe, but it could have easily spread to Istanbul and throughout the Islamic world. These societies were well aware of the clock. They were connected to Europe and it didn’t. Didn’t spread there. So there’s just something uninteresting about the clock.
And eventually, Europeans take the clock to Asia and it just doesn’t catch on, but Europeans were obsessed with getting that clock. And so I think it’s a marker of a difference in psychology and really the importance of individualism. So if you look at individualism and how fast people walk on the street, there’s a strong correlation. So more individualistic societies, if you just stand quietly by and put a stopwatch on people, as they walk 50 meters or something on the sidewalks of New York City or somewhere like that, they’re walking faster. So people in individualistic societies are just, they’re more I’ve got to get there, I’ve got to be on time.
David: Have you looked into mirrors at all? Like there’s the famous myth of Narcissus. So I’m living at this house and we have a backyard gym, and you know why the backyard gym is amazing? Because it is up against a window. And the reflection that you get when you work out makes you go way harder and it makes you lift heavier weights. And I’ve spent the last couple of months working out, not in front of a mirror. And I will tell you, boy, is it a different experience?
Joe: That’s interesting. No, I haven’t thought about the mirror. The mirror is interesting. I like it because it’s a good marker too, it’s easier to track physical objects than psychology. So that’s interesting. I’ll also have to put a mirror in my gym now that you mention it. Usually, I try to get away from mirrors but if they help.
David: Yeah, it was funny. I remember I went to go visit my sister at UC Davis and their gym, it was a temporary gym and it didn’t have a mirror and it drove me crazy. And where I was working out in New York, it’s just covered wall to wall with mirrors. And it is such a different experience. If you can just look at yourself and you can say, look better and sort of look at yourself even as you’re tired and you can almost like build this relationship with yourself.
It’s a very subtle point, but I can’t imagine what it would be like to live now without mirrors and likewise, to live without photos. I mean, look at what photography has done to raise the status of beauty in certain ways. It’s really a change in culture.
Joe: Yeah. I mean, that’s one of the things about fieldwork that, although I don’t get away from the time because I’m still wearing a watch is you do get away from mirrors. So it does strike you after several months that you haven’t looked in the mirror for that long.
David: I was looking at booms in creativity throughout human history over the weekend. And one thing that seems to be true is that when there are these explosions in creativity, Athens, Florence, London, Vienna, Edinburgh in the 18th century, they seem to be very concentrated around the liberal arts, more than STEM. And when you look at Florence, you see painting. When you look at Athens, you see poetry and philosophy. What do you think it is about the clustering of people and the way that that boosts the liberal arts more than STEM?
Joe: Hmm. Well, I definitely, I have these ideas about the collective brain and I think that people begin to feed rapidly off of each other. And so you can get these nice clusterings of people sharing lots of ideas. And usually, you’ll find out that these clusters are actually connected to lots of other clusters that are further away. But I’m wondering about the empirical claim. Because sometimes the mechanical stuff goes on in the background. And what we know is because the arts people write a lot of books, right? So we have times and date stamps because we have book manuscripts. But I wonder if there’s actually some of the mechanical stuff is going on quietly in the shops and elsewhere. Because I mean, so Edinburgh of course that was the home of lots of innovators, James Watt being one, Glasgow. Yeah.
David: Exactly. God, the collective brain is such a fun idea and what’s weird to me about it is I feel like we don’t acknowledge it as a society. So I mean I teach writing and one of the things that my students are obsessed with is originality, and originality stands so in contrast to the collective brain.
Joe: Right. But when you dig deep into things, you find out that almost everything’s a recombination. So that’s always a fun game as you take an invention and say, okay, where do these ideas come from? And you begin looking around and then you find out they got this bit from here and they got that bit from there. And then often the two guys or two people turn out to know each other and it’s so fun to track the social networks of all these ideas. So you’re talking about Scotland. I mean, you got David Hume and Adam Smith and all those guys, they’re all friends, right? I mean, they’re interacting and reading each other and all that kind of stuff.
David: JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.
Joe: Yeah. So that is always, well, I’m sure the historians know about this, but I’m always impressed and surprised by the degree of personal relationships between a lot of the inventors during these times and places and how much they actually knew each other and were reading each other. Darwin was inspired by Lyell, but he was actually buddies with Lyell, the geologist.
David: So as a society, it seems like originality is overrated or something like that. But it’s very odd to me that we value it so highly, if like you said, everything has these remixed qualities and once you actually begin to create things yourself. I texted a guy today, I was like, “Hey, I loved your essay on Scenius.” And he said, “Oh, thanks. I really just combined all these other people’s ideas.” And once you start creating, you’re like, of course. But there’s this weird effect of being a consumer of something where things seem way more original than they are.
Joe: Yeah. And I think that’s in part of cultural model we have. So we have the myth of the heroic inventor, where we tend to see things as produced by a given mind when, that’s true to some degree, but of course there’s a bunch of other minds feeding into that invention. And I think one good illustration of this is how common a double, triple, quadruple invention is. So there’s almost like there’s a set of ideas milling around and individuals are all going to start putting it together simultaneously. So Darwin famously needs to publish on natural selection because he finds out that Wallace has figured out natural selection, and Newton does calculus one way, but Leibniz figures out a better way to do calculus. And they both invented it, we think the same time independently. And the history of invention is replete with that.
David: What do you see in terms of, it seems like you need the right amount of cooperation to allow people to exchange ideas, but competition to motivate each other?
Joe: Yeah. And so that is the difficult part of things like intellectual property rights. Because if you give someone a patent on something, then you’re preventing other people from putting those ideas to use for free. So you want to create incentives for individuals to do stuff, but at the same time, you don’t want to constrain the collective brain. So patents that are too long are probably a big mistake because they’ll prevent the recombination of those ideas with other things.
So one way to pay people is just in the prestige and the status of figuring something new out. But then to let the ideas immediately be taken up by others and put to work. So it’s tricky. So I think there’s been a bias to assume you’ve got to create individual incentives and there’s probably something to that. I don’t think that individual incentives are useless, meaning monetary incentives. But you got to make sure you don’t close off the collective brain because I think that’s the more important thing, the more driving thing. So there’s been lots of places that have flourished, you just named some of them, with no patent law at all. No copyright, nothing, but yet they had this big proliferation. So we know we can get that even without copyrights and patent law. The question is, can we get it even more if we tune these little formal institutions just right.
David: How much do you think innovation is constrained by access to information? And I’m going to, I don’t know that I agree with this, but I’m just going to argue here that it is actually less constrained by it than we thought 20 years ago. And the reason I say that is because if access to information was really the thing, wouldn’t you just see an absolute explosion, like exponential, we’ve never seen anything like this increase in human progress in the last 20 years?
Joe: So you mean that in order to create new stuff, you need access to more information?
David: Yeah. But I think that we’ve overestimated how much that’s true. If you look at the 1990s predictions for what the internet was going to do, the information superhighway, and you were to say you were going to have more information in your pocket for free than any US President before, say 1980. More information in your pocket for free than was in the entirety of the Library of Alexandria. There’s been something very disappointing about the rate of progress, assuming that that’s true.
Joe: Right. Right. Yeah. I think it’s difficult to judge. I mean, certainly people have made this argument that we’re not getting as much information or as much innovation as we thought. We’re still getting more innovation, at least in terms of patents and things like that, than we did earlier in the century. So we’re better there. It’s just that the innovations we’re creating aren’t having as much impact on our lives in terms of things like life expectancy or reducing infant mortality or economic growth, at least as economists measure it. So that’s the tricky part.
And I guess we also need to know how to be able to make use of all this information. So we need to improve as information consumers and the ability to recombine, to find the recombinations, I guess.
David: What have you seen in terms of the political brain? The way that you get this sort of Orwellian doublespeak at times, the way that you deceive truth and you don’t say exactly what you mean. Have you looked into the evolutionary origins of that? Are humans the only animal that does something like that?
Joe: Well, I mean, I haven’t focused on that and very much myself, although I am interested in the effects of things like prestige on how much people pay attention to others. And I’m also interested in ethnic cues. So things like dialect, dress, and other kinds of cultural cues, can cause people to orient towards some individuals instead of others and be more likely to believe that.
There’s also ways in which we tag information. So if someone says something that we believe is true and someone else says something we believe is false, we’re more likely to believe the next thing that we don’t know about, when it comes from the person who first said something that we believe in. And that can lead to all kinds of this political siloing that we see. So you share some basic beliefs with a politician, but now with another politician, then the next thing they say, one guy says there is no climate change, one guy says there is climate change. You might believe the guy who says there’s no climate change because you believe the first set of things he says or some other representation of his value system. So there are some tools within cultural evolution to think about those kinds of things. But I haven’t focused on that myself.
David: What are some of those tools?
Joe: Well, these biases in learning. So people have people they think are prestigious. They tend to look to them. They look for people who are making costly displays. So people who pay costs like martyrs is the classic example, who say something, and then they demonstrate that they believe it by paying some kind of cost. So religions have harnessed this by priests and other religious leaders taking vows of celibacy or taking vows of poverty. This actually makes them a better transmitter of information because you’re more likely to believe the stuff they say because of the action they’ve taken.
The effects of these ethnicity cues. So for example, if your politician speaks your language in the same dialect you speak it in, the other politician speaks a different dialect of your language. Even though they’re both perfectly understandable, you’re more inclined to learn from and want to interact with the one who speaks your same dialect. And we can see this in one-year-olds and we can see this in four-year-olds. So there’s some interesting developmental research done there.
David: Yeah. I think that there’s a line in Secret of Your Success, about how much better, the effect isn’t huge. It’s 10 to 15% on how people learn better from people who look and talk like them.
Joe: Yeah. And we also see this with cues like sex. So males tend to listen to other males a little bit more than they tend to listen to females and the same thing with females. So we have ethnic cues, language, sex cues. So these are self-similarity cues. And then there’s things like success and prestige, and all of these things cumulatively direct our attention to some people and not others. And so this affects cultural evolution, but it probably also affects the development of political ideologies and groups and things like that.
David: What is something in the field of, just the area of your studies, that you feel like hasn’t been transmitted into the general consensus, but you see as extremely important for human society to understand?
Joe: That’s hard to say. I mean, I think that one of the big things that I’m interested in is, and that I think is not appreciated widely at this point, is the degree to which our institutions, languages and technologies shape how we think. So there’s still very much a standard model within psychology that basically we get our minds from our genes and they study the fundamental operations of those. The anthropologists are in charge of talking about the content, the sociologists. And that it doesn’t change our patterns of thinking by growing up in a world that speaks a particular language or uses a certain technology, or has certain ways of organizing life like polygyny, like monogamy or all kinds of other institutions, having a democracy, not having a democracy, so higher-level institutions. And that really changes everything, at least in the sense of how you do policy or how you do social science or those kinds of things.
David: Yeah. You speak multiple languages, right?
David: And how do you feel like you’re different in each of those languages?
Joe: Well, I don’t think that I speak Spanish or Fijian or any of those languages well enough to experience that. But one of the fun things I have seen is I have friends who are fluent in multiple languages. And when I speak to them in Spanish, they have a different personality, I’m thinking of one guy in particular than when he speaks English. So it’s almost like he has this Spanish speaking personality, which is livelier, makes different jokes, I guess, then his English speaking personality.
David: Yeah, it’s funny how reggaeton music is Hispanic and matches the Latin tongue in terms of the fluidity of it, the way that it moves your body so vividly.
Joe: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So I think, and part of that language, that differences in speaking, probably just reflects that when my friend is speaking Spanish, he’s thinking about the social world or it’s unconsciously queuing up the social world that he has to navigate and the kinds of relationships he has and all those kinds of things. Where when he speaks English, he’s thinking about, he’s learned English in the US, he’s thinking about navigating the world amongst Americans and whatnot. So it just takes different, it’s drawing different things out of him.
David: What have you seen in terms of learning disabilities? I think that this is one of the debates that I wish was discussed more. We see learning disabilities as such a bad thing. And just look at the drugging of American boys who are young, and the way that school really isn’t designed for them. But I was looking at this painter and what he can do is he can fly over a city in a helicopter and he can look at the city, and 20 minutes later, he can land on the ground and recreate the entire city on paper without looking at an image. And I’m talking down to the little details of window coverings. But he has this autistic mind and he’s not really able to compress information in the same way. So it’s like the lack of compression one place hurts his ability to be social in another. And my goodness, I feel like we see these ideas as such a curse, but they could be such a gift in terms of the creativity and the innovation that they bring.
Joe: Yeah. So I share your feelings or your intuitions on that is that, there’s lots of interesting cognitive diversity and the education system is improving on this front, but it’s still the case that there’s a bit of a one size fits all. There are certain hurdles one has to go through, and that if we could be a little bit more flexible to have a bit more personalized tracks for these different kinds of minds, we could get a lot more out of the cognitive diversity. And thinking different is an opportunity for creativity or for thinking thoughts that no one has thought before or putting together ideas in ways that people haven’t put them together before. Figuring out new ways to harness that natural variation is important.
David: Do you think that there’s any societies that do this well?
Joe: Well, I mean, the problem is we need a formal education system because we have to make sure people are literate and have a certain basic set of skills to make their way in the world. So in that sense, as soon as you start having formal education is when we can cut those people off. Because other societies, if you don’t have a formal education system, people are just doing whatever they can do well within their cultural milieu. So we got to somehow figure out how to preserve the freedom of navigating the world with the cognitive abilities you have but also making sure people are educated and literate and those kinds of things, have certain shared areas of knowledge and skills.
David: You have kids. How do you think that they learn differently with the internet, maybe with YouTube, versus the one size fits all standard model that I think that you’re referring to here?
Joe: Yeah. There are lots of interesting new ways of learning. You mentioned YouTube is one of them. And even learning physical skills from that, my daughter did martial arts for a while, which seemed very valuable to her. But I think we’re still figuring out how to harness all these new technologies and how to make the best use of them and how to integrate them into what we think of as delivering the formal education and getting children to have this shared basis of cognitive abilities that we need. But at the same time, not strangling off these unusually creative minds, or minds that just worked differently than the average.
David: Yeah. I feel like there’s a really interesting thread that we’re literally pulling on here, basically saying, let’s actually be more explicitly aware of the wisdom that the collective brain brings. And let’s acknowledge that, but at the same time, say, “Hey, there’s a bunch of individuals who have these very one-of-a-kind brains and we can harness those too.” So we can actually get more individuality and originality, but more collectivism. And that those two ideas fused together can create more progress and development and innovation for the human species.
Joe: Yeah. And that’s a key point I think you made is that the collective brain, part of what makes it work is the variation, right? So the collective brain works on, there’s a bunch of different ideas out there and the recombining, and they’re getting sorted through time as people select some over the others, but you need cognitive diversity to generate all these different kinds of ideas, which then can be picked up and passed on.
David: Yeah. Have you looked into, because we’re talking about ideas on how ideas spread, and Brian Eno has this really interesting idea where he says gossip is philosophy and that what gossip is, is its people coming together to philosophize on what a society should have and what it shouldn’t have. And there’s a collective brain within gossip, oh, we don’t like that that person did that. What do you see as the role of gossip? Do you agree with his assessment there?
Joe: Yeah. It’s just a funny way of, well, it’s a creative way of approaching it. So I think that gossip is about norms and norm violations. And so for example, in Fiji, if somebody does something that others don’t like, they don’t immediately respond. I mean, if it’s a kid they do, but if it’s an adult, they don’t. But what they do is they start talking to others about it and the person can end up getting scolded for their behavior. But first there has to be a meeting of the minds and an agreement basically through gossip that this is a bad thing and that this person has to be brought into line. So it’s a way of coming to an agreement that, yes, this is a norm violation and we need to take some action.
But it’s only through the shared agreement that this is, that people are then say, okay, because otherwise, if you were to act as an individual, then that could create bad relationships with the person that you’re scolding or trying to bring back into line. And people are very concerned about harmony. So you would only do that after you did the social network and the gossip thing to make sure that yes, we all agree this is bad.
David: Yeah. It’s fascinating how much a lot of the social interactions of like, we all agree it’s bad to harm and what you were just saying, how deeply embedded that is into the structure of the mind.
Joe: Yeah. So I really think we are evolved norm learners. So we grow up in these worlds and we acquire certain ways of behaving and that if somebody violates that, it really bothers us. And we’re motivated to take action, but of course, we don’t want to take action unilaterally sometimes, which is what happens in the communities I’ve lived in. So there’s a lot of variation in people’s willingness to take action, to engage in this third party punishment that economists talk about.
David: Yeah. You talk about how we’re evolved norm learners. We’re talking about education. This is actually one thing that’s really exciting about YouTube. If you take your work seriously, that humans are very imitative, doesn’t YouTube open up an imitative learning that expands the number of people who can effectively become an apprentice of somebody.
Joe: Yeah. So it’s huge. So you can learn from just these global experts on topics through this new media, something we haven’t had before. So assuming that something can be learned through this media, then it’s an amazing opportunity. Presumably, the technology will make that easier and easier. Eventually, we’ll have virtual YouTube, and you could be present in a three-dimensional world with the person. But yeah, we’ll see how that goes. That’s a huge possibility, everybody can learn from the world’s expert.
David: Yeah, exactly. And I think everyone can copy the world’s expert. I think that it is that word copy, of watch and do what they do that I think is particularly valuable. It’s not just that you’re hearing what they say, you’re reading what they’ve written. I think school does a decent job of doing that, but it is just watching them with their actions.
Joe: Right. Yeah. And that’s important because there’s lots of research to suggest that if people hear you say words and they see you as a valuable model, then that convinces them to say those words. But if the words imply some costly action, then they’re not very persuaded unless they also see you do the costly action. So if it’s something like giving to charity and they’ve done lots of experiments with children, which I describe in the book, and if the model said it’s important to give to charity and then gives only a little bit to charity, the children will copy and then say something like, yeah, it’s good to give to charity and then also give a little bit to charity. So they copy what they say, but then they also copy what they do. And those don’t have to go together.
David: Yeah. You know where you really see that a lot? I know so many people whose parents took them to church all the time and they said, you got to go to church, you got to go to church. But the parents themselves weren’t that religious. And I don’t know what’s going on there. I find it very interesting, this idea that people might even feel like they should be more religious than they actually are.
Joe: Yeah. But in the religion case, there’s a growing body of research now, showing that these things I’ve been describing, these credibility enhancing displays, are crucial for passing religious commitment on. So if you were in a family or even a community where people engaged in costly acts to go to church. They went to church, it was long, maybe it was boring. They gave to charity, there were events or something like that that were costly. Then that leads to the children being more likely to hold, believe in God and all those kinds of things. Where if you went to a place where it was easy was, people went when they were convenient, but you didn’t see a lot of these costly acts. You might’ve heard the same words, but you didn’t internalize, and the faith didn’t become deep.
David: What if you had something like Google trends for the last 10,000 years, and you could map psychological flows and you could take the word apocalypse or something. And as apocalypse goes up, people having kids goes down. I can’t believe how many people who are close to me now are so scared about the future when it comes to climate change, when it comes to all the debt that the western world is in, don’t want to have kids because of that. And there’s often these apocalyptic undertones that are contributing, at least in my own social circles, to these evolutionarily maladaptive trends.
Joe: Yeah. I mean, I feel like with big data these days, that would be testable. I mean, you can look at fertility rates and then people’s beliefs about the future or the coming apocalypse or something like that, to see if you’re seeing drops in those segments of the population, drops in fertility in those segments of the population where these beliefs are popular.
David: Do a lot of cultures have an idea of an apocalypse or dystopia and utopia?
Joe: Yeah. I mean, it’s pretty often that people have a belief that there’s some kind of big calamity coming. Famously in New Guinea, there was these cargo cults, where people were doing a ritual that they thought would bring about the end of the world. And those seem to pop up periodically in different parts of the world.
David: Hm. And how do those cargo cults function?
Joe: Well, I mean, it’s a belief that we can bring on a different world, or a catastrophe is coming. And then we have to do these rituals which are going to help us get out of this catastrophe. There was this Hale-Bopp comet that went by at one point and a bunch of people killed themselves as part of a set of beliefs that they thought they were escaping a catastrophe.
David: You talk about these beliefs and stuff. Why has it gotten so rare it seems for people to believe in Gods, like what the Greeks had or what the Egyptians had. Where there were all these different kinds of gods, the God of sun, the God of rain, stuff like that. Why have we culturally moved into the one big God idea that I know a lot of people are like, no, that is true. Why is it so hard to convince people now that there could be many gods?
Joe: Well, the big thing is the success of these big God religions and part of the case that my collaborators and I have made is that those religions have had a competitive advantage against these other religions. Possibly in part, because I mean, I talked about the cooperation stuff earlier, but they may also have an advantage because they were intolerant of other gods. So in this sense, if you win, you get to exterminate the other gods from people’s belief systems. And that can be an advantage. If you let the other gods hang around, then they might out-compete you someday. So that may play a role, although we haven’t done much research on that feature of the work.
David: Yeah. There’s this big growth component. I grew up Jewish and Judaism actually has a culture of rejecting new converts three times before they want to come in, whereas Christianity has a proselytizing culture. I know a lot of Christians who want me to become Christian. And it seems like that is evolutionarily very intelligent as a strategy for these religions.
Joe: Yeah. So you can think of modern religions as having two strategies. So one is the primordial strategy that Judaism uses where they’re not into converts, but there is this deep sense of ethnic interconnectedness that we can see ourselves on the Passover Seder as connected to these slaves in Egypt. And there’s a set of tribes and we’re all descendants of that tribe. So that gives, you feel bound to that group. And then the Christians have this other strategy, which is we can bring anyone into our group that allows our group to grow faster, but then maybe the expense is you don’t have as much of that ethnic binding feeling that you get with the sense that we’re all descended from this as part of this descent group.
David: Yeah. When you grow up Jewish, you know what you hear all the time? We are the chosen people. And you look to your left and you look to your right and you say, that’s us, you’re an ally. So coming into weird people, how, if you could, or maybe you don’t want to, but if you could re-do the way academic research is operated. I mean, it seems to be an issue that what, 16% of the world is weird and we have the vast majority of our data on those people.
Joe: So the first problem with the way the social sciences are structured is that there shouldn’t be social science disciplines the way there are. So for example, if you want to study economics, you could study that in the discipline of economics, you could also do economic sociology, economic anthropology, or you could study economic decision-making in psychology. And in many ways, you’d be studying the exact same topic, but it’s just spread across these different disciplines. Those are just historical products, there’s no natural category economics, no natural category psychology. I mean, economic decision making within economics is rooted in our psychology, so none of those make sense, so you’d have to redo those. Then the way we should be collecting data is, we should have labs in communities looking at how people live their lives, and then also gathering the kind of data that psychologists are interested in, so experimental data, there should also be health data, there could be neuroscience data. I mean, you can’t have an FMRI machine in every community, but you could have some other kinds of tools that allow you to get the data on brains.
This would give us kind of a worldwide picture of how people come to have the ways of thinking that they do, the motivations that they do, how that’s acquired as kids grow up, how child development is different in different places. We now know that many of the developmental sequences that have been described by psychologists are just peculiar to Western societies and that you see quite different sequences in other places. But, there’s so little work that it’s hard to characterize that beyond knowing that the Western sequence is peculiar.
David: What is the main constraint on us being able to do that? Is it technology? Is it that certain societies just don’t want to do this? What’s going on there?
Joe: I don’t think it has to do with other societies. I think it has to do with the sense in psychology and other social science disciplines, except for anthropology, that we could just study American or European kids, mostly American, and that would give us the picture of humans that we need. There was an implicit assumption that findings from American kids would generalize to humans. If you look at a social science textbook, you’ll see, it’ll say, people have this bias or that bias, or they think in this way, but the people, it turns out if you look behind the studies, there are 96% of them are Western, and 70% of those are American.
So, in no way can you generalize, and the data is now becoming available to show that you can’t generalize. I don’t know, maybe it was a good assumption at the time, maybe it was a bad assumption. The problem with anthropology was that they kind of understood this from lots of field ethnography, but they weren’t willing to adopt all the other tools that these other social sciences were using, statistics and experiments and all that kind of stuff, that you’d need to do it right.
David: What’s an example of something that we think to be true in America that doesn’t generalize to the rest of the world?
Joe: There’s so many. We were talking about individualism before, so how people think about themselves, whether they think about themselves as mostly a cluster of attributes and achievements, or whether they think of themselves as a node in a network, and does their meaning come from that network that they’re in, or does it come from these attributes and aspirations that they’ve cultivated? Another simple one is you’ll often hear that people are overconfident. It turns out that actually varies quite a bit, and some people are properly calibrated in other societies, and being overconfident seems to be a Western thing. It may give you an advantage in navigating an individualistic world, because, unless you’re overconfident, there are lots of chances you might not take, but if you’re overconfident, you think you’re more likely to succeed, so you take the chance. Then you at least have a chance to succeed, whereas if you’ve never tried, you wouldn’t have a chance to succeed, but if you’re in a world of relationships, there’s a different calculus going on.
David: How does overconfidence vary among men and women? I’m going to give a hypothesis that men, at least at the tails, have the potential to be way more overconfident, because I think men feel the need to take risks to prove themselves and find a mate.
Joe: That is certainly true amongst Western males, but we did find domains in Japan, in some domains, males are more overconfident than females, but we found the domain where there was no difference. There is some cultural variability, and it depends on the domain. You can test people on their math confidence, you can test them on their empathetic skills, or you can make them predict other kinds of things about their performance, and that’s kind of how we measure it. There seems to be variation across domains. As a broad brushstroke, males are more overconfident than females.
David: We’re talking here about overconfidence, but do you see differences between cultures in terms of the glue of imitation, so to speak. Are all humans equally imitative, or are different cultures imitative, but in very different ways?
Joe: Certainly, the case that humans are, we’re a cultural species, we’re highly imitated from a young age, all this cultural learning is requisite for learning language and everything we have to do to make our way in the world. But with that as a kind of human universal background, then you get to adults who have been socialized, and we see differences in the degree to which people will rely on social learning versus individual learning. There’s a psychologist named Alex Massoudi who compared social learning in Chinese and British subjects, I believe. He found that the Chinese subjects were more inclined to rely on social learning in solving a problem, whereas the British subjects who are slightly more inclined to try to go their own way and just kind of figure it out for themselves.
David: We talk about imitative learning, how does all of this influence your perception of the school system? We have such an explicit idea of what learning is. The teacher communicates idea to student, student retains that. But it seems like if I were to take the logical conclusions of what you’re saying here, learning should be wildly different, with much more of an apprenticeship model, and much more of a, “Just get out, start making mistakes, start hunting and figure things out.”
Joe: If you were to take the kind of social learning literature that’s available in anthropology across societies, it really does look like, for learning lots of kinds of things, humans are well adapted to an apprenticeship model. Now there might be some things which you need a certain amount of top-down lecturing, but you should probably do some lecturing and then move into a more collaborative apprenticeship type model as soon as possible. I think lots of people who study education have recognized that, but it’s hard to get that implemented at a mass scale, given what we’ve already done with mass universal education.
David: Do you think YouTube changes that?
Joe: It may. It may give people lots of opportunities to, the degree to which people can use their apprenticeship child learning over YouTube, certainly seems like it can for some things, so yeah, that may change things.
David: There’s a basketball player named Jason Tatum, plays for the Boston Celtics. When he was 21, there was an article in the Wall Street Journal about him. Basically, coaches were judging his game, and they were like, “He’s 21 years old, and he has the footwork of somebody who’s been in the league studying basketball for decades.” It turns out he has been studying basketball for decades because he would go on slow motion and watch the footwork of different NBA players. What you’re seeing is, and it’s the same thing in golf, the technique has just improved and improved and improved, where your median person has basically become much more skilled in terms of what they can do. But, I’ll tell you what my concern is. My concern is that what this does, even though it creates a cultural evolution that probably speeds up the rate of competence, my worry is that you lose some of the elements of randomness that then create these sort of step function innovations.
Joe: Right. Because everybody is keying in on a few of the greats and that reduces the amount of noise or random variation in the system. Yeah, that’s interesting. I like that example.
David: That’s actually one of my big concerns about sort of one of these fundamental tensions that I think about when I grappled with your work is it’s like, yes, the internet and the way that the world is coming together, can increase the rate of progress in the diffusion of knowledge in the short term, but my concern is that they’re these cognitive leaps, and we’re getting really good at taking steps, but do steps actually… Are they actually inversely correlated with leaps?
Joe: There is some interesting theoretical and experimental work done by Max DeRay and Rob Boyd. What they do is they give subjects an experimental problem where there’s several different ways to solve the problem. You can kind of incrementally go up one solution until you get to the best solution, or if you go a different direction, you can go up and maybe you get higher, you get to a better solution. What they show is the best system is partially interconnected. You need different groups that can learn from each other, but are somewhat independent, and they allow you to explore the space better. If everybody is really well connected, then if you end up on one of the less good solutions, you go up to the top of the solution and then everybody is as good as they can get, and there’s no way to get to the higher solution that’s even better. This is a real problem, and the key is not to get too interconnected, I guess. You need lots of subgroups trying to solve the problem in different ways.
David: Have you seen any groups that don’t have any contact with the outside world and might live at… Like here’s an example, so maybe Sherpas. Sherpas might be biologically evolved to be able to deal with high climates in a way that people outside of there aren’t. So, do you see places where to a normal person, it seems like there are these superhuman abilities, but it’s just because they’ve evolved in a different area. I mean, the classic case that you learn in high school biology is sickle cell anemia.
Joe: There’s stuff like that all over. You pointed out this high altitude case. One of my favorite cases is in the Philippines, sea nomads. Sea nomads do underwater foraging, so every day they got to go get their dinner from the bottom of the shallow sea. Melissa Elardo has shown that they have different genes that give them a larger spleen, which allows them to hold their breath for longer. They’ll swim down to the bottom and stay down there for a really long time. I don’t know if my Fijian friends have that as well, but I’ve gone diving with them and I can hold my breath longer than the average person around here. I’d go down with them, we’d swim around for a while, I’d get completely exhausted, I have to back up the top, come down, have to go back up again, come down, and they’re still down there. It’s really, really incredible.
David: Wow. That’s cool. Did you get better at it as you were living there?
Joe: Yeah, I did get better at it, and I was particularly impressed because as an adolescent, I used to win underwater swimming contests.
David: Wow. That’s awesome. What have you seen with inspiration? Like in America, it seems like there’s a lot of inspiration geared towards innovators, for example. Like, there’s a big cultural magnet and spotlight shined on entrepreneurs, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg. How does the role of inspiration play in some of the cultures that you visited?
Joe: As best we can tell, prestige seems to play a big role and people definitely learn from more prestigious members. There’s a question of who gets prestige. In many of the societies that anthropologists study, it tends to be older individuals that will often get prestige. Whereas I think in the US, for example, you often get younger people getting a lot of prestige, certainly more so than I’ve seen elsewhere. The best fishermen in Fiji are younger guys, but there are certain physical requirements that prevent, the older guys who can’t fish anymore are still widely respected because they have a lot of fishing knowledge and other kinds of knowledge. That seems to be universal, and it does inspire people. One of the things I’ve been studying is patenting, and having a parent that got a patent, or living in a place where people got patents in a certain domain, really does inspire younger people. If there was a woman in your County who got a patent, then if you’re a woman, you’re more likely to get a patent. You see clear role models playing a role there.
David: Yeah. I think I’ve seen some similar outcomes from Raj Chetty on some ideas.
Joe: Yeah, I was thinking of the Chetty paper.
David: Culture’s a big word, and it’s hard to study because it at least seems so amorphous and sort of fuzzy. Within culture, what are the parameters that are the most interesting to focus on?
Joe: It depends what you’re interested in, because as a cultural species, a social learning species, we learn so much of our behavioral phenotypes, so much of our psychology. If you could be interested in trust or cooperation, you can be interested in toolmaking, you could be interested in language, you can be interested in the heuristics farmers use to plant their crops. Those are all culture, in the sense that they’re all acquired from other people, and they pass down through generations, they change in various ways, it might accumulate as something gets better or more complex. You can apply these ideas to anything, culture applies to anything that people learn from other people. That might sound super general, except for most species, you don’t really have to worry about that much because other animals don’t do that much social learning.
David: There’s something that kind of bothers me about your work, but I think that it bothers me in part because I think that you’re right. But I think that there’s something awesome about just, “I did it, it was me,” and looking at your work. I think that we, as a society, at least in the West, we underestimate the impact of culture. I just look at myself and I’m so influenced by the people around me and having accepted that partially from reading your work, I’ve gotten so deliberate about, okay, I wanted to move to New York so that I could be in… I call New York an ambition tailwind. Then when I’m in San Francisco, I become way more intellectually curious. It’s weird, it’ll take like three days in the suburb and my intellectual curiosity will go way down.
Then what I do is I spend time on Twitter because then I sort of fake this, “Oh my God, Oh my God, everybody around me is ambitious and I’m working on stuff.” It’s interesting. I almost just feel like what the very actionable take away from your work is, is surround yourself with intelligent, smart, not even, surround yourself with the kind of people who you want to be more like, and once again, there’s something very trite about that, but I think that a lot of the empirical data of your work shows that that’s actually true.
Joe: I think that’s right. We haven’t completely nailed this one, but there’s a number of pieces to say that if you take the same person, and you put them in, just take US cities, so forget about cross-cultural differences, at least cross-national differences. You put them in a different city, if it’s a larger city, they’re more likely to get a patent, so they’re more likely to invent something. That’s clearly shown in the data, larger cities produce disproportionately more patents. Now you might say the more creative people move to those cities. You can kind of control for that, and then the effect still holds.
What you can then do is experiments, and you randomly put people into different groups. Some of the groups are more interconnected, some aren’t. The more interconnected groups will produce better products at the end of laboratory generations, so you can reproduce the situation in the laboratory. All of that kind of points to what you’re saying is that there’s a lot to be said for the group, and the interaction, and the size of the group, and the flow of ideas among minds that makes individuals more creative, independent of what they bring to the table.
David: You were an undergraduate major in aerospace engineering. How does that come into your work? That’s just so cool and out of left field.
Joe: That was a huge advantage. I have two undergraduate degrees, one in aerospace engineering and one in anthropology. When I was coming to the end of my undergraduate years, I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do, so at one point I had two stacks of applications, this is before the internet, on my desk. One was to apply to study space propulsion, and one was to apply to study anthropology. It didn’t make sense to send all these applications out, so I ended up just getting a job as an engineer in Washington, DC. I did that for two years before I went to graduate school at UCLA in anthropology.
As I get into anthropology, I encountered this nascent field of cultural evolution where people use mathematical models to think about culture. If I hadn’t had the engineering degree, I couldn’t have digested that stuff so easily. There’s a similarity of the mathematics where there’s equilibrium, processes, and it was very easy to apply ideas from aerospace engineering to get a grip on the mathematics that I was seeing in this other field. That allowed me an entree to this other way of thinking that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
David: Did you just grow up loving airplanes?
Joe: I did. I thought about being an astronaut. I liked spaceships, so that’s why I was going to do space propulsion.
David: Really? Nice. I grew up loving airplanes. For me, it was the commercial jets. I never had the longing to go to space, but I’ve always, every time now I go to an airport, when I am waiting for my flight, I go to the window and I just sit and I just watch airplanes take off. I’ve seen thousands and thousands of them. I used to drag my dad down to San Francisco airport every single Saturday morning, and I would just sit there, like I was watching the best movie I’ve ever seen, watching airplanes land.
Joe: I loved airplanes, but also I was really into spaceships, so in undergrad, I took things like orbital mechanics and space propulsion.
David: You’re talking about math and models, what are some of the downsides of the shift towards… read an economics paper now, and every abstract begins, “In this paper, we construct a model for X.” What isn’t happening because we’re so focused on models?
Joe: I think different fields have different ways of dealing with models. I interact with a lot of young economists, and in that field, people will often have a cool empirical result. Then they end up scratching their heads because they know they can’t publish it unless they have some kind of model that predicts whatever their empirical findings are. So then I see these young guys trying to concoct some model that’s going to produce the interesting, empirical finding that they have produced.
That’s a case where I think the field just has to be more forgiving of, well, sometimes just empirical results are interesting and we don’t need to have a model justifying our empirical results. So, kind of the interdisciplinary field that I operate in, models are not required, they’re kind of a mental prosthesis that we use to think more clearly about certain processes. But if you just have a kind of Star Trek-like, “Let’s see what’s out there,” and some interesting empirical results that show variation that people haven’t seen, that’s perfectly fine too, and you can publish that as well. I think the main thing is just not to be constrained in your thinking by the models, they should improve your thinking or expand your thinking, they shouldn’t contract it.
David: It’s funny, we were talking about the cross-pollination of different cultures and ideas, and it seems like academia does a pretty poor job of that. I was auditing a class at Columbia, and I had a friend in the business school all the way on the Northside of campus, and then I take my class in the philosophy building, which is all the way on the East side of campus, and I’d go to the Pulitzer library, which was all the way on the West side of campus in the journalism school. It felt like there was such a lack of cross-pollination in interdisciplinary ways. How have you been able to kind of break through that? You’re one of the few really interdisciplinary academics that I know.
Joe: I’m not sure, but from early in graduate school, I was interested in answering these big questions, like why humans cooperate, or what makes us human, or how we can explain how humans went from hunter-gatherer societies to complex nation-states. I quickly lost my interest in being an anthropologist. What I see some young scholars doing is, the big questions aren’t always driving them, sometimes they just want to be a psychologist, and if you want to be a psychologist, what you do is you look at what psychologists are doing, and then you’d do that. But that just leads you to replicate existing work. If you have a big question, and you don’t care about what your identity is, then you can freely take from other disciplines because you’re trying to answer the question.
What I always advise people to do is get the big question, go after it, use all the tools available, and spend less time just trying to be a member of your tribe. Now, that could backfire because of course, you have to get a job, and so some tribe has to decide to pay you, so I try not to push too hard on that advice.
David: You once asked one of the most interesting questions I’ve heard, that I was just want to re-ask it, and sort of follow down this rabbit hole. Why do we love our parents and sisters, but we’re repulsed by the idea of having sex with them? What does that say about the nature of what it means to be attracted to somebody? And where does the word attraction actually fall short in terms of the way that there’s actually splinterings within that word?
Joe: Attraction is tricky from this point of view because it can mean all kinds of things. Plants can attract each other, and it can mean that you’re attracted to somebody emotionally or sexually or these kinds of different meanings. That phrase that you kind of laid out there is easily explained if you’re thinking about it from an evolutionary perspective because we help our kin, and we love our kin, and we take care of our children, because of our genetic relatedness. If you think about it from a fitness maximizing point of view, if you don’t take care of your children and you’re the parents, nobody else is, so they’re not going to have a chance. Evolution is built in us, these powerful emotions about taking care of our children or taking care of our siblings.
But, very simply there’s a possibility of inbreeding. We have two people who are closely related, have sex, that they were to produce offspring, that offspring is likely to have recessives that meet each other, and you end up having poor child development and poor health outcomes. That means there’s a selection pressure for not wanting to breed with those you’re closely genetically related to. That’s this interesting pattern, which makes great sense from an evolutionary perspective, but is puzzling from some of the ways we look at the world.
David: It seems like there is an inverse of Dunbar’s number here. So Dunbar’s numbers, you can only maintain relationships with 150 people, but it seems like there’s some kind of Dunbar’s number that you need a culture or society bigger than X number to not have any inbreeding.
Joe: Yeah. Most human societies that we know of are big enough. The genetic data is showing, in general, pretty low in-breeding rates. There are some isolated populations in South America and a few other places that get up there kind of high, but yeah, so you actually need, there’s a minimum population that’s viable, for sure.
David: I would guess that at the individual level, we might even be stagnating in terms of intelligence. There are all these funny jokes of like, if you were to build a chair from scratch, you’d have no idea how to do it. It seems like we’re progressing much faster at the cultural evolutionary layer than the individual one. Is that right?
Joe: Yes, well certainly if you look at IQ scores or something like that, some measure of cognitive ability, there’s been a massive increase in the last century. The way to think about IQ is that it’s the set of cognitive abilities that lead to success in the current set of institutions we have. There’s a number of different ways to measure IQ, but all of them are associated with doing well in school, earning more money, having greater income later in life, but yet that average score has gone up by 30 points. If you were to rescore people from 1900 by modern standards, they would have IQ’s of 70, the average IQ would be 70. A lot of people have speculated on this, I’ve discussed it in some papers. I think that this is about the kinds of incentives in the environments that children face growing up, the kinds of games they play, the kinds of entertainment they participate in, better schooling, better nutrition, all of these things have pushed IQ measures up I think.
David: What kind of games and entertainment do you think make us smarter?
Joe: More complex things. One of the examples I like is TV shows. Watch TV shows from the 1950s, and then watch TV shows from 2010, now. They’re so much more complicated. The 1950s have like one plot line, four characters, whereas now you got ensemble characters, 20 different plots going on, you’ve got to be tracking all these different relationships. It’s just a whole different level of cognitive focus and memory and those kinds of things.
David: I have this idea, it’s called the paradox of abundance. I think that I’ll give the food analogy, and then I’ll give the information analogy because I think it’s the same thing happening. In food, you see this weird thing, where I think 71.6% of Americans over 20 are obese, but if you walk into a gym in a coastal city, you’ll see some of the best bodies that you’ve ever seen in human history, just there beautifully sculpted people, they look like a statue at the MET. So what you have is the average becoming more obese and overweight, but then the strongest people becoming in more and more shape. I think that something similar is happening with information. I think this view of the information superhighway, “Oh, it’s all going to make us smarter.” But, if you look at political debates, they’ve become more and more superficial as more and more information has happened. But then, when I talk to investors or older people, they’ll often say the smartest young people I’ve met, now, are way smarter than the smartest young people were when I was growing up.
Joe: That’s interesting. I feel like in general, I haven’t thought about any specifics, but I feel like we need to learn how to consume the amount of information that’s now at our fingertips. People aren’t very good information consumers.
David: Well, Joe Heinrich, thank you very much. Thanks for your work, it has given me an appreciation for the collective brain and the environments that I spend time in, and given me an empirical backing for those ideas. I’m a big fan, and thanks for your time.
Joe: All right. Thanks a lot, David.
Keep up with the podcast
Enter your email to receive information about every new podcast.
Emails will include links, quotes, videos, and exclusive behind-the-scenes features.