The culture we live in and the inconceivably complex neural network inside our skulls are both essential to our identities. These books are speculative, drawing on current knowledge about the brain, evolution, genetics and social behavior to expound on researchers’ theories about such conundrums as why humans have engaged in genocide, whether we possess free will, why we go through life with the sense of a consistent self and whether the software for that self might someday be uploaded onto a server, allowing a person’s consciousness to “live” on after the body dies.
In many cases, the evidence for the theories being presented is indirect, scant or nonexistent. For example, Seung predicts that proving how the connections among our nerve cells store memories will require the use of technologies that haven’t been invented yet, while some of the theories about human social behavior described by Pagel may never be provable. Nonetheless, both of these books challenge our assumptions about what makes us who we are and offer provocative new insights.
About 45,000 years ago, members of our species, Homo sapiens, reached Europe after earlier migrations out of Africa via the Middle East. The newcomers’ arrival must have come as a shock to the Neanderthals, a separate human species that had inhabited Europe for some 300,000 years. As Pagel notes, the new arrivals “would have carried a baffling and frightening array of technologies” — not only new kinds of weapons and tools, but also perhaps sewn clothes, musical instruments and carved figures. “It would have been like a scene from a science fiction story of a people confronted by a superior alien race.”
The aliens probably didn’t owe their advantages to dramatically superior genes, but to a development some 40,000 years prior to their arrival in Europe. Something happened that had immensely speeded up their ability to learn, adapt and acquire new strategies for taking over the planet: Homo sapiens had acquired culture.
Although today’s humans may harbor mixed feelings about our species’ recent track record in settling Earth’s land masses, wiping out numerous other life forms, turning forests into farmland and achieving exponential population growth, our success viewed in biological terms has been spectacular. And our remarkable longevity and reproductive success stem from our ability — absent in other animals — to form close-knit tribal groups made up of unrelated individuals who speak a common language and can acquire new knowledge through social learning. The innate capacity to acquire culture unites us: Any newborn infant, born or adopted into any culture on the planet, will absorb the language, beliefs, values and norms of that society.