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790 pages, Hardcover
First published May 2, 2017
Jane Goodall blew everyone's socks off by reporting the now-iconic fact that chimps make tools... Most cultural anthropologists weren't thrilled by Goodall's revolution, and now emphasise definitions that cut chimps and other hoi polloi out of the party. There's a fondness for the thinking of Alfred Kroeber, Clyde Kluckhohn, and Clifford Geertz, three heavyweights who focused on how culture is about ideas and symbols, rather than the mere behaviours in which they instantiate, or material products like flint blades or iPhones...
Basically, I don't want to go anywhere near these debates. For our purposes we'll rely on an intuitive definition of culture emphasised by Frans de Waal: culture is how we do and think about things.
This book explores the biology of violence, aggression, and competition – the behaviors and the impulses behind them, the acts of individuals, groups, and states, and when these are bad or good things. It is a book about the ways in which humans harm one another. But it is also a book about the ways in which people do the opposite. What does biology teach us about cooperation, affiliation, reconciliation, empathy, and altruism?
I make my living as a combination neurobiologist – someone who studies the brain – and primatologist – someone who studies monkeys and apes. Therefore, this is a book that is rooted in science, specifically biology. And out of that come three key points: First, you can't begin to understand things like aggression, competition, cooperation, and empathy without biology; I say this for the benefit of a certain breed of social scientist who finds biology to be irrelevant and a bit ideologically suspect when thinking about human social behavior. But just as important, second, you're just as much up the creek if you rely only on biology; this is said for the benefit of a certain style of molecular fundamentalist who believes that the social sciences are destined to be consumed by “real” science. And a third point, by the time you finish this book, you'll see that it actually makes no sense to distinguish between aspects of a behavior that are “biological” and those that would be describes as, say, “psychological” or “cultural”. Utterly intertwined.
The biology of the behaviors that interest us is, in all cases, multifactorial – that is the thesis of this book.
• If you had to boil this book down to a single phrase it would be, “It's complicated”. Nothing seems to cause anything; instead everything just modulates something else. Scientists keep saying, “We used to think X, but now we realize that...” Fixing one thing often messes up ten more, as the law of unintended consequences reigns. On any big, important issue it seems like 51 percent of the scientific studies conclude one thing, and 49 percent conclude the opposite. And so on. Eventually it can seem hopeless that you can actually fix something, can make things better. But we have no choice but to try. And if you are reading this, you are probably ideally suited to do so. You've amply proven you have intellectual tenacity. You probably also have running water, a home, adequate calories, and low odds of festering with a bad parasitic disease. You probably don't have to worry about Ebola virus, warlords, or being invisible in your world. And you've been educated. In other words, you're one of the lucky humans, so try.
• Finally, you don't have to choose between being scientific and being compassionate.