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Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind

3.89  ·  Rating Details ·  156 Ratings  ·  25 Reviews
A unique trait of the human species is that our personalities, lifestyles, and worldviews are shaped by an accident of birth—namely, the culture into which we are born. It is our cultures and not our genes that determine which foods we eat, which languages we speak, which people we love and marry, and which people we kill in war. But how did our species develop a mind that ...more
ebook, 432 pages
Published February 27th 2012 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published February 20th 2012)
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Mar 12, 2015 Gerrit rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: archaeology
An interesting book that provides an extensive and highly plausible account of the evolution of culture in our species. The book's central tenet, selfish genes construct "physical survival vehicles" in our bodies and "cultural survival machines" solely as a means to increase their own survival may sound reductionist to some in the humanities, but is well argued.

Moreover the book reviews many of the important ways in which culture, once it had sprang up altered the selection pressures operating o
Oct 01, 2012 Anni rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A book in my favourite genre: social science well explained and up-to-date but not overly simplified. Took me quite a long time to finish - not because of the book, but because I had to put it aside for other books to be read first. Pagel's style of writing is very pleasant with a good sense of style. Some of his witty remarks came quite close to political commentary, but luckily not to an annoying degree. Cultural evolution is a hot topic that can be used to explain almost anything. Pagel stand ...more
Jun 13, 2012 Stephen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
For whatever reason, late spring and early summer is my slowest reading time so this one took me a while to finish. It was not because it was not good or interesting. The concept of what makes humans uniquely human has evolved over the years and has settled on symbolic language and culture. We are the only animal that can record our thoughts or instructions in a form that someone can later reproduce (almost) perfectly. Symbolic language allows us to pass ideas or memes amongst ourselves in a man ...more
James Hider
Aug 13, 2014 James Hider rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Victoria Crosses for self-sacrificing slime molds and suicide bomber ants: this book gives you an evolutionary theory and reason for just about everything we humans do -- including the urge to push anonymous strangers under the Subway train -- and shows the way memes, or cultural traits, evolve not so much to help us as to serve their own needs, just as genes do, which explains a lot of seemingly irrational behaviour. Of particular interest to me was it explanation of the evolutionary uses of re ...more
Mar 21, 2014 Ileana rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
The book annoyed me on several levels. It seems like a book for logic: if you can accept this, than this other thing is true, and so forth constructing a foundation for his theory. It seems like a science book letting me know only some of the facts, only the ones who will support his theory, and not the other ones. Talking about totipotent cells and their divisions and at some point (when?) probably influenced by the local conditions, they decide to transform in pluripotent, to specialize a litt ...more
Rafael Villalobos
Jan 28, 2013 Rafael Villalobos rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Informative, thought provoking. I took notes.
D.L. Morrese
An interesting subject, and although I agree that our species is wired for culture, as the title says, I had issues with some of the particulars in this book and how they were stated. The thing that tended to bug me the most was the way some explanations were phrased. Now I'm sure the author doesn't believe this, but often his choice of words imply that genes act out of conscious intent, or that behaviors that are instinctive are instead volitional. A peahen, for example, doesn't 'know' in any c ...more
Jul 16, 2014 Jared rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Some time ago I made a list of books that truly define me...who I am and what I believe. After reading Wired for Culture, I added it to that list.

First off, I should say that I believe in evolution as far as I understand it. And yet, I can hardly claim to be an expert and, in the past, I've come across questions I didn't know the answer to. "How did humans become self-aware?" "How can evolution account for the human mind?" "How do scientists explain things like language, that do not occur anywhe
Jo Bennie
Nov 30, 2014 Jo Bennie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: p
Not an easy book to read, but ultimately rewarding and informative. Pagel draws on anthropology, evolutionary biology, neurology and philosophy to demonstrate how culture has evolved via natural selection of ideas and memes in exactly the same way as genes have evolved. Pagel takes us back to paleo-archaeology, presenting the evidence for physical changes in human physiognomy since hominids left Africa in parallel with the cultural changes. He examines the current scientific evidence with regard ...more
Jul 05, 2012 Joan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I like reading books that make me think of concepts and ideas that I take for granted and Wired for Culture was one of the best I read in awhile that made me wonder about where our culture/world is going. I particularly liked reading about the link between modern culture and apes because I tend to think that modern culture is inhuman and far above other animals and it was nice to get that wake up call that we are still 99% (!!!) like chimpanzees as well as a lot of other creatures.

The guy who w
A very ambitious and enjoyable book. What I got out of this book was this message: All of human behavior can be explained by looking at our genes.
This was a great summer read because it is very accessible. The dense and jargony nonfictions have their merits, but there’s something to be said for a nice light nonfiction book. I was a bit skeptical of some of the claims presented in the book, however… some explanations felt too convenient or too speculative for me.

It irritated me when Pagel used
I ultimately came away from this book feeling quite disappointed. Where Pagel talks about evolution and biology he often shines, but as soon as he tries to tie these concepts in a more concrete way to culture (and with it social psychology, anthropology etc) the book becomes incredibly lose. So discussions on the role of deception or language - both very relevant for any discussion of human cultural evolution - end up being more frustrating than informative.
Roy Kenagy
Jan 15, 2012 Roy Kenagy marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
From Publisher's Weekly starred review (

"“80,000 years ago... our genes undertook a remarkable gamble,” writes Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading in England. Our genes “handed over control to ideas,” and as a result, humans became the earth’s dominant species. Culture became “a second great system of inheritance to stand alongside our genes—a new way of transmitting information from one generation to the next, shortcutting the normal genetic ro
Leanne Ritchie
I never do this - but I actually emailed the author about what I found to be an off colour joke. Still a really good book but thought the editor should have provided more solid advice on matters of taste.
Aug 06, 2012 Amy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed reading this book as it stretched my own point of view. I appreciate that the author, though a rabid Stephen Hawking fan, acknowledged that human culture is unique among the animal kingdom. While there are some individual aspects of human culture reflected in specific animal behaviors -- who knew that altruism can be found in other animals -- no other animals have anywhere close to such a complex system of culture.

Man alone stands with non-related others to work for the benefit of all
Jul 01, 2013 Rachael rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Overall I enjoyed this, despite the fact that Pagel engaged in implicit philosphizing and as is usually the case when that happens fares poorly. For instance he describes how human sense of morality might have developed and then has the hubris to determine that that is all that morality must reduce to. A common but annoying sort of reduction. He also seems to be purposefully agitating for some kind of group evolution, and engages in rather speculative evolutionary psychology, but so long as you ...more
Manuel J.
Apr 29, 2013 Manuel J. rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It is a very interesting book, because it turns several ideas that we may have about ourselves and societies on their head and forces us to think a lot, even if only on the realm of possibilities. It is open ended, a permanent challenge, something I appreciate a lot. It goes deeper that the latest Jared Diamond book (The World until Yesterday), even if some of the ideas are somehow common to both.
Julian Haigh
A useful compilation around the subject. Sadly, not much was new however it was written in plain, easily understood language that developed the idea of the Human Social Mind. These are the basics everyone should know about how we individually fit into our larger communities (and are ourselves products of).
Clarence Williams
Dec 23, 2012 Clarence Williams rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Outstanding read for those torn between "nature heavy" and "nurture heavy" hypotheses regarding human evolution. This is a very readable contribution.
Maria Mistlberger
Dec 23, 2015 Maria Mistlberger rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
How we are what we are, explains lots of things about how we are driven to think and feel the way we do.
Fascinating read.
Edward Sullivan
A fascinating look at what makes humans uniquely human through the lens of evolutionary biology.
Barely finished it. Dry and repetitive.
Apr 24, 2012 Sevan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

Fantastic book...very well written
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