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The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

4.40  ·  Rating details ·  1,074 ratings  ·  158 reviews
Humans are a puzzling species. On the one hand, we struggle to survive on our own in the wild, often unable to solve basic problems, like obtaining food, building shelters, or avoiding predators. On the other hand, human groups have produced innovative technologies, sophisticated languages, and complex institutions that have permitted us to successfully expand into environ ...more
Kindle Edition, 456 pages
Published October 15th 2015 by Princeton University Press
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Jun 06, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The Secret of Our Success is one of these books that really shines light on the evolution of human species. Written by Joseph Henrich, Professor of Anthropology at Harvard, this book is one these few that really change how I see the world. An example of the book that had similar impact for me would be "Who's in charge" by Gazzaniga, or General Semantics by Korzybski.

The premise of the book is simple, but profound. Humans are cultural animals, and culture helped us evolve into the dominant speci
Alex Zakharov
Dec 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A well-articulated case for gene-culture coevolution, and as good of an argument for culture driving genetic evolution as you are going to get. For starters Henrich’s book effectively debunks the once-orthodox and badly mistaken view (espoused by the likes of Stephen Jay Gould) that human biological evolution basically stopped 50K years ago and we’ve since been adapting via cultural evolution. Henrich does stress that accumulated culture is the driving force of human evolution but he also demons ...more
Nov 24, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a good collection of factoids and anecdotes illustrating the point that human intelligence/behavior can be biological without being genetic. And that is important because it emphasizes the roles of the physical and social environments. Unfortunately, the book is put together like a course syllabus more than like something for the general reader (with frequent parentheses referring to other chapters, etc.)
Dec 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Trying to queer the nature-nurture binary :D (rather the genetics-environment binary). I think it overreaches in the middle with some of the Evo-Psych explanations lacking specificity in how exactly culture has such a strong effect on selection itself. Otherwise goes well with Reich's Who we are and how we got here, Cochran's 10000 year explosion and Pinker's Blank State.

Main theme of the book is what it says in the subtitle - it's hard to distinguish effects of culture evolution and human evolu
Jul 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Excellent, comprehensive and well-written overview of how culture shaped us as a species. Henrich writes a very convincing and well-sourced history of humanity. A few really random and interesting tidbits:

* Kids will pick up and play with all sorts of things, but before putting plant-like things in their mouths, they will look to an adult for cues.
* Our bodies are built to run (read born to run for more), but not for storing water. So our evolution was premised on us being able to communicate to
Jason Furman
Dec 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
One of the most amazing books I've read in recent years, The Secret of Our Success has a single thesis that sounds obvious but then it shows you how different it is from what you might have thought before, how much it explains, and how we have learned all of this with a combination of genetics, social psychology, anthropological observation of different groups, studying primates, game theory, experimental economics, and many other disciplines all of which come together to form a richer, more com ...more
Simon Lavoie
Jun 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book is an extensive account of gene-culture coevolution. Bringing together many lines of evidence (archeological, linguistic, genetic, first hand-ethnographic datas, behavioral economics, comparative psychology) author addresses those central themes :
• our (over) imitative tendency, leading to (1) underperforming at self-interest oriented games when compared with chimpanzees, and to (2) replicating behaviors that are superfluous and devoid of instrumental efficiency;
• the rational outcome
Emil O. W. Kirkegaard
Dec 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is a very good book. It has a good overall theory, supported by some very dubious neuroscience. These parts are best just ignored. There's a fair bit of "but these differences are totally not caused by genetics" stuff without serious attempt to grapple with the evidence. It's worth it though.
Scott Alexander has a very good review of the book.
Feb 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Culture has long been neglected while explaining biological evolution, and I personally have never thought of the many links between the evolution of our society and of our genes. This well-researched book by Harvard professor Joseph Henrich presents an account of human evolution while clearly underlining profound ways in which culture has shaped our genes.

According to the author, the Rubicon which tipped our species from ape-hood to something more, was the beginning of a runaway process of cult
Aug 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Hatchet was a lie!

In The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, Joseph Henrich demonstrates that people are mostly not very bright and that our culture's collective knowledge—rather than intelligence, grit, or pluck—allows us to thrive.

In "Lost European Explorers," Henrich points out at length that European explorers consistently die in novel wildernesses unless they, like Roald Amundsen, work to learn from the people who
Vikas Erraballi
Sep 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
"We stand on the shoulders of a very large pyramid of hobbits."

A must-read.
Graeme Newell
Sep 26, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: audible
This is an interesting book on cultural anthropology and how our very social brains influenced human evolution. We tend to think of evolution as a primarily biological process, but the authors do a good job of showing how social interaction had a profound impact on the transformation of our bodies and brains.

The authors are two very smart people and the book explains some of the most interesting research being done in evolutionary science.

Humanity’s killer app was not so much our big brains, it
Laurent Franckx
May 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
What, if any, is the fundamental difference between humans and other animals? We have in-laws.
At least, so argues Joseph Henrich. He really does - but, of course, this bold statement is just part of a broader argument. According to Henrich, it is a fundamental mistake to think that the success of the human species can be explained by our cognitive capacities. The real advantage of humans, he argues, is that we are capable of learning from others, not just from personal experience. The evidence h
Richard Thompson
This book is principally about gene/culture co-evolution, a topic that has long interested me, but it also touches on a number of related areas where I have often found standard explanations to be incomplete -- how and when humans became qualitatively different from other primates, the connection between intelligence and cultural learning, the social basis for morality, how cultural knowledge is gained and lost, and the continuation of human evolution long past the point where conventional expla ...more
Feb 14, 2019 rated it liked it
There have been a number of recent books that have added to, or somewhat amended, Darwinian evolution, including The Tangled Tree and The Evolution of Beauty. In that same vein, Henrich argues that culture has played a large role in the success of our species. We have surpassed other ape species in part due to our ability to learn from others, and to create larger groups to learn from and continue the knowledge. To some extent culture has led to biological or genetic evolution.

The majority of th
Daniel Frank
Aug 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing

This is a masterpiece. One of the most interesting and informative books I have ever read.

This book challenges the conventional wisdom on the anthropics and evolution of our species, and provides a compelling theory for how social learning has driven a biological change in humans, sparking the development leading to where we are today.

Despite being a big think/theory book, each page is filled with fascinating information hooking the reader for more.

I am confident this book will one day be on
Apr 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing
After reading Cecilia Heyes' wonderful book "Cognitive Gadgets", I somehow formed the impression that where that book was about the "mills" of cultural evolution, Henrich's book focused on what Heyes called the "grist." I'm still interested in the grist, of course--the evolutionary stories of things like folk tales, languages, stone tools, etc, etc, are all extremely fascinating, but once I'd had a taste of the bigger picture, I was a bit hesitant to take the more myopic view.

Fortunately, that
Szymon Kulec
Feb 07, 2021 rated it it was amazing
An amazing, thought provoking book.

On one hand can be read as a set of stories. On the other, you can perceive it as multiple angles of verifying and answering questions about the culture. How it influences us and why. Is is a separate process or intertwined with the evolution, gene selection and psychology.

What I like the most about the book is that it doesn't argue much about being the only approach but rather shows all the places and situations where the culture is the driver, leaving much of
Apr 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Amazingly comprehensive and insightful. Answers the question as to why humans are unique and how we go there.
Douglas O'laughlin
Jul 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is literally a 6 star book. Sapiens with teeth and creates a lot of causal models and things that you can use for better cognition. Cannot stress enough how good of a book this is.
Vadim Polikov
Jan 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
This was a fantastic book. It was well written, interesting, and changed the way I view the world.

The best way to describe this book is it is written by an anthropologist who has studied many primitive hunter gatherer communities but is also comfortable in a psychology lab running experiments to get at the core of human nature. He presents a totally different view of human evolution and what being human really means and how we are different from other animals. The data he presents and the evide
Jan 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Incredibly fascinating book.
Some of my notes:

- Example of cultural evolution affecting our genetic/biology: we are incredibly efficient coolers of our hairless bodies and sweat copiously to cool when we are long distance running to wear down prey. Yet we don't store water in our bodies and really can't even drink a lot of water at once. But our cultural evolution and water-carrying technology was so useful that our bodies adapted. Similarly, our tiny teeth, weak jaws, and shorter digestive syst
Oct 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
This is a great treatment of up-to-date theory and evidence on the evolution and effects of social norms. Henrich's main thesis is that what distinguishes humans from other animals is our ability maintain and transfer cultural knowledge through multiple generations. This allows for the accumulation of knowledge that is not held in any individual's head but is embodied in the norms, rituals, and technology we use everyday. Not only that, but our cultural evolution has actually driven our biologic ...more
Will A
Jun 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Books that influence me most tend to do so by giving me new glasses to see the world through: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies for seeing the impact of environments on history; The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York for seeing how power operates; The Death and Life of Great American Cities for seeing how cities work; The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention for seeing how language changes. This book promises to have a la ...more
Jun 13, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: anthropology
Humans pride ourselves on being smart, rational animals. However, several times in history, European explorers found themselves in food-rich unfamiliar environments: the Arctic, the Australian outback, the American Southwest, and either starved to death or would have if they hadn't been enslaved by the natives. Why didn't they use their smarts to figure out how to survive there? Because it is very difficult. Both hunting and gathering are skills that take decades to perfect, and took thousands o ...more
Kevin Hu
Jun 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Henrich takes the reader on an expansive tour of our species from the lens of cultural accumulation, social learning, and culture-gene coevolution. His writing is crisp. Sections progress at a graceful pace, each building on the previous. By the end, I wish I could read it anew a second time.
Swarna Kumar
Jan 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
One of the most fascinating books I have ever read. I think I didn't feel so impressed by any book since Guns, Germs and Steel or Selfish Gene. I would rate it better than Blank Slate, Sapiens, Homo Dues, Righteous Mind to list some. ...more
Tomáš Zemko
Apr 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Groundbreaking. Highly recommended.
Interesting read, his main argument is that cultural learning evolution is the primary driver of our species’ genetic evolution.
Aug 31, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fav, nonfiction
Fantastic book! So much effort and research clearly went into it that it deserves way more appreciation and I hope it gets it in the coming years.

The author explains human cultural evolution and since when, how and why it has been driving our genetic evolution from all angles (physical, cognitive, social...), and presents it in a structured, well-argued and clearly written manner.

Our civilization's beginnings were humble and pure chance. We aren't the only animal that has the capacity for socia
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Joseph Henrich is an anthropologist. He is the Chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology of Harvard University and a professor of the department.

Joseph Henrich's research focuses on evolutionary approaches to psychology, decision-making and culture, and includes topics related to cultural learning, cultural evolution, culture-gene coevolution, human sociality, prestige, leadership, lar

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“For many Westerners, “it’s natural” seems to mean “it’s good.” This view is wrong and comes from shopping in supermarkets and living in landscaped environments. Plants evolved toxins to deter animals, fungi, and bacteria from eating them. The list of “natural” foods that need processing to detoxify them goes on and on. Early potatoes were toxic, and the Andean peoples ate clay to neutralize the toxin. Even beans can be toxic without processing. In California, many hunter-gatherer populations relied on acorns, which, similar to manioc, require a labor intensive, multiday leaching process. Many small-scale societies have similarly exploited hardy, tropical plants called cycads for food. But cycads contain a nerve toxin. If not properly processed, they can cause neurological symptoms, paralysis, and death. Numerous societies, including hunter-gatherers, have culturally evolved an immense range of detoxification techniques for cycads. By contrast with our species, other animals have far superior abilities to detoxify plants. Humans, however, lost these genetic adaptations and evolved a dependence on cultural know-how, just to eat.” 3 likes
“The results reveal the power of prestige: when the gold-starred player had the opportunity to contribute money first, he or she tended to contribute to, and thus cooperate in, the joint effort, and then the following player—the low-prestige person—usually did as well. So, everyone won. However, when the low-prestige player got to contribute money first (or not), he or she tended not to contribute to the joint project (not cooperate), and then, neither did the high-prestige player. Even” 3 likes
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