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

4.41  ·  Rating details ·  493 ratings  ·  72 reviews
Humans are a puzzling species. On the one hand, we struggle to survive on our own in the wild, often failing to overcome even basic challenges, like obtaining food, building shelters, or avoiding predators. On the other hand, human groups have produced ingenious technologies, sophisticated languages, and complex institutions that have permitted us to successfully expand in ...more
Paperback, 464 pages
Published October 17th 2017 by Princeton University Press (first published October 15th 2015)
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 ·  493 ratings  ·  72 reviews

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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  ·  review of another edition
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.)
Jul 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 16, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Simon Lavoie
Jun 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Vikas Erraballi
Sep 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"We stand on the shoulders of a very large pyramid of hobbits."

A must-read.
Daniel Frank
Aug 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

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
Laurent Franckx
May 21, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 17, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 14, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Kevin Hu
Jun 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Tomáš Zemko
Apr 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Groundbreaking. Highly recommended.
Tiago Irineu
Mar 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An introduction to genetic-cultural coevolution theory. A must-read for anybody interested in human behavior and cultural and institutional evolution.

This theory states that Culture has been the main driver of human genetic evolution and that there is feedback effect between cultural and genetic evolution.

The book can be divided into three major endeavors.
First, Henrich argues that Cultural Knowledge is the explanation of how we could "dominate" the world, without speciating like ants.
After t
Aug 03, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Engrossing, entertaining and persuasive. The basic synopsis of the author is genus homo is special kind of animal, whose success cannot be attributed to individual intelligence but "cultural" legacy bequeathed to us. By culture he means "the large body of practices, techniques, heuristics tools, motivations, values and beliefs that we acquire while growing up mostly from other people". Sometime in our evolutionary lineage, this processes of cumulative culture began and slowly but surely started ...more
Jun 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Absolutely essential read for anyone who wants to understand humans and human nature. Why did humans dominate the planet and every other animal species? The usual answer is "we're the smartest." WRONG. An individual human is only slightly smarter than an individual ape. It's because of culture. We can learn and teach over generations. Cultural evolution, not genetic evolution, has been the dominant force of human history. Absolutely must read book.
Oct 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: mma, home-library, audio, quake
Fantastic! This is a quake book for me. It is a big idea book that gives a new way of looking at the world. Basically, the ideas in the book update your mental models of the world. The idea of genetic-cultural co-evolution re-frame our species success and helps us understand a lot of human behavior.
May 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fantastic. Most informative book since The Selfish Gene

A book which answers a lot of the fundamental questions. Brilliant dazzling and a milestone in explaining human success and evolution.
I've long been a proponent of the idea that culture matters, this book takes that idea to a whole other, and (I think what should be) somewhat obvious level. Joseph Henrich answers the question of why are humans so successful with; not innate intelligence, but "collective brain"..... culturally transmitted know-how accumulated across the generations that drive not only our customs and technology, but our genetics, psychology, and biology as well. Henrich gives anthropological grounding to Hayeki ...more
Interesting read, his main argument is that cultural learning evolution is the primary driver of our species’ genetic evolution.
Mar 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed this grand theory of humanity as the cultural species and I agree with a comment by Robin Hanson about the book: It offers an impressive density of explanations of human affairs.
Jan 28, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This chart is the key golden nugget from this book.

The rest of the book explains the power and implications of that idea.

From the book:
Infants are well known to engage in what developmental psychologists call 'social referencing.' When an infant or young child encounters something novel, say when crawling up to a chainsaw, they will often look at their mom to check for an emotional reaction. If the attending adult shows positive affect, they often proceed to investiga
Aaron Arnold
Love him or hate him, Jared Diamond's resource and geography-based theories of differential human social complexity in Guns, Germs & Steel have spawned an entire genre of Big History books refuting, supporting, or extending his arguments, and it seems like every few months there's an important new entry in the Big History field that presents a new angle on those research questions. Henrich's discussion of how gene-culture coevolution differentiates humans from all other species on earth than ...more
Patrik Lindenfors
One of the best books on the current state of research in cultural evolution written so far. Engaging and fun to read, it steers clear of simplifying the field or overstating the relevance of the examples provided.
Lloyd Fassett
Feb 07, 2016 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
7/7/16 heard the author's address to The Commonwealth of California on their podcast. He has degrees in Anthropology and Aeronautical Engineering. He sounds interesting.
Michael Kaemingk
Sweeping, persuasive, and enlightening, The Secret of Our Success is the best account I've read of the importance of cumulative cultural evolution to our species' development. Instead of observing present-day human society and coming up with "just-so" stories for certain phenomena, Henrich uses the process of cumulative cultural evolution to generate a host of novel insights across subject areas including anthropology, economics, psychology, sociology, and biology. Each of these fields will have ...more
Nov 18, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
So many anthropological anecdotes. Henrich discusses the role culture and sociality plays in our success as a species.

Knowledge has been built up within groups of people. With cooking, recipes and tricks are shared. Sometimes the benefits of following steps can be forgotten (e.g. cyanide removal in cassava processing), but the wisdom is maintained in the sharing/using of the recipes.

Fire-making is challenging. I think a lot of people assume that it comes naturally to us - but it doesn't. Human
Jun 13, 2019 rated it liked it
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
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“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” 2 likes
“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.” 1 likes
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