How Culture Makes Us Smarter
Cumulative culture gives us knowledge and tools beyond our individual powers.
Posted December 14, 2018 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
Imagine, if you will, that a hyperintelligent alien scientist were to visit our little blue planet and undertake a thorough investigation of life here on Earth. What would the alien make of our species and the rest of the Earth's flora and fauna?
One thing that might immediately jump out at our intrepid alien observer is the fact that human beings, though not radically different from other animals in their genetic makeup or basic physiology, are radically different in their knowledge, technology, and tools. As a species, humans today have at least a basic understanding of the Big Bang that birthed the entire universe, the evolutionary process that created them from dust, and the physical laws that govern all matter and energy. No other animal understands any of this even slightly.
Likewise, humans have tools and technology sophisticated enough that they can split atoms, read their own genomes, and occasionally even walk on the moon. No other animal can do anything like that. Put simply, the alien scientist would quickly conclude that human beings stand apart from every other species on Earth in the sophistication of their culture.
Don’t get me wrong; humans aren't the only animals with culture. Chimps have some culture; whales have some culture; even some species of birds have some degree of culture. But no other animal does culture quite like us. Ten thousand years ago, the pinnacle of chimpanzee culture was using twigs to extract termites from termite mounds. Today, the pinnacle of chimpanzee culture… is using twigs to extract termites from termite mounds. Humans, in contrast, went from Stone Age technology to Space Age technology in less than ten thousand years. How did we do it? What explains the vast gulf between our cultural achievements and those of chimpanzees?
The traditional answer is intelligence: Humans are smarter than chimps and all other animals, and that’s why we can go to the moon but they can’t. As the futurist Eliezer Yudkowsky once observed, almost everything around us most of the time, other than the air we breathe, is the product of our big, clever brains. “The rise of human intelligence,” he wrote, “reshaped the Earth. The land sprouted skyscrapers and cities, planes flew through the skies, footprints appeared on the Moon.”1
No doubt, intelligence is an important part of the story – if intelligence weren’t important, it would never have evolved. But intelligence only takes us so far. Although we’re clearly smarter than chimps, we’re nowhere near as much smarter as our alien scientist might initially surmise by comparing our cultural achievements (like putting people on the moon) with theirs (like using rocks to crack open nuts or sticks to fish for termites).
If you doubt this — if you doubt that the gap between us and our chimpanzee cousins is narrower than we usually think — imagine that the alien scientist sucked you up into its spaceship, and then dumped you in the jungle all alone, with no relevant knowledge. At a push, you might use your intelligence to figure out how to obtain some food. But could you use your intelligence to build a rocket ship and fly to the moon? No. No one could do that. The rocket ship is an extreme example of a much more general principle: As clever as we doubtlessly are, no individual could design even something as simple as a kayak from scratch, let alone a jetpack or a democratic nation-state.2
The Ratchet Effect
So, where did these things come from? To answer that question, we need to look to something bigger than our brains — and bigger, in fact, than any of us. A growing contingent of scholars argue that our “superpower” as a species is not so much our intelligence as our collective intelligence and our capacity for what’s called cumulative culture: that is, our ability to stockpile knowledge and pass it down from generation to generation, tinkering with it and improving it over time.3
To illustrate, consider Plato and Aristotle. Plato and Aristotle were almost certainly more intelligent than most people living today. And yet most people living today have a vastly more accurate view of the universe than these Ancient Greek philosophers. In fact, most preschool children have a more accurate view, because most preschool children know that we live on a spinning rock orbiting a great big ball of fire. In a certain sense, then, today’s preschoolers are smarter than the greatest thinkers of the ancient world.
This has nothing to do with biological evolution, and everything to do with our ability to stockpile knowledge and add to the common pool of knowledge over time. Biological evolution can give rise to the eye. But cumulative cultural evolution can give rise to entities every bit as complex as the eye: airplanes and smartphones, legal systems and the Internet.
What makes these cumulative cultural achievements possible for us when they’re not possible for chimps or howler monkeys? No one knows for sure, but there's no shortage of suggestions. These include language, theory of mind, mental time travel, hypercooperativeness, practice, teaching, trade, shared attention, joint attention, imitation, true imitation, and overimitation — or, of course, some serendipitously fertile blend of these talents. Whatever it is, though, it makes all the difference in the world. It renders our cultural achievements utterly unique among the animals.4
And it’s easy to see why the capacity for cumulative culture is useful. In a nutshell, cumulative culture is the ultimate time-saver. Because of cumulative culture, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel with each new generation — quite literally. We don’t each need to have our own Eureka moments to understand fluid dynamics; we don’t each need to have an apple fall on our head to understand gravity; and we don’t each need to dream of a snake eating its own tail to understand the structure of the benzene molecule. All we need is to go to school, or to own a library card, or to have an Internet connection. We can then download into our brains some of the achieved knowledge of the species. This subsequently becomes the starting point for the next round of innovation.
The developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello dubbed this the cultural ratchet.5 Extended across time, the cumulative effects of the ratcheting process are absolutely startling. I remember I once watched a David Attenborough documentary in which an orangutan paddled a canoe down a river. At first, it struck me as anomalous: Here was this animal skillfully piloting a vehicle it could never have invented itself.
But then it occurred to me that all of us are in exactly the same boat as the orangutan, metaphorically speaking. In even the simplest human societies, people use tools and techniques they could never have invented themselves. And in our modern age, we’re surrounded by technologies so complex that most people don’t have the slightest clue how they work. It’s as if we’ve taken over the technology of an advanced species of aliens after they mysteriously vanished — except that the aliens were never really here. All of it somehow came from us.
Culture Makes Us Smarter
Cumulative culture doesn’t just gift our species technology that none of us could have invented; it literally makes us smarter. The products of cumulative culture include not only our physical tools but also a well-stocked library of what we might call mind tools: ideas and habits and rules of thumb, which we stamp into the gooey grey matter of our brains and which radically enhance our powers.
Our mind tools include, first and foremost, the words and phrases of the languages we speak. Each word and each phrase is a handy little tool for thinking — a prosthetic aid to cognition, as the philosopher Daniel Dennett put it.6 Other important mind tools include probability theory, cost-benefit analysis, time management, financial planning, and counting to 10 when you’re angry. These tools are a lot like smart-phone apps. The more apps you download onto your phone, the more your phone can do. Likewise, the more mind tools you download into your brain, the more that you can do.
And you don’t have to be an incurable optimist to see that our mind tools get better with time. Consider the Roman number system. This cognitive apparatus is perfectly good for certain purposes: It’s perfectly good for measurement; it’s perfectly good for record keeping. But as the biologist David Krakauer points out, it’s not particularly good for calculation. There’s no simple algorithm for dividing C by IV, for instance, or multiplying X by MCMLX. Europeans used the Roman number system for 1,500 years. This meant that, for all of that time, they were unable to multiply or divide. They were physiologically capable of it, of course; they just hadn’t installed the appropriate cultural software in their brains. These days, we use the Indian-Arabic system, which makes calculation much easier. It literally makes us smarter.7
Cumulative culture makes us smarter in another way as well: It allows us to transcend the limitations imposed on us by the anatomy of our brains, furnishing us with knowledge far beyond the reach of any isolated individual. If you were to make a list of every person who’s ever contributed in any way to the vast storehouse of our knowledge, and if you were then to add up every hour they devoted to making their contribution, you’d have a rough-and-ready estimate of the number of hours it would take for one individual to single-handedly assemble all the knowledge we now possess. What kind of time period are we looking at? Probably hundreds of thousands of years, and maybe even millions. This means that, by learning about science and getting a good education, we become as knowledgeable as a person who spent thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or even millions of years thinking and exploring the world.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell once quipped that “The average [person’s] opinions are much less foolish than they would be if he thought for himself.”8 He had a point, but it doesn’t just apply to the average person. It applies as well to the geniuses among us, all of whom build on the earlier intellectual achievements of the species.
Take Isaac Newton, for instance. Newton is about as good an example of a genius as we might ever expect to find: a genius among geniuses, you could argue. But even Newton was unable to comprehend the idea that matter bends space and slows time — not because of any constitutional incapacity, but just because he lived before Einstein. Einstein, for his part, couldn’t have done what he did if he hadn’t been able to build on the work of Newton and Newton’s intellectual descendants. The writer Matt Ridley captured the general idea nicely in a discussion of the causes of economic growth when he wrote: “I cannot hope to match [Adam] Smith’s genius as an individual, but I have one great advantage over him — I can read his book.”9
On our own, we’re not particularly smart — certainly not smart enough to unravel the mysteries of the universe or put footprints on the moon. We’re smarter than chimps, certainly, but, as I mentioned earlier, the gap between us and them isn’t as large as we usually think. It’s a river rather than a valley.
However, as a result of our ability to acquire knowledge distilled from thousands of years’ worth of thinking, each of us can understand the universe to a degree completely unmatched by even our closest animal kin. As a result of cumulative culture, we have ideas in our heads that are orders of magnitude smarter than we are. As a result of cumulative culture, we have knowledge and technology it would take a single individual millions of years to create, if a single individual could create it at all. And as a result of cumulative culture, we’re surrounded by machines and technology whose inner workings we don’t understand and could never hope to understand. Humans are chimpanzees reciting Shakespeare — dunces with the technology of geniuses.
The Myth of the Heroic Inventor
Often, though, these humbling facts are obscured from our vision. We routinely ascribe our species’ cultural achievements to lone-wolf geniuses — super-bright freaks of nature who invented science and technology for the rest of us. This tendency is so pervasive it even has a name: the Myth of the Heroic Inventor. It’s a myth because most ideas and most technologies come about not through the Eureka moments of solitary geniuses but through the hard slog of large armies of individuals, each making — at best — a tiny step or two forward.10 As the historian of science Joseph Needham once put it, “No single man was the father of the steam engine; no single civilization either.”11
In the same way, no single individual was the originator of evolutionary theory. People attribute the theory to Darwin, but the truth is it’s not really his. It’s the product of the efforts of thousands of men and women working over several centuries. Nonetheless, friends of the theory and enemies alike want to attribute it to the great man.
Do I contradict myself by calling Darwin great? I don’t think so. Some people, Darwin among them, plainly take larger steps forward than the rest of us. But even then, we need to remember that new ideas are rarely drawn from whole cloth. They come instead from the recombination of old ideas — from ideas having sex, as Matt Ridley put it. The concept of natural selection, for instance, involved combining Malthus’s idea of the struggle in nature with the idea of selective breeding. This led Darwin to the insight that, because nature kills most of its children, it functions as a giant animal breeder. As important as this insight was, it’s essentially just a remix.
And so is most of culture. The birth of new technology, for instance, usually involves recombining existing elements in novel ways.12 As L. T. C. Rolt observed, “The motor car was sired by the bicycle out of the horse carriage.” Similarly, as Ridley reports in his book The Rational Optimist, the Internet was born from the marriage of the computer and the phone, and the camera pill was born of a conversation between a gastroenterologist and a guided missile designer.13 Perhaps the fairest summary of the situation is that most of our cultural achievements come not from super-bright freaks, but from cumulative culture, aided and abetted by some reasonably bright semi-freaks. In this way, our culture becomes smarter than we are.
Parts of this article were excerpted, with changes, from the book The Ape That Understood the Universe by Steve Stewart-Williams.
1. Yudkowsky (2006).
2. Henrich (2016); Richerson and Boyd (2005).
3. Legare and Nielsen (2015); Ridley (2010); Tennie, Call, and Tomasello (2009).
4. Certainly, some nonhuman animals may have some degree of cumulative culture. Consider nut cracking in chimpanzees. Chimps don’t just hit their nuts with a rock. They use one rock as an anvil and a second as a hammer, and they strike the nut hard enough to crack the shell but not so hard that it crushes the kernel inside. It’s difficult to imagine that a solitary chimp Einstein invented this entire procedure in a single saltational leap, after which it spread in its totality from chimp brain to chimp brain, down through the chimpanzee generations. As a number of experts have argued, it’s more plausible that the practice emerged in cumulative, bite-size steps. Still, even if cumulative culture is not completely unique to our species, it’s hard to deny that we take this trick a thousand times further than any other creature.
5. Tomasello (1999).
6. Dennett (2017).
7. Cited in Harris (2016).
8. Russell (1926), p. 54.
9. Ridley (2010), p. 8.
10. Johnson (2010).
11. Needham (1970), p. 202.
12. Arthur (2009); Basalla (1988).
13. Ridley (2010).
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Basalla, G. (1988). The evolution of technology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Dennett, D. C. (2017). From bacteria to Bach and back: The evolution of minds. New York, NY: Norton.
Harris, S. (Producer). (2016). Complexity and stupidity: A conversation with David Krakauer. Waking Up [Audio podcast]. Retrieved. from https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/complexity-stupidity
Henrich, J. (2016). The secret of our success: How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation. New York, NY: Penguin.
Legare, C. H., & Nielsen, M. (2015). Imitation and innovation: The dual engines of cultural learning. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19, 688-699.
Needham, J. (1970). Clerks and craftsmen in China and the West: Lectures and addresses on the history of science and technology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Richerson, P. J., & Boyd, R. (2005). Not by genes alone: How culture transformed human evolution. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Ridley, M. (2010). The rational optimist: How prosperity evolves. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Russell, B. (1926). On education: Especially in early childhood. London: Routledge.
Stewart-Williams, S. (2018). The ape that understood the universe: How the mind and culture evolve. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Tennie, C., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2009). Ratcheting up the ratchet: On the evolution of cumulative culture. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 364, 2405-2415.
Tomasello, M. (1999). The cultural origins of human cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Yudkowsky, E. S. (2006). The human importance of the intelligence explosion. Paper presented at the Singularity Summit 2006, Stanford, CA. https://www.scribd.com/document/2327576/The-Human-Importance-of-the-Intelligence-Explosion-Powperpoint-Presentation-Handout