Here’s a great video that shows how selection can work its effects–in this case artificial selection, demonstrated through the work of the Russian Dmitri Belyaev and his tame silver foxes. Still, what I find most striking about this video is the analogy to ourselves.
Jim Rilling, a neuroanthropologist at Emory, once commented to me that humans are wired to cooperate (in his latest work, he’s doing neuro-imaging on what happens when people don’t reciprocate, having researched the neural bases of cooperation earlier). The example Jim used has stuck with me ever since. Imagine 50 chimpanzees trying to sit down and watch an introductory lecture together. Pandemonium with those chimps. For us, it’s the most mundane sort of thing. People do it everyday around the world.
What is clear from primate research is that our nearest relatives already have established local behavioral traditions, self awareness, and advanced social cognition. What I find striking about “culture” is how it works all these into new, networked, holistic forms. In my mind, culture does not represent a single adaptation. Thus, conceiving of “culture” as non-genetic information transmission (the typical stance in cultural evolution research) misses most of what culture is about—public, meaningful, enacted, systemic, and coordinated, to go with some choice modifiers.
But just as being “domesticated” for wild foxes brings with it a whole bunch of linked changes, so too might be becoming “encultured.” More specifically, there might be significant selective pressures on certain human adaptations. For example, I mentioned the physiological and neural bases of speech production recently. Terrence Deacon in The Symbolic Species shows how inter-related brain areas can expand differentially with selective pressure on language capabilities in early childhood.
Is that the one adaptation? Probably not (one is the loneliest number when speaking of culture). But the video presents an analogy for how to think differently about cultural evolution. All that linking together of elements already there (social cognition, cooperation, self) could happen as those elements suddenly become expressed and networked in very different ways as new selective pressures act on people. Language production and coordination represents one possible selective pressure.
The reason I highlight this is because there are a lot of evolutionary proposals out there speaking about the adaptive benefits of this or that element of human behavior and being. The evolution of religion is one prominent example of late. But that might not be the right way to think about our past evolution, looking for specific adaptive benefits for prominent human features that seems to still separate us from other animals.
As Isaiah Berlin might say, these types of researchers are hedgehogs, digging into one core idea to explain everything again and again. But culture is definitely a fox, jumping from idea to idea, thing to thing. So the evolution of domesticated foxes might give us some ideas about how we also domesticated ourselves.