Top critical review
Culture does not exist to serve the genome
Reviewed in the United States on September 15, 2021
Considering that humanity has spent more than 95 percent of its collective 200,000-year history as hunter-gatherers, we should not be surprised to find some mismatches between our evolutionary predispositions and the post-industrial environment we currently inhabit. And if this is the case—which to some extent it surely is—then by studying evolutionary biology and psychology, along with modern hunter-gatherer groups, we can gain some insights on the roots of many of our physical, mental, and social problems. Then, and only then, can we begin to reevaluate some of our behaviors to better align with our nature and our history, thus resolving many otherwise intractable problems. This, in a nutshell, is the argument and purpose of the book.
The problem, of course, is how far you’re willing to take this argument. It’s one thing to concede that evolution gives us certain predispositions (e.g., the compulsion to binge eat) that no longer match environmental realities (an overabundance of sugary foods), leading to disastrous consequences (obesity, heart disease, etc.), and that by understanding the mismatch, we can modify our behaviors (whole food diets, intermittent fasting, etc.), leading to better outcomes. Few reasonable people would argue against these more clear-cut cases.
But the authors don’t stop there. They want to take the argument further and claim that all long-standing cultural adaptations “evolve to serve the genome” (and they really mean this). This tactic, however, seems little more than using genetics and evolution to support the beliefs and practices approved by the authors. If every long-lasting cultural practice can be said to support the genome, then those practices can be defended on seemingly scientific grounds. But this is nothing more than an illusion, and should be recognized as such by the reader.
It’s not necessarily useful to think of humans in this way. Humanity separated itself from the rest of the animal kingdom primarily via our ability to transcend genetic determination and to decide how to live using reason and experience. And if a cultural practice is bad for the genes but good for the individual, to hell with the genes. The classic example is contraception. This long-running practice of enjoying sex without bearing children cannot have “evolved to serve the genome,” and yet those who practice it by intentionally not having children are not living an impoverished or defective life in any sense simply because their genes may not like it.
If reason tells you that you would prefer a child-free life, then that’s what you should do, irrespective of what your genome would tell you. Similarly, in many matters, evolutionary biology offers us no help whatsoever in making life choices; rather, philosophy becomes far more important. But the authors want to pretend that every aspect of our lives can be guided by evolutionary logic when in reality they’re simply using a particular reading of evolution to justify their own beliefs (don’t watch porn, have casual sex, or take medication). Readers should be able to see through this ruse pretty easily, I would hope.
So take the content for what it’s worth. As I said above, there’s much to learn about our evolutionary past, which can provide deep insights into how we can modify our behavior for the better. But don’t think that evolutionary logic can make all the decisions for us, or that our own reason and capacity for independent philosophical thought cannot or should not override what may or may not be “best” for our genes, or for whatever traditional practices justify themselves on the basis of longevity alone (a BS argument often used by conservatives or religious fundamentalists).