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Literary Festival 2012: Wired for Culture


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Speaker(s): Professor Mark Pagel
Chair: Dr Helena Cronin

Recorded on 3 March 2012 in Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building.

Since humans left Africa less than a hundred thousand years ago there has been a staggering explosion of cultures. What caused this blooming of diversity? Why are there so many mutually incomprehensible languages, even within small territories? Why do we rejoice in rituals, wrap ourselves in flags, or define ourselves in opposition to others?

Humans are usually seen as differing from other animals because of our inherent traits of consciousness, language and intelligence. But Pagel shows we've had it the wrong way round. Many of these things would not exist without our propensity for culture - our ability to co-operate in small tribal societies, to pass on beliefs and practices and to accumulate knowledge over generations - so that we prospered while others declined. Pagel's extraordinary history of the role of culture in natural selection shows how humans acquired a mind that is hardwired for culture. Our cultures – although an accident of birth - have outstripped our genes in determining who we are, how we think and speak, and who we love and kill.

Weaving together evolutionary biology, anthropology, natural history, philosophy and Pagel's years of observing human behaviour around the globe, this book sheds light on everything from art, morality and affection to jealousy, self-interest and prejudice, and asks whether our cultural legacy equips us for the challenges of life in the modern world. Wired for Culture will change how we view ourselves, not just as individuals, but within the wider story of our species.

Mark Pagel is head of the Evolution Laboratory in the Division of Zoology, School of Biological Sciences, at the University of Reading, and an External Professor at the renowned Santa Fe Institute. He has travelled the world studying evolution and the spread of cultures from the Chalbi Desert in Kenya to Tanzania and Zanzibar, and remote Oceania.

He is the editor-in-chief of the award winning Oxford Encyclopaedia of Evolution and co-author of The Comparative Method in Evolutionary Biology, which is regarded as a classic, as well as the author of articles in Science, Nature, and other journals. Statistical methods that Pagel has developed are used by researchers all over the world to study evolutionary trends across species. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society. This event marks the publication of his latest book, Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation.

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