our learning blueprint

“Culture is an emergent property of human groups, a new property of the whole not manifested in the parts themselves. And it arises from humans having the brains and social systems that allow for retaining and exchanging ideas.

Human culture also accumulates. This means that brains and social systems capable of coping with more and more stuff are increasingly advantaged across time. And it also means that the force that culture has been applying to our evolution has been increasing over the past ten thousand to forty thousand years. Once humans evolved to be capable of teaching and learning, they developed a parallel evolutionary strand, cultural evolution, side by side with genetic. These two strands intersect repeatedly in many places and times. Each leaves its mark on the other. ” —Nicholas Christakis, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society

Christakis’s ‘social suite’ is a range of traits that are common among all human societies, though not always manifested in the same way. For more information, read Howard Rheingold’s review of Blueprint. When it comes to the age-old question of Nurture versus Nature, Christakis answers that it is both, like a double helix. This is not a unique perspective.

“Cognition and our ability to think are all interwoven, and we’re a cultural species, which means one of our genetic programs is to be able to acquire ideas, beliefs and values and weave them into our brain such that they then affect our biology.” —Joseph Henrich, Canada Research Chair in Culture, Cognition, and Co-evolution

Of these common traits in the social suite, I think that learning and teaching are the most important. “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”, wrote Isaac Newton on the scientific heritage that enabled his own work. Each generation has the potential to increase our collective knowledge and understanding. Our species is really Homo discens, or ‘learning man’. I have ranked each component of the social suite to what I think is the highest value for society. If we stop learning socially, we will go backwards. Social learning is essential for human civilization.

“If your number of minds working on the problem gets small enough, you can actually begin to lose information. There’s a steady state level of information that depends on the size of your population and the interconnectedness. It also depends on the innovativeness of your individuals, but that has a relatively small effect compared to the effect of being well interconnected and having a large population.” —Joseph Henrich

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