What Made Us Unique

Kevin Laland: The emerging consensus is that humanity’s accomplishments derive from an ability to acquire knowledge and skills from other people. Individuals then build iteratively on that reservoir of pooled knowledge over long periods. This communal store of experience enables creation of ever more efficient and diverse solutions to life’s challenges. It was not our large brains, intelligence, or language that gave us culture but rather our culture that gave us large brains, intelligence, and language. For our species and perhaps a small number of other species, too, culture transformed the evolutionary process. The term “culture” implies fashion or haute cuisine, but boiled down to its scientific essence, culture comprises behavior patterns shared by members of a community that rely on socially transmitted information. Whether we consider automobile designs, popular music styles, scientific theories, or the foraging of small-scale societies, all evolve through endless rounds of innovations that add incremental refinements to an initial baseline of knowledge. Perpetual, relentless copying and innovation — that is the secret of our species’ success.

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