Rob Boyd, one of the stars of UCLA’s astounding anthropology department, gave a public talk last Monday night, and I’ve been thinking about it since.
Rob’s theme, drawn from his book Not By Genes Alone, was the nature of the evolutionary strategy of H. sapiens. He pointed out that the distinctive characteristic of the species, in zoological terms, is its range: essentially the entire land surface of the planet, save Antarctica. No other macroscopic organism has anything like that range. And the range expanded with startling speed as soon as the passage was made from Africa to Eurasia, some 60,000 years ago (60 KYA, in paleontologese).
In contrast to people like Steven Pinker, who stress intelligence as the key human evolutionary strategy, Rob stressed social learning. Yes intelligence enables culture, but it’s culture that does the work. That has the consequence that humans need to be somewhat conservative and somewhat credulous, which in turn sets the stage for all sorts of social traps.
The central example of the talk was survival in the Arctic, and the astonishing range of very specific knowlege, skills, and tools required for doing so. Boyd cited what he called the “lost European explorer experiments”: again and again, when highly educated and resource-rich exploratory teams got lost or stranded, they failed to adapt to environments which the local peoples had mastered. Of Lord Franklin’s famous doomed effort to find the Northwest Passage, Boyd said, “They got stuck; they ate up their tinned food; and then they starved.” So intelligence alone doesn’t do the trick; you need to know what to do and how to do it in great detail, and only tradition will tell you.
Later, a question occurred to me; I’ll ask Rob, but I throw it open to RBC readers. Did any expedition ever successfully “go native,” adopting appropriate survival practices from the folks who were used to living in the environment?