Rob Boyd on the role of culture

If intelligence, rather than culturally transmitted knowledge, is the key to the success of H. sapiens as a species, how come all those lost European exploratory teams died, in environments where

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?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

30 thoughts on “Rob Boyd on the role of culture”

  1. The Arctic is a good example. Successful explorers adopted dog sledges and clothing from the locals. Hudson Bay Company explorers travelled with First Nations and relied on their knowledge of their environment.

    The most striking example of a failure to learn from the locals that I have heard of is that of the Nordic settlers in Greenland. They had centuries to learn from the local Inuit, but didn't.

  2. And Jared Diamond, in "Collapse", points out that the natives in the Arctic that preceded the Inuit didn't adapt all that well either. There's a record of a series of groups that arrived on the scene, thrived for a few centuries, then got wiped out when the climate changed. The Inuit were very successful because they figured out a number of things, such as kayaks, harpoons, etc., though even that is only over the last thousand years or so.

  3. <a>Roald Amundsen …During this time Amundsen learned from the local Netsilik people about Arctic survival skills that would later prove useful. For example, he learned to use sled dogs and to wear animal skins in lieu of heavy, woolen parkas.

  4. Amundsen also learned from his dogs. After using large numbers of dogs to help establish the supply depots for his return trip and getting up to the glaciers to the high Antarctic plateau, he and his men killed most of the dogs as unneeded for the trip to the pole and then downhill all the way on the return trip. He and his men then packaged the dog meat to feed themselves and the remaining dogs. They left the livers as Amundsen noted that sled dogs would not eat dog liver. In doing so, he avoided a toxic dose of Vitamin D stored in carnivore's livers. In the 30's, a baloon expedition to the North Pole crashed. The survivors shot and killed a polar bear. They ate the bear, including the liver, and the bear ended up killing them.

  5. The Boers in South Africa did some mix of learning from locals and imposing their own preferences. It wasn't pretty! But it worked for them for several hundred years. Pilgrims learned some from Native Americans – we all heard about burying a fish under the hill of corn in school.

    The line about intelligence enabling culture – yes, and some cultural practices probably require more than others. Intelligence is costly, enough food for high levels competes with other desirable traits (strength, immune system). So this suggests evolution would balance, over a long enough time, the intelligence needed for the locally optimal culture with other traits selected in the population.

  6. This reminds me – everyone needs to read The Terror by Dan Simmons, easily the best historical fiction about Lord Franklin's expedition and surely the only one featuring an unkillable ice monster serving as a metaphor for the unrelenting brutality of the arctic environment and the inevitable response to the white explorers' hubris.

  7. Well, anthropology and sociology types routinely overestimate the importance of culture. All disciplines have a tendency to overestimate the importance of the object of their inquiries. I think this hypothesis would have to be sharpened a whole lot before it was ready for prime time. Chimps have cultures–they pass knowledge from generation to generation–but they're not all that smart, and so the end result isn't all that impressive. Instead of lunging for a vague hypothesis about the primacy of culture, why not emphasize the fact that trial, error and correction over long periods of time seems to work better than trying to figure something out all at once? Science (including informal science) works best over the long run, and requires experimentation. Culture, by acting as a kind of memory, makes long-term trial and error a viable approach…but that doesn't make it the most important element here. Anyway, all this would have to be sharpened up.

  8. By the time of Shackleton's expedition chronicled in "Endurance" (easily one of the most fascinating books I have read), the polar explorers had apparently learned enough from the Inuit to have adopted a significant portion of their adaptations.

    However, that may be a case of the "polar explorer" culture changing, as opposed to an expedition adapting.

    I think Thor Heyerdal's "Kon-Tiki" expedition might also count as adapting traditional means.

  9. Or better yet, did any expedition not "go native," but successfully, quickly, and independently innovate all the necessary tools and tricks to survive? The colonization of the Americas by England et al suggests this is itself hard.

  10. Yes, Amundsen, but before Amundsen there was Fridtjof Nansen (who later won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with refugess during and following WWI). Nansen led the first crossing of Greenland, and was nearly the first to the North Pole. Nansen pioneered the technique of adapting the clothing and survival skills of the Inuit for polar exploration. A truly remarkable person.

  11. I read somewhere that Wilfred Thesiger, known to the Bedouin as "Mubarak bin London", survived a crossing of the Arabian Empty Quarter in the 1940s drinking camel's blood. A reference would be appreciated, if anybody has one. But Theisiger certainly came close to living like the locals: "I have drunk unboiled water from wells, ditches, and drains all over the Middle East for twenty five years without ill-effect" – from Arabian Sands, 1959.

  12. I met a contract National Geographic photographer in the northern Yukon in the mid 1970s. He and his driver got stuck and ran out of supplies. The Eskimos saved them. They took them in and taught them the women and children's chores so all of the family could hunt, including the children. It got thin in the dead of winter but everyone made it.

  13. Thesinger also wrote one of the best books about Iraq: The Marsh Arabs. A remarkable person.

  14. I don't know if borrowing a few skills from natives can be called "going native." But there's rumors of the Madoc(?) tribe of Native Americans, where blue eyes crop up occasionally. Supposedly an Irish expedition during or before the Viking age settled in North America, married into the community, and disappeared culturally, having really gone native. Also, there's the Lost Legion or Romans who, after fleeing a battle in Turkey, vanished into the interior of China. Recently, while mapping maternal DNA, researchers discovered a large amount of caucasian heritage, and occasional blue eyes that would indicate the Legion settling down & going native there.

  15. Yes, in 1853-55 my great great great uncle led the Second Grinnell Expedition to the arctic, going farther north than anyone had previously. There, he and his crew got "stuck" for two consecutive winters. He consciously chose native practices as survival techniques, such as eating raw meat and raw fish, and adapting native watercraft such as kayaks to his purposes. He was known for having been the first Euro/American explorer to adapt the methods of native peoples, or at least, to state so explicitly in his travel memoirs.

  16. There are a few examples in The Lost City of Z where the remains of lost expeditions in the Amazon were able to successfully integrate for periods of time with local tribes, although this didn't happen on a large scale and didn't allow for the continuation of the expedition.

  17. Wikipedia has a reasonably good and detailed summary account of the Second Grinnell Expedition

    (named for its financier) led by Elisha Kent Kane in 1853, which includes mentions of various native practices deliberately adopted by Dr. Kane, especially in this paragraph:

    Dr. Kane's memoir about the expedition was the most-read nonfiction book of its day, and led later explorers such as Shackleton to continue the use of native practices. (

    "This book," he wrote, "is my coffin." He died aged 37 in Cuba in 1857 from the effects of his two winters in the artic.

  18. Regarding Franklin, it seems that the food they broght with them might have been poisoned with lead, which obviously could not have helped. The disappearance of the European Greenlanders during the end of the 14th/beginning of the 15th century has also been attributed to their failure to adopt more Inuit practices, which, in turn, might have been resisted because of historical antipathy between the two, and the fact that the Inuits refused to adopt Christianity.

    I wonder if anthropologists might look at the related, comparable phenomenon, of what happens when your native skills become superfluous and you find it difficult to adapt a new social status quo, which seems to be what has happened in an awful lot of Inuit/Eskimo communities.

  19. "Did any expedition ever successfully 'go native,' adopting appropriate survival practices from the folks who were used to living in the environment?"

    Take out hte concept of expedition, and refugees from Cambodia, illiterate and almost unemployable, unaccustomed to Western diets and grooming styles, opening doughnut shops and nail salons across California, fit the criteria.

  20. Couple of books which have struck me – Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture Marvin Harris and The Mountain People by Colin M.Turnbull (discussion at… talk about indigenous people (Yanomamo and Ik) whose reasonably functional traditional ways of life have gotten knocked out of synch by events and whose current situation is absolutely dreadful, violent, etc. These are folks who have not, in several generations, gotten back to a humane pattern. Both books give a strong pictures of cultures not healing themselves at all after events change what used to work.

  21. It may be too little appreciated that the Norse arrived in Greenland *before* the Inuit.

    There's a basic economic conflict is any island and/or extremely *thin* environment, between the need for sophisticated tools, and the absence of social scale sufficient to support the specialization of labor necessary to sustain sophisticated tool-making, including the soft tools of particular strategically rich skill-sets, like hunting and tracking. A culture, to adapt, has to have enough surplus, to "fund" an additional investment in developing the adaptation. (Consider the implications of the commenter's story about an Inuit family having to have the children hunt, to survive the addition of a couple of stranded explorers.)

    There has to be a significant risk in any island (small group) and/or thin environment, that changes in climate, will trigger a downward spiral into oblivion. Probably the natural history of Greenland and similar places includes a series of human cultures/populations coming from adjacent areas, dying out and being replaced.

  22. Sacagawea's French husband went native, as did many French fur trappers before him (c.1650 – 1754)! They, too, can be considered explorers, who bothered to listen to the locals! -Kevo

  23. Your colleague makes an Austrian point, if you pause to consider it. Every specialization in a modern economy has its culturally evolved tricks which general intelligence cannot deduce from first principles.

  24. The anecdotal and literary record here suggests that culture plays a crucial role in another way: individual traders/explorers/pilgrims/etc have been going native (not all, but on a regular basis) for as long as such things have been recorded, but there seems to be some kind of critical group size above which the home culture is maintained arbitrarily long, unless there's some kind of top-down decision to adopt local practices. Among everything else, if most of the people around you have your mind-set, change is hard.

  25. Mark, if you'd like a superb and engaging ethnography on Inuit culture, social deviancy and norms, and the need for an outsider to adapt, may I suggest "Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family" by Jean Briggs. It's stuck with me since my Anthropology undergrad days.

  26. The "Greenlanders refused to learn from the Inuit and died out, in a telling preview of our ineluctable DOOOM" meme is actually quite discredited. There isn't really any evidence for it, and the main scholar who introduced the idea in 1920s Denmark that the colony died out was trying to support theories of racial superiority, and may have been cherry-picking his data. (prior and subsequent digs got different results) There are both archival and archaeological sources that show that ships were still going there much later.

    What seems to be more likely is that they emigrated to the New World early on. Notably, ships going to the Grand Banks used to call in Greenland and often recruit additional crew, so they would have been well aware of possibilities opening up elsewhere (and the biggest fishing ground in the world just over the horizon).

    (And the historical source Jared Diamond relied on was a Danish tax collector, so the Greenlanders had good reasons to plead poverty when he was around.)

  27. Ah, this is what I intended to link to – Kirsten Seaver's The Frozen Echo.

    (I mean, did anyone really believe Danes had a powerful cultural taboo against eating fish in the first place? In an era when the Church semi-officially prescribed eating fish on Fridays?)

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