Evolution and Human Culture

Evolution and Human Culture: Texts and Contexts. (Brill, Value Inquiry Book Series/Cognitive Science).

[Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program. Gorilla, Bisson Frères, circa 1853]

Here's the Preface to the book.
Why do some people get heated up when they hear the word evolution? Why are some people incensed about any hint of human evolution? Why do some people accept the evolution of other animals but not of human beings? Why do some people accept some version of physical human evolution but resist any suggestion that behaviors such as morality and art, or that the human mind, are evolved? In 2005 we began seeing articles reporting the results of surveys concerning the so-called public acceptance of evolution. Jerry Coyne and J. Miller discuss these trends. For example, in America alone in 1985 forty percent of the population did not believe in the veracity of evolution, and that percentage of non-believers has increased to forty-five percent in recent years.

My book not only accepts the truth of evolution, but the truth that human behaviors, practices, beliefs, values, emotions, and reasoning are evolved adaptations, though expressed differently in various cultures. Taking the view of Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail, I argue for a full study of human prehistory utilizing various disciplines. Our mind is responsible for behavior and has many adaptations, says David Buss, especially in our interpersonal actions.

Evolution and Human Culture will be valuable to students and scholars of literature, the arts, and cultural studies, including moral philosophers, who would be interested in reading about key intellectual developments in their fields. Biologists and social scientists would benefit as well, since the book provides a window into how scientific research contributes to the arts and humanities. The book offers a comprehensive entry into evolutionary cultural studies. The take-home point is that culture does not transcend nature; culture is human nature with moral sensations at bottom.

Most professors and students are still spinning abstractions with post-modernist theories, but they need to consider a more empirical approach. For instance, how could moral philosophers ignore biology? Most do, and I suppose in some cases that is justifiable. How could scholars writing definitive papers on beauty ignore neuroscience? Many do, and I guess in some cases that is justifiable. But these are omissions of ignorance. As another instance, theorists think that culture is something separate, foisted upon us from elsewhere, indicating that we are born with nearly empty minds that need to be filled. The notion of social constructivism is for the most part incorrect.

Evolutionary psychologists do not ignore the impact of the complex function of environment, but to a greater degree we need to see that culture is an evolved behavior so that some of our cultural imperatives are inborn. While in our advanced state of civilization cultural practices have become runaway, at bottom their existence answered adaptive needs.

Broadly speaking there are several aims of this book:

  • To survey and concisely review some literature in various disciplines of evolutionary studies in order to collect it into one volume for a wider audience.

  • To demonstrate, especially for those working in the arts and humanities, how an evolutionary approach could dramatically enlighten and invigorate their studies.

  • To suggest that much of our cultural production stems from what in early hominins was a caring tendency – both the care to share and a self-care to challenge others.

  • To argue that cognition and feelings gave rise to cognitive emotions crucial for adaptations regarding individual well-being and strategizing in the context of group norms.

  • To argue that cultural artifacts as social expressions are physical examples of individual and shared moral sentiments.

  • To conclude that while culture is a controlling mechanism to set boundaries, at the same time it invites innovation to fire change.

The model of mind followed is that of Steven Mithen and cognitive fluidity. Mithen builds from Howard Gardner’s notion of intelligences and Leda Cosmides and John Tooby’s idea of modular flexibility. What many call our social brain is really a reflective mind adapted to sentiments. We think creatively through our emotions. Cognitive skills in monkeys and great apes evolved in terms of social pressures. With us, emotional cognition magnified to the point that our culture is highly protean. While nascent in apes, our mentality includes a flourishing ability to attribute mental states to others and to hypothesize social situations. So our culture and aesthetics come in line with what I term moral.

Our brains are clearly much less domain specific than those in monkeys and to some extent great apes, precisely because we are concerned about what others will think of our actions. This book does not, technically, deal with how the mind works. Rather, with the evolution of human culture there is less concern about a model and more about referencing chronology, artifacts, mental adaptations, and continuities with nonhuman primates. While culture consists of laws, codes are meant to be broken. Our ability to mold a letter of the law and to innovate over norms is the hallmark of our cultural behaviors.

The book is broken down into four main sections, asserting that essentially everything human is cultural, and everything cultural is cognitive or emotional. The sequence of the chapters mimics the argument about how artistic representations and cognitive culture challenge and yet enforce prehistoric and adaptive moral norms. The trajectory of the book builds to art and aesthetics, the culmination of what it means for us to be human. And yet, chapter two rightly focuses on a key tenet of the book and of humanity, our moral sentiments.

My more comprehensive and detailed study Making Mind: Moral Sense and Consciousness, deals with the origin and evolution of individual consciousness as narration. In that book I address more topics more deeply, such as moral sensations and emotions, consciousness, free will, and individual/group selection. That book and this one complement each other and could be read together, since here I focus more on what is called artistic culture, which includes cultural practices and values as well as the arts. The term culture is too broad, and the word art is too narrow, so I combine the two. In the creation of and participation in artistic culture, I will refer to art behavior.


*Testimonials and Reviews*

Christopher X J. Jensen, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Ecology & Evolution, Pratt Institute

"Between the age-old outposts maintained by the humanities and the biological sciences lies a vast wilderness where culture and biology form a dense and inter-tangled forest. If you’ve had the feeling that you need to leave your safe and comfortable outpost and venture into this forest in order to truly understand the unique role that culture has played in the evolution of the human species, Gregory F. Tague’s Evolution & Human Culture is your map of that wilderness. A native of the humanities but also a frequent envoy to the biological sciences, Professor Tague has mapped out the paths taken by anthropologists, primatologists, evolutionary psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers who have traveled where human culture and human biology intersect. Different disciplines have discovered different areas of this biocultural landscape and have returned with different ideas; Evolution & Human Culture provides an impressively-complete account of these diverse explorations. An intrepid explorer himself, Professor Tague provides his own take on the importance of culture to human evolution — that culture emerged as a means of creating and maintaining the norms that enable us to be so highly cooperative — but only after laying out the full spectrum of perspectives so clearly that he enables his reader to entertain interpretations differing from his own."


Evolution and Human Culture is a milestone piece bringing together philosophy, the sciences and the arts in an original and stimulating read. Culture, art, morality and evolution – a striking unification that is unique to this work.” Kathryn Francis, Fellow, CogNovo Institute, Plymouth University.

Evolution and Human Culture provides a very well written account of evolutionary theory across the spectrum of relevant disciplines....addressing...the most challenging questions that face humankind.” Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Ph.D., Professor, University of Lincoln.


“The author shows how human behaviors, practices, beliefs, values, emotions, and reasoning are results of evolution; how culture is a physical manifestation of the evolved mind; and how the evolution of culture is a manifestation of sensations and emotions and the expression of moral feelings in social behavior. He argues that cultural production is based on the caring tendency in early hominins, that cognition and feelings gave rise to cognitive emotions needed for adaptations for individual well-being and strategizing in the context of group norms, that cultural artifacts are social expressions and physical examples of individual and shared moral values, and that culture is a controlling mechanism open to innovation.” Protoview 3.24, June 17, 2016. 


"The book is highly informative about current theories on hominid evolution not merely in its biological aspects, but in the cultural ones as well.  In fact, it argues for the interaction of both levels relying in an impressive amount of data that show, i.e., that certain culturally related behaviors contribute to the selection of certain biological traits and vice versa. This thesis is supported by reference to abundant comparative studies with several species of nonhuman primates relatively close to our own....it presents the reader with a most thorough survey of the matter at hand in a manageable number of pages. It may therefore be considered an excellent handbook on human evolution from a biological, and above all cultural, perspective." -From a reader report (April 2015)

Subject headings applicable to the book, according to the publisher, include: 1. Philosophy>Ethics and Moral Philosophy; 2. Biology>Zoology; 3. Art History>Archaeology; 4. Philosophy>Philosophy of Mind; 5. Social Science>Sociology and Anthropology.






    Chapter One. Prehistory and Mind

    Chapter Two. Biology and Morality as Interrelated

    Chapter Three. Culture and Evolution

    Chapter Four. Art and Aesthetics As Moral Cognition 






    Natural Norms and Symbolism

    Artistic Culture and Moral Making

    Emotions and Culture

    Creative Powers of Mind

    The Culturally Moral Mind


    Interdisciplinary Nature of Evolutionary Studies

    Being Human and Language

    Genes, the Human Brain, and Tools

    Coordinating Cooperative Goals

    Mind Sharing and Language From Cooperation

    Cognitive Fluidity and a Shifting Timeline

    Ecology, Technology, Social Organization, and Symbolic Behavior

    The Question of Micro/Macro Brain Evolution

    Human Behavior Ecology and Multiple Adaptations

    Beyond Memes to Social Agreements

    From a Cognitive Animal to a Thinking Species

    Great Ape Cognition

    From Self-Interest to Self Among Others

    Gestures and Collective Intentionality

    Communication as Selective Force on the Brain

    Was Darwin Wrong?


    Naysayers Concerning the Evolution of Morality

    Foundations of Human Morality

    Moral Origins and the Individual

    Moral Origins and the Group

    Moral Feelings: Ape and Human Continuities

    Morality, Feeling, and Cognition

    Moral Dilemma and the Runaway Train

    Evolutionary Philosophy and Human Morality


    Roots of Culture and Art Behavior

    Culture and the Individual

    The Question of Cultural Transmission in Apes

    Culture, Social Learning, and Adaptive Benefit

    Culture and the Group

    From Nonhuman Culture to Human Artistic Culture


    Artistic Culture and Moral Behavior

    Art and Adaptation

    Emotions and Aesthetic Experience

    Brain Neurobiology and Art

    Theory of Mind

    Science and the Literary Imagination

    Group Harmony and the Revaluation of Morals