Joseph Henrich on Cultural Transmission

The book is The Secret of Our Success, and I am only a little way into it. An excerpt:

evolutionary reasoning suggests that learners should use a wide range of cues to figure out whom to selectively pay attention to and learn from. Such cues allow them to target those people most likely to possess information that will increase the learner’s survival and reproduction. . .individuals should combine cues related to the models’ health, happiness, skill, reliability, competence, success, age, and prestige, as well as correlated cues like displays of confidence or pride. These cues should be integrated with others related to self-similarity, such as sex, temperament, or ethnicity

I think that by emphasizing how little knowledge we generate internally compared with knowledge we acquire through cultural transmission, this book could bolster libertarian/conservative views. It certainly reinforces my doubts about the ability of technocrats to “fix” society. Henrich does not do much with this, although skipping ahead to the next-to-last paragraph in the book:

Humans are bad at intentionally designing effective institutions and organizations, though I’m hoping that we get deeper insights into human nature and cultural evolution this can improve. Until then, we should take a page from cultural evolution’s playbook and design “variation and selection systems” that will allow alternative institutions or organizational forms to compete. We can dump the losers, keep the winners, and hhopefully gain some general insights during the process.

Yes, Professor Henrich, we have a term for that. We call it “the market.”

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3 Responses to Joseph Henrich on Cultural Transmission

  1. David says:

    I see three options here:

    He realizes he’s talking about capitalism and just refuses to name it
    He genuinely doesn’t make the connection
    He views capitalism as something different than what he defined

    Of those options, I guess #3 is the least bad?

  2. Daublin says:

    Shouldn’t that be “a market” rather than “the market”?

    Markets are in large part designed. Before a market can exist, there have to be rules or at least norms about what counts as property and what counts as an allowable exchange. Once you define those things, you have a market, and people can then search and discover better things–but it’s all within the proscribed framework of *a* given market.

    As a motivating example, think about the market for real estate. The allowable units of real estate are lots, and the current owner of each lot is stored in the archives at city hall, along with paper copies held by the people personally most interested. Cash purchases are allowed, and there’s also an elaborate mortgage system designed around buying them with a loan.

    These rules are part inherited and part designed. The formal statutory rules can be changed, but certain kinds of rule changes would not be compatible with either how people are built or with what they culturally consider acceptible.

  3. TomG says:

    Let’s change it a bit:
    “Humans are bad at intentionally designing effective institutions and organizations which use force in order to do good, though I’m hoping that [as] we get deeper insights into human nature and cultural evolution this can improve.”

    IBM turned 100 a couple years ago — still an effective mostly peaceful org.
    (Enforcement of property rights and contracts is not peaceful — but is needed for civilization.)

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