Festival of Ideas - Keynote: Genes, Technology and the Evolution of Culture

Insights from the neanderthal genome, on gene-culture co-evolution, on how technology evolves, and on what drives innovation.

The human genome provides penetrating and unexpected insights into human individual and collective history. Among them is the counterintuitive idea that genes are at the mercy of experience. What we do in our lives affects what genes are switched on and off. An extension of this is the realization that genetic changes are driven by cultural ones at least as much as the other way round. For example, the ability to digest lactose as adults spread among Africans and Europeans because of dairy farming, rather than vice versa. This not Lamarckism; it is Darwinism, because it still depends on selection among random mutations. If we take this nature-via-nurture idea seriously, and put the cultural horse before the genetic cart, then an upside-down view of human uniqueness emerges. Genes that facilitate language may be the consequence, as much as the cause, of speech, for example.

I will argue that culture is itself dominated by the Darwinian trio of replication, variation and selection -- among ideas. The explosive take-off of human technology and prosperity over the past 100,000 years can be traced back to a particular cultural invention -- exchange -- which had the same impact on cultural evolution that sex had on biological evolution. By enabling people to draw upon the inventiveness of strangers, and to work for each other, exchange led to mutual interdependence and collective innovation so that today nobody even knows how to make a pencil, because the knowledge is stored among brains rather than in them. In that sense, the bottom-up evolution of human technology and society is inevitable, inexorable and potentially infinite.