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Book description

Book description
With this book, Harris accomplished an undertaking that few could achieve. He produced an overview of human biological and cultural evolution up to the present day that duly incorporates evidence from every field of anthropology in a way that is both entertaining and comprehensible for the general and academic reader.After covering the biological evolution of modern humans from the earliest hominins, Harris begins presenting his case that after a certain point he calls cultural takeoff (35-40,000 years ago) cultural selection began serving as a proxy for natural selection in most facets of social life. He argues that many widespread human behaviors do not serve to maximize individual reproductive success, and it is actually minimized by such universal practices as female infanticide, abortion, contraception. His explanation for the shift is that, through cultural selection, the sexual instinct has been decoupled from the reproductive instinct, so investment in reproductive success is no longer a priority.As one might expect, who is familiar with his work, Harris restricts his discussion of culture to functional explanations of why diverse traditions are best suited to given ecological and social environments. His theoretical perspective is decidedly evolutionary though not in the narrow sociobiological sense. Since the theme of the book is the evolution of culture, Harris is in his element, and the explanation he gives for the transition from redistributive chiefdoms to states, though admittedly anecdotal, has me completely convinced.One of my favorite sections is titled Was there life before chiefs? Harris describes a few of countless examples of hunting and gathering societies which functioned without permanent positions of authority. Granting that societies with reciprocal exchange are economically egalitarian, Harris does not romanticize arguing that, in at least some of these, women are subordinate to men. He attributes this to the slight physical advantage of males over females.The book ends on a dark note, reminding readers that, while human choice has been involved in every moment of the process of cultural selection, the major transformations of human societies have not been chosen as the big picture has always seemed to elude us. The last century has demonstrated this failure of foresight as new technologies have managed to threaten human and non-human life in new more acute ways than ever before. He poses the problem of how humans might gain some control over the process of cultural evolution before it kills us.
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