A Story of Us

In the section titled Birth and Zoological Structure of the Noosphere—the first section of The Formation of the Noosphere in The Future of Man—Teilhard identifies the “spiritual phenomenon of Reflection” as the primary influence that set human development on its unique evolutionary path. Teilhard elaborates on what he means by Reflection:

“It is generally accepted that what distinguishes man psychologically from other living creatures is the power acquired by his consciousness of turning in upon itself. The animal knows, it has been said; but only man, among animals, knows that he knows. This faculty has given birth to a host of new attributes in men—freedom of choice, foresight, the ability to plan and to construct, and many others. So much is clear to everyone. But what has perhaps not been sufficiently noted is that, still by virtue of this power of Reflection, living hominized elements become capable (indeed are under an irresistible compulsion) of drawing close to one another, of communicating, finally of uniting.”

In this passage Teilhard points to qualities that make humans distinctively intelligent as individuals as well as unusually adept at forming groups. If self-reflection indeed gave rise to both our cognitive capabilities and our ability to cooperate, what gave rise to self-reflective thought? What were the evolutionary influences that caused our consciousness to turn in upon itself?

Since, according to Teilhard, self-reflection gave rise to the Noosphere, answering those questions is, in a sense, the starting point of our project. Our goal is to explore the validity of his vision of the Noosphere from a modern scientific point of view. Though Teilhard was an evolutionary scientist and accomplished paleontologist as well as a Jesuit priest, a great deal of knowledge regarding human origins has emerged since his death in 1955.

So, from the perspective of modern evolutionary science, how did our human cognitive and cooperative capabilities first arise?

A significant amount of new information comes from genetic research, which was still in its infancy while Teilhard was alive. In addition, we have a much clearer understanding of how the process of cultural evolution works. However, perhaps the most interesting new insights come from a field that combines both of those disciplines, known as gene-culture coevolution, or dual inheritance theory.

This fascinating field is central to understanding how both humans and human society evolved. Obviously our ancestors’ behavioral predispositions were strongly influenced by genetically inherited traits, transmitted vertically—across generations—as they had been since the origin of life. However, as learned behaviors evolved as culturally inherited traits, they were transmitted horizontally—within generations—as well. These culturally transmitted behaviors can in turn exert selective pressures on genetically inherited traits, leading to the coevolution of human culture and human genes.

One of the most often cited examples of this process is known as lactase persistence. The gene that codes for lactase—the enzyme that breaks down lactose, or milk sugar—turns off early in our lives, after we stop breastfeeding. However, it’s assumed that neolithic human groups who adopted pastoral lifestyles began to drink the milk of the herbivores they domesticated. Some developed a mutation that prevented the lactase-coding gene from turning off in early childhood, and since this genetic mutation conferred a nutritional advantage, it was naturally selected and proliferated in these pastoralist groups.

Thus herding animals, a cultural trait, caused lactase persistence, a genetic trait, to evolve. Groups with more members who could digest milk into adulthood would benefit more from pastoral lifestyles, so that cultural trait became embedded in human society. This is the coevolution of genes and culture, our dual inheritance, at work. How much of human evolutionary history can be attributed to this process? Did our capacity for self-reflection that launched the Noosphere into existence evolve in this way?

Two pioneers in the science of gene-culture coevolution are Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd. They have written numerous papers and books about human evolution, but most recently Pete collaborated with his wife, Lesley Newson, a science journalist with a Ph.D. in psychology. Their new book, just published earlier this year, is titled A Story of Us: A New Look at Human Evolution.

In the conversation that David Sloan Wilson conducted recently with Lesley and Pete, they discuss their book and other topics relevant to our inquiry. One recurring theme is the importance of cooperative child-rearing that likely emerged in our early human ancestors, who evolved as the climate was changing in Africa, transforming humid tropical forests into drier savannas. This resulted in all sorts of novel survival challenges, particularly for mothers who could no longer raise their children alone—as had been the practice among their ape ancestors.

This set the stage for the evolution of culture as well as our big brains—obviously key ingredients in the evolution of our capacity for self-reflection. Lesley in particular makes a compelling case that the role of women has been given short shrift in most previous accounts of how our species evolved. The central role that women must have played is a key aspect of A Story of Us.

As we know, the evolution of our species has been accelerating ever more rapidly over the last 10,000 years, as technology—one facet of culture—has become its own driving evolutionary force. If we look at the human story as an arc that begins with our origins and leads to the present day, does it make sense to ask if a new sort of coevolution—between culture and technology—is under way?

If the coevolution of biology and culture led to the emergence of self-reflection in individuals and cooperation in early human groups, could the coevolution of culture and technology lead us toward self-reflection at the level of the Noosphere and cooperation at a planetary scale?

While answering such questions is well beyond the scope of their book or the conversation that follows, the ideas put forth by Lesley and Pete regarding human evolution lay the groundwork for exploring what kinds of questions we need to ask.


The following conversation is divided into four parts. As always, each video  is followed by a link to a full PDF transcript of that segment.

Part One begins with David asking Lesley and Pete what distinguishes A Story of Us from other books about human evolution. Pete explains how it emphasizes cultural evolution’s fundamental role. He also explains why there has to be some speculation involved in telling that story—because evidence is often scanty, they need to fill in some of these details.

Lesley describes how the speculative parts of the book—a series of stories that address different stages of human evolution—are intended to encourage the reader to think about the problems our ancestors must have faced at each of these stages. Then they back up these stories with the available evidence.

Another unusual feature of their book is that it goes back further than most accounts of human evolution—to 7 million years ago, when the human lineage first diverged from the lineage that led to modern apes such as bonobos and chimpanzees. Lesley explains that the key survival and reproductive problems our ancestors had to solve, and how their solutions differed from other apes, can be traced to that stage of development.

That’s followed by a discussion of how hierarchical ape societies may have evolved to be more egalitarian and cooperative and how this might have been necessary as our ancestors moved from tropical forests to the drier and more changeable savanna. Lesley explains her hypothesis based on the observation that it would have been hard for mothers to provide milk for their infants in an environment where sources of water are spread far apart. Normally, a young ape is always with its mother and, as she forages, it takes milk whenever it wants. Foraging in a dry environment would have been hard for an ape mother carrying an infant so moving out of the forest may have required that mothers cooperate in raising their young. Babies would have stayed in a protected area near a source of water while mothers took turns going out to forage. Mothers might have received help from their own mothers, as well as older children, nieces and nephews, sisters and aunts. In short, the raising of offspring, the key to evolutionary success, was not so much a competition but a shared enterprise. It became a central purpose that bound them tightly together as a functional, unitary group.

Pete adds the idea that defense against predators may have also played a significant role. This could have been a function performed by males—making them participants in the cooperative child-rearing process. They discuss the hypothesis of stone-throwing as an early human skill, and this leads to a further discussion of the use of simple tools—the earliest forms of human technology. Later on, as the hominid brain expanded, help from males would have probably been essential. Maintaining and growing a brain requires a lot of energy so larger brained hominids would have have hungrier babies.

Lesley introduces the idea of social tools, and the role they play in human evolution. She describes them as “tools that we can use to help us work together”. One new social tool that our female ancestors may have used that made cooperative child-rearing such a central part of human evolution was punishing bullies. She explains:

“You don’t want the big kids to beat up on the little kids because it’s damaging your own fitness to have the older kids beating up on the younger kids. So what do you do? You invent the social tool of preventing bullying by punishing it.”

She thinks that if some kids were unteachable—if they continued in their bullying ways—they would be expelled from the group, and die. If this was the case, it’s one way that gene-culture coevolution may have transformed us into a more cooperative species. She continues:

“I think that the social tool of parenting and making decisions about which kids to keep and which kids to pack off was the one that selected genes for youngsters who could learn, and learn that they shouldn’t bully and learn how to control anger and greed. And so many of the other emotions, which are potentially very damaging for cooperation.”

David brings in the more general theme of social control of dominant, self-serving behaviors, and the need to control cheating. Pete responds with some observations on the psychopathic nature of dominant personalities. He also introduces the idea of two paths to power in human societies—prestige and dominance:

“To get a prestige-based system, the leaders are prosocial, because their status comes from voluntary grants of recognition of their leadership role by their followers. Dominance comes from the use of force or the threat of force to work your will.”

All three discuss various aspects of dominance and different paths to cooperation, and the challenges that emerge from the problem of balancing individual autonomy with the needs of the group. David comments that this is why we’ve evolved moral systems. Pete ends this part of the discussion with the observation that we’ve evolved institutions to organize our social systems, a feature that is essentially exclusive to human groups.

Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson with David Sloan Wilson: Part One Transcript


Part Two of the discussion begins with David asking about the “cooperation came first” hypothesis. Essentially, humans first developed cooperative behaviors, and after that evolved cognitive mental capabilities, including symbolic language and thought, that supported cooperation in groups—another example of gene-culture coevolution at work.

Lesley agrees, and comments that cooperative child-rearing supports this case.

Pete states that he’s a heretic in this discussion, and explains why he thinks the changes that took place in our brains that led to more cooperative behaviors had largely emotional rather than cognitive origins.

Lesley observes that bonding is a big part of the emotional side—our ability to bond so strongly to almost anything.

David introduces a new thread into the discussion—conscious, or intentional evolution. Lesley says that she thinks bonding plays a role in this—that we use social tools such as national symbols like flags and anthems to pull people together.

Pete introduces the ideas of conscious influences in evolution such as sexual and artificial selection. He explains why, since those are agent-based processes, they are conscious evolution in a way. David agrees and expresses his opinion that evolutionary science is in recovery, in a sense, from what is known as “the modern synthesis”, that constricted evolutionary thought around a narrow view of genetics.

Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson with David Sloan Wilson: Part Two Transcript


Part Three begins with David asking about the relationship between cooperation and information, and how they function in situations of increasing scale such as major evolutionary transitions.

Pete begins the discussion with some observations on language, the human innovation in information systems that came with our transition from ape ancestors. He explains why he thinks there are two interesting features of language. One is the tribal aspect of it, how common languages bind us together in groups. The other is why we have different languages, and how that’s important to define us as members of different groups. David and Pete discuss these ideas.

Lesley introduces the question of how we expect to get around some of our information conflicts today, which separate us over issues such as global warming and vaccinations. David expresses the opinion that despite our differences, we’re also capable of adapting to different kinds of groups—and why that opens up the possibility of bringing people from diverse backgrounds together around common cause.

That leads David to ask about the idea of collective intelligence and decision-making.
Lesley relates a story from their book, in which groups of humans might have banded together to simulate a much larger animal, and used that ability to scare off actual larger and fiercer animals like hyenas, and thus procure resources like meat.

Pete contributes the idea of human groups as a “problem-solving collective via the creation of culture”. He elaborates:

“If each of us had to create our culture for ourselves, it would be an impossible task. Learning is expensive. So what we do in effect is share out the task of learning among all of us. Everybody’s trying to learn. And if I make a small improvement in the mouse trap, I can communicate that to the rest of my group, and someone else in turn can make another modification that improves it. So each of us does a little bit of work in creating and learning, but we share it. And so the otherwise impossible task of creating a complicated technology or a complicated social organization is a shared task.”

Pete adds that while problem-solving collectives address the cognitive side of collective consciousness, the emotional aspects are addressed by identifying with social groups, such as fans of sports teams. This part of the discussion ends with all three commenting on that idea.

Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson with David Sloan Wilson: Part Three Transcript


In Part Four they discuss the future. David asks about the challenges of expanding cooperation to the global scale, and whether knowledge of how cooperation evolved has anything to contribute to that.

Lesley comments that one development that affects the future of cooperation is that we are no longer competing for reproductive success in a traditional Darwinian sense, and that will reduce competition for resources in the future as well. She mentions that much of that is because of the weakening influence of the family, which was the main driver of reproductive competition throughout human history.

Pete observes that the history of the last century is one of strengthening international institutions, a positive sign for the future—though there is still a lot of work to do in that regard.

Lesley mentions that cultural lag—that results when culture takes time catching up with technological innovation—creates problems for scaling up cooperation in that way. Pete comments that cultural lag is something to fight, not use as an excuse.

David contributes some final hopeful thoughts on the mixing of cultures that is already taking place. He thinks that their ideas regarding the evolution of cooperation are ultimately scale-independent, which offers hope as well.

Pete essentially agrees, observing that though conflicts obviously still exist, we’re finding ways to solve them. Lesley ends by stating we need to find new stories that enable people to see a better future for our children to live in.

Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson with David Sloan Wilson: Part Four Transcript