I was worried that Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein’s new book, A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century: Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life, would be a shallow self-help book. The dust jacket tells us that the book will “empower you to live a better, wiser life.” Books that promise to “empower” you are rarely worth reading. Happily, however, Heying and Weinstein have produced one of those rare “empowering” books well worth reading, even if it also contains a strong dose of the spurious.
In it, they examine the problems of living in the twenty-first century using a deep evolutionary lens. They posit that civilisation is teetering on the precipice and that an evolutionary understanding of ourselves and the world is essential to bringing us back. The former part of this argument is somewhat overdone, but the latter part is an essential corrective to our short-termism.
Some of the blurb’s statements are questionable: are loneliness and illness really “skyrocketing?” Are we really “more listless, divided, and miserable than ever?” While modern society has its problems, this overstates things. See Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now for a more nuanced view. Are resource depletion and population growth really such apocalyptic threats? I recommend Toby Ord’s recent book on existential risk for an antidote to these particular concerns. When the book states unequivocally (and without providing any evidence) that “we are hurtling towards destruction,” then, the authors are doing themselves a disservice.
They are not completely wrong, though. There are individual and societal-level problems and there are great existential risks to humanity, and Heying and Weinstein do a good, if hyperbolic, job of reminding us of this. Most of the book is given over to more specific concerns, though: the authors deal with topics as varied as sleep and sex, childhood and consciousness, using their evolutionary training to illuminate the state of the world and to provide advice both for the individual and for society as a whole.
It helps that the book has been excellently written, deftly distilling complex ideas for the non-scientist, and at times it rises to a Dawkinsian level of prose-poetry. For example, in an extraordinary early chapter, the book provides a vivid account of life on Earth from its beginning 3.5 billion years ago. A sample:
We [humans] live in groups and have hierarchy. We engage in reciprocity—exchanging both gifts and blows. We cooperate to compete. We have law and leaders, ritual and religious practice. We admire hospitality and generosity. We admire beauty, in nature and in one another. We dance and sing. We play.
Our differences are fascinating, but our similarities make us human.
Earlier, discussing culture and consciousness, they write:
We humans are by far the most aware of one another’s thoughts of any species that has ever existed, because we alone can, if we so choose, hand over the cognitive goods explicitly and with spectacular precision. We can accurately pass a complex abstraction from one mind to another by simply vibrating the air between us. It is everyday magic that usually passes without our notice.
This encapsulates one of the authors’ main points: that the speciality of humans is in being generalists, niche-switchers, capable of pooling our knowledge and ideas and producing culture. By linking minds, we can bootstrap ourselves rapidly along a line of progression like no other thing in the known universe possibly can.
The book contains many excellent coinages. Hyper-novelty describes our world now: so complex and ever-shifting that our evolved bodies and minds are out of sync with much of it. Sucker’s folly describes our predilection for embracing short-term benefits despite long-term costs and risks. The fourth frontier describes the world we must aim for, one defined by a steady state rather than unsustainable growth.
Unfortunately, the tone is sometimes pompous, as when Heying and Weinstein quote a former student: “Walking into your classroom was like walking into an ancestral mode for which I was primed, but didn’t even know existed.” The authors tell us how much they “innovated” in the classroom and that they “forged new paths, and posited new explanations for patterns, both old and new.” One of the problems here is that Weinstein in particular has long evinced a desire to revolutionise evolutionary biology but has been unable to show that neo-Darwinism is in need of such an overhaul or to provide any new theoretical breakthroughs of his own (see Jerry Coyne’s takedown of Weinstein’s pretensions in this direction). Perhaps this is why some of the claims and language in the book are so overblown: Weinstein dreams of revolution but has so far failed to inspire one.
But the most valuable aspect of this book is that it takes evolution seriously. Unlike many other tomes on the state of civilisation, it places us in our deepest context: we are evolved beings and, in Leslie Orgel’s phrase, “evolution is cleverer than you are.”
In their discussion of sex and gender, for example, Heying and Weinstein point out the obvious: sex is binary (or at least bimodal), and has an evolutionary history stretching back hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of years. This does not mean that trans people don’t exist, or that sex determines how one’s life should be lived, but it does mean that there are some deep differences between the sexes at a population level and that it is impossible to literally or completely change sex (as opposed to gender).
The authors easily dismantle the misuse of intersex people (and clownfish) by those who believe that sex can be changed, and rightly tell us that it is silly to “pretend that sex equals gender, or that gender has no relationship to sex, or that either sex or gender is not wholly evolutionary.” They provide the evidence that there are significant behavioural and psychological differences between the sexes but are at pains to point out that this is a matter of population-level averages which tell us nothing about the individual and which should not be used to draw any conclusions about the individual capabilities of men and women. This sort of subtlety is a refreshing change from the hyperbole of blank-slate feminists, reactionaries and the advocates of radical trans ideology.
By bringing evolutionary thinking to bear, Heying and Weinstein are able to provide fresh insights on many topics. An evolutionary view is also defamiliarizing, as their discussion of schooling shows. Schooling is very recent in our history and teaching is quite rare in organisms as a whole. Most human learning is done by observation and experience rather than by sitting in regimented classrooms and regurgitating facts: this is to submit and obey rather than to learn.
On senescence, Heying and Weinstein argue that ageing is important for culture to progress. Elders provide child support and are repositories of wisdom (though their wisdom should not be taken unquestioningly). The current fad to prevent ageing is therefore a threat to something that makes us human in the first place, and that could have catastrophic effects on our cultural storehouse—and therefore our ability to navigate and adapt to the world. This reminded me of Martin Amis’s critique in Inside Story:
As on the question of earthly utopia, so with eternal life: literature is unanimous in regarding human perfection or indefinite perpetuation as essentially horrific … It is right, it is fitting, it is as it should be, that we die. ‘Death is the dark backing a mirror needs before we can see anything,’ wrote Saul Bellow. And without death there is no art, because without death there is no interest, or to be more precise there is no fascination.
There is much more such analysis in the book, on a wide variety of topics. But the book also has some serious weaknesses.
Some of the authors’ arguments smack of overreach. Dismissing Richard Dawkins’s concept of the meme, they suggest the “Omega principle, which posits that expensive and long-lasting cultural traits … should be presumed to be adaptive, and that adaptive elements of culture are not independent of genes.” Dawkins has never dismissed gene–culture co-evolution (quite the contrary) and this doesn’t prove that cultural norms can’t evolve by themselves (or by human design). If you really want to prove this, you have to provide a much stronger refutation of all other types of cultural creation and transmission than is provided in this book.
In fairness, Heying and Weinstein do propose a test for whether something is adaptive or not: if a trait is complex, costly and persistent over evolutionary (or cultural) time, it is likely to be adaptive. This rough test, they say, can produce false negatives but not false positives, the sufficient but not necessary evidence of adaptation. But this suggests that almost any social phenomenon should be considered an adaptation. If, for example, someone were to apply these ideas to early modern Europe, the Catholic Church and feudalism could be argued to be adaptive and therefore things we should be wary of challenging. And, indeed, Heying and Weinstein almost justify the reactionary: we are not conservatives, they might be saying, but look how evolutionary thinking justifies traditionalism in, say, relationships! This ignores their own point, that humans are also extremely plastic and capable of forging new ways of thinking and being.
That they should come across as reactionary in this is odd, because sometimes they also seem naively hippyish. For example, they decry the practice of genetically modifying organisms because it involves tinkering with complex genomes built up over evolutionary time. But while there is certainly a debate to be had around GMOs, Weinstein and Heying ignore the enormous benefits they can bring, such as higher yields and infection-resistant crops. Try telling a poor and hungry village that GMOs are bad. And at the end of the book, they suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic could have been avoided had we all just spent more time outdoors, where the virus can’t easily transmit. Fortunately, this is their only mention of the pandemic, and they avoid the ivermectin/anti-vaccine rabbit hole that they have sadly become infamous for jumping down of late.
In attempting to provide a fully systematic evolutionary view of the world, Heying and Weinstein come dangerously close to ending up in the position of Icarus as the wax melted. It is better to explain some things in terms of memes, power, economics or ideology, than in Heying and Weinstein’s restrictive terms.
The authors do note that just because a cultural trait is adaptive does not mean that it is intrinsically good or relevant now, in different circumstances. They do suggest caution in changing things, from food to sleep to sociality. Their caveats suggest that they themselves are aware of the limitations of their reasoning.
Heying and Weinstein argue quite bewilderingly for the metaphorical truth of some wacky ideas. Astrology, they say, is nonsense in its modern form, but there is good evidence for correlations between birth months and health:
If—and this is a big if—you control for where a person was born, might not the time of year that they were born have effects on how they develop, and therefore who they become? And aren’t astrological signs just an ancient way of keeping track of the months, more or less? If we look at astrology this way, rather than as a modern indulgence that is too free of context and history to have meaning, it begins to look promising.
This, they say, “should be enough to make a thoughtful person rethink a wholesale rejection of careful astrological thinking.” This is special pleading. There are many things that could be championed in this way. Christian Science? Well, there is good evidence that family comfort, support and goodwill are good for health, so this must be literally false but metaphorically true (and adaptive) as well! Etcetera. This is also a favoured tactic of religious apologists: look at this verse in the Quran, it aligns vaguely with what modern science has found if we squint hard enough, therefore Islam predicted quantum physics!
If astrologers focus on birth months, and birth months have important effects on health, it doesn’t mean that astrology is valid but that it was right by accident, while the only path to discovering truth is rational analysis. Indeed, the more you validate woo that is right only occasionally, coincidentally and tangentially, the more susceptible to unreason you make society. The same goes for the wisdom of tribespeople: their skills and knowledge of the environment are a result not of the validity of woo but of an application of science broadly conceived.
If everything can be made to seem adaptive, then anything can be, whatever contortions must be pulled to show that it is. I am not saying that mythology and fiction are bad things. I agree that, in some sense, they reveal truth. But this is better understood in Salman Rushdie’s sense, whereby stories can be ways to understand the world and ourselves—but as stories, while literal belief in them is an obstacle to understanding and applying them properly. There is no reason to reify them as “adaptive” and to do so leads us down tortuous paths in the pursuit of justifying silliness.
On religion, too, Heying and Weinstein fall prey to such errors. Religion, they say, must be adaptive, otherwise it would not be so universal and persistent, and atheists would have displaced the religious by now. It is good for us, whatever the truth of it. But they don’t disprove other explanations for cultural persistence, such as memetic effectiveness, the allure of social control, and evolved human cognitive weaknesses (seeking agency where there is none, for example). The latter explanation for religion, incidentally, coheres nicely with Heying and Weinstein’s points about evolutionary mismatch: our agency-detection kit is also outdated, which leads to false beliefs about the universe, and thus the dismissal of religion is as possible within their framework as the justification of it.
Heying and Weinstein also ignore the fact that religion is correlated with unhealthy societies. As societies become richer and happier, religious belief decreases. This is even the case within different states of the US: the more devout a state is, the worse off it is. This doesn’t necessarily mean that religion equals bad societies, but it does show that religion is not necessarily adaptive or even necessary for the flourishing of individuals and societies. The most religious societies on Earth are utter hellholes, in these cases as a direct result of religious belief—look to Afghanistan or Iran or note the centuries-long battle against Christian dogmatism in Europe. One of the most notable and influential human activities in history has been the resistance to religion, without which there would have been no Enlightenment.
Heying and Weinstein also seem to think that religion is a human universal. This is to ignore the longstanding phenomenon of disbelief: Tim Whitmarsh’s research on ancient disbelief is a benchmark here, as is Ibn Warraq’s work on prehistoric and contemporary tribal non-belief (see his account of the Pirahãs of Brazil, whose brazen atheism made a Christian anthropologist lose his faith). And in any case, a significant chunk of Christianity at least is disintegrating, as even its votaries admit. Too bad for anyone who thinks we need religion, then: we shall just have to do without (the fate of Scandinavia should allay any trepidation on that front).
Most importantly, Heying and Weinstein’s insistence on the necessity of such metaphorically true but literally false beliefs fails to account for the most important feature of religion: that people believe it is literally true. It really does matter if people believe that God commands a certain political dispensation or morality for the rest of us.
I have many other disagreements with the book, but that is enough for now. Despite all this, Heying and Weinstein have produced a stimulating work that contains a lot of good advice for us benighted apes and is lucid as well as poetic. Most of all, they have done us a great service by taking evolution seriously in their approach to the world. Their book, therefore, is a great, if also greatly flawed, achievement.