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Our Collective Brain

Humans, more than any other animal, have evolved the ability to learn from each other. The result is a cumulative cultural process that favors – often unintentionally – the evolution of sophisticated techniques and technologies for survival.

CAMBRIDGE – Imagine a game of survival that pits a troop of capuchin monkeys against you and your work colleagues. Both teams would be parachuted into a remote African forest, without any equipment: no matches, knives, shoes, fish hooks, clothes, antibiotics, pots, ropes, or weapons. After one year, the team with the most surviving members would be declared the victor. Which team would you bet on?

You might assume that the humans, given our superior intelligence, are the team to beat. But do you or your colleagues know how to make bows and arrows, nets, water containers, and shelters? Do you know which plants are toxic? Can you start a fire without matches? Can you make fish hooks or natural glues? Do you know how to protect yourself from big cats and snakes at night? The answer to most, if not all, of these questions is probably “no,” meaning that your team would likely lose to a bunch of monkeys – probably pretty badly.

This raises an obvious question. If we cannot survive as hunter-gatherers in Africa, the continent where our species evolved, how did humans achieve such immense success relative to other animals and spread to nearly all of the earth’s major ecosystems?

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