Does Culture Make Us Dumb? | Joseph Henrich | Conversations with Tyler

Does Culture Make Us Dumb? | Joseph Henrich | Conversations with Tyler


COWEN: In which ways does culture make us
dumb? HENRICH: It removes a lot of need to think
because it gives us prebuilt solutions to problems. It gives us protocols so that we
don’t have to figure out things for ourself. Just lots of prebuilt solutions. It tells
us what we need to think and what we need to know in order to survive in the world.
COWEN: It’s made us dumb in ways x, y, and z, but what would be an example today?
HENRICH: It’s also made us smarter, though, which I think is the more . . .
COWEN: Sure, it’s made us much smarter, but what would be an area today where we’re
acting in a dumber way because of culture? HENRICH: For one thing, we’re all much dumber,
at least in the amount of societal knowledge we have in our heads compared to our ancestors.
If we go far enough back, every single person had to know everything about how to find food,
cook food, every feature of the productive system, how to make all the tools.
Now, left to our own devices, we wouldn’t be able to do the first thing in order to
recreate the productive system that we have. We’ve been breaking knowledge down into
smaller and smaller parts. In terms of our ability to produce for ourselves, it’s gotten
smaller and smaller. In the book, I have these cases of lost European
explorers, where a particular group of explorers gets stuck in an environment where hunter-gatherers
have survived for centuries, and they’re faced with the challenge of surviving.
Of course they can’t, because they’re missing this large cumulative body that the
hunter-gatherers got for free but helps you find food and avoid disease and travel and
all those kinds of things. COWEN: As you know, it’s a common 18th-century
theme that the division of labor possibly will make us stupid or uninteresting. It seems
that was wrong in the 18th century. Nicholas Carr has argued, “Well, Google makes us
all shallow, and we lose the ability to remember things.” Will that also be wrong?
HENRICH: The thing is, we probably have been losing memory ability. As soon as we can write,
we can offload lots of information that we normally have to keep in our heads.
I’ve always been impressed, living in small-scale societies, the number of stories that people
tell over campfires and just the amount of, say, folk biological information — information
about plants and animals and what’s poisonous and what you can eat and what you can’t
eat, and how you have to process it. There’s just this encyclopedic knowledge, which I
would just use the handbook for, for a lot of that information.
That’s not available to you. We’ve been gradually figuring out ways to download stuff.
I think that’s the Google problem, is that we have less stuff in our heads, but our ability
to do things can still expand.

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