In the natural world, humans are unique in using fancy technologies, sophisticated languages, and complex institutions. These cultural products have permitted us to expand across the globe, and thrive in nearly every terrestrial environment. How is it that our species manages all this and more, but other species’ cannot?

Drawing insights from lost European Explorers, clever chimpanzees, hunter-gatherers, cultural neuroscience, ancient bones and the human genome, Henrich shows that it’s not our general intelligence, innate brain power, or specialized mental abilities that explain our success. Instead, it’s our collective brains, which arise from a combination of our ability to learn selectively from each and our sociality. Our collective brains, which often operate outside of any individual’s conscious awareness, gradually produce increasingly complex, nuanced and subtle technological, linguistic and social products over generations. 

Tracking this back into the mist of our evolutionary past, and to the remote corners of the globe, Henrich shows how this non-genetic system of cultural inheritance has long driven human genetic evolution. By producing fire, cooking, water containers, tracking know-how, plant knowledge, words, hunting strategies and projectiles, culture-driven genetic evolution expanded our brains, shaped our anatomy and physiology, and influenced our psychology, making us into the world’s only living cultural species. Only by understanding cultural evolution, can we understand human genetic evolution.