We are exceptionally exceptional. Unrivaled in our adaptability, ingenuity, and exploitative capacity, we have come to specialize in everything over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. . .
This is the paradox of the human niche.
A paradox in science is like an X on a treasure map: It tells us where to dig.
-From “A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century”
Recently I finished reading A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century by married evolutionary biologists Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein. The book is culmination of their years teaching the concepts of evolutionary theory to students. The field of evolutionary biology is relatively new, but it leverages insights from biology, psychology, and other fields into an emergent field of understanding.
Sprung from controversy
The trajectory of Weinstein and Heying to national prominence began with a flashpoint in the American Culture wars at their former University, Evergreen State in Olympia, Washington. An “equity” council wanted “a day without whites” to further an agenda that has now become to common at American Universities. Despite his progressive politics, Weinstein did not think it was right to force students and faculty to stay off campus and so he taught his class. The flashpoint turned into mobs of students taking matters into their own hands - effectively holding members of the administration “hostage” and roaming groups looking for the now controversial professor. For more on the origin story, I’d recommend the 3 part documentary produced on Mike Nanya’s youtube page.
Culture vs consciousness
A theme from the book that is returned to multiple times is a tension between culture and consciousness that humans must navigate. Culture is defined in the book as “beliefs and practices that are shared and passed between members of a population.” Consciousness is defined as “that portion of cognition that is newly packaged for exchange,”
From the evolutionary perspective, culture is biological. To make simple a very complicated process, what might begin as a conscious thought can permeate a culture. After a certain period of time, this information can be coded genetically and passed without the need for a cultural exchange. The tension between culture and consciousness can only exist within a biological framework (or species) that has a social component. Humans are not the only creatures that can produce a culture, but ours is by far the most sophisticated.
Arguably humans outsource far more to culture transmission than any other creature on this planet, and is largely responsible for our ability to dominate the planet. Before the “hyper novelty” of W.E.I.R.D. 1 countries, the ease at which humans can program culture was still held in check by the cruel realities of famine, disease, and war. In these countries, poverty is relative measurement, and the degree to which a consciousness can form a culture has been maximized for good or (as is often the case) for ill.
A simple way of representing this complex phenomena is to imagine a group of humans sitting around a campfire. In the course of relaying information about the day cultural norms are put up against conscious thought. Where cultural norms fail, conscious thoughts which are often prototypic - that is to say not fully formed - will begin the process of rewriting the code that leads to survival and success.
On the pages of beenawake.com I will often talk about the problems with rigid, dogmatic schools of thought and why the practice of skepticism is necessary for our current age of “hyper novelty” as Weinstein and Heying name it in their book. Today we are not limited by access to food, relative safety, disease, or any of the other historical foes of human evolution. Instead we face foes created by the unique human capacity for cultural transmission, and the pathologizing of positive human impulses toward anti-human ends.
Let’s return to the controversy that sprung this evolutionary biology duo to national prominence. What you learn is that Evergreen had a history (that is to say a culture) of black and other “persons of color” skipping a day of classes as an exercise of racial solidarity. The “day without whites” was a progression of this tradition. Using the tension we’ve established between culture and consciousness we can understand that the culture of Evergreen was being hijacked by an emergent consciousness, one that seeks to double down on ideas like social justice, intersectionality, and other fields of critical theory.
Despite their power, a contrary consciousness did exist, and while Heying and Weinstein were flung from the campfire of Evergreen, they found a larger audience to teach.
Personally I’m better for having their frameworks to understand the world around me, and I’d highly recommend you check the book out for yourself (if you click here and purchase I’ll earn a small commission from Amazon.)
I’ll be covering other lessons I drew from their book, so make sure you’re subscribed, and to make sure I keep producing compelling original content, consider becoming a patron of my substack.
(CH 3:) “Western nations, with a highly Educated populace, an Industrialized economic base, that are relatively Rich and Democratic”