Not By Genes Alone How Culture Transformed Human Evolution
by Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd
University of Chicago Press, 2004
Cloth: 978-0-226-71284-0 | Paper: 978-0-226-71212-3 | Electronic: 978-0-226-71213-0
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226712130.001.0001


Humans are a striking anomaly in the natural world. While we are similar to other mammals in many ways, our behavior sets us apart. Our unparalleled ability to adapt has allowed us to occupy virtually every habitat on earth using an incredible variety of tools and subsistence techniques. Our societies are larger, more complex, and more cooperative than any other mammal's. In this stunning exploration of human adaptation, Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd argue that only a Darwinian theory of cultural evolution can explain these unique characteristics.

Not by Genes Alone offers a radical interpretation of human evolution, arguing that our ecological dominance and our singular social systems stem from a psychology uniquely adapted to create complex culture. Richerson and Boyd illustrate here that culture is neither superorganic nor the handmaiden of the genes. Rather, it is essential to human adaptation, as much a part of human biology as bipedal locomotion. Drawing on work in the fields of anthropology, political science, sociology, and economics—and building their case with such fascinating examples as kayaks, corporations, clever knots, and yams that require twelve men to carry them—Richerson and Boyd convincingly demonstrate that culture and biology are inextricably linked, and they show us how to think about their interaction in a way that yields a richer understanding of human nature.

In abandoning the nature-versus-nurture debate as fundamentally misconceived, Not by Genes Alone is a truly original and groundbreaking theory of the role of culture in evolution and a book to be reckoned with for generations to come.

“I continue to be surprised by the number of educated people (many of them biologists) who think that offering explanations for human behavior in terms of culture somehow disproves the suggestion that human behavior can be explained in Darwinian evolutionary terms. Fortunately, we now have a book to which they may be directed for enlightenment . . . . It is a book full of good sense and the kinds of intellectual rigor and clarity of writing that we have come to expect from the Boyd/Richerson stable.”—Robin Dunbar, Nature

Not by Genes Alone is a valuable and very readable synthesis of a still embryonic but very important subject straddling the sciences and humanities.”—E. O. Wilson, Harvard University


Peter J. Richerson is professor of environmental science at the University of California, Davis. Robert Boyd is professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Prolific authors and editors, they coauthored Culture and the Evolutionary Process, published by the University of Chicago Press.


“There have been a number of more or less complex variants on this . . . metaphor for genetic evolution and it is generally agreed that the most nuanced and sophisticated version is contained in the work of Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, and laid out in considerable detail in Not By Genes Alone.”
— Richard Lewontin, The New York Review of Books

“Drawing on new ideas about multilevel selection, evolutionary psychology and . . . ‘strong reciprocity’ (the bestowing of rewards and punishments even where there is no direct personal gain for this behavior), Richerson and Boyd build a case for a special role for cultural processes in human evolution. . . . It is a book full of good sense and the kinds of intellectual rigour and clarity that we have come to expect from [the authors].”
— Robin Dunbar, Nature

“Ambitious and wide-ranging. . . . The writing is lucid, even eloquent. . . . Richerson and Boyd have done a rare thing: Casting their net widely across a range of disciplines, in order to tackle the most complex phenomenon of our species, and they have achieved consilience. Read and ponder.”

— W. C. McGrew, Journal of Human Evolution

“Writing in a much more accessible form than they have before, Richerson and Boyd lay out their case for the role of culture in shaping the human mind and behavior. . . . . This book provides an excellent account  of Richerson and Boyd's theory, and is a must-read for anyone interested in gene-culture coevolution.”

— Susan Blackmore, Bioscience

"[The] subject, the place of culture in human evolutionary dynamics, is relatively neglected, and is rarely as well debated as it is here. . . . Indeed, their text deserves to be considered by all of us in any field of archaeology."
— Don Brothwell, Antiquity

"This is an important work that is sure to generate lively discussion on a topic crucial to our understanding of ourselves."
— Northeastern Naturalist

"Richerson and Boyd have produced an excellent explication and overview of the current state of the research on cultural evolution . . . and the relative roles of genes and culture in human evolution and behavior from the Pleistocene to the present--and they have done all this in a rigorous but non-technical, easily readable format. I think that both those who are just beginning to explore the evolutionary sources of human behavior and those who are currently engaged in work in this area will greatly benefit from reading this book."
— Adam Gifford, Jr., Journal of Bioeconomics



Chapter 1 Culture Is Essential

Chapter 2 Culture Exists

Chapter 3 Culture Evolves

Chapter 4 Culture Is an Adaptation

Chapter 5 Culture Is Maladaptive

Chapter 6 Culture and Genes Coevolve

Chapter 7 Nothing About Culture Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution


References and Author Index

General Index