Skip to main content

Mixed Messages

Cultural and Genetic Inheritance in the Constitution of Human Society

Mixed Messages

Cultural and Genetic Inheritance in the Constitution of Human Society

As social and symbolic animals—animals with language and systems of signs—humans are informed by two different kinds of heritage, one biological, the other cultural. Scholars have tended to study our genetic and symbolic lineages separately, but in recent years some have begun to explore them together, offering a “dual inheritance theory.” In this book, Robert A. Paul offers an entirely new and original consideration of our dual inheritance to date, going deep inside an extensive ethnographic record to outline a fascinating relationship between our genetic codes and symbolic systems.
Examining a wide array of cultures, Paul reveals how the inherent tensions between these two modes of transmission generate many of the features of human society, such as marriage rules, initiation rituals, gender asymmetry, and sexual symbolism. Exploring differences in the requirements, range, and agendas of genetic and symbolic reproduction, he shows that a properly conceived dual inheritance model does a better job of accounting for the distinctive character of actual human societies than either evolutionary or socio-cultural construction theories can do alone. Ultimately this book offers a powerful call for a synthesis of the traditions inspired by Darwin, Durkheim, and Freud—one that is critically necessary if we are to advance our understanding of human social life.

368 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Biological Sciences: Evolutionary Biology


“Most of the time our genes and culture both work to enhance our survival, but in this riveting book Robert Paul argues that our genetic and cultural inheritances are often in conflict. His exploration takes us from the Mbaya people of South America to the fundamentalist Shaker people in the US to Japan’s kamikaze pilots. Who are we really? Robots controlled by our genes or robots of our cultures? Read this book to find out.”

New Scientist

“Paul’s intent is to stress the dual inheritance theory that extends Darwinian theories and methods from biology and population genetics to human and sociocultural life. Quantifying evolving trends, as seen through the author’s extensive use of the HRAF (Human Relations Area Files) to show ethnographically how ideas are copied, perpetuated, and spread through specific cultures, he extends Boyd and Richerson’s use of the model. The convincing text is useful for understanding and explaining the depth and breadth of symbolic systems and how they evolve and are ‘passed on’ from generation to generation. As Paul so eloquently shows here, the ‘scientification’ of ethnography provides a fascinating opportunity to bridge the divide in the discipline between socially grounded and biologically grounded practitioners. He argues that to see a complete account of human life, anthropology cannot be either/or, but must be both/and to be true to the subject matter. For students of anthropology as well as for biology students, so that what the author proposes can be accomplished. . . . Highly recommended.”


"Mixed Messages is an important and thoughtful addition to the literature on evolutionary approaches to ethnographic data."

American Anthropologist

Mixed Messages is an extraordinary book, in my eyes perhaps the most important anthropological publication of its generation.”

Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association

"An extremely broad-ranging and informative investigation of cultural dynamics in small-scale societies."

Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture

“Paul uses Dual Inheritance Theory as a tool for ethnographic interpretation in a highly original way. Using a rich array of ethnographic evidence, he very effectively demonstrates that culture is a brawny phenomenon that is key to understanding why humans are so different from even our closest primate relatives.”

Peter J. Richerson, University of California, Davis

Mixed Messages is a characteristically brilliant analysis of one of the deep puzzles of our existence: how dual inheritance—genetic and cultural—shapes what it is to be human. The clear-eyed and ethnographically rich analysis both summarizes the issue and takes the discussion forward. The clarity and the rigor of the argument are remarkable, as are the insights into gender and power.”

Tanya Luhrmann, Stanford University

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press