Darwin's Unfinished Symphony

How Culture Made the Human Mind

[Amazon Link]

Another book from a scientist reflecting back on a lifetime chasing answers to intriguing questions. It's pretty good.

The scientist in this case is Kevin Laland. He begins nicely, with the quoted poetic final paragraph from Darwin's The Origin of Species, where an "entangled bank" is contemplated, rife with plants, bugs, worms, singing birdies, etc. All this produced via the "war of nature", natural selection. Darwin, it's evident, took a bit of (justifiable) pride in describing how all that wonderousness could have come to be.

When Laland looks out his window, he sees the biological stuff too, but in addition sees all the artifacts of humanity that signify how different we are from the birdies and bugs: massive buildings, electric poles, hospitals, cars, the Internet, and Major League Baseball. Well, he doesn't see that last bit, he's British. But still… you have to ask the Darwinesque question: how did all that come about? He's spent a lifetime working on the answers. Which aren't all in yet, but there's been a lot of progress made toward them, and Laland and his research teams have done their part.

Laland major theme is the examination of how cultures evolve, often in concert with corresponding biological evolution. (Called, naturally enough, "coevolution".) Humans aren't the only species where that happens. There's a fascinating diversion into the social learning talents of the threespine stickleback, a fish that was shown to learn by observing the feeding behavior of its peers. (A closely related species, the ninespine stickleback, is relatively stupid at this task.)

Via a combination of good storytelling and rigorous science, Laland shows how humans took a number of traits present in the animal kingdom and more or less turned them up to eleven. In addition, humans were able to take advantage of teaching, which is relatively rare in other animals. And teaching is made much more efficacious when combined with our talent for language (completely absent in other animals).

My only quibble is that Laland seems to avoid what I think of as Deirdre McCloskey territory: he doesn't attempt to explain the hockey-stick increase in economic prosperity in a mere eyeblink of evolutionary time.

[He does, however, go into an area where I haven't seen others go: the evolution of artistic expression, concentrating on dance. Didn't see that coming.]

I seem to be reading in this area a lot. If you're interested, I can also recommend The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridley and The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich.