Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind by KEVIN N. LALAND Princeton University
Press (2017) RRP $ 35.00 Hardcover
EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGISTS are often loath to admit the vast gap that exists between our own brilliance and the relatively modest smarts of our animal brethren. Tracing an evolutionary sequence of incremental changes in body shape from apes to humans is reasonably simple. Charting changes in intellect presents more of a challenge. Humans have built particle accelerators, propelled astronauts into space and manipulated the genetic code of other organisms. No other animal even comes close.
In Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, Kevin Laland not only admits that a seemingly insurmountable gap exists but takes up the challenge of explaining how a step-wise process of natural selection – as it was first explored by Darwin in his
Descent of Man (1871) – can be used to explain what sets the human mind so dramatically apart.
Laland draws on more than two decades of work, as well as research by other animal behaviourists and evolutionary biologists, to argue that culture has colluded with genetics to catapult humans far ahead on the intelligence league board. His elegant theory also positions the human mind as an architect in its own evolution.
He traces human intelligence back to its elemental components. Many of these, such as the abilities to imitate, innovate, teach and communicate, have been rigorously interrogated in species from honeybees to crows, stickleback fish to chimpanzees, dolphins to meerkats.
In recent decades, it has become clear that none of these skills is entirely unique to humans. Chimpanzees use tools to solve puzzles, meerkats teach their young how to kill scorpions, whales bellow songs in regional dialects. But only in humans do these components come as a package deal. And all promote the evolution of large brains and greater intelligence.
Once our ancestors became reliant on two foundational elements – the abilities to innovate and accurately copy the behaviours of more learned members of our social group – a path towards culture was set. Innovation brought things like stone tools, which became entrenched in our culture thanks to our ability to copy, teach and communicate with each other.
As each of these cognitive skills was honed, more cultural practices were added and retained from one generation to the next. The cultural practices in turn cemented the mental abilities we needed in order for culture to thrive and become more complex. Rather than being a simple outgrowth of human mental abilities, culture is part of the explanation for those mental abilities.
Laland’s account provides a satisfying – if at times laborious – explanation for the origins of intelligence and culture that extends beyond our own existence to that of other animals, our prehistoric forebears, and our huntergatherer contemporaries.