Dar­win’s Un­fin­ished Symphony: How Cul­ture Made the Hu­man Mind by KEVIN N. LALAND Princeton Univer­sity

Cosmos - - Spectrum - — DYANI LEWIS

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.

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