Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony

Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind is a new book on cultural evolution in humans from a biological perspective.

This is an interesting book and a good book, and I recommend it, but I need to add a strong caveat. The author could have made a more compelling argument had he more carefully studied and used some of the prior work that makes a similar argument. He strangely cites Terry Deacon in two places (once as a psychologist, incorrectly) for work Deacon has done, but seems to ignore Deacon’s key thesis, which is pretty much the same as Laland’s key thesis. (See: Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter.) There are other examples of prior work not known about, apparently, or incorporated. But, nonetheless, Laland does present a reasonable stab at how to think about human culture in relationship to evolution and an interesting “theory” of how it all came to be, even if it is presented as more original than it actually is.

From the publisher’s description:

Humans possess an extraordinary capacity for cultural production, from the arts and language to science and technology. How did the human mind–and the uniquely human ability to devise and transmit culture–evolve from its roots in animal behavior? Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony presents a captivating new theory of human cognitive evolution. This compelling and accessible book reveals how culture is not just the magnificent end product of an evolutionary process that produced a species unlike all others–it is also the key driving force behind that process.

Kevin Laland shows how the learned and socially transmitted activities of our ancestors shaped our intellects through accelerating cycles of evolutionary feedback. The truly unique characteristics of our species–such as our intelligence, language, teaching, and cooperation–are not adaptive responses to predators, disease, or other external conditions. Rather, humans are creatures of their own making. Drawing on his own groundbreaking research, and bringing it to life with vivid natural history, Laland explains how animals imitate, innovate, and have remarkable traditions of their own. He traces our rise from scavenger apes in prehistory to modern humans able to design iPhones, dance the tango, and send astronauts into space.

This book tells the story of the painstaking fieldwork, the key experiments, the false leads, and the stunning scientific breakthroughs that led to this new understanding of how culture transformed human evolution. It is the story of how Darwin’s intellectual descendants picked up where he left off and took up the challenge of providing a scientific account of the evolution of the human mind.

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