Kevin Laland’s Unfinished Darwinian Business

I’m reading Kevin Laland’s “Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony – How culture made the human mind“. There’s two reasons I’m reading it but firstly, the one reason I’m posting now before I’m very far into it.

Since all readings and reviews are prejudiced by prior understanding and expectations, I prefer to be honest up front what those are, so that they provide context for any later opinions I express on the actual reading.

Secondly, some review(s) I’d already seen, suggested Laland relegated memetics to irrelevance in a single passing footnote, whereas for me memetics is simply short-hand for cultural evolution. I wanted to be reading something that claimed to be an alternative to views I already hold.

Thirdly, because Massimo Pigliucci has advertised that it is the next book he is going to review, in the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis context and I wanted to be forearmed.

So, let me confirm immediately, that meme / memetics has not a single mention in the index, and references to Dawkins, Blackmore and Dennett are simply single mentions each of The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype from the former and a single essay on Intentionality from the latter.

Given Laland claims this is the magnum opus of his 30 years study, and is promoted as a public science best-seller, it seems perverse to say the least, to not spend any time on addressing – explaining why he has no time for – the most popular and persistent metaphor in this domain. I understand, obviously, he has addressed this in earlier papers and writings, but not even a summary of his arguments in his latest. I need to find that single (non-indexed) footnote (*).

In my experience most arguments against memes are spurious straw-men, arguments against features not claimed by memetics. Not useful because they’re not objectively well-defined enough, and not the whole story. Just like genes, biologically, in fact. Since when did any complex story have a single silver bullet? So, let’s see:

For pinnacles of the human art we have the works of Puccini and Rachmaninoff “not evolving according to the laws of natural selection” in Chapter 1. Makes a change from the over-used Bach meme 😉

If intelligence, language or the ability to construct elaborate artefacts [and musical arias] evolved in humans because they enhance the ability to survive and reproduce, then why didn’t other species acquire these capabilities?” he asks sceptically.

The first answer to the question why, is that clearly there is no good reason it couldn’t have, and still could if it weren’t that humans already have most of the resources sewn-up on planet Earth. Very hard to imagine enough isolation for a second strand of cultural mind to speciate now.

But the premise is also doubtful when we’re talking about cultural evolution – advantages are concerned with more than biological survival and reproduction. The existence and copying of memes is not limited to numbers of living bodies. Biologically it’s the genes (and epigenetics) that replicate. Culturally it’s memetics – cultural information patterns beyond physical biology.

Clearly human brain, mind and culture have co-evolved in cycles of self-reinforcement. Fitness and survival are about copies of the content. Mind having evolved, drivers – subconscious and intentional motivations – are many more than physical life and reproduction. You only have to think Maslow or Pink for what drives other patterns of human behaviour, other “rewards” in patterns and relationships – information, however embodied. I need to be looking out for information as a topic. I can see only one Turing reference, one mention of information and no mention of Shannon.

If all Laland is saying is that human mind and culture co-evolved, and once intentional mind evolved there are not only many drivers over and above physical survival, but also many non-Darwinian selection processes, then how and where is that remotely contentious. Sounds 100% Dennett to me. Laws of natural and intentional selection. Human intentionality is natural too.

Not looking too promising. Good news is that Brian Boyd is extensively referenced, someone whose work I liked. Boyd also provides a cover blurb:

Laland shows how culture – socially transmitted knowledge – is what made humans so successful as a species.

Isn’t that just a statement of the obvious? Isn’t it equally obvious that success is more than headcount and individual longevity, when we’re dealing with human culture?

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[Post Note: (*) That footnote on memetics isn’t a footnote it’s an end-note, one of the earliest notes in the first chapter.

Chap 1 Note (3) “In The Selfish Gene (1976), Richard Dawkins introduces the notion of the “meme”, a cultural replicator with gene-like properties. However the modern science of cultural evolution derives very little from memetics. For an introduction to the now extensive experimental and theoretical work that underpins this field, see Mesoudi (2011), Richerson and Boyd (2005), or Heinrich (2015). For a critical evaluation of the field see Lewens (2015).”

The actual reference in the text makes no mention of Dawkins or meme. I’m no fan of Dick the Dawk myself, he greatly over-reaches, but talk about mean-spirited!]


Also published on Medium.

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