Laland’s Unfinished Opus

I’ve already made two somewhat dismissive references to Kevin Laland’s “Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony – How Culture Made the Human Mind”(1). This is a review on completion of that read.

[Post Note: I see Massimo Pigliucci’s book club review of Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony came out a few days before I posted this. I need to read that and comment. Uniquely unique?]

I like it  in the sense that it does support the idea that the human mind is a qualitatively distinct and uniquely different kind in a world of many sentient species. It’s not exceptionalism in the sense that it couldn’t have been otherwise, that humans were in any sense necessarily predestined to be that species. But let’s face up to facts and responsibilities. Here we are.

I also like it in the sense that it compiles three or four decades of empirical scientific research into the evolution of intelligent life-hacks by which sentient beings copied and more generally learned individually, socially and by teaching one another. Rats, sticklebacks and corvids may indeed be highly intelligent in solving and communicating solutions to particular kinds of problems and the primates may indeed have evolved more general intelligence, but the runaway success of humanity (humanins) is inescapable (2). That has been the result of co-evolution of brain and culture – the many shared languages (3) by which knowledge and meta-knowledge are communicated and recorded beyond the minds and bodies of living individuals. For any other species to repeat or beat that, including any artificial non-biological species, they’d need to find a pretty comprehensive planet-sized niche in which to evolve free of the limitations of existing human occupation. Human lives are not a repeatable experiment so we ain’t gonna let that happen.

That ought to be enough to recommend Laland’s work as a read for anyone who doesn’t feel they already know this, or is actively in need scientific evidence to support that knowledge.

My problems are two-fold.

What did I learn? How much is actually new? I learned why as a child I never managed to catch a fifteen-spined stickleback despite catching many three-spined critters. Genuinely fascinating, and totally plausible with hindsight, given an understanding of how evolution works. I never knew that! But beyond that it felt mostly like statements of what already seemed obvious. What I’ve already read or otherwise considered as reality, Laland is expressing surprise at discovering. Is that me just virtue-signalling what I consider to be my own knowledge? I don’t think so, and this is why:

Laland gives plenty of generous credit to his own collaborators and students, but seems rather pointedly to ignore or dismiss those in parallel, or even competing, streams of research and thought. It seems tribal rather than genuinely collaborative to dismiss Dennett and Memes, particular since these feature in the popular best-seller lists of science and philosophy and this is Laland’s magnum foray into that space. My only “interest” in Dennett is to credit him as the writer from whom I feel I’ve already learned most of this stuff – with many of the same empirical examples, supported by several other writers. The real difference is that in talking about the copying and sharing of cultural information (and mental tools; meta-information, also culturally shared) Dennett and I use the language of memetics.

Frankly what’s in a word? If you’re telling the same – true – story, who cares? I agree with them both. It’s the same story. There is really only one exception, and for me it’s the reason why dismissing memes misses an important aspect of the ongoing story.

History is one thing. If we agree, only a pedant would be picky about the particular words. There are in fact plenty of other bio-cultural co-evolution and group-level selection ideas that will keep others concerned with the details of which empirical findings really do support which aspects of the story. As a good scientist, Laland himself leaves a few pointers to contentious points of detail. Plenty for the EES crowd to get their teeth into for many a year to come, biologically, psychologically and philosophically. For me the concern is how we get to the future from here and now.

Like many a public scientist, Laland is good with awe – “awe without wonder” in his case – in describing the greatest story ever told. It is indeed awesome, but no-one should be wondering how it came to be in any general sense. We know (4). “Many talented scientists have chipped away at this wonder”, before now, he says. Laland’s final chapter re-iterates the marvel that is this unique species we know as human mind. What he doesn’t appear to suggest – if he does I missed it – is any doubt that the direction of this awesome progress is in the direction of continued success. To my eyes, this is because he doesn’t make enough distinction between the many examples and mechanisms of human success in cultural co-evolution and the behaviour of the patterns of information involved in these – the memes – that take on a life of their own. The selfish meme anyone?

It’s probably a reflection of the time period summarised in the majority of Laland’s narrative. Decades ago few of us were actively concerned with fake-news and the spread of misinformation, or half-baked simplistic information taking hold of public consciousness. Within science, reduction to simple repeatable elements is the name of the game. Real life, human cultural evolution, including science as a sub-set of that, is more complicated. We are going to need a word for – a handle on – the contents of ideas (and their properties) being shared that is distinct from their embodiment in the brains and media exchanging them. Markets can go down – quantitatively and qualitatively – as well as up.


(1) I resisted reading Laland’s work due to some of the preview / publicity in relation to some of my prejudices on the topic. I prefer to make my prejudices explicit upfront, rather than pretend they don’t exist. [Here] [and Here]. I gave in when I discovered “Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony” was to be Massimo Pigliucci‘s next review in the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis context, and I wanted to be forearmed in that dialogue. [Post Note: Was actually published 23rd Oct.]

(2) Success is more than headcount or % of the cosmos populated, because …

(3) Remember we’re considering the whole of human culture here, language is any natural, formal, narrative or artistic form symbolised in any medium.

(4) There is a bit of a fetish, reinforced by the ubiquity of media communications, that somehow we all have to know every detail of everything we care about and therefore everything must be transparent to everyone. This is a physical impossibility for a finite processor of information, and at some point we all have to accept trust in authority at some level. It doesn’t remove our right to question and dig a little deeper when appropriate; complementary to the positive fetish for information overload is the fashionably negative fetish against authority.

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