Review: Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind

Darwin's Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind
Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind by Kevin N Laland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The breadth of the Laland lab is incredible. This book is crammed with research, experiments and models by Laland and co-workers. They work on things like social learning (animals are social learning specialists, evolved for specific function; humans are learning generalists, can generalize across domains), evolution of intelligence, gene-culture coevolution, and cooperation.

Laland is also well know because of niche construction; “Through our culture we have built our own world, but that is only possible because our minds are fashioned for culture” (p282).

The chapters I enjoyed most were Chapter 3 on the social learnings strategies tournament with Luke Rendell. See 2010 Science paper Why Copy Others? Insights from the Social Learning Strategies Tournament. “Copying beat asocial learning hands down over virtually all plausible conditions” (p69). “The selective performance of behavior by the copied individual [not randomly chosen, but rather a select, tried-and-tested, high-payoff behavior] is what makes social learning so profitable to the copier.” (p71).

And chapter 4 on the threespine and the ninespine sticklebacks (=fish). “Ninespines are capable of exploiting public information, while their close relatives, the threespines, were not” (p81). Public info in this case is the feeding rate of other fish (3 or 9 spine, doesn’t matter) to determine richness of a feeding patch. Threespines are less vulnerable out in the open (their spines do protect them), so they can learn asocially (ie on their own); that is often too dangerous for ninespines, hence the evolution to use public information. And ninespines prefer public information over social cues, because it is more reliable. What looks like a interesting paper; “Nine-spined sticklebacks exploit the most reliable source when public and private information conflict” (2004).

p118, based on work by Louis Lefevbre; “Natural selection may have favored innovativeness as a part of a survival strategy based on flexibility – that is, the flexibility to cope with unpredictable or changing environments and to alter their behavior to outcompete others. Perhaps selection for innovativeness could be driving brain enlargement over evolutionary time.”

The longest recorded utterance of Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee taught sign language by Herbert Terrace was ‘Give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you.’ Chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas seem to make rather poor conversationalists (p178)

p193 Mark Pagel quote: “language evolved as a trait for promoting cooperation”

p240 “Hunter-gatherers are effectively trapped in a vicious cycle that severely constrains their rate of cultural evolution”. Because they have to move a lot, they don’t develop/use heavy tools. And they have to space their offspring, because a mother can only carry one child at a time when moving around.

Couple of interesting papers:
p100: Herring gulls drop rabbits from cliffs to kill/drown them and eat them (Young, 1987, Herring gull preying on rabbits)
p106: Crows use passing cars to open nuts (Nihei, 1995. Variations of behaviour of carrion crows Corvus corone using automobiles as nutcrackers
p106 thieving birds stealing quarters from a car wash
p280: Humans are more likely to copy an action that is performed by three individuals one time each, than an action performed by one individual three times. Haun et al (2012)
Majority-Biased Transmission in Chimpanzees and Human Children, but Not Orangutans

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