Book Club: Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, 1, are humans unique?

Time to get started with a new book for our occasional, in-depth book club. For our next round I have chosen an intriguing recent volume on cultural evolution, Kevin Laland’s Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, with the provocative subtitle of “How Culture Made the Human Mind.”

Kevin is a professor of behavioral and evolutionary biology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and one of the architects of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis. In full disclosure, I collaborate to the EES project, which is partly supported by the Templeton Foundation.

The title of the book reminds us that Darwin was the first modern scientist to begin to investigate the evolution of the human mind, but he was unable — given the state of biological and psychological knowledge at the time — to go beyond some suggestive speculations. As Kevin puts it:

“Comprehending the evolution of the human mind is Darwin’s unfinished symphony. Unlike the unfinished compositions of Beethoven or Schubert, which had to be assembled into popular masterpieces using solely those fragmentary sketches left by the original composers, Darwin’s intellectual descendants have taken up the challenge of completing his work. In the intervening decades great progress has been made, and rudimentary answers to the conundrum of the evolution of our mental abilities have started to emerge.” (p. 14)

The question is far from trivial. As Laland notes, if a complex mind, language and a sophisticated culture are truly advantageous for survival and reproduction, why did they evolve only in the human lineage? And yes, we have discovered that other animals communicate and use tools, but their tool use has not become much more sophisticated over time, so that only we have moved from stone artifacts to computers and rockets, and as Kevin points out, there is a world of difference between a male chaffinch’s song and Puccini’s arias. Nothing at all exists in between those extremes to cover the gap, even though, possibly, some of the hominid species that are now extinct would have provided a bit (but arguably just a bit) of a bridge between Homo sapiens and the rest of the biological world. And don’t except our extraordinary capacities to be in any direct relationship with the only true currencies of evolution, survival and reproduction:

“The men and women who design and build computers and iPhones have no more children than those in other professions.” (p. 2)

A lot of what makes human culture so distinct is that it is the result of long term planning and extensive cooperation among unrelated individuals, again something unique in the animal world:

“With a little training, the same people could build a shopping mall, bridge, canal, or dock, but no bird ever built anything other than a nest or bower, and no termite worker deviated from constructing a mound.” (p. 3)

Kevin, as is clear from his careful discussion of other animals’ behavior in chapter 1 (and then even more so in the remaining four chapters of the first part of the book, which I will cover in future posts), is perfectly aware of the variety and even sophistication of what non humans do. And yet:

“There is no compelling evidence that other apes will go out of their way to teach their friends or relatives anything at all, let alone build elaborate institutions that dispense vast amounts of knowledge, skills, and values to hordes of children with factory-like efficiency. Teaching, by which I mean actively setting out to educate another individual, is rare in nature.” (p. 5)

Moreover, the bewildering diversity of human culture is hardly explained by the main focus of modern Darwinian explanations: genetics. Pace evolutionary psychology, the human genome actually sports comparatively little variability, and it cannot, per se, explain the infinite diversity of our cultural habits and traditions, although of course it has to be part of the story, if for no other reason that it provides the boundary conditions within which human behavioral plasticity can express itself.

One of the most interesting points of this first chapter is that it is culture (and thus cooperation) that makes us so successful, not intelligence per se (though, obviously, the two are related). Laland describes in detail the evolution of the paper clip, and it is a fascinating story that I highly recommend people read. Contra what one might expect, the paper clip did not come out of the mind of a single, brilliant individual, but — in its current form — is actually the product of centuries of evolution and improvements, beginning in the Middle Ages, when enough paper began to be produced and used to necessitate some way of binding it together.

The first solution was to use pins as fasteners, but they rusted and left holes that were not aesthetically pleasing. Eventually, the first patent for a paper clip was filed in 1867, but the things were still inefficient, which led to further trial and error:

“A variety of shapes were experimented with for several decades of the twentieth century before manufacturers finally converged on the now standard paper clip design, known as the ‘Gem.’ What appears at first sight to be the simplest of artifacts was in fact fashioned through centuries of reworking and refinement.” (p. 7)

The point is that many cultural artifacts are originated gradually, through diffuse cooperation among strangers, a process of cumulative culture unknown in the rest of the animal world. Other species learn, of course, and are capable of copying each other (chapters 2 and 3 of the book are devoted to copying as a basic mechanism of behavioral evolution), but reports of cultural traditions are limited in scope, and entirely lack the ratcheting effect that is so normal in the human context:

“The fact remains that humans alone have devised vaccines, written novels, danced in Swan Lake, and composed moonlight sonatas, while the most culturally accomplished nonhuman animals remain in the rain forest cracking nuts and fishing for ants and honey.” (p. 10)

As I reported recently  I was accused of “arrogance” when I stated this simple conclusion during a panel discussion at the New York Academy of Science. But the fact remains true, regardless of pious and well intentioned pleas for getting ourselves off the evolutionary pedestal. As Kevin says later in the chapter, yes, in a trivial sense every species is “unique,” but humans are unique in a highly interesting way, which is not comparable to the uniqueness of dolphins, birds, or what else. Indeed:

“Herein lies a major challenge facing the sciences and humanities; namely, to work out how the extraordinary and unique human capacity for culture evolved from ancient roots in animal behavior and cognition.” (p. 11)

As I have pointed out, even brilliant biologists like E.O. Wilson don’t get that culture isn’t going to be reduced to biology, and therefore that the humanities are not, and never will be, a branch of the biological sciences. That way of achieving “consilience” (really, reduction) between social and biological sciences is a dead end. Kevin’s book is a most refreshing and welcome attempt to seek another, more constructive, way to go about this project, one that fully respects the distinct contributions that different disciplines are capable of.

Laland acknowledges the existence of a long scientific tradition, dating, in fact, back to Darwin, of trying to bridge the gap between humanity and the rest of the biological world. He even suggests that this was necessary, especially at the onset of evolutionary biology, in order to convince people that humans too evolved by natural means and were not specially created. But that necessity is no longer with us (well, unless you live in the south of the United States, or in large swaths of the Muslim world), and it is time to reassess the limitations of that particular Darwinian research program.

Again, Kevin is anything but naive in this regard. He knows that a long list of traits at one point alleged to be distinctively human (e.g., use of tools, imitation, use of signals, etc.) turned out not to be so upon closer examination. Yet, the gap is real:

“In my view, too much has been made of superficial similarities between the behavior of humans and other animals, whether by inflating the intellectual credentials of other animals or by exaggerating humanity’s bestial nature.” (p. 15)

One good example is what Laland calls one of the most misunderstood statistics concerning the relation between humans and our primate cousins, the chimpanzees. We often hear that there is a 98.5% similarity between the genomes of these two species, meaning that we are separated by “only” 1.5% differences in DNA. That, however, translates to a whopping 35 million nucleotide differences, a vast informational gulf even at face value, made orders of magnitude vaster when we realize that many important differences between chimpanzees and us are not to be found in the structure of our respective genes, but in the way gene action is regulated. And gene regulation is highly combinatorial, not simply linearly additive.

“An instructive comparison here is between the English and German languages. In terms of their written symbolic form (i.e., the letters used), these two Indo-European languages are identical, although only German speakers make use of the umlaut, recognizable as two dots over a vowel, which changes its pronunciation. Yet it would clearly be ridiculous to claim that all differences between the two languages are attributable to the umlaut, or that to master German, an English speaker merely has to master the rules of umlaut usage.” (p. 17)

And guess what? A disproportionate number of genetic differences between us and chimps concern the human brain and its function, and are therefore especially pertinent to the issue of behavior and culture.

Much has been made, by primatologists like Frans de Waal of the similarities in behavior between humans and other primates, especially the bonobos, the pigmy chimpanzee. While this research is indeed fascinating, Laland cautions against waxing poetic about having found the building blocks of morality in non human species. Experiments he cites in the book, for instance, clearly show that, when exposed to versions of the so-called ultimatum game, which tests for the tendency to share resources fairly, humans are remarkably fair to strangers, but chimps are not. And the puzzling behavior, evolutionarily speaking, is ours, not theirs. Moreover, while it is true that other species of primates cooperate, they do not do so extensively, certainly not even close to the degree of cooperation found in hunter-gatherer human populations, let alone modern ones.

Kevin attributes this difference, at least in part, to the proportionally limited ability of non human primates to exhibit a “theory of mind,” that is of understanding the perspective of others. Again, while it is the case that some research hints at the existence of a simplified ability to do so in chimps:

“These conclusions remain contested, and crucially, such studies provide no evidence that chimpanzees understand that others may possess false beliefs. In contrast, children typically understand that others can have false beliefs by the age of four years, and possibly much earlier, which implies that this capability evolved in the hominin lineage.” (p. 21)

Humans easily comprehend up to six different levels of beliefs about beliefs, while chimpanzees struggle with first-order intentionality.

Or let us consider language. There certainly is by now abundant evidence of animal communication, for instance vervet monkeys possessing three distinct calls to label avian, mammalian, and snake predators. But primate communication consists of unrelated signals that are rarely combined, i.e., they lack a grammar. Human language, by contrast, is highly open-ended:

“A romance exists around the notion that animals, such as chimpanzees or dolphins, might covertly harbor complex natural communication systems as yet unfathomed by humans. Many of us quite like the idea that ‘arrogant’ scientists have prematurely assumed that other animals don’t talk to each other. … Sadly, all the evidence suggests that this is just fantasy. Animal communication has been subject to intense scientific investigation for over a century, and few hints of any such complexity have arisen.” (p. 22)

I’m not sure why this is sad. It is what it is. As hinted at above, something similar is the case for the so-called moral instinct:

“Equally romantic is the notion that science has not yet gauged the full depth of the moral lives of animals, a premise that sells an awful lot of popular science books and flushes the coffers of Hollywood moviemakers. … Many popular books claim that animals understand the difference between right and wrong, but precious few scientific papers demonstrate this.” (p. 25)

Again, Kevin is not denying the very clear evidence that some animals have rich emotional lives, that they form attachments, and that they have long term memories of their most traumatic experiences. He simply does not think — very reasonably — that any of this amounts to a sense of morality.

But wait! I’m pretty sure that my dog feels guilty when I reprimand him for something wrong he has done! Maybe, responds Laland. But isn’t it more likely, more parsimonious, to assume that your dog has simply learned that a certain kind of behavior on his part gets you to relent from punishing or yelling at him? What about reports of reconciliation after fights in monkeys, which some authors have interpreted as “forgiveness”? Again, maybe, but that interpretation becomes a bit less convincing once we learn that fish — with much more limited behavioral repertoires and brain structures — behave in the same way.

The evidence appears to point to the conclusion that human intelligence and culture evolved in a particular way, with experimental and simulational studies suggesting that selection for more efficient teaching may have been a crucial factor for the evolution of language in our ancestors. Teaching and language, in turn, led to widespread cooperation and a runaway process in which different components of cognition fed into each other. In the end:

“Humans are creatures of their own making. The learned and socially transmitted activities of our ancestors, far more than climate, predators, or disease, created the conditions under which our intelligence evolved. Human minds are not just built for culture; they are built by culture.” (p. 30)

118 thoughts on “Book Club: Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, 1, are humans unique?

  1. Massimo Post author


    I think it is a bit presumptuous of you to tell what Ruse and I are disagreeing about. But even so, there are lots of people Kevin refers to in his book that do hold the position he is reacting against. Or you think he too spent a good chunk of a chapter talking to windmills?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Massimo Post author


    I get the sense that you and DM are attempting to deny the obvious, just to make a point. You really don’t think that human uniqueness is interesting in a very different sense from which the number of bristles on the abdomen of different Drosophila species are unique? Really??

    And no, “uniquely unique” is most definitely nonsensical. Especially given the very clear context given here.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. synred

    Like, Socratic, I too appreciate Kevin’s taking the time to participate. As to the proposed thought experiment, I’m not overly impressed, except to suggest that the interests of the alien described seem unsurprisingly like those of a sapiens trained in evolutionary and behavioral biology

    I once read a cut sci fi story which reported to be the report of a martian anthropologist on a base ball game. bHe describes the game in ‘objective’ terms — which makes the game look absurd. While a treanchant comment on the stupidity of baseball, it may also be a comment on the objectivity of science.

    I’ve tried, but haven’t been able to ind the story.It was likely in on Asimov’s or one of the other pulps.


  4. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo,

    I think it is a bit presumptuous of you to tell what Ruse and I are disagreeing about.

    Well, I’m just going on what I’ve seen. Perhaps there’s a longer history of this disagreement I’m unaware of. If not, then I’ve seen as much of what Ruse has said as you have, and I do not come away with quite the same interpretation. I’m not 100% sure he is unreasonable and ignorant, but I presume he is not. However the position you are attributing to him is unreasonable and ignorant. Charity suggest interpreting him differently.

    Or you think he too spent a good chunk of a chapter talking to windmills?

    I’m not positive, but I fear this may be the case, yes. I’m open to correction with specific unambiguous examples. Of course there are always fringe crazies who think that dolphins are aliens observing humans as scientists, but I doubt that any serious, respected intellectual actually believes that human achievements are nothing special (from a human perspective at least).

    You really don’t think that human uniqueness is interesting in a very different sense from which the number of bristles on the abdomen of different Drosophila species are unique? Really??

    Neither Thomas nor I are saying anything of the kind. Certainly human achievements and abilities are orders of magnitude more fascinating than Drosophila bristles to me and to you and to any reasonable person (save perhaps for an obsessive Drosophila specialist). The point we are making is that they are not objectively more interesting. To say that something is objectively interesting is to make a category mistake. Laland seems to be trying to make a case for (at least quasi-)objective interest, and I interpret his opponents to be arguing against that case.

    My suggestion is that we would all be better off forgetting the debate about whether humans are uniquely unique or not. This is a subjective question, as pointless as arguing about whether peacocks are pretty. Sure, any reasonable person will likely go along with it, but all you can say about someone who honestly disagrees is that they are very weird, not that they are wrong.


  5. saphsin


    I don’t want to annoy you with probes about specific nuances so is there a blog post of yours where there’s a conversation in which you’ve gone through all this thoroughly? Because Socratic mentioned that these questions have been gone over with Coel 19 times.


  6. SocraticGadfly

    “Uniquely unique” vs “unique” could be seen as something like “aleph-sub-1” vs “aleph-sub-null” in Cantorian infinities.

    It’s not a phrase I would use often, but the editor understands it and says it works pretty well here.


  7. Thomas Jones

    Massimo, let me go back to your comment to DM upthread: “I’m not sure what this discussion is about. . . . . Lions surely don’t give a damn about it.”

    Yes, it’s a point I raised early on in this thread. And the allusion to Wittgenstein, IMO, only reinforces it. Again, no one here is seriously arguing against the contention that the cultural evolution of sapiens as compared to other species is clearly superior by an assortment of metrics. You won’t find me protesting in favor of reducing financial support for the EES project. And the comments comparing the bristles of Drosophila to the cultural evolution of sapiens seems a reductio to me. Does it compare the same aspects? I don’t think. The superior visual acuity of hawks compared to humans or echolocation in bats and dolphin is doubtless related in some way to environmental evolution, but hardly cultural in the sense envisioned here. But, given my background, I’ll echo your sentiments: “What is being discussed here?” I mean in terms of your first OP on Laland’s book.


  8. saphsin


    I think we’ll just have to accept that terms in the English language have connotations that diverge somewhat from perfect descriptions but still capture meaning in a way that’s sensible. This arises in a lot of nonsense within discussions of free will. No, free will doesn’t mean that we’re free from causal relations that inhibit the range of our actions, but it does mean that we can make choices.

    “Unique” doesn’t mean anything metaphysically fixed or different in every sense, but a Martian would clearly notice humans as apart from everyone else.


  9. SocraticGadfly

    Thomas, perhaps this from the book’s website will help. Laland is going to go on to focus on more efficient copying, which in turn makes cultural evolution more efficient in humans than other animals, which in turn has positive feedback events:

    On language, it sounds like he’s going to emphasize that, plus what I noted about humans being in larger groups than primates, to further emphasize these positive feedback loops, and other things. And even cover the diseases that evolved with us.


  10. synred

    Click to access 1c0e0c7eb5762ef57395ff980e024a4acdd1.pdf

    An important paper in the history of this argument.

    conundrum known as “Rogers’ paradox,” after the University of Utah anthropologist Alan Rogers, who first drew attention to it.117 Only in the last few years has the answer finally become clear. An international competition finally solved the problem, and that competition and the insights that it gleaned are the topic of the next chapter.

    Laland, Kevin N.. Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind (p. 49). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.


  11. Massimo Post author


    No annoyance, no worries. Yes, we’ve had these discussions before, but frankly, I’ve been blogging on three platforms for 17 years. I’ll be damned if I keep tracking of where we said what. Often I use a google search on myself to remember what I wrote…

    My take on nature-nurture, however, is in the last chapter of my book on phenotypic plasticity (, while on evolutionary psychology see chapter 7 of Making Sense of Evolution (

    Yeah, I know, expensive (especially the first one), but hopefully a library…


  12. Robin Herbert

    I was visiting a friend recently and admiring the many different kinds of fish in his large aquarium. One of them struck me as having a slightly odd demeanour so I looked closer. The fish, seeing me, stuck his head out of the water snd said “What do you think you’re looking at!”

    I was somewhat taken aback and kept looking. “Are you still here you slack jawed gawker? ” said the fish.

    At that moment my friend walked in and I said “One of your fish just spoke to me”. :Oh him” said my friend, “annoying isn’t he? Just ignore him, I do”

    “Ignore him?” I said, “that is one exceptional fish”.

    “All my fish are exceptional in their way”, he said.

    “But that fish is exceptional in ways the others are not” I countered.

    “Only if you have a particular interest in doeech” said my friend, “otherwise no”

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Robin Herbert


    I said that people accept in principle that a behavioural trait can have a genetic component, but that when it comes to discussing particular traits they adopt a default of no genetic component unless strong evidence to the contrary is presented

    I know what you said and I said I can’t think of anyone here that does that.

    I can’t think of anything anyone has said here that would lead you to that conclusion.

    Again, are you sure you aren’t just assuming?


  14. Coel

    Massimo writes:

    But even so, there are lots of people Kevin refers to in his book that do hold the position he is reacting against. Or you think he too spent a good chunk of a chapter talking to windmills?

    It wouldn’t be at all surprising if he had, after all the whole EES is based on attributing to the mainstream an overly narrow view of Darwinian evolution, so that one can then claim novelty in “extending” it. (People can read say this in order to make up their own minds on that.)

    The way to counter such suspicions is to quote the people one is arguing against. Do Pinker, E.O. Wilson, Frans de Waal et al actually hold the views being argued against? The book chapter might give examples of them saying so (I’ve not read it so don’t know) but the OP doesn’t.


  15. Robin Herbert

    Here is an example of the tendency to play down the exceptionality of humans :

    An excerpr:

    Humans not smarter than animals, just different

    Humans have been deceiving themselves for thousands of years that they’re smarter than the rest of the animal kingdom, despite growing evidence to the contrary, according to University of Adelaide experts in evolutionary biology.

    Note that this is not a journalists take on their work, this is a press release from the University.

    I heard an interview with them and the interviewer was trying to get them to tone down the claim, saying “I assume you don’t really mean we are not more intelligent. …” but these biologists doubled diwn.

    There are many other examples.


  16. Massimo Post author


    Boy, you really drank the Coyne cool-aid on the Extended Synthesis. So you think I, am going others, artificially attach narrow views to the Modern Synthesis in order to get some bits of glory by “extending” it? Nicely done, Jerry.


  17. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Robin,

    The example you gave seems pretty shocking at first glance.

    However, reading the press release, I think a charitable interpretation is possible.

    It seems to me that they are rejecting the idea that intelligence is one thing, e.g. IQ. They are saying that there are many kinds of intelligence, and in some kinds of intelligence, certain animals may surpass humans. This is correct as far as I can see.

    So it’s a bit facile to say humans have achieved what they have because they are simply more intelligent. Rather, we should say that human achievement can be attributed to a suite of specific kinds of intelligence at which humans excel.


  18. Bunsen Burner

    I would like to thank Prof. Laland for showing up. I hope the tiresome hair splitting on this thread doesn’t scare him away. I’m sure there will be more meaningful discussions of the book as we get to the more meatier chapters. I hope he sticks around to provide commentary and guidance.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    Regarding my comment: “I said that people accept in principle that a behavioural trait can have a genetic component, but that when it comes to discussing particular traits they adopt a default of no genetic component unless strong evidence to the contrary is presented.”

    You say: “I can’t think of anything anyone has said here that would lead you to that conclusion”.

    For example, I refer you to a recent thread where DM paraphrased a comment of mine for clarity (and note that DM’s clarification was indeed my intent):

    “What you mean to say, I think, is that Massimo’s comments seem to always be on the side of dismissing specific claims regarding the genetic contributions to behaviour, and never on the side of promoting specific claims regarding genetic contributions to behaviour.”

    Massimo then replied accepting this suggestion: “That’s right. The reason is because while it is experimentally more tractable to study environmental influences, it is mighty hard to prove genetic effects on complex human behaviors. So I think the burden of proof lies that way.”

    People will no doubt form their own opinions as to whether that justifies my above suggestion.


  20. Massimo Post author


    You are making an art of willfully misrepresenting what I write. When I say that the burden of proof is on “their” side I mean of the side of evopsych types who make sweeping claims on the evolution (and thus genetic basis) of behavior X without a shred of empirical evidence to back them up. And I certainly stand by that sort of statement.

    Liked by 2 people

  21. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo,

    You are making an art of willfully misrepresenting what I write

    I don’t think Coel is misrepresenting you. Your clarification accords with Coel’s representation of your position.

    What you’re saying is that the burden is on evopsych types to demonstrate their claims. And so you typically dismiss such claims unless there is strong evidence to support them, right? Which is just what Coel said you did:

    “when it comes to discussing particular traits they adopt a default of no genetic component unless strong evidence to the contrary is presented.”

    Coel is I think advocating for agnosticism where no strong evidence is available. This seems reasonable to me. His criticism of you is that you seem to assume there is no genetic influence until strong evidence is presented. Probably safer not to make such assumptions and to remain open-minded or skeptical of claims made either way.


  22. Coel

    Massimo writes:

    If only evopsych types were also agnostic …

    But aren’t they? First, much evopsych is accepted as hypothetical, something they’re putting forward to then be critically examined. Secondly, for evopsych to be valid there only has to be a substantial genetic influence; they don’t have to argue for 100% genetics, they can accept large environmental and cultural influences as well. That’s why it’s relevant that twin studies show that, often, 0.3 to 0.6 of the variance of a trait is genetic. That’s plenty to validate evopsych. And, further, if that much of the variation of a trait is genetic, then there is likely to be a much large genetic component of behavioural traits that most humans have in common.

    DM writes:

    Coel is I think advocating for agnosticism where no strong evidence is available.

    Yes, that’s it. We should accept the lesson from twin studies that most traits have strong genetic components, and take that as the default position, even when we don’t know much at all about the genotype-phenotype mapping. Of course from there we should then critically examine all actual and specific claims.

    Nothing about that denies the obviously large effects of environment and culture, nor the fact that humans are clearly unlike other animals in the very high degree to which culture has developed.


  23. Massimo Post author


    I realize I’ve been making some harsh comments about you, but you are really asking for it. If you truly believe that Pinker and other evo psych people are agnostic about their claims, you are profoundly deluded.

    Liked by 3 people

  24. synred

    So in chapter 2 and 3 Laland establishes that blind copying does not work (Rodgers ‘Paradox’) and that copy has to be strategic which makes me wonder ‘how are fruit flies (or whatever going to develop strategies)? How will lower animals know which behaviors work and should be copied?

    Now I’m starting on chapter 4:


    Laland, Kevin N.. Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind (p. 77). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

    Which addresses the issue.

    Foreshadowing! Good!. Maybe well get to the flies?


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