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. synred

    Hmm,, Maybe. each muscle might need a nerve, but the does the brain need to send out a signal to each muscle to make movement. Can’t it just split (with appropriate timings)? If I have a big motor, it does not take more connections to the computer to control its speed than a small one.. The map of skin sensors should scale as area not volume. Internal sensing might go as volume/mass, but doesn’t seem to be as detailed a mapping as the surface.

    In other words it doesn’t seem to be a simple problem. Empirically, it does seem to be roughly true. Dinosaurs got by with much smaller brains and bigger bodies, so the basics to control a heart don’t seem to need that much brain power. They, of course, did not have much left over for a social life.


  2. SocraticGadfly

    Thanks for the clarification, Massimo. I thought “teaching” might include a variety of forms of social learning, but wasn’t sure.


    As to the why, on human brain size? I think Wrangham nailed it with the domestication of fire and meat protein availability. Sorry, vegetarians; double sorry, vegans. But, that wildebeest haunch helped make us who we are.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. synred

    10/24/2017 1:55 PM

    upregulation of gene expression in the human brain,126 and by archaeological data showing hyperexponential increases in the complexity and diversity of our technology and knowledge base.


  4. brodix


    “I’m curious as to where you saw reductionism in what I wrote, unless you think any scientific analysis of a problem is necessarily reductionist (which, in a sense, it is, but not “greedy” reductionist).”

    Yes. It is a bit of the map versus territory problem. The reason we draw maps is to distill some specific aspect of the larger territory, yet what you seem to want to draw attention to is the size and enormity of the territory, of human culture. That would seem to be more art, than science.


  5. synred

    10/24/2017 3:36 PM

    Starting chapter 2…

    Yet, in spite of centuries of traps, poisons and fumigations, no pied piper has ever managed to eradicate this most perseverant of pests.

    Laland, Kevin N.. Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind (p. 31). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

    Pied Piper Exterminators Inc  

    ==>I don’t know how good they are at getting rid of rats, but they have a very aggressive collection agency

    Saved to your Map



    2.24 Google reviews

    Pest control service in Scotts Valley, California


    Address : 4615 Scotts Valley Dr, Scotts Valley, CA 95066


    I finished chapter 1. I guess we’ll start on chapter 2 of this book next week, so I can return to the book I ‘should’ be reading for Martin Perl Book Club.

    I’ve found this one interesting, despite my negative comments. Positive comments aren’t much fun.


  6. saphsin


    Ok here’s a better question. What would “genes coding behavior” entail and how does that match up with Pinker’s perspective on his polemic about rejecting the Blank Slate? I mean I think Wilson’s view in Conscilience that was described in the article of yours that you linked is way too reductionist but that doesn’t sound like Pinker’s view. Maybe he thinks what genes provide determine much more than is justified, but would that mean that his commitments to evolutionary psychology entail such a view attributed to him, even taking into account epigenetics and cultural specificity? (it’s not to my knowledge that sociobiologists reject epigenetics, Dawkins is another matter)


  7. darwinsunfinishedsymphony

    Let me thank Massimo for choosing my book for discussion, and for presenting it so well, and everybody else for their interesting comments. There are clearly too many points raised to address each individually, so I will content myself with discussing a single issue mentioned by several people – the claim that “while all species are unique, humans are uniquely unique”. Is this just anthropocentric self-indulgence? We humans single ourselves out as special, but do we do so on arbitrary criteria?

    I want to defend the claim that not all distinctive traits that render a particular species unique are equal. Do we really believe that the extra bristle that singles out a species of Drosophila is as globally interesting and significant as the properties that allow humans to instigate the Anthropocene?

    If we are willing to entertain the notion that non-arbitrary criteria could be deployed that would allow evaluation of claim of “unique uniqueness”, what might those be? An interesting thought experiment is to imagine an extraterrestrial intelligence studying Earth’s biosphere – which species would it single out as different, and why? The answer is humanity, on the following grounds:

    (i) Intelligence – the species best qualified to interact, and potentially the greatest threat (there are now legions of experimental studies in the field of comparative cognition that demonstrate superior domain-general performance by humans across diverse tests of learning and cognition)
    (ii) Communication – the species most capable of engaging in a conversation (human language is infinitely more flexible than the communication systems of other species, as virtually all authorities concur)
    (iii) Knowledge acquisition – the species most capable of acquiring and storing information (humans are demonstrably unique in their ability to acquire and store facts, insights and theories about their world and to build on these in a cumulative manner, even to the extent of devising institutions dedicated to knowledge acquisition and artefacts dedicated to knowledge storing)
    (iv) Knowledge sharing – the species best able to share and pool knowledge (human culture is far more effective at knowledge pooling than the social learning and tradition of other animals)
    (v) Environmental regulation – the species that exerts most control over the environment (human activities control vast and diverse flows of energy and matter, at unprecedented scales)
    (vi) Global impact – influence on other biota (human activities are threatening and driving extinct unprecedented numbers of other species, whilst simultaneously eliciting strong evolutionary change in other species)
    (vii) Demographic irregularity – numbers out of kilter with global patterns (there are several orders of magnitude more humans than expected for a mammal of our size)
    (viii) Ecological irregularity – range out of kilter with global patterns (humans have a larger range than any other animal, having colonized virtually every region of the terrestrial globe)
    (ix) Technology – complexity and diversity of artefacts (human artefacts infinitely more complex and diverse than those produced by other animals).
    (x) etc etc

    The extraterrestrial might well be charmed by the elephants trunk and impressed by the giraffe’s neck, but it is humans that they would single out as fundamentally different in important respects.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Coel

    Massimo writes:

    Pinker & co play fast and lose with their “understanding” of what genes do. Nobody questions that genes affect behaviors. But in order to significantly reduce the role of culture / environment they would have to precisely determine behavior.

    That’s just not so. Environment and culture get thrown into the mix, so do genes. All of those have a big effect on the outcome; twin studies tell us that. Genes end up having a significant effect on the patterns of neural-network activity in our brains (and thus on behaviour) and so do environment and culture. None of this works by “precisely determining” anything, it works by influencing a developmental recipe.

    And morevoer, it is up to Pinker & co to specify how, exactly, we connect the many, non-linear dots between the proteins that are actually encoded by genes and complex behaviors, like writing blog posts about evolutionary biology.

    That’s a ludicrous standard of proof to demand (just as it would be ludicrous to ask for all the intermediate steps between the existence of Tom Paine’s Rights of Man and the pattern of neurotransmitters crossing a particular synapse in a particular individual’s brain).

    Clearly we don’t know nearly enough to trace all these intermediate details (and likely never will), but twin studies bypass all that and tell us (with some caveats) about the relative proportions of the influence of environment, culture and genes on a given behavioural trait. This tells us that, as a rule of thumb, as big a fraction of human variance is down to genes as down to environment and culture.

    It seems that a common tactic here is to pay lip service to the idea that genes have influence on behaviour, but then in practice adopt a default of “it’s 100% environmental/cultural” and demand exceptionally high standards of evidence to budge from that. A better non-ideological default would be to start with the expectation that both are significant.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Massimo Post author


    Ignoring what Coel wrote, it is not at all clear to me how Pinker’s position differers from Wilson’s. And yes, that is related to their commitment to evopsych. Wilson does make vague gestures toward the existence of complexities in gene action, but never elaborates at all.

    Contra Coel, again, it isn’t “ludicrous” to ask for at least a sketch of the genotype-phenotype mapping function, if one is making strongly deterministic/reductionistic claims.

    But the broader issue is that evopsych folks simply do not have a theory of cultural evolution. Which is why I was interested in exploring Kevin’s book.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. SocraticGadfly

    Besides genes issues, Pinker is wrong about other things, such as brain modularity. We’ve covered this all about 19 times below, per what Massimo said about ignoring certain comments.


  11. Robin Herbert


    It seems that a common tactic here is to pay lip service to the idea that genes have influence on behaviour, but then in practice adopt a default of “it’s 100% environmental/cultural”

    I can’t think of anyone here who says it is 100% environmental/cultural.

    Are you sure you are not just assiming that people think thst?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Kevin,

    Why is it important that we defend the idea that humans are uniquely unique?

    Please note, it’s not that I disagree, exactly, it’s just that I don’t think this point is worth arguing. Certainly, we find ourselves most interesting. Certainly, any alien that thinks remotely like us will find us most interesting, for the reasons you outlined.

    But, clearly, that these reasons are interesting is not an objective fact. It is just hard to believe that any intelligent species like ourselves would not find them interesting. An alien species more fascinated by the bristles on Drosophila than the accomplishments of humans is certainly implausible but conceivable and logically possible all the same.

    So talking about what an alien might find interesting is not enough to establish that we are uniquely unique in any objective sense, and I think that’s all that those who disagree with “uniquely unique” are trying to say.


  13. Massimo Post author


    “Why is it important that we defend the idea that humans are uniquely unique?”

    Because it’s true? And because a good number of people are denying it?


  14. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo,

    It is as objectively true as any human judgment can be.

    Right. Which is to say not at all.

    I think it is simply bizarre to deny it.

    Agreed. I think it would be bizarre to deny the judgment that human activity and accomplishment seems very special from a subjective (especially human) point of view.

    So I don’t think that’s what any of the deniers, if pressed, would turn out to mean. I think they are denying that it is an absolute statement of objective fact. And if that’s all they mean then the argument is just people talking past each other, which is why I don’t think it’s worth it. Nothing hinges on it, does it? Can’t we just agree that we humans find humans very special for all the reasons Kevin outlined, and work from there?


  15. SocraticGadfly

    First, thanks for dropping in, Kevin, and I hope to see more of you here during the range of discussion. And a note: Per your “who’s important” criteria, I think it should be noted that they’re most powerful in combination. (Per GEB, for example, ants or certain other insects can do a fair amount of environmental manipulation, but fall well short on most the other attributes.)


  16. Robin Herbert

    Steve Pinker has this fixed idea that the so-called ‘blank slate’ is the dominant position in social sciences, but it just isn’t true.

    Pretty much everyone accepts that we are explained by some combination of genes, culture and environment, just as Pinker does.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. synred

    I thought this whole nature vs. nurture thing had been resolved in favor of both.

    The book is not really about that. It’s about the feedback between culture and evolution. That such thing would occur seems obvious, how important it was for various traits can be argued about. Positive feedback does lead to rapid growth.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. synred

    DM, ‘uniquely unique’ is certainly awkward, but that doesn’t matter…

    The vast difference between animals and us is evident and begs for explanation. We don’t need a quantitative measure of the difference or a common standard. Just because an observation is qualitative does not make it any the less correct.

    And there’s nothing wrong with being interested in ourselves. All those fruit files would be interested in themselves, if they could.


  19. synred

    i>it is an absolute statement of objective fact.

    What is an objectivity fact? Since we would invent the criteria as only we can, the fact that humans come out on top would be objective, but point beside the point.

    The vast qualitative difference is more objective than a so-called objective measure. You almost make me sympathize with Feyerabend </l;>_)


  20. SocraticGadfly

    Re “nature vs nurture” rather than “nature via nurture,” I think it’s a straw man to think that many people who critique Pinker think that he’s 100 percent naturist on every idea, or that other ev psychers are.

    Rather, it’s that he’s near the 100 percent naturist end, if one sees this in terms of continuua, on many issues where being near the 100 percent end is empirically unjustified.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Arthur,

    The point you are making is similar to the point I am making, which is that whether this is objective or not is irrelevant. The fact that humans agree that humans are special is enough, since only humans are participating in the conversation.

    But I think those who reject “uniquely unique” think it is intended as an objective claim, which is why they take issue with it. So it’s people talking past each other.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Coel


    I can’t think of anyone here who says it is 100% environmental/cultural.

    That’s not what I said. 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. That’s pretty much what Massimo explicitly said on a recent thread (I can probably find the comment) adding that he thinks this is the right approach.


    Besides genes issues, Pinker is wrong about other things, such as brain modularity.

    He’s not wrong on genes and he’s not wrong on brain modularity. The modularity idea is from a functional perspective (it is not about physically distinct regions), and it pretty much must be correct because it is behaviours that get selected for and thus brain functions that get selected for.

    Rather, it’s that he’s [Pinker] near the 100 percent naturist end, …

    Quote to support your claim?


    Contra Coel, again, it isn’t “ludicrous” to ask for at least a sketch of the genotype-phenotype mapping function, if one is making strongly deterministic/reductionistic claims.

    First, I suspect that the “deterministic” and “reductionistic” are just labels to signal disapproval. All that Pinker et al assert is that genes have a substantial influence on behaviour.

    Let’s examine what you’re asking for, a sketch of the genotype-phenotype mapping function for “complex behaviors, like writing blog posts about evolutionary biology”. First, it’s obvious that such complex behavioural traits have a strong environmental and cultural component (they won’t have been directly selected for), and nothing in Pinker denies that.

    Second, complex traits that involve intelligent, considered behaviour will involve many thousands of genes. That’s obvious: you simply cannot provide a recipe for complex intelligent behaviour in a few lines, it takes a lot of information content, and that makes many thousands of genes.

    So the “genotype-phenotype mapping function” that you’re asking for would involve many thousands of genes, just as many cultural and environmental inputs, and many gene-gene and gene-culture interactions such that just about every element of that mapping matrix could in principle cross-talk with any other element.

    That is just way, way beyond anything we can do today or could plausibly do in the medium-term future (especially as gene knock-out experiments on humans are somewhat unethical). Further, we couldn’t do it about, say, human kidney function or the immune system, despite no-one doubting a strong genetic component in those.

    Your request would only be reasonable and sensible under a presumption of a simplistic one-gene, one-trait model, with the cultural role being minimal. But no-one is going to argue that for complex behavioural traits, certainly not Pinker et al.

    But again, fortunately nature has given us a neat little, near-perfect way of bypassing this and telling us the overall relative influences of genes (despite not knowing much at all about all the messy details) and that is simply comparing the behavioural similarities of genetically identical twins versus fraternal twins verses unrelated people.


  23. Massimo Post author


    I’m not sure what this discussion is about. All claims made by humans are “subjective,” by definition. But there are lots of very objective measures by which humans are unique. As for it being “interesting,” well, isn’t that a subjective human category in general? Why is finding a theory of everything in physics interesting? Lions surely don’t give a damn about it.

    Liked by 2 people

  24. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo,

    I’m not sure what this discussion is about.

    I’m trying to argue that nobody, not even Ruse or de Waal, has a substantive disagreement with what you and Laland are saying here. That your crowd and their crowd are talking past each other, and that the apparent disagreement between you is a misunderstanding, or a difference in emphasis, or a difference in interest, rather than different views about what is actually the case. I could be wrong about this, but this is the hypothesis I’m working with for now.

    All claims made by humans are “subjective,” by definition.

    Yeaaahh…, I guess you could find some level of subjectivity in anything, but that’s really not what I’m driving at. For instance, the claim that the mass ratio between an electron and a proton is 1:1836 (to the nearest integer) is pretty objective. I’m choosing to represent it in this way, and I guess we could somehow be wrong on this, and I guess the fact that I even conceive of these things as protons and electrons is perhaps contingent, but the claim itself whether true or false or how it is represented or conceived is pretty objective. It doesn’t rely on any vague subjective concepts like “interesting”.

    As for it being “interesting,” well, isn’t that a subjective human category in general?

    Absolutely. And I’m not saying there is anything wrong with the claim itself. But when you argue for it as Laland does, rather than taking it for granted (as I would, since it’s perfectly obvious), it seems almost like he’s trying to make a case for the “unique uniqueness” of humans to be regarded as an objective fact rather than a perfectly obvious judgment. Similarly, since there is absolutely no doubt that humans find human beings to be remarkable and in need of special understanding and explanation, I can only interpret those who reject the “uniquely unique” claim as doing so because they interpret it as “objectively uniquely unique”, and the arguments they make seem to me to support this interpretation.

    So if everyone can agree to throw aside any pretence to objectivity, the argument should dissolve. Anyone who claims to be entirely unimpressed with the achievements of human beings as compared to other animals is either deluded or disingenuous, so I am disinclined to interpret people to be saying this unless there is absolutely no room for doubt.

    Why is finding a theory of everything in physics interesting?

    It isn’t, objectively, as nothing is objectively interesting. The problem with this analogy is that nobody claims that it is objectively interesting and neither is anybody interpreting anybody else as claiming that it is objectively interesting.


  25. saphsin


    “Wilson does make vague gestures toward the existence of complexities in gene action, but never elaborates at all.

    Contra Coel, again, it isn’t “ludicrous” to ask for at least a sketch of the genotype-phenotype mapping function, if one is making strongly deterministic/reductionistic claims.

    But the broader issue is that evopsych folks simply do not have a theory of cultural evolution.”

    Okay this makes sense, though if evopsych folks are willing to acknowledge the complexities in gene action but don’t elaborate on it, that doesn’t seem to be making the commitment that behavior is all coded in the genes but rather an overreached confidence that there’s more to be learned about behavior by looking at them. The difference seems to be that the former is a stronger ontological claim while the latter is an epistemological one, though they’re tied together.


  26. Thomas Jones

    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. 🙂

    This is not meant to be condescending since we have no way to know what an alien or extraterrestrial being might find “interesting” from an evolutionary vantage regarding biology on earth. Perhaps, these aliens would find the EES project of sapiens rather preliminarily amusing but misbegotten on the assumption that their experience of life forms within our galaxy suggests something otherwise.

    And so, to a large extent, I share DM’s reservations. Again, I don’t see much push back on the premise that human cultural evolution, by orders of magnitude, exceeds same in other higher order species. At the same time, it seems part of the EES project draws on cultural evolutionary aspects of nonhuman species to bolster its theory.

    As for the phrase, “uniquely unique,” there’s little point in quibbling over it. It is simply nonsensical on its face, at least in common parlance.


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