Book Club: Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, 9, the arts

painting elephants“The logic of cultural evolution is identical to that of biological evolution, even if the details differ. New ideas, behaviors, or products are devised through diverse creative processes; these differ in their attractiveness, appeal, or utility, and as a result are differentially adopted, with newfangled variants superseding the obsolete,” says Kevin Laland at the beginning of the last chapter of his book, Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind (p. 292). It is, therefore, with a brief commentary on this chapter, focusing on the arts, that I will end my series on Kevin’s fascinating view of the young field of cultural evolution.

That introductory gambit actually illustrates where Laland’s and my views begin to diverge, though perhaps not as sharply as each of our perspectives differs from standard evolutionary psychology. I see cultural evolution as linked to its biological counterpart in two ways: first, because it originated from it; and second, because there is a broad analogy between the two. But I fall far short of Kevin’s strong statement that the two are “identical” in logic. They are not, in my mind, fundamentally because biological evolution is propelled by the teolonomic process of natural selection. Cultural evolution, by contrast, is moved by the teleological process of human cognition. The two are not the same, and I maintain that no currently available theory of cultural evolution satisfactorily accounts for either the difference or the relationship between the two. (I hasten to say, which should not be necessary, that I see nothing magical or “mysterian” about this. At all. It is simply an open scientific question, like many others.)

The cultural evolution of art is, obviously, a huge topic, which would require a book of its own. So Laland takes a reasonable approach, focusing on aspects of the evolution of a particular art form: dance. As we shall see, he has lots of interesting things to say, but not much that would surprise a historian of dance, and definitely not much that originates specifically from a biological evolutionary perspective.

Before getting to dancing, Kevin briefly discusses another art form, acting, making the case that it crucially (though not solely, of course) depends on imitation, which he has argued previously, is an important evolved skill in the human lineage. Since dancing also fully deploys our ability to imitate others, and given that neither acting nor dancing presumably were direct targets of natural selection, he can then conclude that both art forms are in fact a byproduct of natural selection for the capacity to imitate.

“Imitation is no trivial matter. Few other animals are capable of motor imitation, and even those that do exhibit this form of learning cannot imitate with anything like the accuracy and precision of our species.” (p. 295)

Our ancestors at some point became able to solve what Laland calls the correspondence problem: imagine, for instance, that you are trying to learn how to use chopsticks. This is done by imitation, which requires translating the visual cues obtained by watching someone using chopsticks into the motor control that our own muscles have to exercise in order for us to be able to do the same. The sensory experiences involved in watching and doing are utterly different, and yet somehow our brain has to be capable to solve this correspondence problem.

Recent research has shown that human beings solve the correspondence problem by using neural networks similar to the so-called mirror neurons discovered in other primates. Kevin suggests that it is plausible that the mirror neuron or equivalent network has been selected precisely to facilitate imitation, that this particular skill has been much more refined by natural selection in humans, and that one of its most astounding and least recognized byproducts is our ability to do and appreciate art — not just movies and dancing, but also painting, sculpture, theater, music, and even computer gaming.

Kevin doesn’t think much of the alleged ability of other animals to produce art, and I think he is right:

“The motor control that allows humans to produce artistic works and performances spontaneously is a capability that no other animal shares. … The claim that chimpanzees [for instance] are artists, in any meaningful sense, is greeted with skepticism by animal behaviorists and art scholars alike.” (p. 299)

He also thoroughly debunks the idea that elephants in Thailand can paint, referring instead to evidence that the animals have been well trained to respond to subtle cues provided by their handlers, through the simple device of tugging at the elephant’s ears.

What about dancing? Here again the suggestion has been made that some animals do it, though as Laland points out, much of the answer depends on how one defines dancing, and what counts as instances of the art form. Regardless, and more importantly, he highlights the fact that the only good candidates for dancing animals are, not surprisingly, those species that are most capable of imitation. (The same considerations apply to singing animals, by the way.)

“The most transparent connection between dance and imitation … will be readily apparent to just about anyone who has ever taken or observed a dance lesson; that is, dance sequences are typically learned through imitation. … It is no coincidence that dance rehearsal studios around the world almost always have large mirrors along one wall. These allow the learner to flit rapidly between observing the movements of the instructor or choreographer and observing their own performance.” (p. 307-308)

The other thing that makes for a good dancer is the ability to learn a long sequence of actions, and Kevin has shown before in the book that this type of learning is very difficult in a non-social setting, because it pretty much requires teachers. So the evolution of teaching, which he has discussed previously as a crucial component of early cultural evolution in the human lineage, is also a prerequisite for the wonderful byproduct of our biology that we call dance.

Much of the remainder of the chapter concerns itself with the history of dancing, and it is there, I think, that the limits of insights from biological evolution are most painfully clear. Laland asks whether dance could be said to have evolved in any “rigorous” sense of the term, by which he means to ask whether dance as a “system” possesses the characteristics that any evolving system has to possess: variation, differential fitness, and inheritance. But it should be obvious that while the evolution of dance does display all three, we have essentially no account whatsoever of the second element, differential fitness. This deficiency, I argue, at the moment makes cultural evolution into a tautological theory of the kind that Karl Popper (mistakenly) thought the theory of biological evolution was. While Darwin and his successors solved that problem in the biological case, neither evolutionary psychologists nor the more sophisticated approach advocated by Kevin and colleagues has been able to solve it in the case of cultural evolution.

Kevin presents readers with a number of examples showing that there is much variation among the world’s dances, and that this variation is culturally inherited via imitation (though, crucially, the equivalent of biological “mutation” and “recombination” result from conscious or unconscious human decision making, which follows, and indeed also shapes, human aesthetic judgments).

We therefore learn about European sword dances, which apparently first appeared in ancient Greece and were brought to Britain by invading Danes and Vikings. Waltz is Kevin’s favorite example of cultural fitness, as he calls it. And yet, here the limits of his approach are stark, in his own words:

“Relative to other dances in the late eighteenth century, the waltz could be said to possess high ‘cultural fitness,’ which really means little more than it was unusually appealing and as a result increased readily in frequency.” (p. 311)

Right. And that, right there, is the problem. Strip the fancy wording and we are left with: “waltz (at that particular time, in that particular culture) had high fitness because it had high fitness.” That’s the sort of vicious circularity that rightly annoyed Popper. You don’t find it in evolutionary biology because a separate discipline comes to the rescue: functional ecology. It is the latter that allows us to make predictions about which organismal traits are going to be adaptive in one environment or another, given the organism’s anatomy, physiology, and ecology (and given the laws of physics and chemistry). We don’t just say that natural selection favors the fit, and then immediately turn around and define the fit as those that are favored by natural selection. But that’s pretty much what cultural evolutionary theory does, at the moment, and it shares this limitation with other approaches, such as evolutionary psychology and memetics, though for different reasons that are specific to each approach.

To be fair, Kevin does attempt to sketch an elementary functional ecology of dance. For instance we are told that waltz was attractive in late 18th century Europe, in part because of the “dance’s intoxicating swirling, and the dangerously intimate contact between male and female were a major draw.”

Okay, but presumably swirling and close male and female contact have always been intoxicating. So why late 18th century Europe? Moreover, I don’t know much about the history of dance as an academic field of study, but I doubt anything Laland says in this chapter will come as a surprise to historians of dance — and I mean everything, from the genealogical patterns of evolution by imitation to the “mutations” introduced by different cultures at different times, to ad hoc explanations (which may even be true) like the intoxicating effect of a particular dance. In other words, invoking Darwin here does no work at all, or almost.

I don’t have a better alternative. I chose Kevin’s book precisely because I think it is one of the best in the field of cultural evolution, reflecting the incredible vigor and ingenuity of Kevin as a principal investigator, not to mention the many collaborators he gives due credit throughout the book. It’s all tantalizing and very, very interesting. But it falls far short of a comprehensive theory of cultural evolution. It is good to learn about the importance of social learning, of teaching, and of imitation throughout the history of hominins. It is fascinating to think that such biological history has a lot to do with the subsequent shaping of cultural evolution. But we are still nowhere near giving a decent scientific account of sword dancing, waltz, flamenco, polka, jitterbug, or rock’n’roll. Not to mention Michelangelo, Picasso, and de Kooning; or Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky; or Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare. And so on and so forth, encompassing the bewildering variety of manifestations of what we call culture.


And now for something completely different: our next book will be Early Socratic Dialogues, edited by Trevor J. Saunders, Penguin 2005. I figured that this is a blog called Footnotes to Plato, and yet we have hardly talked about Plato. So, here we go…

36 thoughts on “Book Club: Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, 9, the arts

  1. brodix


    It is a map versus territory situation and obviously the map is a pale version of the territory.

    The territory amounts to lots of points of references, bouncing around, attracted and repelled. While the map, history/story, is a narrative sequence of events.

    So for the first, thermodynamics would seem to be the basic formulation, while for the second, time is.

    Is this start to finish process as foundational as we think, or is it that as mobile organisms, proceeding from one event to another, it is foundational to our point of view, much as the earth is the center of our view of the universe and it took a very long time(lots of informational input) to see beyond that?

    Do we, in the present, move into the future? Or is that that these configurations of the underlaying energy recede into the past, as the forms coalesce and dissolve?

    It seems to me that if we want to better understand nature, it is a point worth considering.


  2. brodix


    In less emotionally fraught situations, when science encounters issues that don’t reduce to clear laws, but still can’t be dismissed, it is called an axiom, parameter, etc., distilled to its most salient features and worked around. What if we did that to the issue of consciousness and life in general?

    Why would it be a giver of laws and not simply work within and through them? Apparently the laws don’t need consciousness to function, so why would they need it to exist?

    My position is this sentience that becomes focused in humanity would be elemental and the emergence of human capacities, such as our ability to collect and order information, is emergent.

    So assuming a knowledge and law based awareness makes a similar assumption as artificial intelligence. That the complexities and details are foundational. The difference being monotheism assumes the source of awareness is congruent with the laws and lawgiving. Which the atheist dismisses as unnecessary and then argues awareness is a byproduct of information processing. From which the theist seems to mostly retreat to organized religions.

    A large function of organized religion is social order and so it is useful to give divine providence to communal structures, from the ten commandments, to divine right of kings.

    So it seems to me that understanding and accepting life as having a core that can’t be explained away by ever closer examination of the details, requires considering it as its own element, for the moment.

    More the new born baby, than the wise old man.

    The light shining through the frames of film, not the images on them.


  3. wtc48

    Socratic: ‘WTC – but culture is more than history … it’s sociology and other things. And, history doesn’t “evolve.”

    Right: history (in the broadest sense) is “what happened.” It includes sociology, science, current events, and what Queen Victoria had for tea in 1877. Some aspects of history/culture evolve, in the sense of directed development. Science is probably the outstanding example, in being a cooperative venture by and for humanity to improve the state of knowledge, employing the principle of the ratchet to examine and nail down past accomplishments and build on them for future insights and discoveries. This description, actually, is a tautology: to do thus is science; science is to do thus. I can’t think of another phenomenon in human culture that matches this description. Religion, by contrast, is rooted in past epiphanies, which are regarded as the source of moral guidance, and even the slightest change can provide occasion for intense resistance (e.g. the religious wars of the Reformation/Counterreformation).


  4. couvent2104


    However, having recently reviewed hundreds of published studies of natural selection in the wild (…) my impression is that less than 1% specify the functional ecology of the selected trait in any detail. What such studies primarily do is detect selection: they might, say, specify that there is disruptive selection on stickleback gill rakers, or that a particular crustacean’s body size is under sexual selection. Typically, in the discussion the authors will speculate as to the ecological factors that plausibly explain the evolution that they have detected, but rarely have ecological measures even been taken, let alone been linked through quantitative analysis to the trait’s functionality or fitness.

    What’s your opinion on this? And what does it say about ET as practiced?


  5. Massimo Post author


    Kevin is right that only a minority of studies on natural selection directly specify a functional ecology. But that’s in part because we have a pretty good understanding of the functiona ecology of a lot of traits/organisms where we study selection. We know, for instance, from bio-mechanical and physiological considerations, why certain types of leaves should be favored in one environment and not in another. When we do not have a good functional ecology,, we first show that there is selection, then we begin the experiments necessary to understand the mechanisms.

    Contra Kevin’s optimistic stance, however, I don’t think we have anything close to that with cultural evolution. And, per Dan, I begin to think there are good principles reasons why we never will. That said, Keivn is also right that is book is devoted primarily to the question of how cultural evolution was made possible by biological evolution. And it does a very good job there, as I pointed out in the course of this series.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. milesmutka

    I suppose the hellenes did have a concept of culture, or paideia. But it did not evolve as such, but was rather given to chosen humans via the mousai according to mythology (Terpsichore in the case of dance). Some of it was hard to learn, which attributed to the value of the art (tekhne); some of it was intentionally kept secret, or mystery. The number and speciality of the mousai evolved through history of course, the number increasing. Among the original mousai was always “Memory”.

    There is also something tautological about the word “music” in this context, since it etymologically just means “art of the mousai”.


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