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By Our Own Design -- Kevin Laland Talks to NYC Skeptics About the Cultural Drive Hypothesis

“Our culture makes us uniquely human,” said University of St. Andrews evolutionary biology professor Kevin Laland, questioning how this difference has come about. Or, to put it more directly, “Why haven’t gorillas invented Facebook?”

Laland spoke to the New York City Skeptics at the Jefferson Market Library on June 3 about his new book Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, in which he tries to solve the problem that the father of evolution struggled mightily with – the origins of the human mind and our culture. Laland’s unorthodox idea suggests that the mind creating culture is only half the story.

“The mind is built,” Laland said also, “by culture.” This “cultural drive hypothesis” holds that our ability to learn skills from others, and iteratively build on shared knowledge, shaped human evolution in ways not replicated anywhere else in the animal kingdom.

Plenty of animals copy each other, though. Laland told the story of a bird population in his native United Kingdom that learned to peck open milk bottles, soon spreading the skill nationwide. But that kind of knowledge transfer isn’t the progressive growth we see in human culture. Even something as simple-looking as the paperclip took hundreds of years and several pieces of technology to perfect.  All that work is costly, especially when simple copying is usually enough to get by.

“It’s important that you learn efficiently,” Laland said, bemoaning his own lifelong dedication to knowledge accumulation. “I can’t bring home enough how brutal a lesson that is for a university professor.”

So while other animals can learn, there’s really no need for teaching when the tasks imparted are simple. It wasn’t until humans developed language – a reliable, accurate way to explain complex things to close relatives -- that the basis for our intricate behavior was set.

“Fidelity is the key to cumulative culture,” Laland said.

High quality transfer of sophisticated knowledge forced the development of mental machinery to handle it all, creating a sort of feedback loop that enabled deeper and richer culture. Things like creativity and the arts aren’t adaptive then, but are byproducts of the feedback from our cultural activity. Still, they are the things that make us unique.

“No animal can imitate human culture,” Laland said. Sorry, Planet of the Apes fans.

Darwin's Unfinished Symphony:  How Culture Made the Human Mind (Princeton University Press) is currently available from online retailers and at bookstores everywhere. Video of  Laland's lecture will be available at at a later time.

Report by Russ Dobler


Kevin Laland: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution

When: Saturday, June 3, 2017 @ 3:00 PM 

Where: Jefferson Market Library (425 Ave of the Americas at 10th Street)

In his latest book: Darwin's Unfinished SymphonyKevin Laland shows how the learned and socially transmitted activities of our ancestors shaped our intellects through accelerating cycles of evolutionary feedback. The truly unique characteristics of our species—such as our intelligence, language, teaching, and cooperation—are not adaptive responses to predators, disease, or other external conditions. Rather, humans are creatures of their own making. Drawing on his own groundbreaking research, and bringing it to life with vivid natural history, Laland explains how animals imitate, innovate, and have remarkable traditions of their own. He traces our rise from scavenger apes in prehistory to modern humans able to design iPhones, dance the tango, and send astronauts into space. 

Kevin N. Laland is professor of behavioral and evolutionary biology at the University of St Andrews. His books include Social Learning: An Introduction to Mechanisms, Methods, and Models and Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution (both Princeton).

NYC Skeptics tries to keep their lectures free and open to the public, but it does cost money to produce the events. Please consider donating to NYC Skeptics or becoming a member. Suggested donation for this talk is $10.  

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Registration for NECSS 2017 is Now Open


Keynote: Mike Massimino
Emcee: Leighann Lord
Featured Speaker: James Randi
NECSS 2017 registration is now open! Our keynote speaker this year will be former NASA astronaut and many-time guest star on "The Big Bang Theory," Mike Massimino. We are also thrilled to have back at NECSS as a featured speaker the one and only James Randi! They will be joined by emcee Leighann Lord (comedian and co-host of StarTalk Radio), along with almost 30 speakers, including:
  • The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe "Rogues"
  • NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt
  • Newsweek correspondent Nina Burleigh
  • Slate columnist Helaine Olen
  • Astrophysicist Summer Ash
  • Snopes managing editor Brooke Binkowski
  • Former naturopath Britt Marie Hermes
  • NASA Datanaut Corps founder Jennifer Lopez
  • AccessScience's John Rennie
  • Musician George Hrab
  • Rationally Speaking host Julia Galef
  • Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci
  • "SkepDoc" Harriet Hall
  • The Society for Science-Based Medicine's David Gorski
  • And more!

Early bird conference registration will end on May 5, when prices will increase significantly. Don't wait to register; secure the discounted rate today!

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