Subscribe to E-Mail Updates

Latest tweets


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