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Darwin's Unfinished Symphony:
How Culture Made the Human Mind
Kevin N. Laland

Shortlisted for the 2017 British Psychological Society Book Awards, Best Academic Monograph

Hardcover | 2017 | $35.00 | £27.95 | ISBN: 9780691151182
464 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 11 halftones. 2 line illus.
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How culture transformed human evolution

Humans possess an extraordinary capacity for cultural production, from the arts and language to science and technology. How did the human mind—and the uniquely human ability to devise and transmit culture—evolve from its roots in animal behavior? Darwin's Unfinished Symphony presents a captivating new theory of human cognitive evolution. This compelling and accessible book reveals how culture is not just the magnificent end product of an evolutionary process that produced a species unlike all others—it is also the key driving force behind that process.

Kevin 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.

This book tells the story of the painstaking fieldwork, the key experiments, the false leads, and the stunning scientific breakthroughs that led to this new understanding of how culture transformed human evolution. It is the story of how Darwin's intellectual descendants picked up where he left off and took up the challenge of providing a scientific account of the evolution of the human mind.

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).


"Darwin was certainly aware of the importance of human culture, but under Mr. Laland's sophisticated interpretation, cultural innovations did not merely respond to environmental challenges but also helped create the elaborate surroundings within which natural selection made us what we are today. Besides illuminating the interaction between biological and cultural evolution, he gives suitable attention to recent discoveries in the new field of ‘cognitive ethology,’ which has revealed astounding mental capacities on the part of our animal relatives. . . . Mr. Laland is one of those rare biologists who have personally studied the processes--notably in fishes and rats--whereby animals learn and transmit their learning and who has also applied mathematical models to the spread of cultural traditions among human beings and other species. The evolution of learning is a well-trodden research path, but Darwin's Unfinished Symphony may be the first book-length integrated account of the evolution of teaching."--David Barash, Wall Street Journal

"[Laland] describes a decade’s worth of his and others’ research, culminating in a comprehensive and fascinating solution to the vexing problem of the human mind."--Publishers Weekly

"In Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony Kevin Laland makes a powerful case that culture drove much of our species’ genetic evolution over the past few million years. . . . Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony makes a compelling case that elegantly seats humans within the natural world, while at the same time explaining our peculiar uniqueness."--Joseph Henrich, Science

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Table of Contents:

Foreword ix
Part I: Foundations of Culture
1 Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony 1
2 Ubiquitous Copying 31
3 Why Copy? 50
4 A Tale of Two Fishes 77
5 The Roots of Creativity 99
Part II: The Evolution of the Mind
6 The Evolution of Intelligence 123
7 High Fidelity 150
8 Why We Alone Have Language 175
9 Gene-Culture Coevolution 208
10 The Dawn of Civilization 234
11 Foundations of Cooperation 264
12 The Arts 283
Epilogue: Awe Without Wonder 315
Notes 323
References 385
Index 443

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