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20180114 – Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony



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The main idea of this book it to review research results of animal cultures and, by combining them into one evolution based narrative, try to present logically consistent idea of how super complex and super successful human individuals and cultures come to be. This review leads to the idea that powerful brain was developed not for the problems resolution, but rather for transfer of skill and knowledge via human specific complex communication process of individual-to-individual teaching. This process provided immediate evolutionary advantage by allowing accumulating design improvements for tools and methods that become more and more effective and efficient over time, unlike inventions of other animals that have high level of attrition due to failure of communications and intergenerational transfer.



  1. Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony

It starts with the question: if human brains and culture are so useful for survival, why other species did not developed the same functionality? Why human culture is so sophisticated and complex while cultures of other animals are extremely primitive? Author points out that his specialty as a scientist of animal behavior and cultures led him to knowledge of high level of complexity of animal behavior that while extremely sophisticated, nevertheless could not support anything close to human abilities for cooperation, planning, coordination, and results analysis. All these actually put humans at the qualitatively different level than any other animals. Author also discusses here role of communication and languages. Finally, he discusses a bit of methodology, specifically the use of mathematical models.

  1. Ubiquitous Copying

Here author looks at the process of copying in various animals and demonstrates that this is widely used method in the live of practically all animals, even those that are considered very primitive. In short copying and similar forms of social learning are routine processes used just about everywhere and by everybody.

  1. Why Copy?

This is a discussion of evolutionary advantages provided by social learning and copying. The point here is that the only other way to learn is trial and error and it is very expensive comparatively to “monkey see monkey do”.

  1. A Tale of Two Fishes

This chapter is about experimental research on fishes’ learning / copying. It incidentally discovered how cost of learning plays into selection of behavioral patterns. Two similar species of fish with different level of natural protection armor developed different behavior patterns: well-protected fish would prefer to learn, while poorly protected fish would prefer to copy – learn from others. In this case risk is equal to the cost of learning. After that author goes on to discuss strategic learning when animal behavior dependents on its estimate of costs and efficiency of learning vs. copying.

  1. The Roots of Creativity

This is also based on the research of animals that demonstrated creativity, being a part of learning process. Animals try different things to achieve their objectives and when they succeed, other animals copy their behavior. There is no dramatic difference here from humans either in process of trials and errors or copying process. Author reviews results of detailed research on who, when, and how innovate and provides sometime unexpected results such as innovation being done mainly by adults, rather than by young. Another, not exactly unexpected result is a strong correlation between innovation and brain size. All these results point out at causal relation between evolutional advantage produced by the ability to innovate and brain size that this ability requires.


  1. The Evolution of Intelligence

This chapter starts with the reference to Alan Wilson who developed method of identifying relationship between species by content of DNA, which also allowed tracing ancestry. That’s how notion of mitochondrial Eva was established. However, author is more interested in Wilson’s idea of positive feedback between brain size and corresponding problem solving capability results in evolutionary advantage leading to increase in brain size closing the feedback loop. Interestingly enough, recent research of multitude of animals demonstrated that a big brain is not really that necessary for innovation since lot of small brain animal capable of doing wonderful things. The resulting hypothesis is that brain is tool for complex culture, communications, and cooperation rather than just for problem solving. Here is a nice graph demonstrating these ideas:

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At the end author discusses details of this process, specifically levels of error in copying including both: buiological and cultural levels.

  1. High Fidelity

After demonstrating that resent research debunked traditional ideas of human exceptionalism such as use of tools and problem solution, author moves to real human exceptionalism: ability to developed cultural artifacts and high fidelity with which these artifacts are transferred from generation to generation and between populations. Here is a representation of this:

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The rest of the chpater is about methods of achieving high fidelity of cultural transmission: intentional tutoring that is very specific for humans and have no comparable examples in other species.

  1. Why We Alone Have Language

This is a detailed discussion of one human specific artifact. Author defines requirements for the theory of explaining artifact of language in humans:

  1. It should account for honesty of the early language
  2. It should account for its cooperativeness
  3. It should explain how language was adaptive from the outset
  4. Concepts proposed by the theory should be grounded in reality
  5. It should explain generality of the language
  6. It should account for uniqueness of human language
  7. It should explain why communication need to be learned

After that author discusses just such proposed theory, which states that language was developed as necessary tool for teaching or in other words formal transfer of knowledge and skills from one human to another during cooperative activity conducted specifically for the purpose of this transfer. At the end of chapter author discusses experiment with teaching contemporary humans to manufacture stone tools specific to Acheulean culture – the oldest currently known (2.5 million years). This experiment demonstrated insufficiency of observational learning for skills transmission between teacher and student, therefore postulating the necessity of the language.

  1. Gene-Culture Coevolution

This chapter is about links between genetic and cultural evolution. Author uses such genetic feature as right or left-hand dominance to model evolution of this trait. Similarly, he discusses other studies related to lactose tolerance and such. All these and also sexual selection studies demonstrated that genetic and cultural evolutions are part of the same feedback loop expanding or constricting various features.

  1. The Dawn of Civilization

This starts with discussion of speed of change and then goes to defining human development as sequence of 3 stages: Biological evolution; Gene-culture coevolution that started with creation of language and teaching, and currently in process stage of the Cultural dominance in human evolution. The further discussion in the chapter is mainly about how did it happened and relates not that much to currently developed world, but even to contemporary hunter-gatherers and primitive agriculturalists. Even for them knowledge accumulated over millions of years allows, for example, consume food that would be poisonous without specific knowledge how to prepare it. Obviously living in contemporary society nearly completely isolates humans from natural environment.

  1. Foundations of Cooperation

Here author moves to more detailed discussion of cooperation and its evolutionary explanations starting with kin selection, coercion, and group selection. Author makes a point that large-scale society depends on teaching for their very existence. Author also discusses how rules of cooperation develop and difficulties for many to change paradigm from biological evolution only for genes/culture mutual feedback evolutionary process.

  1. The Arts

The last chapter is about arts, their evolutionary role, and how innovation, copying and learning involved in producing its artifacts. Author looks in details at the development and contemporary condition of dance as a specific form of art.

Epilogue: Awe Without Wonder

In conclusion author states that he started at the beginning of his research into evolutionary processes of human culture with Awe and Wonder for it. After decades of research he does not fill Awe anymore because he developed what he believes a good understanding of this process and found answers to questions about uniqueness of humanity. This uniqueness comes from uniquely human ability to transfer skills and knowledge via intentional teaching, which created positive feedback loop when needs for improved communication and innovation lead to the growth of the brain that in turn allows creating more and more complex know how that in turn lead to increasing need for teaching these complex skills. Eventually this loop took humanity out of regular world of animals and made into what we are today.


I think that person-to-person teaching, as effective process of knowledge / skill transfer, is a very good candidate for explanation of continuing increase in human brain complexity and ability when each step provides for material evolutionary advantage. Interestingly enough it could easily be linked to another area of humanitarian research – analysis of innovation and technological development, which more and more often treated as cumulative process with continuing increase in effectiveness and efficiency, albeit with only occasional significant breakthrough to qualitatively different level.


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