“In important respects, humans are cognitively distinct from other animals,” says Kevin Laland, Professor of Behavioral and Evolutionary Biology at the University of St Andrews.
“Our uniqueness can be understood as arising through a process of gene-culture coevolution. The truly distinctive features of humanity—our language, our intelligence, our cooperation—are adaptive responses to our ancestors’ cultural activities. And culture is what makes us smart, with our species’ ecological and demographic success arising primarily from a remarkable ability to pool and build upon learned knowledge. Of course, it is tempting to take the fact that we have independently come to the same position as convergent evidence for our arguments.”
Laland makes those observations in an interview with The Evolution Institute, while discussing his new book, Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind. The wide-ranging discussion covers such areas as research on stickleback fish, animal social learning, “Rogers’ Paradox,” the origins of language, and the evolution of art.
Regarding art, Laland says it’s a form of imitation “that goes far beyond the copying of styles, techniques, and materials. In fact, I would go so far as to assert that in the absence of a mind fine-tuned by natural selection for optimal social learning, art works simply could not be produced. We engage in the arts only because are all descended from a long line of brilliant imitators. Through copying, our ancestors learned how to make digging tools, spears, harpoons, and throwing sticks, or how to build a fire.
“In my book I describe how hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of years of selection for competent imitation has shaped the human brain, leaving it supremely adapted to translating visual information about the movement of others’ bodies into matching action from our own muscles and joints. These cognitive abilities allow us to learn new skills today, such as how to drive or cook—however they are also what permits actors to act and dancers to dance. The ancestral sharing of emotions in social settings—for instance, responding with anxiety to the fear of a child—helped shape the empathy and emotional contagion that makes watching movies a powerful experience.
“In the absence of those social learning capabilities we would watch movies like sociopaths, unmoved by the Psycho shower scene. Likewise, when it comes to the evolution of dance, our imitative competence explains things like why humans are capable of moving in time to music, how we are able to synchronize our actions with others, and how we can learn long sequences of movements. All these artistic competences are reliant on neural circuitry that evolved for efficient social learning.”