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'Culture is not just the magnificent end product of an evolutionary process'

Our journalist Ella Rhodes speaks to Kevin Laland, one of the winners of the British Psychological Society's Book Award.

04 October 2017

Kevin Laland is Professor of Behavioural and Evolutionary Biology at the University of St Andrews. His book, Darwin's Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind, won in the Academic Monograph category of the British Psychological Society's Book Award.

We asked him a few questions. 

What inspired you to write the book?

The idea that I might write this book began with an innocent look out of the window some 30 years ago. I had just finished reading Charles Darwin's classic On the origin of species, and had got to the famous last paragraph where he describes a tangled bank replete with plants, flowers, birds and insects, all of which could be understood through natural selection. So inspired, I looked out of my window hoping to see a pristine piece of nature. Unfortunately, I was a student at the time in central London, so I saw ugly concrete buildings, busy roads teaming with traffic, noise and pollution. For a fraction of a second I was disappointed, but then I had a revelation that motivated me for the rest of my life. All of that – the roads, tower blocks, hospitals, cities – required an evolutionary explanation too! How could we understand the evolution of the extraordinary human capacity for culture out of its roots in animal behavior?

I subsequently dedicated my scientific career to trying to answer that question, and came to realise that the issue of how human culture evolved was intimately wrapped up with the origins of the human mind. Darwin's Unfinished Symphony is what I call the challenge to understand the roots of human intelligence, technology and culture, and the book describes our attempt to rise to that challenge.

What's new about this book?

The book emphasises how we humans are creatures of our own making. The truly unique characteristics of our species – such as our intelligence, language, teaching, and cooperation – are not adaptive responses to external conditions such as climate, predators or disease. Rather, the learned and transmitted activities of our ancestors shaped our intellects through accelerating cycles of evolutionary feedback. Culture is not just the magnificent end product of an evolutionary process – it was also the key driving force behind the evolution of the human mind.

Did anything surprise you while researching the book?

I try in the book not just to describe the latest science, but also to capture something of the scientific process. Darwin's Unfinished Symphony describes three decades of research into these issues by myself and my collaborators. I lay bare, in an honest way, our struggles, false starts, moments of insight and inspiration, and our triumphs and failures in a scientific journey of discovery.

There were plenty of surprises along the way – scientific findings that shattered our illusions and upset the applecart. For instance, to answer the question 'what is the best way to learn' we organised an open tournament where anyone who wanted could submit an entry and these were played off against each other on a computer according to a pre-specified set of rules. The findings were a complete surprise, and challenged all of the existing theory in the field. The tournament conclusively demonstrated that copying, or learning socially, is by far and away the best way to learn. Subsequently, I was to realise that copying was not only the key to the evolution of the human mind, but also provides explanations for our species' extraordinary technological and artistic achievements.

What reception has your book received?

The reception has been terrific. Writing a book is a huge effort – particularly a book like Darwin's Unfinished Symphony which is my magnum opus. Hence it is extremely heartening to see the many positive reviews. A highlight for me was being invited to speak about Darwin's Unfinished Symphony to a crowd of over a thousand at the Hay book festival. It was such a wonderful atmosphere, and marvellous to be surrounded by so many curious people who are into science and love books.

How did you feel to win the BPS award?

I honestly couldn't be more thrilled. I feel very honoured to receive this award, particularly as I am more a biologist than a psychologist. I am very grateful to the British Psychological Society for taking the trouble to give these book awards. Writing a monograph is such hard work – one can pour one's heart and soul into it for years – so getting a little reward at the end is very much appreciated.