Darwin's Unfinished Symphony

How Culture Made the Human Mind

[Amazon Link]

Another book from a scientist reflecting back on a lifetime chasing answers to intriguing questions. It's pretty good.

The scientist in this case is Kevin Laland. He begins nicely, with the quoted poetic final paragraph from Darwin's The Origin of Species, where an "entangled bank" is contemplated, rife with plants, bugs, worms, singing birdies, etc. All this produced via the "war of nature", natural selection. Darwin, it's evident, took a bit of (justifiable) pride in describing how all that wonderousness could have come to be.

When Laland looks out his window, he sees the biological stuff too, but in addition sees all the artifacts of humanity that signify how different we are from the birdies and bugs: massive buildings, electric poles, hospitals, cars, the Internet, and Major League Baseball. Well, he doesn't see that last bit, he's British. But still… you have to ask the Darwinesque question: how did all that come about? He's spent a lifetime working on the answers. Which aren't all in yet, but there's been a lot of progress made toward them, and Laland and his research teams have done their part.

Laland major theme is the examination of how cultures evolve, often in concert with corresponding biological evolution. (Called, naturally enough, "coevolution".) Humans aren't the only species where that happens. There's a fascinating diversion into the social learning talents of the threespine stickleback, a fish that was shown to learn by observing the feeding behavior of its peers. (A closely related species, the ninespine stickleback, is relatively stupid at this task.)

Via a combination of good storytelling and rigorous science, Laland shows how humans took a number of traits present in the animal kingdom and more or less turned them up to eleven. In addition, humans were able to take advantage of teaching, which is relatively rare in other animals. And teaching is made much more efficacious when combined with our talent for language (completely absent in other animals).

My only quibble is that Laland seems to avoid what I think of as Deirdre McCloskey territory: he doesn't attempt to explain the hockey-stick increase in economic prosperity in a mere eyeblink of evolutionary time.

[He does, however, go into an area where I haven't seen others go: the evolution of artistic expression, concentrating on dance. Didn't see that coming.]

I seem to be reading in this area a lot. If you're interested, I can also recommend The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridley and The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich.

URLs du Jour


■ The Proverbialist just can't get off the topic of fools. Continuing with 26:10:

Like an archer who wounds at random is one who hires a fool or any passer-by.

OK, fine. But here's what I don't understand. The link above goes to biblehub.com, which provides numerous different translations for the same verse. Understandably, there's some variation. But this is the first one I've noticed where some are totally different. For example, here's the good old King James Version:

The great God that formed all things both rewardeth the fool, and rewardeth transgressors.

Whoa, KJV. What did you do with that crazy archer? Seriously, what's going on here?

■ Daniel J. Mitchell writes on Occupational Licensing, Government Thuggery, and Greed-Fueled Cronyism. Asking the musical question:

What word best describes the actions of government? Would it be greed? How about thuggery? Or cronyism?

Mr. Mitchell makes the good argument that when it comes to occupational licensing, the state does a fine job of combining all three.

■ KDW@NR examines The ‘Right’ to Health Care. Spoiler: there's no such thing. Excerpt:

Declaring a right in a scarce good is meaningless. It is a rhetorical gesture without any application to the events and conundrums of the real world. If the Dalai Lama were to lead 10,000 bodhisattvas in meditation, and the subject of that meditation was the human right to health care, it would do less good for the cause of actually providing people with health care than the lowliest temp at Merck does before his second cup of coffee on any given Tuesday morning.

Stay for the punchline: “Do you really want a doctor who can’t afford a Ferrari?”

Additional comment: there's no way to magically convert a scarce good into a non-scarce one. But if you read KDW's article in concert with Mitchell's immediately above, you'll get an inkling that reforming occupational licensing in the health care field would help a lot in the right direction.

■ Needless to say: A lot of libertarians hate Trump/Ryancare. At Hot Air, Taylor Millard does a fine job of collecting comments from Our Side. His summary:

Mandates and tax credits don’t work, especially when the government has no plan whatsoever to reduce government spending (unfilled federal jobs aside). An actual solution to letting the free market take over medicine again, could take decades. This doesn’t mean Obamacare can’t be destroyed, and a more free market bill (like letting people go across state lines to buy insurance) can’t be put in place. But the root of the issue is the government’s expanded role in taking care of others. The federal government should be willing to look at privatizing Social Security, or eliminating it entirely for people under the age of 50 (they would get a check for the amount the government has taken from their paycheck). Those 50 and older could be allowed to either keep Social Security or get the same lump sum the others are getting. Medicare and Medicaid would have to be shut down over a period of 40 years, so other non-state alternatives can be formed and funded. It’s an overly simple solution, but one which should be considered to save the country’s longterm future. It also unfortunately solves only part of the problem, and the rest would have to be solved through eliminating corporate welfare and cutting spending on everything elsewhere (including military spending).

The political impossibility of all that speaks for itself.

At least in the near term. In the less-near term, there's always the possibility that it's going to be awesome.

■ Andrew Klavan finds that the Liars at Media Matters Lie About Bill Whittle.

George Soros mouthpiece Media Matters has unleashed a disgusting and dishonest attack against my pal Bill Whittle. In a deceptively worded post entitled "Meet the NRA's Resident Academic Racist," MM suggests that Bill — who's recently become a commentator for NRATV — accepts theories that blacks are genetically inferior. They seize on an exchange between Bill and commentator Stefan Molyneux, whose work, I must confess, I'm only vaguely familiar with.

Back in the day, I admired Mr. Whittle's takedown of 9/11 "truthers". Unfortunately I can't find his essay online any more, but here's a quote that applies equally well to the Media Matters ghouls:

How much hate for your own society do you have to carry in order to live in such a desolate and ridiculous mental hell?

■ On a lighter note, National Review's Kyle Smith looks at the unlikely heir to the Clinton Dynasty: Her Chelseaness: How to Be Entitled and Boring without Really Trying. Now, Ms. Clinton isn't the first (and won't be the last) talentless nonentity pushed to fame for no good reason. But we can have a certain amount of sympathy for writers that struggle mightily to come up with some way to make her interesting and profound.

Variety’s writer Ramin Setoodeh whipped up this pulse-pounder to open his profile: “Chelsea Clinton is about to tell you some things you may not know about her. In an interview with Variety, she lists the last great movie she saw (Hidden Figures), her most surprising job (an internship at a cattle ranch in 1999), and her favorite food growing up (cheddar cheese).”

■ She was asked a softball question: "You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?". Her Chelseaness responded:

James Baldwin, Shakespeare, Franz Kafka. If I could have three more, at this moment in time, I would choose Albert Camus, Jane Jacobs and Jane Austen.

Even the very liberal New Yorker may have given up on Chelsea. Writer Josh Lieb imagines the transcript of Chelsea Clinton’s Dream Dinner Party,

chelsea clinton: Is everyone comfy? Got something to nosh on? Jane, would you like to try a quinoa empanada? They’re sustainably sourced.

jane austen: I do not know what any of those words mean.

The whole thing is hilarious. Via Prof Althouse, who has further thoughts.