Science round-up: Darwin's Unfinished Symphony, Gastrophysics and NZ Sharks

by Veronika Meduna / 08 June, 2017

How the human mind evolved, starting with simple copying.

I shall be well abused,” Charles Darwin wrote to his friend Joseph Dalton Hooker a few weeks before the publication of the long-awaited Descent of Man in 1871. More than a decade earlier, when he had introduced the concept of evolution by natural selection in On the Origin of Species, he had avoided any mention of human evolution, but now he was tackling the controversial topic “in a bare-faced manner”, prompting cartoonists of his day to depict him with a monkey’s tail, swinging from a tree.

The most controversial debate erupted over Darwin’s account of the “higher faculties” of human nature: reason, aesthetic taste, culture – the qualities that set us apart from all other creatures and that have kept evolutionary biologists busy ever since.

One of these biologists is Kevin Laland. He has spent 30 years wrestling with the big question of how culture evolved and how it has, in turn, shaped our evolution. In DARWIN’S UNFINISHED SYMPHONY: How Culture Made the Human Mind (Princeton, $35), he synthesises his group’s work on social learning and cultural evolution.

The story starts 3.4 million years ago, when early African hominins learnt to strike stone flakes off a block and used them to carve up carcasses. By 1.8 million years ago, they were making axes to butcher large animals. Laland argues that by the time our ancestors began hunting systematically and had mastered the use of fire, they would have benefited from cumulative cultural knowledge.

At first, cultural evolution moved slowly, but technological competence increased with each innovation and continued to accelerate. By around 300,000 years ago, hominins were building shelters with hearths, and 90,000 years ago, the first abstract art appeared.

For decades, intelligence was seen as the main divide between humans and the rest of life on Earth. But now that we know that rats learn to avoid traps, fish work in teams, bees have memory and crows make and use tools, the focus has shifted from smarts to culture as a driver of evolution.

Laland’s team is part of a wider community of researchers who study how animals acquire knowledge and skills from others by copying them. Human learning may have started as simple copying, but combined with rudimentary language, it opened up the possibility of deliberate teaching – and that, Laland says, is the beginning of the human mind.

Shared meals may well have played a significant role in our cultural evolution, and in GASTROPHYSICS: The New Science of Eating (Penguin Random House, $38), experimental psychologist Charles Spence demonstrates that food is much more than nutrition. Sure, ingredients and recipes matter, but Spence argues that eating is a multi-sensory experience and that much of the taste sensation happens in the mind rather than the mouth. Gastrophysics is about new insights into these sensory influences (why do chips that crunch more loudly taste better?) and the techniques chefs are developing to engage all of our senses (fancy a dish of grilled shrimp served on a tablet that plays a video of a fired-up BBQ?).

Great white sharks have a bad reputation. They usually make headlines only when they attack, but in NEW ZEALAND’S GREAT WHITE SHARKS: How Science Is Revealing Their Secrets (Potton & Burton, $29.99), natural history writer and broadcaster Alison Ballance sets the record straight. She introduces a team of scientists who have used acoustic tags to monitor the sharks’ whereabouts and discovered their long-haul migration routes between subantarctic islands and the tropical Pacific. Written for a tween-to-teen audience, this book will probably surprise readers of any age with its sharky tales and insights into the natural history of these magnificent predators.

This article was first published in the May 20, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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