Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony

It’s hard to argue with the idea that our complex cultures set us apart from the rest of the animal world. As Diana Gitig put it in her review of Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony :

Other species are indisputably smart; they can learn by example, they can communicate, they can innovate to solve problems, they can use tools, they may even have distinct cultures. But humans are clearly different. Other species don’t listen to Baroque concerti or read classical philosophy hundreds of years after the scores were composed or the treatises written. They just don’t.

What caused this gap between humans and even our closest kin, the other primates? Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony attempts to explain this gap. I’ve exercised a modicum of self-control and placed a hold on this book at NYPL, rather than immediately buying it on Kindle and placed it at the top of my reading stack.

Even as a kid I was puzzled at books (and especially comics – I’m looking at you, Silver Age DC) that illustrated sophistication in other species, whether it be talking animals or aliens, by making them just like us. Why would talking apes or aliens from the planet of anthropomorphic arthropods have, well, anthropomorphic arthropods?

Why would talking apes or aliens from the planet of anthropomorphic arthropods have, well, anthropomorphic arthropods?

I guess what I should do is write my own stories if I don’t like the way they did it. Oh, Wait.

According to the review, which is worth reading if you haven’t already, delves into how our language is different, which is what I am most interested in, and how innovations with food may be responsible for it.

His contribution is to realize that the spark that got the whole thing started were innovations in food-processing techniques that let us get more energy from our diet. More efficient eating allowed for brain growth, an extension of lifespan, and population growth. These, in turn, enabled more technological innovations, since both the people and the technologies hung around long enough for innovations to be made.

This makes it sound like a fascinating read, and there may be some story ideas in there too. I’ll write up a review when I finish it.

One thought on “Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony

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  1. It’ll be interesting to see what it says. That opposable thumb is a big deal versus, say, flippers.

    Much of what I’ve read focuses on how humans are the ultimate min/maxers. We gave up everything for the brain, including things like shrinking the digestive tract which forces us to cook food – basically doing some of the digestive work outside the body.

    We also know the human brain is a resource hog. It’s approximately 2% of our body weight, but uses 20% of our energy. There’s a lot of theories that humans had to evolve to eat meat to get the calories needed to support our hungry brains.

    Still, can’t deny the evolutionary gamble worked.

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