The Evolution Institute Mon, 22 May 2017 15:27:22 +0000 en-CA hourly 1 Challenging Chomsky and his Challengers: Brian Boyd Interviews Daniel Dor Mon, 22 May 2017 12:00:12 +0000

Linguist Nicholas Evans predicts that Daniel Dor’s The Instruction of Imagination: Language as a Social Communication Technology “will change the face of the discipline—not just of linguistics, but of the language sciences more generally.” Evolutionary humanist Brian Boyd begins a forthcoming review: “If you want to think about language and evolution, about language and experience, about language and almost anything, or about almost anything in language, then start, or start all over again, with Daniel Dor’s The Instruction of Imagination.”

Why do these experts find Dor’s account of language and humans as language-users so provocative and stimulating? TVOL is proud to feature a conversation between Boyd and Dor, along with an excerpt of Dor’s book, to explore a long overdue revolution in our understanding of language.


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Brian Boyd: Language has always seemed central to what makes humans different. You summarize your evolutionary argument: “First we invented language. Then language changed us.” That’s one tight nutshell for a theory with such wide and deep implications. Can you open it up a little more?

Daniel Dor: Yes, the evolutionary argument is based on the model I developed together with evolutionary biologist Eva Jablonka, and it basically says three things. First, human language is a technological invention – a collective technological invention. Ancient human communities (as early as half a million years ago) invented the first prototypes of language, and later generations continued to develop and (sometimes) re-invent them. In this sense, there is no difference between language and other collective inventions, from the first stone tools to the Internet. Second, the original invention was made both possible and necessary by complex dynamics at the collective level, before individuals were language-ready in the cognitive (and emotional) sense: participation in the collective effort of language was made possible (to various degrees in different individuals) by cognitive and emotional plasticity. Third, as the new technology began to revolutionize human life, language began to function as a selective environment for individuals. Eventually, Homo sapiens emerged as a language-ready species. Our language-ready brains and physiologies (which are still as variable as our ancestors’) were forced into existence by language, not the other way around.

BB: You say that the technology of language is dedicated to the instruction of imagination. What do you mean by that?

DD: Well, the claim is that the uniqueness of language lies in this very specific functional strategy. All the other systems of intentional communication, used by humans and the other species that we think we understand, work with different variations of the functional strategy that I call experiential: all these systems allow for (different variations of) the communicative act of presenting: “this is my experience”. This very general characterization captures the foundational fact that experiential communication is inherently confined to the here-and-now of the communication event, where experiences can be presented. Language is the only system that allows communicators to communicate directly with their interlocutors’ imaginations, and thus break away from the here-and-now of co-experiencing: instead of presenting the experience to their interlocutors for perception, communicators translate their experiential intents into a structured code, which is then transmitted to their interlocutors and instructs them in the process of imagining the experience – instead of experiencing it. What the interlocutors do is use the code to bring back from their own memory experiences connected to the components of the code, rearrange them according to the structural configuration of the code, and construct a new, imagined experience. Language thus allows for a unique communicative act: “my experience is of this type, try to imagine”. This unique communicative strategy is the key to the enormous success of language and its influence on the human condition, and it also provides a new explanatory foundation for a very wide range of empirical issues in linguistics and the other disciplines interested in language, from psycholinguistics to literary studies.

BB: How does your theory of language differ from the assumptions dominant in and beyond linguistics ever since Chomsky first spoke out in the 1950s?

DD: We need to distinguish between Chomsky’s foundational assumption and his foundational hypothesis. The assumption was that language is essentially a uniquely human, universal cognitive capacity. The secret of language resides in the human mind. The hypothesis was that language does not just reside there: it is an innately-given property of the mind. In the last half century, the hypothesis has been thoroughly discredited in most linguistic circles: we do not carry the explicit knowledge of language in our genes. The assumption, however, that language is essentially a universal cognitive capacity, has remained intact. My theory suggests that we should finally allow ourselves to leave the assumption behind, and begin to re-think language as a social entity, a communication technology, that resides between speakers, not simply in them. Just like the social media on the Internet today, whose logic cannot be reduced to the computational activity within the personal computer, language needs to be understood as a property of the social web. Once we agree to make this move, we find that this new characterization of language reflects back on the cognitive questions, and suggests a much more reasonable account of the capacities involved with language – their properties, usage, and evolution.

BB: What difference does it make to see language as a technology we invented socially rather than a cognitive capacity evolution built up in us individually?

DD: Well, it makes a huge difference for the entire set of questions we have to ask about language. The logic of the architecture and usage of language remains a mystery as long we think about it as a reflection (of this type or the other) of the properties of the individual mind. It is revealed when we think about it in technological terms, as a logic of technological design that is constantly engaged in the effort to enhance the efficiency of imagination-instruction. The complex patterns of difference and similarity between the languages of the world are very hard to explain in cognitive terms but make simple sense if we think about them as variations in types of technological solutions. The influence of language on the way we think and experience is more similar to the influence of other technologies than to anything else. And, of course, there is simply no way to explain the evolutionary emergence of such a cognitive capacity – for two complementary reasons: if we assume that the capacity is sui generis, and that it emerged as such, we have to leave its emergence in the realm of mystery (which is exactly Chomsky’s position); if we assume that the capacity emerged from more ancient capacities that we share with the apes, we cannot explain why they never invented language, not even a much simpler one. My approach re-positions the emergence of language within the context of collective, technological innovation: language is one technological innovation in the series of innovations that made us who we are, not the first and definitely not the last. The capacity that made language possible is the social capacity of collective innovation, which is exactly what the apes lack: they understand the world and the others around them much better than previously assumed, they are very good learners and they often invent. They do not, however, invent together. For me, this is the key.

BB: In your theory, behavior drives evolution. How do you see this at work more generally?

DD: This is exactly what we’ve learned in the last two decades from evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo). The argument is explicated most clearly in Jablonka and Lamb’s Evolution in Four Dimensions and in West-Eberhard’s Developmental Plasticity and Evolution. When their living conditions change, organisms do not just sit and wait for a random genetic mutation to help them survive. They launch processes of behavioral exploration, using their plasticity to search for solutions outside their arsenal of regular behaviors. Then there are many Ifs: If they are lucky enough to stumble upon a solution; and if they manage to stabilize it; and if later generations manage to learn the stabilized behaviour; and if the pressure to sustain the behaviour and develop it continues for a good amount of time, then eventually the behaviour will be (partially) genetically accommodated. As West-Eberhard puts it: “genes are followers in evolution”. This is exactly what allows us to reverse the order of things with respect to language evolution: the collective invention of the first prototypes of language launched a never-ending process of behavioural explorations, always based on plasticity, which on the one hand constantly changed language, and on the other hand gradually turned us into language-ready organisms.

BB: How and why do you propose our forebears invented language?

DD: The key lies in everything that they managed to achieve before language, and thus without language, in the period between around 2 million years ago to about a half a million years ago – at the levels of sociality, technology, and communication. In the simplest terms possible, individual human survival in this period gradually came to depend more and more on the others – on the overall capacity of the community to work together, invent together, fight together and so on. Communities grew in size and internal complexity; new and unique patterns of division of labor appeared; the nature of social relationships changed. All these allowed for the stabilization of a series of technological and behavioral revolutions – cooking, tool-manufacturing, big game hunting, and much more. The forms of experiential communication these ancient humans inherited from the apes were no longer sufficient to maintain the fabric of these collectivizing communities and to transfer their practical-technological knowledge from one generation to the next. A new and uniquely human form of experiential communication emerged (again, through behavioural exploration) – mimetic communication: the combination of intentional pointing, eye contact, gesture, mimicry, bodily movement, facial expression, tone of voice, song and dance that we still find much more efficient than language in the teaching of practical knowledge and the negotiation of social relationships. As Merlin Donald shows in his classic Origins of the Modern Mind, mimetic communication is the missing link between ape communication and human language.

Mimesis did much more than allow these ancient humans to communicate more efficiently. It allowed them to begin to systematically compare their experiences of the world, to learn from each other and teach each other, and construct a collective worldview. This collective capacity for what I call experiential mutual identification was the foundation upon which language emerged. As revolutionary as it was, however, mimesis was still a form of experiential, presentational communication, almost totally confined to the here-and-now of the communication event. At a certain point, this was no longer enough. Communities came to depend on experience sharing to such an extent, that they needed to find ways to share experiences that could not be directly presented to the senses – to go beyond “look, there is something there” to “there is something there, where you cannot see”. What was required was a radical change of attitude: the will and ability to trust the communicator and replace direct experiencing with imagining. This was the crossing of the Rubicon. What the inventors of language began to experiment with was thus not the technology of language, but the usage of the old tools for the new communicative function of imagination-instruction. From that moment, the constant need to raise the levels of success in instances of imagination-instruction pushed a process in which language gradually separated itself from the old tools and developed its constitutive architecture, and speakers gradually developed their language-ready minds and bodies.

BB: Linguistics has often discussed language in relation to thought. You discuss it in relation to experience. Can you explain that? What difference does it make?

DD: The conception of language as related to thought, actually to rational thought, is something we inherited from the religious and philosophical traditions involved with language – and I believe it needs to be abandoned. On the one hand, we know today that many other types of animals, who have nothing like language, are perfectly capable of rational thought. We have seen enough demonstrations of apes, parrots, and crows solving seriously complex problems to be convinced of that. We do not think in words (this is not to deny that language helps us think, and sometimes influences the way we think). On the other hand, language is used for so much more than the communication of rational thoughts, that there seems to be no reason to connect it so tightly to it. Rational thinking is one way to handle experiential complexity, one out of many, and it is entangled with everything else in experiencing. The properties of language (including its emergence) are much better explained if we take it to be a technology that takes pieces of experience as its input and produces instructions for imagination as output.

BB: You stress the “experiential gap.” What do you mean by it?

It is a foundational fact about the process of experiencing that it is private. We experience within ourselves, and our experiential dynamics are inaccessible to the others. Because we experience privately, our experiential worlds are also significantly different from each other. Even when we experience together, we do not experience the shared experience in exactly the same way. We are forever separated by experiential gaps. This reflects on our understanding of intentional communication in general: every act of intentional communication is an attempt to get something across to the other side of the gap. In experiential communication, the gap is momentarily reduced (only partially) by shared experiencing, and whatever can be shared can be communicated. Language is the only system that actually bridges the experiential gap, allowing interlocutors to imagine, within their own experiential worlds, experiences that could not be shared by the speakers. The communicative challenge here is enormous: to instruct the interlocutors in a process of imagining that would eventually result in something that is similar enough to the speaker’s intent. This is why language is such a complex and sophisticated technology, and even with all the sophistication, the levels of success it offers are not very impressive: as the literature on conversational analysis show very clearly, we spend much of our conversations repairing misunderstandings. Language is inherently fragile: the experiential gap is always still there.

BB: What’s the effect on us as social animals of being able to instruct other imaginations across experiential gaps?

DD: To begin with, the instruction of imagination across the gap opens up revolutionary venues for communication. It allows us to tell stories about past and fictive events and discuss predictions and plans for the future, give advice and make promises, exchange information about absent people (see Robin Dunbar’s account of gossip), create alliances and construct new forms of collective identity, compare our experiential worlds and negotiate a common worldview, co-operate in practical tasks and innovate together, and also manipulate other people in an unprecedented way: lying to the imagination of the other is the most powerful tool of coercion ever invented.

All this creates a uniquely human reality, in which social life takes place on two levels instead of one – the level of experience and the level of imagination. All human communities are both experiential and imagined (not just Benedict Anderson’s nation-states), and the dialectic relationship between the two levels determines much of the unique nature of the human community. This, in turn, creates a parallel, dialectic relationship within ourselves: as opposed to all the other experiencing creatures, who develop within them an experience-based worldview, we are, so to speak, of two minds. Alongside the experiential worldview that we develop privately (based on non-linguistic experiencing, alone or together), we also develop an imaginary worldview – based on everything we have been told about. The experiential worldview still follows the ancient logic of private experiencing. The imaginary worldview follows the socially-determined logic of language and discourse. Where the two worldviews correlate, all is well. They differ, however, more often than not, actually creating an internal gap within us between two separate worlds of meaning. Much of the trouble that we experience in our lives results from this internal gap.

BB: Can you pick one implication of your theory of language that makes a concrete difference in some domain of linguistics that non-linguists can understand?

DD: Let me try to show something from the domain of lexical semantics. The major question here is surprisingly difficult: how do words have meaning? So consider the word grandmother. At first sight, this seems easy: “a grandmother is a mother of a parent”. The fact of the matter, however, is that when speakers are asked to identify appropriate referents for the word, they very often turn their attention to the prototypical properties of grandmothers: nice old ladies with candy in their bag and so on. Should we then add these properties to the definition? We could, but this wouldn’t solve the problem: on the one hand, speakers feel free to use the word to refer to mothers of parents even if they are young and unfriendly; on the other, they use the word to refer to nice old ladies even if they have no grandchildren. Should we then assume that there are two separate but related words, grandmother1 and grandmother2? This is definitely not a welcome result, but how can we avoid it? This is an old and persistent problem (pertaining of course to the entire lexicon, not just to grandmother).

According to my theory, as I have already noted, we live in two worlds of meaning at the same time, the private-experiential, and the linguistically-constructed social-imaginary. Technical details aside, my claim is that the original definition of grandmother, “a mother of a parent”, resides at the linguistic level. This is what the word means as a discrete instructor of imagination: it was invented and socially accepted as a tool for the instruction to imagine mothers of parents. Which experiential memories, then, do the users of the word bring back in order to successfully imagine a grandmother? Well, in most cases these would be memories of (different) nice old ladies. So the set of prototypical properties resides at the private-experiential level. What we have is not two different words, but one word differently represented at two interconnected levels. This does not just solve the old persistent problem and explain the patterns of usage: it shows how this complexity at the word level directly reflects on the entire relationship between us and our language.

BB: Chomsky stressed Universal Grammar as a common human cognitive “software.” Evolutionary psychology often stresses the psychic unity of humankind. But in your theory, human differences play a major role. How?

DD: This is foundational to the entire project. To begin with, evolutionary processes only know how to handle patterns of variability. If we all carry the exact same software, evolutionary theory can say very little about it, which is exactly what Chomsky has been claiming through the years: that the emergence of language (or what is essential to it) is a mystery. Second, we humans are very different from each other, much more so than individuals in other species. Take every human activity and you’ll find a very long continuum stretching from individuals who have no chance to participate, through individuals who manage to various degrees, all the way to the great geniuses who push the activity forward. This is a direct result of the collectively driven logic of the process of human evolution, the ever-growing dependency that we developed on the division of labor. Third, we are very different from each other in our language usage, acquisition, and innovation. There are obviously complex patterns of similarity, but the universal speaker, and even more importantly the universal language-acquiring child, is a myth. Major empirical issues may only receive appropriate treatment if we agree to abandon the myth. Fourth, when interlocutors see the world in very similar ways (when the experiential gap between them is narrow), they don’t need many words to communicate. The enormous complexity of language is required exactly because we try to use it when the experiential gap is wide (when the gap is too wide, of course, communication is impossible.): the development of language has always been driven by the need to bridge differences. None of this implies that there’s nothing to say about the psychic unity of humankind. It only means that we have to see this unity for what it is: a socially-constructed web of countless threads of individual difference.

BB: What is there about human language that is universal? How deep does diversity go?

DD: Well, on the one hand, all languages are technologies for the instruction of imagination, and this implies a long list of universal properties. All languages are all socially constructed; they all share the same overall architecture (a symbolic landscape comprising of imagination-instructing signs, and a communication protocol that governs the actual processes of production and comprehension); their words are represented by their speakers on the two different levels we discussed above; and so on. On the other hand, languages are as different from each other as they possibly can in terms of the specific engineering solutions they employ to meet the challenges of the instruction of imagination. All languages instruct the imagination, and each language does it in its own unique way.

There’s an interesting move here: Chomsky has taken the engineering solutions (for him they were solutions to problems of cognitive representation) to be the essence of language. He thus predicted that we should find a core set of universal solutions at the bottom of language. As the evidence accumulated in the last three decades in linguistic typology shows very clearly, this is yet another myth (see Nick Evans and Stephen Levinson’s The Myth of Language Universals). There is very little at this level that is shared by all languages: what you find, again, are complex patterns of similarity and difference. So if you remain there, you lose sight of the obvious fact that language is a universal human phenomenon. My theory re-positions the fact of universality at the social-functional level and thus frees the analysis of the variable engineering solutions adopted by different languages from an unwarranted assumption.

BB: In your book, you state: “Language allows us to imagine—the freest of all cognitive processes—but it only allows us to do that on the basis of social consensus. It is based on trust, but this only makes it the most dangerous tool of deception ever invented.” What implications might your theory have for understanding politics? Can you give examples from your own political work? Is your tragic sense of Israeli-Palestinian relations at play in this quote?

DD: Much of politics (though certainly not all of it) is done by speaking (and writing). The understanding of the foundational function of language, and how it works, deepens our understanding of political discourse, collective identity, the social construction of the self, information dissemination, influence and propaganda, negotiation and compromise. It explains why real dialogue (political and other) is at the same time the most valuable tool we have and the most frustrating activity we ever invented. It re-draws the lines between the usage and language and its abuse. In this sense, yes, my own engagement in the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has tragically provided me with the best laboratory possible. Political leaders (not just in this region of the world) consistently work to widen the experiential gap between “us” and “them”. Working against that, trying to narrow the gap enough for the two sides to begin to talk, is a Sisyphean task. At the moment, and quite globally, we seem to be losing ground.

BB: What empirical work would you like to see tested or followed up from your theory?

DD: To begin with, I believe there’s already an enormous amount of excellent empirical work that is being done out of theoretical context, so to speak, and badly needs to be incorporated into a unified theory in order to show its significance. The fascinating empirical results accumulated in the study of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (the hypothesis that language influences the way we think and experience) is a good example. My theory positions these results at the very centre of the drama, interprets them in a new way, and thus raises an entire set of new questions that require empirical research: what is the correlation between the individual’s susceptibility to the influence of language and his or her capacity and will to engage in linguistic communication at the expense of more experiential activities? How does social identity participate in determining the extent of influence? How do different cultures, with their variable attitudes to experience and imagination, differ from each other in terms of language’s symbolic power? The same is true of many other subfields of the linguistic sciences, and I have already mentioned quite a few in this interview.

BB: You offer major challenges to central assumptions linguistics has made for over half a century. Does this provoke resistance or incomprehension? How have linguists responded to your theory, or is it too early to tell?

DD: It’s way too early to tell.

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Tampa Bay Times Story on Evolution Institute’s New Early Learning Center Wed, 17 May 2017 12:32:01 +0000

Advocates say help is on the way for troubled Potter Elementary
by Marlene Sokol

Children who live near Potter Elementary School will have a new option in August. An early learning center is opening just steps away, serving kindergarten and first grade, with plans to expand later.

It’s one of several projects under way to assist Potter, a four-time F school whose troubles have attracted widespread attention in recent months.

[…] Leaders of the early learning center, which will be a charter school, say their plans began in a local think tank called the Evolution Institute.

The institute “takes science and research and applies it to today’s issues (and) problems; education obviously is one of them,” said Michelle Shimberg, who chairs the board that will oversee the Early Childhood Learning Center.

Shimberg spent decades as a volunteer in the schools and the district, and she belongs to a family well known for community service and philanthropy. Serving with her are retired educators Jerry and Virginia Lieberman.

Their strategies include project-based learning, which lets students focus on their interests, and a community center location that can draw in siblings and others outside the school rolls. Parents and other family members will rotate in and out to give lessons in art, music and other enrichment courses.

“The idea of developing strong relationships with families, with parents, with community members in support of the students and the teachers at the school, we believe, will help produce better outcomes,” Shimberg said. She expects the benefits to extend far beyond the 54 students in kindergarten through second grade at the school.

Shimberg’s group first approached the district with hopes of applying its strategies to district schools. Instead it was advised to open a charter school, a sometimes controversial vehicle that gets tax funding but is run independently.

Each class of 18 students will have a full-time aide in addition to the teacher.

One built-in advantage: Potter suffers from a high student mobility rate, meaning kids in the largely transient East Tampa neighborhood frequently move from home to home and school to school. But a child who moves can stay in the same charter school.

[…] Shimberg and the Liebermans are creating the opposite — a homegrown charter school that will start small. And they are mindful of poverty in East Tampa, which often makes for stressful home environments and wary parents.

“What we want to do is to be that environment where people are engaged,” Shimberg said. “They are engaged at all different levels and there are trusting relationships.”

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News Wed, 17 May 2017 12:16:35 +0000 Holding Hands is More Important Than You Think Tue, 16 May 2017 12:00:05 +0000

Dr. Coan is a neuroscientist who specializes in measuring social cognition. His work falls under the heading of Social Baseline Theory. The critical claim of social baseline theory is that humans are inherently social creatures. Just as fish gills indicate that fish are aquatic creatures, the human mind has a suite of adaptations which indicate that we are social creatures.

For the entirety of human evolution (some 6 million years) people have always relied on other people. Social aid has been a fixture in humanity’s evolutionary environment, and our brains should reflect this.

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Dr. Coan’s actual experiments are gruesomely simple. He puts people in an fMRI machine, shocks them, and watches what happens to their brain. And the variable that he manipulates is simple handholding.

It turns out that holding hands with a friend or loved one isn’t just comforting, it actually makes the pain from the shock genuinely less painful – like, the pain processing regions of the brain aren’t as active when you’re holding hands.

But the handholding effect goes even deeper. In one experiment, instead of shocking the human in the fMRI machine, instead Coan shocked their partner. And what he found was fascinating:

It turns out that the way a brain responds to the threat of being shocked is strikingly similar to the way it responds to the threat of a partner to being shocked. In other words, the brain acts as if a threat to itself, and a threat to a partner, are the same threat.

Dr. Coan has a radical explanation for this. He claims his studies indicate that the way that humans conceive of themselves is completely contingent on their relationship with others. On a deep neurological level, we often behave as if our loved ones are ourselves.

If you want to learn more, check out the paper Dr. Coan presented on: Social Baseline Theory and the Social Regulation of Emotion.

Here is the talk Dr. Coan gave, unedited.

Here are some highlights from the Q&A – a super interesting question about how the internet is shaping our social relationships.

The EvoS Seminar Series is a free, public, online seminar about deep questions in biology. We provide access to knowledge in both peer-reviewed and vlog form.

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EI Advisory Board Member Barbara Oakley Featured in Wall Street Journal Mon, 15 May 2017 13:38:31 +0000 How a Polymath Mastered Math—and So Can You
‘Mindshift’ author Barbara Oakley on the science and practice of learning—and finding love at the South Pole.

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How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) Mon, 08 May 2017 12:00:07 +0000

Reprinted (in modified form) with permission from How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution, by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2017 by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut. All rights reserved.

In 1959, Dmitri Belyaev and Lyudmila Trut began what would come to be one of the longest-running experiments in biology. For the last 58 years they have been domesticating silver foxes and studying evolution in real time. But in 1952, seven years before this experiment began, Belyaev initiated a pilot study to determine whether or not his audacious ideas about domestication merited a full-fledged experiment. Here we tell that story.

One afternoon in the fall of 1952, thirty-five-year-old Dmitri Belyaev, clad in his signature dark suit and tie, boarded the overnight train from Moscow to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia on the coast of the Baltic Sea. Across the waters from Finland, but at the time, a world away, Tallinn was shrouded behind the Iron Curtain that divided eastern and western Europe after World War II. Belyaev was on his way to speak with a trusted colleague, Nina Sorokina, who was the chief breeder at one of the many fox farms he collaborated with in developing breeding techniques. Trained as a geneticist, Belyaev was a lead scientist at the government-run Central Research Laboratory on Fur Breeding Animals in Moscow, charged with helping breeders at the many commercial fox and mink farms run by the government to produce more beautiful and luxurious furs. He was hoping that Sorokina would agree to help him test a theory he had about how the domestication of animals had come about, one of the most beguiling open questions in animal evolution.

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Belyaev carried with him several packs of cigarettes, a simple meal of hard-boiled eggs and hard salami, and a number of books and scientific papers. A voracious reader, he always traveled with a good novel or book of plays or poems, along with a number of science books and papers, on his many long train rides to the fox and mink farms scattered across the vast expanses of the Soviet Union. Even as he was intent to keep up with the rush of important new findings and theories in genetics and animal behavior pouring out of labs in Europe and the US, he always made time for his love of Russian literature. He was a particular enthusiast of works reflecting on the hardships endured by his countrymen through hundreds of years of political turmoil, works that were all too relevant to the upheavals Stalin had inflicted on the Soviet Union since his ascent to power decades earlier.

Dmitri’s taste in literature ranged from the cunning folktales of the country’s beloved storyteller, Nikolai Leskov, in which unschooled peasants often outwit their more learned superiors, to the mystical poetry of Alexander Blok, who wrote presciently shortly before the 1917 revolution that “a great event was coming.” One of his favorite works was the play Boris Godunov, by Russia’s great nineteenth-century poet and playwright Alexander Pushkin. A cautionary tale inspired by Shakespeare’s Henry plays, it recounts the tempestuous reign of the popular reformist tsar, who opened up trade with the West and instituted educational reform, but also dealt harshly with his enemies. Godunov’s sudden death from a stroke in 1605 ushered in the bloody era of civil war known as the Time of Troubles. That brutal period 350 years ago was mirrored in the terror and devastation Stalin had perpetuated as Dmitri was growing up in the 1930s and ’40s.

Stalin had also supported a brutal crackdown on work in genetics, and in 1952 it was still a very dangerous time to be a geneticist in Russia. Belyaev followed the new developments in the field at great risk to himself and his career. With Stalin’s backing, for more than a decade Trofim Lysenko, a charlatan who posed as a scientist, had wielded enormous influence over the Soviet scientific community, and one of his primary causes was a vehement crusade against genetics research. Many of the best researchers had been deposed from their positions, either thrown into prison camps or forced to resign and accept menial positions. Some had been killed, including Dmitri’s older brother, who was a leading light in the field. Before Lysenko’s rise to power, Russia was a world leader in genetics. A number of the best Western geneticists—such as American Herman Muller—had even made the long journey east for the chance to work with Soviet geneticists. Now Russian genetics was in a shambles, with any kind of serious research strictly prohibited.

But Dmitri was determined not to allow Lysenko and his thugs to keep him from conducting research. His work in fox and mink breeding had given him an idea about the great outstanding mystery of domestication, and it was simply too good for him not to find a way to test it.

The methods of breeding employed by our ancestors who domesticated the sheep, goats, pigs, and cows that were so vital to the development of civilization were well understood. Dmitri used them in his work every day at fox and mink farms. But the question of how domestication had gotten started in the first place had remained a riddle. The ancestors of domesticated animals, in their wild state, would likely have simply run away in fear or attacked if a human had approached. What happened to change this and make breeding them possible?

Belyaev thought he might have found the answer. Paleontologists had argued that the first animal to be domesticated was the dog, and by this time, evolutionary biologists were sure that dogs evolved from wolves. Dmitri had become fascinated by how an animal as naturally averse to human contact and as potentially aggressive as a wolf had evolved over tens of thousands of years into the lovable, loyal dog. His work breeding foxes had provided him an important clue, and he wanted to test the theory he was still in the early stages of developing. He thought he knew what had first set the process in motion.

Belyaev was traveling to Tallinn to ask Nina Sorokina to help him get started on a bold and unprecedented project—he wanted to mimic the evolution of the wolf into the dog. Because the fox is a close genetic cousin of the wolf, it seemed plausible to him that whatever genes were involved in the evolution of wolves into dogs were shared by the silver foxes raised on the farms all over the Soviet Union. As a lead scientist at the Central Research Laboratory on Fur Breeding Animals, he was in a perfect position to conduct the experiment he had in mind. Dmitri’s breeding work was of such importance to the Soviet government, because of the badly needed foreign currency that the sale of furs brought into the government’s coffers, that he believed as long as he explained the experiment as an effort to improve the production of furs, it could be run safely.

Even so, the fox domestication experiment he had in mind was sufficiently risky that it would have to be run far away from the prying eyes of Lysenko’s goons in Moscow. That’s why he had decided to ask Nina to help him get it started under the auspices of her breeding program at a fox farm in far away Tallin. Dmitri had collaborated with her on several successful projects to produce shinier and silkier furs, and he knew she was very talented. They had developed a good relationship, and he believed he could trust her and that she would trust him.

His plan for the experiment was on a scale never before carried out in genetic research, which worked primarily with tiny viruses and bacteria, or fast-breeding flies and mice, not animals like foxes, that mate only once a year. Due to the time it would take to breed each generation of fox pups, the experiment might take many years to produce results, perhaps even decades, or longer. But he felt launching it was worth both the long commitment and the risk. If it did produce results, they might well be groundbreaking.

Disembarking from his long train journey to Tallinn, Dmitri boarded a local bus heading south, traveling roads so bumpy they barely merited the name, through many tiny villages. His destination was the little hamlet of Kohila, buried deep in the Estonian forest. Not so much a village as a corporate outpost, Kohila was typical of the dozens of these industrial-scale fur farms scattered across the region. Spread out over 150 acres, the farm housed about 1500 silver foxes in dozens of rows of metal-roofed long wooden sheds, each of which contained dozens of cages. The workers and their families lived a ten-minute walk away from the farm in a bare-bones settlement of drab housing units, a small school, a few shops, and a couple of social clubs.

Nina Sorokina struck a somewhat incongruous figure against the dreary backdrop of this remote outpost. She was a beautiful, dark-haired woman, also in her mid-thirties, keenly intelligent and intense about her work, commanding a powerful position for a female in such a vital industry. A welcoming host, she enjoyed inviting Dmitri for tea in her office whenever he visited the farm. When he arrived after his long journey, they went right away to her office to talk in private. Over tea and cakes, with an ever-present cigarette dangling from his mouth, he told her what he was proposing—to domesticate the silver fox. She would not have been unreasonable to think her friend somewhat mad. Most of the foxes at the fur farms were so aggressive that when caretakers and breeders approached them, they bared their sharp canine teeth and lunged at them, snarling viciously. When foxes bite, they bite hard, and Nina and her team of breeders wore two-inch thick protective gloves that rode halfway up their forearms when they got anywhere near these animals. But Nina was intrigued, and she asked him why he wanted to attempt this.

Dmitri told Nina he had been fascinated by the unanswered questions about domestication, and that he was especially taken by the puzzle as to why domesticated animals could breed more than once a year, but their wild ancestors rarely did. If he could domesticate foxes, they might also be able to breed more often, which would be very good for business.

He didn’t want to put Nina at risk by explaining more. The full truth was that if the experiment worked, it might provide the answers to many important outstanding questions about domestication in all species. The more Belyaev had researched what was known about how animals had become domesticated, the more intrigued he had become by the mysteries about it, and those were mysteries that only an experiment of the kind he was proposing would be able to solve. How else could the answer to how domestication got started possibly be found? No written accounts of this first stage of the process were available. And though fossils of the early stages of domesticates such as dog-like wolves and early versions of domesticated horses had been found, they could reveal little about how the process got going in the first place. Even if remains could eventually be found that established what the first changes in animals’ physiology had been, that would not explain how and why they emerged.

A number of puzzles about domestication had not been solved. One was why so few animal species out of the millions on the planet had become domesticated—only a few dozen in all, mostly mammals, but also a few species of fish and birds, and a few insects, including the silk moth and the honeybee. Then there was the question why so many of the changes that had taken place in domesticated mammals were so similar. As Darwin, one of Dmitri’s intellectual idols, had noted, most of them developed patches of different coloring in their fur and on their hides—spots, patches, blazes, and other markings. Many also retained physical characteristics from childhood well into their adulthood that their wild cousins outgrew, such as floppy ears, curly tails, and babyish faces—referred to as the neotonic features, those that make young animals of so many species so adorable. Why would these characteristics have been selected for by breeders? Farmers raising cows, after all, had nothing to gain from their cows having black-and-white spotted hides. Why would pig farmers have cared whether their pigs had curly tails?

Belyaev thought the answer to all of the puzzling questions about domestication had to do with the essential defining characteristic of all domesticated animals—their tameness. He believed that the process of domestication was driven by our ancestors selecting animals according to this one key trait—that they were less aggressive and fearful toward humans than was typical for their species. This characteristic of tameness would have been the essential requirement for working with the animals in order to breed them for other desirable traits. Humans needed their cows, horses, goats, sheep, pigs, dogs, and cats to be nice and gentle toward their masters, regardless of what they were trying to get from them¾milk, meat, protection, or companionship. It wouldn’t do to be trampled by their food or maimed by their protectors.

Belyaev explained to Nina that in his work in fox and mink breeding he had noted that while most of the minks and foxes on the fur farms were either quite aggressive or were nervous and fearful towards people, a few were quite calm when people approached them. They weren’t bred to be calm, so the quality must have been part of the natural behavioral variation in a population. This, he posited, would have been true for the ancestors of all domesticates. And over evolutionary time, as our early ancestors had begun raising them and selecting for this innate tameness, the animals became more and more docile. He thought that all of the other changes involved in domestication had been triggered by this change in the behavioral selection pressure for tameness. Rather than either avoidance of humans or aggression towards them giving them the survival advantage, now being calm around humans gave them the edge. The animals living in human contact had more reliable access to food and were better protected from predators. He wasn’t sure yet how selection for tameness would have caused all the other genetic changes that we have see in domesticated animals (curly tails, longer reproductive periods, juvenile facial and body characteristics, and so on), but he had conceived of an experiment that he hoped would eventually provide the answer.

Nina was all ears. She had also observed that some foxes, though very few, were quite calm when approached, and she was intrigued by his theory. Belyaev explained the procedure he wanted Nina and her breeding team to follow. Every year, they should choose a few of the calmest foxes at Kohila at the breeding time in late January and mate them with one another. From the pups that those select foxes produced, they should again choose the calmest ones and breed them. The change from generation to generation might be subtle, he noted, even difficult to identify at first glance, but they should just use their best judgment. Perhaps, he suggested, this method would eventually lead to calmer and calmer foxes, the first step in domestication.

Dmitri suggested that Nina and her breeders assess calmness by observing closely how the foxes responded when they approached their cages or put their hands up in front of them. They might even try putting a sturdy stick slowly through the bars of the cage to see whether the foxes attacked it or held back. But he would leave it up to them to work out their methods; he was confident in Nina’s judgment. Nina, in return, had faith that Dmitri’s idea was worth pursuing.

But before she agreed, he wanted to discuss the risks. He knew Nina understood the danger of conducting an experiment in the genetics of domestication under Lysenko, but he nonetheless emphasized to her that she must carefully consider the issue. He told her it was probably a good idea not to mention the work to others, except her team, and he offered his suggestion that if she were asked about what they were doing, she could say that the purpose of the experiment was simply to see if they could increase fur quality and the number of pups born each year, which were acceptable areas of research to Lysenko.

Without a moment’s pause, Nina told him she would help him. She and her team would begin right away.

Nina decided they would always approach the foxes slowly and would also open each cage slowly and reach into it slowly with some food held in the gloved hand. When they did, some of the foxes lunged at them. Most of them backed away and snarled and sneered menacingly. But about a dozen out of the hundred or so they tested each year were slightly less agitated. They certainly weren’t calm, but they weren’t highly reactive and aggressive either. A few would even take the food offered from the workers’ hands. These foxes that didn’t bite the hands that fed them became the parents of the next generation in Dmitri and Nina’s pilot work.

Within three breeding seasons, Nina and her team were seeing some intriguing results. Some of the pups of the foxes they’d selected were a little calmer than their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. They would still sneer and react aggressively sometimes when their keepers approached them, but at other times, they seemed almost indifferent.

Belyaev was delighted. The changes in behavior were subtle, and in only a handful of foxes, but they had occurred in much less time than he had expected, a blink of time on the time scale of evolution. He was now intent on expanding the pilot program into a large-scale experiment.


For much more on the remarkable silver fox experiment from 1959- present, see: How to Tame a Fox {and Build a Dog} by Lee Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut (2017, University of Chicago Press).

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Learning from Religion about Social Cells Wed, 03 May 2017 09:58:34 +0000

Evolutionists who wish to understand the nature of human social groups have much to learn from religion.  We theorize about groups, but religious groups actually survive, reproduce, and mutate in the real world. How do they do it?

A new form of religious social organization called a cell ministry is especially fascinating. It was invented by a Korean evangelical pastor named Dr. David Yonggi Cho (he would say that it came from God), who was trying to grow his congregation and had come to the limits of his own time and effort. He decided to create “cells,” small groups that meet in people’s homes in addition to attending the large church services.  The result was so successful that his Yoido Full Gospel Church became the largest in the world with over 730,000 members organized into more than 25,000 cell groups. Dr. Cho has also proselytized for the concept of a cell group ministry, which has been adopted by other churches around the world. Cell groups are not just for Asians. They have also proven to be successful in Australia, Europe, and the United States.

I first learned about cell group ministries while writing Darwin’s Cathedral over a decade ago (see pp. 167-8). I recently had the opportunity to read Dr. Cho’s book Successful Home Cell Groups, which describes the concept in detail. One of my motives for reading the book was envy, pure and simple. I am also a proselytizer of sorts, trying to create new groups and improve the efficacy of existing groups based on insights from evolutionary theory. If I could be one tenth as successful as Dr. Cho, I would be thrilled.

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It is always an interesting experience for me to read something that was not written from an evolutionary perspective and to see the evolutionary themes leaping out at me. Dr. Cho is a creationist, but his book is full of biological words and metaphors – including the venerable Christian metaphor of the church as an organism, which meshes so well with the scientific concept of major evolutionary transitions.

Most important, Dr. Cho’s advice for forming cell groups dovetails nicely with what we know about human social behavior from an evolutionary perspective. Here is a translation manual:

  • The main power of cell groups is that they are small enough for members to know each other on a face-to-face basis. This is in contrast to even a moderately sized church congregation, which is too large for such personal interactions. Dr. Cho has decided that 15 families are an optimal size for a cell group. When a cell becomes larger than this, it is instructed to split.
  • Cell group members regard each other as family and provide the same kind of material benefits that friends and family members provide for each other, including help with the daily round of life and support during difficult times such as illness, marital problems, or losing one’s job. The benefits of forming a social support group are so great that some collaborative activities that interfere with the mission of the church must be prohibited.
  • Cell group members also provide important social and psychological benefits to each other. Dr. Cho identifies physical touching, recognition for the role that one plays, praise for exceptional contributions, and love as the most important ingredients that churches must provide and that cells are especially good at providing.
  • Cell groups are excellent for monitoring commitment to the group and conformance to agreed-upon behaviors. If someone doesn’t attend a large church service, nothing is done about it. If someone doesn’t attend a cell group meeting, there is an immediate effort to find out why and extend help if necessary.
  • Cell groups are excellent for recruiting new members. Dr. Cho is matter-of-fact about the need to evangelize. From a purely demographic perspective, groups need to bring in new members to persist, grow, and split. Cell groups can recruit new members from their immediate vicinity such as their neighborhoods, apartment buildings, and businesses, which is far more effective than revival meetings or knocking on doors. Some cell group leaders are so zealous that they ride up and down the elevators of their apartment complexes in an effort to recruit new members!

All of these benefits of cell groups make perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective given that we evolved in the context of small cooperative groups for most of our history as a species (see here and here for more). The benefits listed above can be understood in purely secular terms without any reference to religion. In principle, humanist and atheist movements could avail themselves of the cell group concept as well as religious movements.

Nevertheless, the way that Dr. Cho went about developing his cell group ministry was permeated with religion. The idea came to him after a protracted period of illness, which caused him to earnestly search for God’s plan for him. When he decided that women should become leaders of cells – a radical concept in male-dominated Korea – he found support from the history of the early Christian Church. Cell group meetings are centered on Bible study, and faith healing is listed as one of the most important benefits. The ability to speak in tongues is even emphasized as an important criterion of becoming a cell leader. These religious elements can be understood in evolutionary terms as mechanisms that create an extraordinary commitment to group causes (see here for more), but functional equivalents will need to be found for secular movements to employ the cell group concept as effectively as religious movements.

Dr. Cho’s success with his cell group ministry has a sad ending. He is currently serving a prison term for embezzling $12 million of church funds. All his praying and subordinating his self-will to God’s will didn’t prevent him from directing his church to buy stock in his son’s company at four times the market pric.

The rise and fall of Dr. Cho illustrates that morality is not the exclusive province of religion. Instead, morality in all human social groups can be understood in terms of a common set of factors.  If religious groups exhibit a higher degree of moral conduct than secular groups (a claim that must be tested empirically), then it is because they do a better job of implementing the common set of factors. I highly recommend the most recent book by the Dalai Lama, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, for more on this theme.

Dr. Cho’s astounding success with his cell ministry suggests that the small group is a fundamental unit of human social organization and that large-scale human societies can be built from smaller cells. The social sciences have been slow to recognize this possibility, and small groups play no role whatsoever in neoclassical economic thought. Evolutionary theory does recognize the importance of small groups in human evolution. The next step is to apply evolutionary theory to the design of real-world groups, as the Evolution Institute is attempting to do with we can match and even surpass what religions have accomplished on the basis of experience.


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Why Do Men Play and Watch Sports? Mon, 01 May 2017 12:00:29 +0000

Close to where I live, there are several sports clubs, gyms, football, and basketball fields. I have access to a great selection of TV channels, explicitly devoted to sports, and when I watch the news, there is a special section devoted to sports. When I browse the internet, there is a huge selection of websites that specialize in sports news, while in the kiosks and shops in my neighborhood I can find a wide selection of sports magazines and newspapers. Such plethora of sports-devoted outlets, found in most Western societies, testify to peoples’ strong interest – and in certain cases obsession – in doing sports and in watching other people doing sports. And this is not a recent phenomenon – the Olympic Games that, appeared first in Ancient Greece about 2,800 years ago, were so important for the Greeks that all hostilities across Greece would cease during the duration of the Games.

The strong interest to engage in sports made me curious about what motivates people to do so. In order to address this question, I conducted a research where I asked people what motivates them to engage in sports.1 I found nine basic motives for doing sports and six basic motives for watching sports. People indicated that their strongest motive for engaging in sports was to be entertained. Simply put, people derived enjoyment from doing and watching sports which motivated them to do so. I also found that men, especially younger ones, indicated a stronger overall motivation to engage in sports than women and older individuals.

Thus, the question why people engage in sports can be answered as follows: People are motivated to do and to watch sports predominantly because they find such activities entertaining. This answer, however, gives rise to another question, namely “Why people’s mind interprets doing and watching sports as entertaining?” In an evolutionary perspective, people interpret as entertaining and enjoyable these activities which, in an ancestral context, enabled them to increase their reproductive and survival success, usually termed fitness.2 Simply put, individuals with such predispositions were better-off than those without them, as they were more likely to survive and reproduce, and thus to pass these predispositions to future generations. This being the case, an interpretation of my findings can be that engaging in sports has been fitness-increasing, especially for younger men; but why?

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In human species, one way for men to gain access to the reproductive capacity of the opposite sex is to fight other men and monopolize access to women. This so-called male-male competition results in fights between men which can escalate to raids and wars, with women being a primary trophy for the winning party. In the pre-industrial context, where almost all human evolution took place, military technology was limited, so it was predominantly the physical skills such as strength, speed, and stamina that determined how effective a man could be as a warrior. Accordingly, it would pay for men to have a good knowledge of other men’s physical capacities because such knowledge would enable them to prefer men with good physical capacities as allies and avoid them as enemies. In the same vein, it would pay for men to display their physical capacities to other men, as doing so would enable them to be selected as allies and be avoided as enemies.1

Moreover, in contemporary and ancestral pre-industrial societies, individuals are not free to choose their spouses, but their parents are the ones choosing for them. There are two asymmetries, however, namely, parents control more the mate choices of their daughters than of their sons, while fathers exercise more control over their children’s mate choices than mothers. The consequence of these asymmetries is that mate choice usually takes the form of men (i.e., fathers) choosing other men as spouses for their daughters. When they choose prospective sons-in-law, among other things, fathers look for men who are physically fit and can help them in subsistence activities as well as in the defense of the family unit.3

In sum, there are reasons to believe that in ancestral human societies, young men, who faced the problem of gaining reproductive access to the reproductive capacity of the opposite sex, could solve it in two main ways. One way was to form male coalitions in order to fight other men and monopolize access to women. This path required displaying their physical capacities in order to be avoided as enemies and to be preferred as allies. It required also to monitor other men’s performance of physical fitness in order to be able to distinguish those men who were physically fit and could be preferred as allies or be avoided as enemies. Another way to do so was to be selected by fathers as husbands for their daughters. This path required also to display physical fitness, as well as to monitor the fitness displays of other men in order to keep up with the competition.The evolutionary problem of gaining reproductive access to the opposite sex through these paths can be partially solved by the mind interpreting the engagement in athletic competitions with other

The evolutionary problem of gaining reproductive access to the opposite sex through these paths can be partially solved by the mind interpreting the engagement in athletic competitions with other men and watching other men competing as enjoyable. The first mechanism enables men to engage in athletic competitions, and display in this way their capacities to other men, while the second to distinguish between men for physical fitness and to monitor the competition. Gaining access to the opposite sex is usually a problem younger men have to solve, which means that the motivation to engage in sports would have been optimized by selection forces to peak following sexual maturity and reside with age. This would also be the case for the motivation to watch other men competing. Nevertheless, because the problem of finding sons-in-law was one that older men faced, older men also maintain a strong interest in watching young men competing.

In this respect, men have evolved mechanisms that motivate them to engage in physical competitions with other men and to watch other men competing. The outcome of the functioning of these mechanisms is the sports clubs, gyms, and football fields next to my home (and probably yours), as well as the selection of TV channels, magazines, newspapers, and sports websites to which most of us have an easy access.


1 Apostolou, M. & Lambrianou, R. (2017). What motivates people to do and watch sports? Exploring the effect of sex, age, partner status, and parenthood. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 3, 20-33.

2 Apostolou, M. (2016). Feeling good: An evolutionary perspective on life choices. New York: Transaction Publishers.

3 Apostolou, M. (2014). Sexual selection under parental choice: The evolution of human mating behaviour. Hove: Psychology Press.


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This View of History Webinar: A Conversation With Peter Turchin Thu, 27 Apr 2017 14:15:17 +0000

This webinar features evolutionary anthropologist and author Peter Turchin discussing his new book “Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth“. Ultrasociety chronicles 10,000 years of human history from an evolutionary perspective, shows how warfare paradoxically caused us to become the greatest cooperators on earth, and begins to point the way toward a future without war. Peter is joined by Dan Hoyer, Project Manager of the Seshat Historical Databank, and David Sloan Wilson, This View of Life Editor in Chief and President of the Evolution Institute.

Slides from the presentation are available [here].

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Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind Thu, 20 Apr 2017 12:00:37 +0000

The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 12 of Kevin Laland’s new book Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony. How Culture Made the Human Mind. (2017, Princeton University Press).

We have all experienced technological innovation during our lifetimes and, depending on our age, can remember the first appearance of iPods in 2001, the World Wide Web in the 1990s, mobile phones in the 1970s, or color TV in the 1960s. Each of these influential, recent innovations swept society as the cutting-edge advance of the day, only to be refined, elaborated, and improved upon by succeeding technology. The logic of cultural evolution is identical to that of biological evolution, even if the details differ.[1] New ideas, behaviors, or products are devised through diverse creative processes; these differ in their attractiveness, appeal, or utility, and as a result are differentially adopted, with newfangled variants superseding the obsolete. Technology advances and diversifies by refining existing technology, which in turn has bolted the innovations of earlier times onto their predecessor’s standard. Through endless waves of innovation and copying, cultures change over time. The logic applies broadly, from the simplest of manufactured products like pins and paper clips, to the dazzling complexity of space stations and CRISPR gene editing, and even back through time to the stone knapping of our hominin ancestors and the creations of animal innovators from the distant past. Technological evolution is relentless for exactly the same reason that biological evolution is; where there is diversity, including diversity in functional utility and inheritance, then natural selection inevitably occurs.

Curiously, while the evolution of technology is apparent to many, the evolution of the arts is less widely accepted.[2] Yet the production of artistic works, and the manner in which art changes over time, owes a substantive debt to imitation that goes far beyond the copying of styles, techniques, and materials. The film and theatre industries illustrate what architecture, painting, and sculpture affirm. That is, in the absence of a mind fine-tuned by natural selection for optimal social learning, art simply could not be produced.

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Having examined the little appreciated dues that the art world owes to our biological heritage, we will go on to consider the evolution of dance. The history of dance is particularly well documented, and provides a wonderful case study with which to illustrate how human culture evolves. We will see that cultural evolution is neither linear (constantly progressing from simple to more complex over time), as envisaged by nineteenth-century anthropologists,[3] nor treelike with independent lineages constantly branching, as Darwin portrayed biological evolution.[4] Cultural evolution is more of a melting pot, with innovation often the product of borrowing from other domains, such that cultural lineages come together as well as diverge. This can be seen in the richly cross-fertilizing coevolution of dance, music, fashion, art, and technology, whose histories are intimately entwined.

We will begin with the movies. In the critically acclaimed film The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch received plaudits for his brilliant portrayal of Alan Turing, the eccentric genius who cracked the cyphers of the Enigma machine, used by the Nazis to send secure wireless messages during the Second World War; in so doing, Turing devised the world’s first computer. Turing’s machine endeavored to imitate the human mind and perhaps a particular mind; this was possibly the mind of his childhood friend and first love, Christopher Morcom, after whom he named his electromechanical code breaker. Turing was awarded the OBE by King George VI for his Bletchley Park services, which were estimated to have shortened the war by two to four years. But Turing’s life ended in tragedy. Prosecuted for homosexual acts, still a criminal offense in Britain in 1952, he endured two years of aggressive hormone “treatment” before committing suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide shortly before his 42nd birthday.[5] Only in 2013 did Queen Elizabeth II grant him a posthumous pardon and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologize for the appalling treatment that this brilliant scientist and war hero suffered at the hands of his nation.

Turing is widely regarded as the father of modern computing. According to artificial intelligence legend Marvin Minsky of MIT, Turing’s landmark paper of 1937 “contains, in essence, the invention of the modern computer and some of the programming techniques that accompanied it.”[6] The metaphor of the mind has inspired artificial intelligence research for half a century, fueling countless advances in computing technology. As far back as 1996, human conceit took a humiliating hit when a supercomputer called Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov, perhaps the greatest-ever chess grandmaster, to exert the superiority of the mechanical over the organic mind. The world’s most powerful computer today, the Tianhe-2 supercomputer at China’s National University of Defense Technology, is the latest in a long line of refined imitations of pre-existing technology that can be traced all of the way back to Hut 8 at Bletchley Park. One day soon, quantum computers are expected to supplant today’s digital computers. Already the world’s most accurate clock is the Quantum Logic Clock, produced by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which uses the vibrations of a single aluminum atom to record time so accurately that it would neither gain nor lose as much as a second in a billion years. Yet, in homage to their humble beginnings, such technologies are known as “quantum Turing machines.”

We readily recognize the role that imitation plays in technological evolution, just as we easily comprehend Turing’s attempt to imitate the mind’s computational power with a thinking machine. What is often overlooked is that, as every actor and actress earns a living by imitating the individuals portrayed, all movies are in the imitation game. The entire film industry relies on the ability of talented thespians to study their focal character’s behavior, speech, and mannerisms in meticulous detail and to duplicate these with sufficient precision to render their portrayal a compelling likeness, and leave the storyline credible. Cumberbatch convinces us that he really is Alan Turing, just as Marlon Brando persuaded us that he was Vito Corleone in The Godfather, or Meryl Streep is the quintessential Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. The magic of the movies would dissipate instantly if this pretense ever broke down. Academy awards and Golden Globes are the ultimate recognition handed out to honor the world’s most gifted imitators. Tens of millions of years of selection for more and more accurate social learning has reached its pinnacle in the modern world’s Brandos and Streeps. Yet such extraordinary acting talent was clearly not directly favored by natural selection. No amateur dramatic productions were performed in the Pleistocene, and being a proficient actor did not bring reproductive benefits to early hominins. Acting is not an adaptation, but rather an “exaptation,”—that is, a trait originally fashioned by natural selection for an entirely different role.[7] Acting proficiency is a byproduct of selection for imitation.

Among our distant ancestors, those individuals who were effective copiers did indeed enjoy fitness benefits, but their copying was expressed in learning challenging life skills, not the performing arts. We are all descended from a long line of inveterate imitators. By copying, our forebears learned how to make digging tools, spears, harpoons, and fish hooks; make drills, borers, throwing sticks, and needles; butcher carcasses and extract meat; build a fire and keep it going; pound, grind, and soak plant materials; hunt antelope, trap game, and catch fish; cook turtles, and make tools from their shells; mount a collective defense against ferocious carnivores; as well as what each sign, sound, and gesture observed in their society meant. These, and hundreds of others skills, were what shaped the polished, imitative capabilities of our lineage. Acquiring such proficiencies would have been a matter of life and death to the puny and defenseless members of our genus in their grim struggle to forge a living on the plains of Africa, the deserts of the Levant, or the Mediterranean coast.

Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of years of selection for competent imitation has shaped the human brain, leaving it supremely adapted to translate visual information about the movements of others’ bodies into matching action from their own muscles, tendons, and joints. Now, eons later, we effortlessly direct this aptitude to fulfill goals utterly inconceivable to our forebears, with little reflection on what an extraordinary adaptation the ability to imitate represents. Imitation is no trivial matter. Few other animals are capable of motor imitation, and even those that do exhibit this form of learning cannot imitate with anything like the accuracy and precision of our species.[8] For over a century psychologists have struggled to understand how imitation is possible.[9] Most learning occurs when individuals receive “rewards” or “punishments” for their actions,[10] like achieving a desired goal or else experiencing pain. This reinforcement encourages us to repeat actions that brought us pleasure and to avoid those activities that brought pain or stress, a process known as operant conditioning. The reward systems that elicit positive or negative sensations are ancient structures in the brain, fashioned by selection to train animals’ behavior to meet adaptive goals.[11] However, when we learn to eat with chopsticks or to ride a bicycle by observing another individual, we have seemingly not received any direct reinforcement ourselves, so how do we do it? Even more challenging to understand, how do we connect the sight of someone else manipulating chopsticks, or peddling a bike, with the utterly different sensory experience that we encounter when we do these things? This correspondence problem has been the bugbear of imitation researchers for decades. Even today, there is little consensus as to how this is done.[12] One conclusion is clear, however. Solving the correspondence problem requires links, in the form of a network of neurons, between the sensory and motor regions of the brain. Years ago, when a postdoctoral fellow at Cambridge University, working with eminent ethologist Patrick Bateson, I explored the evolution and development of imitation using artificial neural network models. We found that we could simulate imitation and other forms of social learning, provided we pretrained the artificial neural network with relevant prior experience that allowed it to create such links between perceptual inputs and motor outputs.[13] Interestingly, our neural networks that simulated imitation possessed exactly the same properties as “mirror neurons.”

Mirror neurons are cells in the brain that fire both when an individual performs an action, and when the individual sees the same action performed by others.[14] Mirror neurons are widely thought to facilitate imitation.[15] As the brain expanded during human evolution, those regions now known to be involved in imitation, such as the temporal and parietal lobe, grew disproportionately larger.[16] The parietal lobe is that precise region of the primate brain in which mirror neurons were first detected in monkeys, and brain-imaging studies show that the same regions of the human brain indeed possess these mirroring properties.[17] Plausibly, the mirror neuron system was the direct product of selection for enhanced imitation among our ancestors. These cognitive abilities continue to allow us to learn new skills today—for instance, how to drive, wield a hammer, or cook a meal. However, those same cognitive abilities are also what permits Jimmy Stewart to impress us every Christmas as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Also overlooked, but far less obvious, is how reliant film, theatre, opera, and even computer games are on the audiences’ abilities to imagine themselves part of the action, to experience the fear and the tension, and to share the main character’s emotions vicariously. These capabilities were also likely fashioned in the sweaty heat of the African jungle, where the ability to take the perspective and understand the goals and intentions of those occupied in important tasks helped the observer to acquire the relevant technology. Here too, the ancestral sharing of emotions in social settings, such as responding with anxiety to the fear of another or drawing joy from the laughter of a child, helped to shape the empathy and emotional contagion that makes the movie a heartfelt experience. These sensitivities are also reliant on forms of social learning with adaptive functions, such as helping individuals learn the identity of predators or circumvent other dangers.[18] In the absence of these social learning abilities, we would all watch movies like sociopaths, utterly indifferent to the lead character’s trauma, equally unmoved by the Psycho shower scene or Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara’s kiss. Global box office revenue was estimated at $40 billion in 2015. Without the human ability to imitate there would be no movie industry; and for that matter, no theatre or opera.

In fact, when we start to think about it, connections emerge between a surprising number of the arts and the imitative and innovative capabilities that drove the evolution of the human brain. Consider, for instance, sculpture. In order to complete his statue of David in 1504, Michelangelo had to solve a correspondence problem of his own. Rather than moving his own body to match David’s posture, Michelangelo had to move his hands and arms, skillfully wielding hammer and chisel to transform a block of marble into an exact replica. To do this, Michelangelo had to translate the visual inputs corresponding to the sight of the male model into motor outputs that generated a matching form in the stone. That he exceled in this challenge, and produced one of the greatest masterpieces of the Renaissance, is testament not just to his talent but also to many years of practice in stonework. Michelangelo began his artistic training at the age of 13, and spent time as a quarryman in Carrara, where he learned to brandish a hammer to good effect. Those years of experience functioned to train the neural circuitry of his brain (just as we trained our artificial neural networks) to be sensitive to the correspondences between the movements associated with his masonry and the physical results in the stone. That training, however, could only be effective because Michelangelo possessed a brain uniquely designed to generate rich cross-modal mappings between the sensory and motor cortex when given the right experience; this was a legacy of ancestral selection for imitative abilities.

Admiring marvelous sculpture like David or the Venus de Milo can be a startlingly sensual experience, especially when one considers that we are confronted with, in essence, a block of stone. One is often left secretly wanting to reach out and touch the beautiful forms. Some cultures, such as the Inuit, even make small sculptures that are solely meant to be handled, rather than seen.[19] That we should experience such sensations again draws on those cross-modal neural networks. These connect physical representations of objects in our minds to the objects themselves, and from there to a pre-existing network of associations and, often intimate, memories.

Only a very large-brained species could ever have produced works of sculpture fashioned with such precision. Such works require meticulous and controlled hand movements, manual dexterity that evolved along with increased brain size. Mammalian brains changed in internal organization as they got larger, inevitably becoming more modular and asymmetrical with size,[20] as described in chapter 6. With increasing overall size, larger brain regions typically become better connected to other regions and start to exert control over the rest of the brain.[21] This occurs because neurons vie with each other to connect to target regions and this competition is generally won by those neurons that collectively fire the target cells, giving large brain regions an advantage. The net result is an increase in the ability of the larger brain regions to influence other regions. The dominant structure in the human brain is the neocortex, which accounts for approximately 80% of the brain by volume, more than in any other animal. In the primate lineage to humans, the neocortex (the thinking, learning, and planning part of the brain) has become larger over evolutionary time, and has exerted increasing control over the motor neurons of the spinal cord and brain stem; this has led to increased manual dexterity and more precise control of the limbs.[22] The cerebellum, the second largest region of the human brain, also plays an important role in motor control and has enlarged during recent human evolution as well.[23] This motor control is what makes humans exceptional at finely coordinated movements. If I am correct, and innovation and social learning have driven the neocortex and cerebellum to become larger over evolutionary time, then this natural selection may simultaneously have generated human greater dexterity, which could be expressed not just in painting and sculpture, but also acting, opera, and in particular, dance.

The motor control that allows humans to produce artistic works and performances spontaneously is a capability that no other animal shares. Granted, the internet is awash with reports and YouTube footage of artistic animals, but these have not stood up to close scrutiny from animal behavior experts. You may well be able to buy painting kits for your cat or dog, and your pet may well enjoy the experience, but little that is genuinely artistic is produced. Like most other animals that have been handed a paintbrush, dogs and cats lack both the inclination and motor control to produce representational art, and I strongly suspect that any abstract beauty observed in the colorful product is strictly in the eye of the pet owner.

Intriguingly, the Humane Society of the United States recently organized a Chimpanzee Art Contest, to which six chimpanzees submitted “masterpieces.” The winner, Brent, a 37-year-old male from ChimpHaven in Louisiana, received a $10,000 prize from the stately hands of Jane Goodall. Brent, apparently, produced the work with his tongue, rather than bothering to use a paintbrush. The original works were then auctioned off on eBay with the many thousands of dollars raised going to support primate sanctuaries.[24] Yet, however much one admires this charming, clever, and well-motivated funding initiative, the claim that the chimpanzees concerned are artists, in any meaningful sense, is greeted with skepticism by animal behaviorists and art scholars alike. A generous reading of the artistic pretensions of these animals would at best acknowledge some pleasure in generating colorful compositions.

Elephants are considerably more interesting because to the astonishment of thousands of gullible tourists, they regularly produce realistic paintings of trees, flowers, or even other elephants in sensational public performances at several sanctuaries in Thailand (figure 11). The artwork, which the elephants sometimes even sign with their name, sells in droves. However, all is not as it seems. Each paintbrush is placed in the elephant’s trunk by its trainer, who then surreptitiously guides the trunk movements by gently tugging at its ears. The elephant has been trained to hold the brush to the paper and move it in the direction to which its ear is being pulled.[25] At the very least, one has to acknowledge an impressive piece of animal training,[26] and one cannot help but admire the precision and control that the painting elephants exhibit with their trunks. Yet, a trick has taken place, and the trainer gets away with it by cleverly positioning himself behind the elephant. The tourists nonetheless typically go home happy, even those who spot the ruse, since no one can say that their “priceless” artwork was not painted by an elephant![27]

Figure 11. Painting elephants are becoming a major tourist attraction in Thailand. The elephants regularly produce realistic paintings of trees, flowers and other elephants in impressive public performances. However, all is not as it seems, and the tourists are being hoodwinked. Copyright Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images.

Representational art is a uniquely human domain. That elephants can, with guidance, produce these pictures is nevertheless fascinating, precisely because it demonstrates that with training, they too are capable of building up cross-modal neural networks in their brains that translate tactile sensory inputs into matching motor outputs. The painting elephants have solved a correspondence problem of their own. It may be no coincidence that an Asian elephant from South Korea called Koshik was recently shown to be capable of vocal imitation, including mimicking human speech,[28] while Happy, another Asian elephant at the Bronx Zoo in New York, was shown to be able to recognize herself in a mirror.[29] Almost certainly, these capabilities are related. Like sculpture, producing paintings (and mirror self-recognition) makes demands on the circuitry of the brain involved in imitation.[30]

Our big brains not only afford precise control of our hands, arms, legs, and feet, but also of our mouth, tongue, and vocal chords, which is what endowed our species with the vocal dexterity to speak and sing.[31] Without that cortical expansion, members of our species could neither have fashioned a work of art, nor vocally expressed their admiration for it. The evolution of language is surely central to the origins of art, since art is rife with symbolism. As described in chapter 8, symbolic and abstract thinking are widely regarded as foremost features of human cognition. The use of arbitrary symbols allows humans to represent and communicate a wide range of ideas and concepts through diverse mediums. We possess minds fashioned by natural selection to manipulate symbols and think abstractly through spoken language, but we also express this penchant for symbolism in numerous artistic endeavors.

Architecture is one such domain. Victor Hugo’s 1831 masterpiece, Notre Dame de Paris, contains an extraordinary chapter entitled, “This Will Destroy That”; it echoes the enigmatic words of the evil Archdeacon Frollo, who rants against the invention of the printing press. Frollo expresses the terror of the church in the face of a rising new power—printing—that threatens to supplant it. The concern was not just that people might start to rely on books rather than priests to acquire their knowledge and advice, but also that the cathedral’s magnificent gothic architecture, already in disrepair, would lose its power and symbolism:

It was a premonition that human thought … was about to change its outward mode of expression; that the dominant idea of each generation would, in future, be embodied in a new material, a new fashion; that the book of stone, so solid and so enduring, was to give way to the book of paper.[32]

To the modern reader such fears appear irrational. Yet, in the preliterate world, powerful institutions literally wrote their authority in stone. From the Pyramids to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome or the Palace of Versailles, the magnificence, scale, wealth, and beauty percolated with the symbolism of God-given command and assuredness.

Human artwork has a long history, dating back some 100,000 years.[33] It exhibits all the hallmarks of cultural evolution.[34] While painting manifests multiple divergent styles, one ancient conceptual lineage sets out to represent the visual experience with accuracy. Consider, for instance, René Magritte’s famous painting The Treachery of Images, which shows a pipe that looks as though it is a model for a tobacco advertisement. Much to the puzzlement of millions of admirers, Magritte painted below the pipe, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” which is translated as “This is not a pipe.” At first sight, this appears completely untrue. What we momentarily forget, of course, is that the painting is not a pipe, but an image of a pipe. When Magritte was once asked to explain this picture, he apparently replied that of course it was not a pipe; just try to fill it with tobacco! Magritte’s point might appear trite to some, privileged as we are to live in an age where we can overdose on magnificent artworks that perfectly capture perspective and exhibit astonishing accuracy of portrayal. In the contemporary artistic movement of hyperrealism, the pictures of artists like Diego Fazio, Jason de Graf, or Morgan Davidson use acrylics, pencil, or crayons with such astonishing accuracy that they are almost always mistaken for photographs. Their work can be placed in a long-standing tradition that sets out to produce precise, detailed, and accurate representation of the actual visual appearance of scenes and objects. This movement flourished at various periods, and has been known as “realism,” “naturalism,” or (with appropriate reference to imitation) “mimesis.” Such hyperreal works allow the viewer to escape the correspondence problem by producing an image that exactly mimics what it represents. However, there can be no such escape for the artist, who must overcome this challenge in order to succeed.

Nowhere in the arts is the correspondence problem more clearly manifest than in dance, which again harnesses those same cognitive faculties that are necessary to integrate distinct sensory inputs and outputs. Following an excited conversation in a Cambridge pub in 2014, I recently began a collaboration with Nicky Clayton and Clive Wilkins to study the evolution of dance. Nicky is a professor of psychology at Cambridge University and expert of animal cognition; she is also a passionate dancer, and she merges this with her research as scientific director to the Rambert, a leading contemporary dance company.[35] Clive is equally impressive as a successful painter, writer, magician, and also a dance enthusiast. We rapidly converged on the hypothesis that dancing may only be possible because its performance exploits the neural circuitry employed in imitation.[36]

Dancing requires the performer to match their actions to music, or to time their movements to fit the rhythm, which can sometimes even be an internal rhythm, such as the heartbeat. This demands a correspondence between the auditory inputs the dancer hears and the motor outputs they produce. Likewise, competent couple or group dancing requires individuals to coordinate their actions, and in the process match, reverse, or complement each other. This too calls for a correspondence between visual inputs and motor outputs. That humanity is able to solve these challenges, albeit with varying degrees of ease and grace, is a testament to the neural apparatus that we uniquely possess as a legacy of selection for imitative proficiency. The same reasoning applies when individuals dance alone.

Contemporary theories suggest that while the potential for imitation is inborn in humans, competence is only realized with appropriate lifetime experience.[37] Early experiences, such as being rocked and sung to as a baby, help infants to form neural connections that link sound, movement, and rhythm, while numerous experiences later in life, such as playing a musical instrument, strengthen these networks. The suggestion that taking up the piano will make you a better dancer might seem curious, but that is a logical conclusion to draw from the neuropsychological data.

The relentless motivation to copy the actions of parents and older siblings that is apparent in young children may initially serve a social function, such as to strengthen social bonds. However, childhood imitation also trains the “mirroring” neural circuitry of the mind, leaving the child better placed later in life to integrate across sensory modalities.[38] Theoretical work suggests that the experience of synchronous action forges links between the perception of self and others performing the same movements.[39] Whether because past natural selection has tuned human brains specifically for imitation, or because humans construct developmental environments that promote imitative proficiency—or both—there can be no doubt that, compared to other animals, humans are exceptional imitators. A recent brain-scanning analysis of the neural basis of dance found that foot movement timed to music excited regions of the brain previously associated with imitation, and this may be no coincidence.[40] Dancing inherently seems to require a brain capable of solving the correspondence problem.

Comparative evidence is remarkably consistent with this hypothesis. A number of animals have also been characterized as dancers, including snakes, bees, birds, bears, elephants, and chimpanzees; the last of these perform a “rain dance” during thunderstorms, which has a rhythmic, swaying motion. However, whether animals can truly be said to dance remains a contentious issue,[41] which depends at least in part on how dance is defined. In contrast, the more specific question of whether animals can move their bodies in time to music or rhythm has been extensively investigated, with clear and positive conclusions. Strikingly, virtually all animals that pass this test are known to be highly proficient imitators, frequently in both vocal and motor domains.

This ability to move in rhythmic synchrony with a musical beat by nodding our head or tapping our feet, for instance, is a universal characteristic of humans,[42] but is rarely observed in other species.[43] The most prominent explanation for why this should be, known as the “vocal learning and rhythmic synchronization” hypothesis,[44] is broadly in accord with the arguments presented here.[45] This hypothesis suggests that moving in time to the rhythm (known as “entrainment”) relies on the neural circuitry for complex vocal learning; it is an ability that requires a tight link between auditory and motor circuits in the brain.[46] The hypothesis predicts that only species of animal capable of vocal imitation, such as humans, parrots and songbirds, cetaceans, and pinnipeds, but not nonhuman primates and not those birds that do not learn their songs, will be capable of synchronizing movements to music.

The many videos of birds, mostly parrots, moving to music on the internet are consistent with the hypothesis, but compelling footage of other animals doing the same is comparatively rare. Some of these “dancing” birds have acquired celebrity status; the best known is Snowball, a sulphur-crested cockatoo,[47] whose performances on YouTube have “gone viral.” Snowball can be seen to move with astonishing rhythmicity, head banging and kicking his feet in perfect time to Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust” or the Backstreet Boys (figure 12).[48] Home videos can be faked, and parrots also have the ability to mimic human movements,[49] so the footage alone cannot show that Snowball is keeping time to music directly. For this reason, a team of researchers led by Aniruddh Patel at The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego brought Snowball into the laboratory to carry out careful experiments.[50] Manipulating the tempo of a musical excerpt across a wide range, the researchers conclusively demonstrated that Snowball spontaneously adjusts the tempo of his movements to stay synchronized with the beat.

Figure 12. Snowball, a sulphur-crested cockatoo, performs dances on YouTube that have thrilled millions. Careful experiments have demonstrated that Snowball adjusts his movements to keep time to the music. By permission of Irena Schulz.

Thus far, evidence for spontaneous motor entrainment to music has been reported in at least nine species of birds including several types of parrot, and the Asian elephant, all of whom are vocal imitators,[51] and several of which show motor imitation.[52] Entrainment has also been shown in a chimpanzee,[53] a renowned motor imitator.[54] The sole exception to this association is the California sea lion,[55] which is not known to exhibit vocal learning. However, the fact that related species show vocal learning, including several seals and the walrus,[56] raises the possibility that this capability or a relevant precursor may yet be demonstrated. Lyrebirds have not been subject to entrainment experiments, but males are famous for their ability to imitate virtually any sounds, including dog barks, chainsaws, and car alarms. They can match subsets of songs from their extensive vocal repertoire with tail, wing, and leg movements to devise their own “dance” choreography.[57] Clearly, there is more to dance, at least social or collective dance, than entrainment to music. There must also be coordination with others’ movements, which would seemingly draw on the neural circuitry that underlies motor, rather than vocal, imitation.[58] However, a recent analysis of the avian brain suggests that vocal learning evolved through exploitation of pre-existing motor pathways,[59] implying that vocal and motor imitation are reliant on similar circuitry. The animal data provide compelling support for a causal link between the capabilities for imitation and dance. Whether this is because imitation is necessary for entrainment, or merely facilitates it through reinforcing relevant neural circuitry, remains to be established.

Dance often tells a story, and this representational quality provides another link with imitation. For instance, in the “astronomical dances” of ancient Egypt, priests and priestesses accompanied by harps and pipes mimed significant events in the story of a god, or imitated cosmic patterns such as the rhythm of night and day.[60] Through dance, Australian Aborigines depict the spirits and ideas associated with every aspect of the natural and unseen world.[61] There are animal dances for women, which are thought to function like love potions or fertility treatments to make a lover return, or to induce pregnancy, while male dances are more often about fishing, hunting, and fighting. Africa, Asia, Australasia, and Europe all possess long-standing traditions for mask-culture dances, in which performers assume the role of the character associated with the mask and, often garbed in extravagant costumes, enact religious stories.[62] Native Americans are famed for their war dances, which were thought so powerful and evocative they were banned by the United States government—the law was not repealed until 1934.[63] A variety of animal dances are also performed by Native Americans, and include the buffalo dance, which was thought to lure buffalo herds close to the village, and the eagle dance, which is a tribute to these venerated birds.[64] This tradition continues right through to the present. For instance, in 2009, the Rambert Dance Company marked the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth by collaborating with Nicky Clayton to produce The Comedy of Change, which evoked animal behavior on stage with spellbinding accuracy (figure 13). In all such instances, the creation and performance of the dance requires an ability on the part of the dancer to imitate the movements and sounds of particular people, animals, or events. This reproduction contributes importantly to the meaning of the dance in the community, and imparts a bonding or shared experience. Such dances reintroduce the correspondence problem, since the dancer, choreographer, and audience must be able to connect the dancers’ movements to the represented target phenomenon.

Figure 12. Dancers from the Rambert Dance Company in The Comedy of Change. Several lines of evidence connect the ability to dance with imitation. By permission of Hugo Glendinning.

The most transparent connection between dance and imitation, however, will be readily apparent to just about anyone who has ever taken or observed a dance lesson; that is, dance sequences are typically learned through imitation. From beginner ballet classes for infants to professional dance companies, the learning of a dance routine invariably begins with a demonstration of the steps from an instructor or choreographer, which the dancers then set out to imitate. It is no coincidence that dance rehearsal studios around the world almost always have large mirrors along one wall. These allow the learner to flit rapidly between observing the movements of the instructor or choreographer and observing their own performance. This not only allows them to see the correspondence, or lack of correspondence, between the target behavior and what they are doing, but also allows the dancers to connect feedback from their muscles and joints to visual feedback on their performance, allowing error correction and accelerating the learning process.[65]

Prospective new members of professional dance companies are given challenging auditions in which they are evaluated partly on their ability to pick up new dance routines with alacrity, an essential skill for a dancer. Dancing is not just about body control, grace, and power, but it also demands its own kind of intelligence.[66] A key element in whether or not a dancer makes the grade essentially comes down to how good they are at imitating. A professional dancer at the Rambert once told Nicky and me that she had recently taken up sailing, and her instructor was flabbergasted at how quickly she had picked up the techniques involved. What the instructor had failed to appreciate was that dancers earn their living by imitation.

Imitation is not the only cognitive faculty that is necessary for learning dance. Also important is sequence learning, particularly in choreographed dances, which require the learning of a long, and often complex, sequence of actions. Even improvised dances such as the Argentine tango require the leader to plan a sequence of movements that provide the basis for the exquisite conversation between leader and follower. As we have learned, long strings of actions are very difficult to learn asocially, but social learning substantially increases the chances that individuals will acquire the appropriate sequence.[67] Our ancestors were predisposed to be highly competent sequence learners because many of their tool-manufacturing and tool-using skills, as well as food-processing techniques, required them to carry out precise sequences of actions, with each step in the right order. The fact that these sequence-learning capabilities are clearly exploited in dance provides further evidence of the extent of the surprising connection between imitation and dance.

Culture evolves in two senses: the observation that cultural phenomena change over time, and the evolution of the capacity for culture. Evolutionary biology can shed light on these issues by helping to explain how the psychological, neurological, and physiological attributes necessary for culture came into existence. In the case of dance, evolutionary insights explain how humans are capable of moving in time to music; how we are able to synchronize our actions with others or move in a complementary way; how we can learn long, complex sequences of movements; why it is that we have such precise control of our limbs; why we want to dance what others are dancing; and why both participating in dancing and watching dance is fun. Armed with this knowledge, we can make better sense of why dance possesses some of the properties that it does, and why dances changed in the manner they did. As it is for dance, so it is for sculpture, acting, music, computer games, or just about any aspect of culture. Biology provides no substitute for a comprehensive historical analysis. However, our understanding of the underlying biology feeds back to make the historical analysis so much richer and intelligible.


[1] Mesoudi et al. 2004, 2006; Mesoudi 2011.

[2] This is perhaps because the arts place a particular premium on creativity and originality, and also possibly because evolution has a bad name in some areas of the humanities (see Laland and Brown 2011 for historical details).

[3] Morgan 1877; Spencer 1857, (1855) 1870; Tylor 1871.

[4] Darwin 1859.

[5] A story pervades that the apple logo found on iPhones and Macintosh computers is a tribute to Alan Turning, the father of modern computing, who died by biting into an apple laced with cyanide. While differing opinions abound, this story sadly would appear more likely to be an urban legend than the truth.

[6] Turing 1937; Minsky 1967, p. 104.

[7] Gould and Vrba 1982.

[8] Hoppitt and Laland 2013.

[9] Galef Jr. 1988.

[10] Strictly, the “most learning” referred to here should read most “instrumental” (or “operant”) learning.

[11] Pullium and Dunford 1980.

[12] For a recent review, see Brass and Heyes 2005.

[13] Laland and Bateson 2001.

[14] Rizzolatti and Craighero 2004.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Striedter 2005.

[17] Iacoboni et al. 1999.

[18] This form of social learning is typically referred to as “observational conditioning.”

[19] Bronowski 1973.

[20] Striedter 2005.

[21] Deacon 1997.

[22] Striedter 2005; Heffner and Masterton 1975, 1983.

[23] Barton 2012.

[24] Prints of these are still available for $20 each (

[25] For an accessible animal behaviorist’s assessment of elephant painting, see—Intrigued-stories-naturalist-Desmond-Morris-set-truth.html.

[26] Tourist camps in Thailand that boast “painting elephants” have attracted criticism from animal rights activists who express concerns that the training regimes may be cruel to the animals. The tourist camps, in response, claim that the elephants are mentally and socially healthy.

[27] Footage of painting elephants and chimpanzees can easily be found on YouTube.

[28] Stoeger et al. 2012.

[29] Plotnik et al. 2006.

[30] Consistent with this argument is the finding that rhesus monkeys can be trained to produce mirror-induced, self-directed behavior resembling mirror self-recognition, with appropriate visual-somatosensory training that links visual and somatosensory information (Chang et al. 2015).

[31] Striedter 2005.

[32] Hugo (1831) 1978, p. 189.

[33] The first use of perforated shells as beads is dated to over 100,000 years ago (D’Errico and Stringer 2011, McBrearty and Brooks 2000). The shells frequently have geometrical patterns cut into them, and have been colored with pigments. The use of red ochre as a painting material dates back further. Engraved ostrich shells dated to 60,000 years ago have been found in South Africa (Texier et al. 2010). By around 45,000 to 35,000 years ago, art was widespread (at least in western Europe) and highly consistent, and comprised pierced beads of ivory and shells, etched and carved stones, engraved decorations on bone and antler tools and weapons, and sculpted statues of animals and female figures, which were thought to be fertility symbols. However, the most evocative and striking images of Paleolithic artwork are unquestionably the magnificent cave art paintings discovered in several European countries (Sieveking 1979). Many caves are renowned for their artwork; the oldest include the spectacular paintings found at the Le Chauvet Cave in France, dated to 30,000 years ago. Perhaps the most remarkable collection of cave paintings is at Lascaux in Dordogne, France, where an incredible 2,000 painted images of horses, deer, cattle, bison, humans, and a 5-meter high bull, have been dated to 18,000–12,000 years ago. Also renowned is the beautiful painted ceiling of the cave at Altamira, in northern Spain. This was the first cave art to be discovered, in 1879. The art at Altamira, which has been dated to around 19,000–11,000 years ago, comprises stunning representations of bison, horses, and other large animals, with extraordinary use of colors and shading to indicate depth. The quaint story of its discovery details that the paintings, which are on a low ceiling, were initially missed by the team of archaeologists, but were spotted by one of the team’s 8-year-old daughter; she was the only individual small enough to stand erect and still look up at the ceiling (Tattersall 1995).

[34] There is the expected regional variation, with particular techniques, styles and materials used in specific locations, indicating that the art expressed particular meanings that were socially learned and shared by the members of the community (Zaidel 2013). The paintings record for posterity what dominated the minds of those peoples, the animals that they lived by and stalked, and the power and potencies that those creatures symbolized. The correspondence between those species that were painted and those that have been independently verified as present is sufficiently tight that ecologists now use paleolithic art to infer species distributions (Yeakel et al. 2014). There is also continuity over time, as the same methods and skills are reproduced throughout the millennia. For instance, the European cave art tradition lasts tens of thousands of years, while the use of pigments, such as red ochre, in rock paintings is still used today (McBrearty and Brooks 2000). These traditions were passed on from one generation to the next, picking up innovations from numerous creative, avant-garde, or radical individuals along the way, in a continuum that stretches back to the origins of our species, and forward to those exhibits found in today’s contemporary art museums. Finally, the observed patterns of change are historically contingent. Like technology, novel art does not spring forth fully formed from the mind of the maker, but rather is a creative reworking of existing artistic forms.

[35] The company was Ballet Rambert until 1966, and then Rambert Dance Company until 2013.

[36] Laland et al. 2016.

[37] Byrne 1999, Laland and Bateson 2001, Heyes 2002, Brass and Heyes 2005.

[38] Carpenter 2006.

[39] Heyes and Ray 2000, Laland and Bateson 2001.

[40] Brown et al. 2006.

[41] Some animals’ movements, such as the coordinated jumping and wing-flapping courtship of pairs of Japanese cranes, or the communication system of honeybees, possess some dance-like properties, but these are species-specific behavior patterns that have evolved to fulfil quite separate functions.

[42] Nettl 2000.

[43] Fitch 2011.

[44] Patel 2006.

[45] In contrast to this hypothesis, I also place emphasis on motor imitation.

[46] Doupe 2005, Jarvis 2004.

[47] Cacatua galerita eleonora

[48] You can see Snowball on YouTube at

[49] Moore 1992.

[50] Patel et al. 2009.

[51] Schachner et al. 2009, Patel et al. 2009, Dalziell et al. 2013.

[52] Hoppitt and Laland 2013.

[53] Fitch 2013.

[54] Hoppitt and Laland 2013.

[55] Cook et al. 2013, Fitch 2013.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Dalziell et al. 2013.

[58] Indeed, in a number of both classical and modern dance forms, motor imitation is key. Dancers are required to copy the process but not the product of the movement, and operate under socially constrained rules that depend critically on the technique and style of their particular school (e.g., Martha Graham vs. Merce Cunningham styles).

[59] Feenders et al. 2008.

[60] Clarke and Crisp 1983.

[61] Clarke and Crisp 1983, Dudley 1977.

[62] Clarke and Crisp 1983.

[63] Laubin and Laubin 1977.

[64] Clarke and Crisp 1983.

[65] Correction may also occur through manual shaping of the dancer’s body by the teacher or, to a lesser degree, through verbal instruction. In some dances, specific steps are given verbal labels, as in ballet in particular, which has its own elaborate glossary of terms, such as fondu, arabesque, chassé, and grand jeté, each with its own characteristic movements. Except in those cases, however, describing bodily movements with words is typically difficult. Hence, when dance instruction is given verbally, it is often through the use of imagery, where again an ability to relate one’s own bodily movements to another object, emotion, or entity is required.

[66] I am indebted to Nicky Clayton for drawing my attention to many of these points.

[67] Whalen et al. 2015.

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