Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of Mind
Immodest proclamation justly accompanies great discovery; who would gainsay Archimedes shouting “Eureka” through the streets of Syracuse, or announcing that his lever would move the earth if only he could find a place to stand. More often than not, however, immodest proclamation is a cover-up, conscious or not, for failure. When conscious, the tactic can be stunning in its audacity: let us simply declare victory and get out, Senator Aiken declared in the best potential solution I ever heard for the morass of Vietnam. When unconscious, it is hollow.
Both titles of Lumsden and Wilson’s book—and its content—record unconscious failure. They have discovered, they claim, the Promethean fire of our evolution, the key to an understanding of both the origin and the subsequent history of the human mind. This key, they proclaim, is a “largely unknown evolutionary process we have called gene-culture coevolution: it is a complicated, fascinating interaction in which culture is generated and shaped by biological imperatives while biological traits are simultaneously altered by genetic evolution in response to cultural innovation.”
In responding to criticisms that human sociobiology, in its debut as the last chapter of Wilson’s Sociobiology (1975), ignored culture for a crude form of genetic determinism, Lumsden and Wilson have now discovered culture and use it as half of a positive feedback loop to explain, with genetics as the other half, all the essentials of our mental evolution. Lumsden and Wilson summarize their concept of gene-culture coevolution in the following way:
The main postulate is that certain unique and remarkable properties of the human mind result in a tight linkage between genetic evolution and cultural history. The human genes affect the way that the mind is formed—which stimuli are perceived and which missed, how information is processed, the kinds of memories most easily recalled, the emotions they are most likely to evoke, and so forth. The processes that create such effects are called the epigenetic rules. The rules are rooted in the particularities of human biology, and they influence the way culture is formed….
This translation from mind to culture is half of gene-culture co-evolution. The other half is the effect that culture has on the underlying genes. Certain epigenetic rules—that is, certain ways in which the mind develops or is most likely to develop—cause individuals to adopt cultural choices that enable them to survive and reproduce more successfully. Over many generations these rules, and also the genes prescribing them, tend to increase in the population. Hence, culture affects genetic evolution, just as the genes affect cultural evolution.
Promethean Fire is essentially a long argument that this unexceptional, and scarcely new, style of evolution can explain what may be the three most important aspects of our own history and current status (see page 84, for example):Gene-culture coevolution was the trigger for the historical origin of mind in human evolution. It propelled the evolution of increased brain size at a rate perhaps never exceeded for major events in the history of life.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.