Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Tim Tyler: Lumsden and Wilson, Promethian fire (review)


Hi, I'm Tim Tyler, and this is a review of this book: Promethian fire by Chales Lumsden and E. O. Wilson.

I'll try to keep this brief, because this is an old book, which is largely of historical interest these days.

The book was published in 1983. Two years earlier, the pair had published Genes, Mind and Culture, one of the early pioneering work on cultural evolution. This book was intended as more of a popular work. The topic is: the evolution of the human mind. The book contains multiple illustrations, autobiographical passages and narratives concerning the lives of our distant ancestors.

The book is not terribly well written and gets boring in places. The autobiographical bits are about the sociobiological controversy and about how Lumsden and Wilson wrote their last book, and this content is not that great. The narratives about the lives of distant ancestors also get painful. There's a large section about aliens who learn everything and other aliens which have entirely genetically-specified behaviour. There is some science, but it is often fairly loose and references are rare.

Lumsden and Wilson define their notion of a culturegen, go into their idea that genes hold culture on a leash, and discuss gene-culture coevolution. They complain about how difficult the whole subject is.

Their theory boils down to the idea that genes predispose organisms to acquiring particular sorts of culture and culture in turn goes on to affect the genes. This is fine as far as it goes. However, the book only mentions the fact that culture is transmitted once and doesn't mention that it is inherited at all. The book doesn't mention the idea that cultural evolution might resemble organic evolution - the key idea which most subsequent work is based around.

Lumsden and Wilson do cite Dawkins, Cavalli-Sforza, Feldman, Boyd, Richerson, Durham and Campbell. However, their citation doesn't go far beyond listing their names - Lumsden and Wilson don't seem to have grasped that most of these authors had a much more significant and well-developed theory than their own.

The last two chapters are the best. The penultimate one goes into the author's ideas and looks in some detail into the ways that culture might influence genes and the ways that genes might influence culture. The last chapter proposes a unified science of humanity. Perhaps read those chapters first if you want to avoid being put off. Or, perhaps skip this book unless you have a particular interest in the thinking of the authors. This book probably isn't going to teach you much that you couldn't get more easily elsewhere.


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