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January 17, 2009

Evo Bio Books

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A quick posting to let visitors know about two terrific new evo-bio books.

In "The Art Instinct," philosopher Denis Dutton (of Arts & Letters Daily fame) tries to bridge the gap between biology and aesthetics.

As a comprehensive evo-bio account of the arts, it's a heroic and (I hope) conversation-shifting work. Since it's also a book that nails many of the basics down in a way that the culture-world has been in bad need of for several decades now, I'm pleased to see that "The Art Instinct" is selling well and receiving numerous respectful reviews. Hey, the time may finally be right -- finally! -- for a sensibly down-to-earth yet sophisticated discussion of the nature of the arts.

My favorite reviews of the book so far have been by John Derbyshire and Jonah Lehrer. The book's website is here.

In "The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution," Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending cheerily take on one of the most potentially explosive of all evo-bio topics: the fact of recent human evolution. So ... What if human evolution didn't stop 40,000 years ago? What if our social forms have placed evolutionarily significant pressures on us? What if the differences between population groups run far deeper than mere skin color? And what on earth might have been the cause of the cultural explosion that resulted in cave paintings and elaborate ritual burials?

It's a mischievous, daring, and informative book that makes canny use of history, biology, and anthropology, and that teaches a lot about the way genes and alleles go about their business. It's also an exciting reading experience. Following the authors' minds as they reason their way (using vervey English and vivid imagery) through what's known now to explore possibilities and implications delivers a real buzz. I had many moments when I found myself thinking, "So maybe this is what being supersmart is like!" Fun.

The book hasn't yet been released, but you can place a pre-order here. The book's very generous website is here.

By the way: I notice that Cochran and Harpending created their book's website on the Squarespace platform. I'm a huge fan of Squarespace myself, and recommend it enthusiastically. If you want to build a website but would prefer not to devote your life to HTML, CSS, and/or Dreamweaver, Squarespace may be just what you're looking for.



posted by Michael at January 17, 2009


I never had a biology class and, unlike many Blowhards readers, have only a casual interest in the subject.

So perhaps someone can explain why biologists claim human evolution ceased 40,000 years ago. Yes, I'm aware of a theory that some species evolve in short jumps rather than in a smooth continuity. But I find it odd that nothing has changed in humans over a thousand+ generations. Or is the change factor considered to be something significant such as presence or absence of a gene? Please advise.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 17, 2009 9:39 AM

"So perhaps someone can explain why biologists claim human evolution ceased 40,000 years ago."

Because to admit the possibilty of evolution more recently would be to allow that racial differences might exist. In other words, I assume it to be an anti-scientific matter, a matter of politics.

Posted by: dearieme on January 17, 2009 11:22 AM

"Because to admit the possibility of evolution more recently would be to allow that racial differences might exist."

Shhh! That's too easy (and yet good) an explanation! After all, what will become of the very fabric of life if simple truths manage to be rise to the surface! We must, we simply must, pretend otherwise!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 17, 2009 12:24 PM

This post elicits two conflicting reactions from me. Immediately, I am fascinated and drawn to the topic. Logically if evolution exists (which I believe) then it makes sense that evolution must essentially be a continuing process, not one that stopped for our or any other species 40,000 years ago. That said my intuitive sense rather than learned understanding leans toward the idea that evolution moves in fits and starts. Sudden rapid changes in a species that occur in response to major changes in outside influences makes more sense to me than the model of tiny changes building up over long periods of time until the changed attributes become enough to be seen as evidence of incremental evolution. My untrained view is that nature (evolution) is dependent on the existence within all species of great internal diversity. Continual variations take place within each species, with dozens (or thousands or tens of thousands) of variations constantly being introduced that do not alter the species in any fundamental way until some dramatic change in circumstances that results in the core attributes of a given species being unable to cope while certain variations on the fringe suddenly thrive and produce what is essentially the next evolutionary step, becoming as it were a new species.

How aesthetics and art fit together with evolution is a fascinating topic. While Dutton's antipathy toward abstraction and modernism may skew his reasoning a bit, his book looks like must reading. Among the reviews I note certain tidbits that immediately get me thinking, like one from the New Yorker that mentions Dutton's book positing the question, " why did no art form develop to exploit smell, as music does hearing?" I suspect there are artists dedicated to the pursuit of delighting olfactory aesthetes with their perfume who would argue this point.

On the other hand, the persistent return here to the theme of evolution and genetics that is then inevitably linked to racial differences grows tiresome. Each of these posts immediately elicits comments that seek to place racial groups into essentially separate categories of being. Implicit (or explicit) in those comments will be the equally persistent theme of white (and sometimes Asian) superiority. For pointing out that this is tiresome I suspect the Shouting One and his backup band will rant and rave about my status as a race traitor/martyr.

Given my own view of evolution I fail to see racial differences as fundamental, but rather see them as evidence of the sort of diversity nature wants and needs a species to possess in order to exist in our current circumstances, and hopefully to have some individuals with characteristics that would enable them to survive and thrive should those circumstances alter dramatically. The characteristics we deal with as race may ... or may not ... serve that purpose if and when a particular dramatic change in external circumstances occurs.

Posted by: Chris White on January 17, 2009 2:20 PM

An expression such as "cheese-eating surrender monkey" means so much more if you know about lactose tolerance.

Posted by: dearieme on January 17, 2009 4:29 PM

Michael, based on your recommendation of Squarespace awhile back, I checked it out and am now building a site for a client on it. Amazingly easy. Too easy! It will put me out of business! :) Now, if they would only release an app so it could be hosted anywhere.

About the evo-bio topic, I'm ignorant on the subject and can offer nothing.

Posted by: JV on January 17, 2009 9:42 PM

Those were brilliantly executed articles, especially the Derbyshire. In the course of recording a lot of classics, it has occurred to me that something along these evo-biological lines is popping up in seminal works, especially in poetry. There is something almost primeval about The Iliad which cannot be explained away by the term "poetical license".

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on January 18, 2009 10:12 AM


You have to move up the food chain from coding to business analysis and information design. Ten years ago you could make good money knowing basic HTML code, at a level that any reader of this blog could pick in two weeks, but today they are just basic literacy. Information design etc. has also advanced, but at a slower pace, and it cannot be automated, so that's where you want to be.

Posted by: Chris Burd on January 18, 2009 11:11 AM

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