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Hi, I'm Odile, a historical linguist from the Netherlands who also likes to write about music, games, and history. Check out my longer blog posts and other writings on Sub Specie.

Currently reading

Signs: an Introduction to Semiotics
Thomas A. Sebeok, Marcel Danesi
Language and Space
Lynn Nadel, Mary A. Peterson, Paul Bloom

The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything from Seashells to Civilization

The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything from Seashells to Civilization - Geerat J. Vermeij http://www.eveningoflight.nl/subspecie/2011/08/09/two-recent-books-on-biological-cultural-and-spiritual-evolution/

[...] That adaptation is the key to prolonged survival is argued by many if not all evolutionary scientists, but a very convincing and clear exploration of this idea was made in The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything from Seashells to Civilization by Geerat J. Vermeij, published in 2010. Besides a great many enlightening anecdotes about evolutionary processes in various organisms, from seashells to grasses to mammals, Vermeij emphasises that evolutionary processes can also explain cultural phenomena. A first example is an analysis of the survival of societies or civilisations on the cultural level as compared to the survival of species on the genetic level. Societies, too, are confronted with changing environments and their ability to adapt techonologically and culturally determines their ability to overcome conflicts with nature and/or competing societies. Vermeij makes many interesting points on principles that apply to both biological and cultural survival. Redundancy is an important strategy, for example:

Vital functions must be duplicated and dispersed among similar parts, so that if a function is disabled in one part or in one place, a society or a living body will not collapse completely. (p. 76)

As Vermeij stresses, this principle is not always utilised in human societies, where economic production and centres of strategic importance are often centralised to maximise efficiency, but at the cost of risk-reducing redudancy.

Another vital point is the evolution of social intelligence in a selection of species, and in particular the evolution towards culture in humans. Culture, in particular social adaptations that encourage cooperation and the enforcement of social rules (religions, group identities) have proven extremely valuable in the history of humanity, allow groups of humans to work together for their communal survival. Thankfully, the evolution of intelligence does not stop here, according to Vermeij, and in a brilliant chapter on complexity of life, he traces it from “meaningless interactions among chemical compounds” to

[...] the gradual appearance of awareness, purposefull action, the perception of meaning, and a desire for accomplishment, the all-important realization that there is utility in existence that transcends the ancestral, previously sufficient goals of persistence and replication. (p. 130) [...]