The Human Instinct Book Summary - The Human Instinct Book explained in key points
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The Human Instinct summary

Kenneth R. Miller

How We Evolved to Have Reason, Consciousness, and Free Will

4 (230 ratings)
27 mins
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    The Human Instinct
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    Natural selection explains a lot, but not all, of our evolution.

    Charles Darwin gets top billing as the founding father of the theory of evolution by natural selection, but another British naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, actually beat him to it.

    Wallace and Darwin were colleagues, penpals, and a source of support to one another. In fact, a letter from Wallace prompted Darwin to publish his groundbreaking work, On the Origin of Species in 1859.

    But, as time passed, Wallace began to have doubts. The theory wasn’t enough.

    How could it be, he wondered, that a mind adapted for mere survival could paint a portrait, construct a cathedral, or compose a symphony? How could such a mind uncover the scientific truths of the universe?

    The answer may lie in a truth that both Darwin and Wallace understood: not all evolution is directly attributable to natural selection. In other words, evolution leaves room for accidental and fortuitous outcomes.

    The strange abilities of the human brain may result from one such happy accident.

    About three million years ago the human brain began to grow, and within what amounts to a geological instant, it tripled in size.

    We’re still exploring why this happened, but we know this much: our new, big brains not only helped us walk, talk, forage, and hunt, they also gave us abilities that had no immediate bearing on survival. That’s the “accidental and fortuitous” part.

    For example, our big brains made it possible for us to contemplate ourselves, the earth, and the stars. They made it possible to find answers by creating myths, religion, art, literature, math, and science. They made it possible for us to understand evolution itself.

    In 1979, the evolutionary biologists Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin coined a term for the happy accidents of evolution: spandrels.

    They borrowed the term from architecture, and it describes the triangular forms that allow an arch to support a dome in, for example, a cathedral. In their essay “The Spandrels of San Marco” Gould and Lewontin use the architectural features as a metaphor for the occasionally beautiful and often powerful byproducts of evolution.

    As we move through the next few blinks, keep spandrels in the back of your mind. We’ll learn more about how spandrels of the brain made us what we are. But first, we have to come to terms with some of the potentially dispiriting implications of our natural origins.

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    What is The Human Instinct about?

    The Human Instinct (2018) is a celebration of humanity’s development of reason, consciousness, and free will through the process of evolution. It shows that our remarkable capacities are all the more unique for having arising from natural origins.

    Who should read The Human Instinct?

    • Theologians, philosophers, scientists, and anyone else interested in the condition of our peculiar species
    • Anyone curious about evolution and what it means for humanity
    • Humans who enjoy contemplating our place in creation

    About the Author

    Kenneth R. Miller is a professor of biology at Brown University and the acclaimed author of Only a Theory and Finding Darwin's God. Miller testified as an expert witness in support of evolution in Kitzmiller v. Dover in 2005, a modern-day Scopes Monkey Trial.

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