, Volume 22, Issue 2, pp 347-350
Date: 10 Oct 2012

Explaining the human syndrome

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Kim Sterelny’s Thought in a Hostile World (2003) was planned as a “monograph on the methodological challenges facing cognitive ethology” (2003, viii). Somewhere along the line, however, the project morphed into something much grander: a positive, speculative account of the origins of human cognition. His new book, a heavily revised and expanded version of his 2008 Nicod lectures, is a systematic attempt to put flesh on the bones of that account.

The story Sterelny wants to tell about our evolutionary origins is most easily characterized in terms of the rivals it opposes. In Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a band of hapless, herbivorous hominins is transformed into a crack squad of intelligent cooperators by an encounter with a mysterious black monolith. While no contemporary palaeoanthropologist would endorse quite so outlandish a theory of the origins of human cognition, the spirit of Clarke and Kubrick lives on in the idea that the evolutionary success of