Biological and Mental Evolution

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While refiling some books yesterday, I came across an interesting reprint: Arthur Koestler, "Biological and mental evolution: An exercise in analogy", Nature 1965. Given the title, I thought Koestler might have scooped Richard Dawkins on the gene/meme analogy. But not so — here's how the paper starts:

ALLOW me to take you on a ride on the treacherous wings of analogy, starting with an excursion into genetics. Creativity is a concept notoriously difficult to define ; and it is sometimes useful to approach a difficult subject by way of contrast. The opposite of the creative individual is the pedant, the slave of habit, whose thinking and behaviour move in rigid grooves. His biological equivalent is the over-specialized animal. Take, for example, that charming and pathetic creature, the koala bear, which specializes in feeding on the leaves of a particular variety of eucalyptus tree and on nothing else; and which, in lieu of fingers, has hook-like claws, ideally suited for clinging to the bark of the tree — and for nothing else . Some of our departments of higher learning seem expressly designed for breeding koala bears.

The "academic koala bear" metaphor never caught on, despite the interesting idea that over-specialization can be charming as well as pathetic.

And the whole concept of the (actually printed) "reprint" has vanished from the academic world, first because of the general availability of xerox machines, and more recently because of the internet. So for those of you who have never actually seen one, here's a photo of Koestler's reprint:


How did this one come into my possession? See "Philosophical arguments about methodology", 5/7/2014.



  1. Stephen Goranson said,

    August 19, 2022 @ 7:57 am

    That's a great story (in the "how this this one…" link.
    I took a course at Brandeis long ago with Roman Jacobson, on structure in poetry, because another prof told me to take it "before he dies." I had no idea at the time what a linguistic great he was. I wrote my term paper on Bob Dylan, "I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine." He likely recognized me as a rookie, but discussed the paper with me with great equanimity.

  2. John S Wilkins said,

    August 19, 2022 @ 8:03 am

    As a point of history, I believe it was T H Huxley who best Dawkins.

  3. Bloix said,

    August 19, 2022 @ 1:54 pm

    So I learned something about koalas last week:
    There's an isolated patch of koalas in inland New South Wales, in the Mercy Valley. These koalas eat the leaves of a subspecias of eucalyptus, which can be used to make tea. People there call it koala tea and they drink it with a little whiskey when they have a cold. They don't filter out the leaves, so it's a thick brew, but that's how they like it. As they say, the koala tea of Mercy is not strained.

  4. Matthew L Juge said,

    August 19, 2022 @ 3:15 pm

    Mere minutes before seeing this post I was thinking about how much I value the reprints that I received from Joel Rini, my undergraduate mentor. Like Mark, i had been refiling old materials.

  5. Nanette Tamer said,

    August 19, 2022 @ 3:33 pm

    When my son was in 1st grade, I was trying to drill him on basic arithmetic facts, using his textbook, which had only pictures. I said, “If you had two koala bears, and you got two more koala bears, how many would you have?” He said, “None, a koala isn’t a bear. It’s a marsupial.”

  6. maidhc said,

    August 20, 2022 @ 2:52 am

    Just a little additional information on koalas. We went to an animal rescue place in Australia. There they offered an opportunity to have your photo taken holding a koala. The thing is, when you pick up a koala, unless you really know what you're doing, the koala will mistake you for a tree and sink its claws into your flesh. So the way to get your photo taken is, a staff member will pick up the koala and give it to you, while simultaneously distracting the animal by feeding it out of an eye dropper. You quickly snap the photo and then give the koala back.

    Only a few people in the audience, after hearing this explanation, volunteered for the photo op, but my wife was one.

    But it turned out she really preferred the photo with the wombat, which she used on her web page for years afterward.

  7. David Deden said,

    August 20, 2022 @ 4:30 pm

    "In lieu of fingers"? Koalas have fingers and fingerprints*, but claws rather than fingernails.

    *Or toes…digits anyway.,fingerprint%20has%20a%20unique%20pattern.

  8. RP said,

    August 21, 2022 @ 5:25 am

    @Bloix Just commenting to thank you for for that terrible pun. Is there a word for the particular laugh-groan elicited only by puns and other 'bad' jokes?

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