Evolving Insight by Richard W. Byrne

In Richard W. Byrne’s Evolving Insight, the author takes a rigorous, superbly researched and even-handed approach to deciding one of the most difficult questions in zoology – do animals have anything like human insight?

First of all, Byrne has to delineate his territory, which he does by looking at what insight might be, the role of cognition in animals, vocal and gestural communication, social complexity, cultural possibilities, theory of mind, and – crucial to his thesis – the different roles of technical and social understanding (i.e. insight). After all this, three quarters of the book is done, leaving the final quarter to the gist of the book, which is that insight evolved twice in our hominid ancestors, once as a kind of general social intelligence (in which the crucial work of Nicholas Humphrey is mentioned) and once as a particular form of technical insight related to complex feeding patterns in great apes.

As I’ve indicated, this is a brilliant piece of work – I wish all science books were as even-handed and rewarding as this one. Arguments are put with clarity, the writing is admirable and the whole work is fascinating.

Personally, I was hoping for a little more on the role of consciousness and on the social intelligence theory of consciousness, but that isn’t really the book’s remit. It’s actually quite a specialised work, albeit written with verve and clarity for the general reader. At the end I felt a little frustrated that the book’s argument wasn’t taken one step further, but, as I’ve indicated, that wasn’t the author’s purpose. I think this book would best be read alongside the outstanding Thinking Big: How the Evolution of Social Life Shaped the Human Mind, which I read and reviewed last year.

Kudos to Richard Byrne for this outstanding volume.