Book review – The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional

With his new book, The Creative Spark, Agustín Fuentes, a primatologist and anthropologist currently at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, boldly puts forth the idea that what makes humans special is creativity. The ability of humans to switch back and forth between considering what is, and dreaming of what might be, and to then put these thoughts into actions (often collaboratively), has brought us a very long way from our primate origins to the tool-wielding, world-shaping force of nature of today. Along the way, Fuentes wants to do away with some of the dominant narratives regarding human evolution today, or rather, he thinks most of them oversimplify things and lead to distortions in our thinking. Instead, he presents a new synthesis that places creativity front and centre stage as being the most important mechanism that helped us overcome challenges.

The Creative Spark

The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional”, written by Agustín Fuentes, published by Dutton Books in March 2017 (hardback, 340 pages)

After an introduction the book breaks down into four parts. The first shortly looks at creativity in primates and gives an update on our current knowledge on the adaptive radiation of our genus and our other evolutionary cousins. There have been tremendous developments in this field in the last few decades fueled by new fossil finds. The current picture of human evolution is more akin to a tangled bush of hominin lineages, many of which went extinct, from which ultimately we, as Homo sapiens sapiens, have been left as the last hominid standing. The book then proceeds to look at how creativity helped us to feed ourselves (from crafting ever more complex tools, hunting, and cooking with fire, to domesticating animals and plants and settling down as agriculturalists); the role of creativity in violence, warfare, and sex; and, finally, its role in the rise of religion, art and science.

You would be forgiven for thinking that this a lot of ground to cover. But Fuentes is on home ground here and has written about these topics before (his previous book Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths About Human Nature sounds like another interesting read). The Creative Spark is nuanced and draws on a solid basis of the latest science. Some things I have read about recently, but other ideas were new to me. In the chapters about food, Fuentes touches upon the work of Ungar and others who have shown what fossil teeth can reveal about past diets (see my review of Ungar’s Evolution’s Bite), and along the way he nicely makes the point that the cliché of man the hunter is wrong. Yes, we hunted, eventually, but for most of our evolutionary history we foraged and scavenged, and one of the first real developments is the move from passive scavenging to what Fuentes calls “power scavenging”, i.e. getting to a fresh kill and driving off the original predators before they have even taken the prime cuts. It requires a careful look at the data to come to this conclusion, but Fuentes makes a convincing point here.

“Gender inequality is another “beautiful” example of something that only arose very recently, but has retrospectively distorted the picture of our prehistoric past”

And there are several other examples in this book where Fuentes carefully takes all the available evidence to come to conclusions that run counter to accepted wisdom. In The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker makes the point that violence has decreased lately, and that our past was a consistently violent one. The first point I think is certainly true, but not so the last one, argue Fuentes and others, such as primatologist Frans de Waal, who observe a natural inclination towards compassion and altruism in our ancestors. The evidence for mass violence and warfare shows up late in the archaeological record, in the last 20,000 to 5,000 years. Really only when humans develop agriculture and settlements and have possessions to fight over. Similarly, in the chapter about sex, the idea that marriage and the nuclear family (husband, wife and children) are the natural order of things are shown to be recent inventions, more to do with inheritance of property than with how our forebears raised offspring. The latter likely involved communal effort in raising the needy, slowly-developing, big-brained babies. Fuentes is in good company here, and I have read several other books he also mentions that convincingly make this point, such as Barash & Lipton’s The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and Humans and Ryan and Jetha’s Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What it Means for Modern Relationships. Gender inequality is another “beautiful” example of something that only arose very recently, but has retrospectively distorted the picture of our prehistoric past; virtually every painting of cavepeople shows a young man returning from the hunt, older men crafting tools and women cooking and caring for the children – but a careful look at the archaeological evidence reveals that both men and women took part in organised hunts and tool production.

The chapter about religion is another good example of a very carefully written chapter. Fuentes opposes religious fundamentalism, or the dominion some religions wish to exert over altruism and morality – you can be both these things without being religious, and for the longest time we weren’t. But similarly, he is careful to make the difference that being upset with the actions of certain religious people is not the same as being against religiousness. He also would like to see our scientific models and hypotheses better account for the importance of the religious experience to the individual. The most interesting point Fuentes makes here, I thought, is that wishing and hope are precursors to religiousness. Both are clear forms of creativity requiring the use of imagination to envision an outcome or a future that sometimes is unlikely, but that have time and again made humans go against the odds (e.g. when facing famine or battle) and sometimes succeed. I find this a more satisfying and logical explanation than what I read in Evolving God.

The Creative Spark is bristling with many other fascinating ideas and insights, many of which I haven’t mentioned here, and the book is a terrific read with a great narrative. If you have any interest in human evolution, this book comes highly recommended, and it certainly succeeds in making you rethink certain, by now antiquated, notions we hold.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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9 comments

  1. It’s extremely difficult to assume that non- human primates and other members of the animal kingdom do not possess creativity. I would assume that writing is what makes our species of primate distinct, whether that be because of creativity or a need to store information in way that is necessary for homo sapiens sapiens to get a long in this world within culture that is relative to any given biological and cultural situation (assuming that other entities aside from humans have culture), is engaging to say the least. Nevertheless, a creative spark is a novel idea and a great metaphor that I look forward to reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Stepniak, thanks for your thoughts. Ruling out creativity in other species is indeed sheer impossible. I think by now there is plenty of evidence showing creativity (often in the guise of tool use) in various species. Humans have obviously taken it to the next level. There has been a slew of books in recent years with titles along the lines of “how X made us human” with some authors highlighting cooking and the use of fire, others highlighting culture or agriculture etc. Truth is, I think, all of these had a part to play. The book I’m currently reading, Numbers and the Making of Us, talks about writing (specifically looking at numbers and numeracy). Writing has been hugely important in allowing what Michael Tomasello calls the cultural ratchet; the ability to collectively lock into a huge, expanding pool of knowledge, generation upon generation, building on the work of our predecessors. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. While I really enjoy going down the single truth path ( I love “Out of Africa”), I also enjoy a “multi-regional” approach — many known and unknown intentions and biological circumstances makes us Human. However, I am a bit reserved when it comes to thinking that we have taken something to the next level. It is quite possible that, let’s say, the white faced Capuchin hand games is all they really need or even desire. Other animals might not have the necessity to be novel with their communication and entertainment, for their economy and world view is much different. This would mean a new game that a Capuchin has possibly discovered might mean that they are also standing on the shoulders of giants.

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