Book Review: “The Creative Spark: How imagination made humans exceptional.” Agustin Fuentes. 2018

Book Review: “The Creative Spark: How imagination made humans exceptional.” Agustin Fuentes. 2018

We hear regularly that humans are successful because we compete. Agustin Fuentes disagrees. In his view, humans are successful because we are creative and cooperative.

In The Creative Spark, Agustin Fuentes, an award winning author and scientist, tells the story of our ancestor’s path across the 300,000 years of genus Homo, and further back to the beginning, over two million years ago. The wonderful feature of this book is that the author develops that story into themes: food, war, sex, art, science, religion, and develops his insight into how these began deep in our evolutionary past.

There are two chapters I think are of particular interest to readers of this blog.
In his chapter Creative Sex, Agustin Fuentes concludes there is little in our evolutionary past to justify gender discrimination (In this, he reaches the same conclusion as Angela Saini author of the book Inferior, https://sciblogs.co.nz/scibooks/2017/12/24/book-review-inferior-how-science-got-women-wrong/). And, in his chapter Scientific Architecture he answers a question I have pondered. Why did science arise about 300 years ago in enlightenment Europe? Why not earlier? What was so special about that time?

Creative Sex. We are told that the central unit of our societies is the family; specifically, one male, one female and children. Agustin has this to say, “There is almost no evidence for the nuclear family as a core residence and social unit in the archeological record until very, very recently.”

What happened is much more creative and cooperative, “We know that communal parenting (my emphasis) had to begin early on in the evolution of genus Homo. Otherwise these helpless, increasingly large-brined infants would not have survived. So the image of early Homo mums all by themselves trying to land that one ideal male is not accurate. We also have good evidence that from early on, sharing of food, predator defense, tool making, and other key aspects of life were central to the success of our genus. Otherwise those fangless, clawless, small, and pretty unthreatening little hominids would not have persisted and become us.”

And about tool making, those pictures in museums and books showing male hominids making the tools. What does the evidence show?

“There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that tool-making for nearly the entire 2-million-year history of our genus was gender based. None. Every bit of information we have about the tools, how they were made and used, suggests that there is no sex or gender pattern at all. The modern gender assumptions about men and tools and men and hunting are really, really recent.”

And, what about art, those cave hand-prints? If you are like me, you think male. We were wrong. “The archeologist Dean Snow looked at thirty-two of these hand images from eight different cave sites… Twenty-four of the thirty-two were female. Seventy-five percent of the hand stencils were done by females, and five of the eight male hands appeared to be those of teenage boys. Women and children were doing most of the hand stencils, at least in parts of Europe between about 35,000 and 15,000 years ago.”

And on it goes; evidenced based, fascinating stories, shifting misconceptions. In our evolutionary history, there is no evidence supporting gender based stereotypes. Until recent history, men and women worked together as equals. Science tells us this.

Scientific Architecture. The Creative Spark answers the questions that I asked above. Why did science arise about 300 years ago in enlightenment Europe? Agustin Fuentes’ answer is that the basic, try it and see methodology that underpins science is an early part of the Homo toolkit. He concludes that the apprenticeship approach to science dates back to the very beginning, over two million years ago. “The earliest evidence for something like science takes us back to the start of our genus and the early stone tools. Take the context for Oldowan tool creations, for example. Early members of the genus Homo grew up in a group that had some very simple stone tools, and they knew the basic strategy of using one stone to alter the shape of another such that it took on capacities for use…”

The “group” knew how to make simple stone tools. Youngsters learned from the elders. We see that today in chimpanzees; early Homo was the same. The question, “What works?” And inter-generational learning marks the beginning of science. Ask, “What works?” And experiment, try variations and continue with… what works. The beginning of science is part of the fundamental creativity of Homo sapiens. We are creative and cooperative.

The key point of Agustin Fuentes’, “The Creative Spark” is that we are successful because we are creative and because we cooperate.

I encourage you to read this book.

A final quote from the author,
“Our ability to dream things up and make them happen is what makes us distinctive.”

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About sustainabilityandbeauty

My passion is telling the stories of possibility, seeking a sustainable and beautiful future. My training is in science, chemistry, environmental science and teaching.
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