Josh Weinhold | May 7, 2017
There are four predominant arguments that seek to explain human evolution and human nature — humans are naturally aggressive; humans are naturally caring; humans are natural hunter-gatherers; humans are transcendentally intelligent.
Agustín Fuentes finds those to be compelling but extremely simplified. Years of research and an emphasis on cross-disciplinary conversations has instead led him to a more complete story of human evolution.
Creativity and collaboration, he’s found, are the most important explanations for why we are the way we are.
“Combining the one with the other, as no other species has ever been able to do so well, propelled the development of our bodies, minds, and cultures,” said Fuentes, professor and chair of the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Anthropology. “We are neither simply the demonic species nor the altruistic species. We are neither entirely untethered from our biological nature nor slavishly yoked to it.
“We are, first and foremost, the species singularly distinguished, and shaped, by creative collaboration.”
Fuentes details this bold perspective in his new book, The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional (Dutton, 2017), which blends paleontology, archaeology, genetics, and anthropology in answering the question of what has made humans the most exceptional of Earth’s species.
The book is the product of Fuentes’ field research as an anthropologist and National Geographic explorer, but it is also the result of more than a decade of efforts to bring together specialists from a wide range of fields. By collaborating with mathematicians, geneticists, computer scientists, philosophers, and theologians, Fuentes said he recognized that a more nuanced, complete, and judicious accounting of human evolution was necessary.
Creativity and collaboration, he argues, helped us elude predators, make tools, share food, control fire, and tell stories. It led us to collectively care for the young, develop religious beliefs and ethical systems, and produce masterful artwork.
But humans also applied that same creativity and cooperative skill to compete with each other, killing at increasing levels of complexity, and manipulating the planet to devastating effects.