The Creative Spark | Reflections & Notes

Augustín Fuentes. The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional.


For millennia, humans have struggled to figure out how to construct and maintain a sense of meaning, purpose, and identity in tandem with the material realities of ourselves and our world. The stars and planets have been said to have power over our personalities, destinies, and even sexualities. Darwin’s Origin of Species gave rise to the “survival of the fittest,” and “competition for limited resources,” a misinterpretation of the thesis of natural selection, but not too dissimilar to the “preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life,” the oft-neglected subtitle of Darwin’s famous work. And most recently, geneticists are hotly debating exactly how determinative are four chemical bonds in shaping our very existence, replacing planetary movements with double helixes.

Through it all, we have struggled to identify the proper relationship between philosophy and science, and have proposed countless possibilities, even questioning whether they should be integrated at all. Perhaps we should simply build a wall of separation between our beliefs and our biology. Admittedly, this is the position that has persuaded me most notably. I have publicly confessed my own adherence to a brand of NOMA, as proposed by Steven Jay Gould.

Reading The Creative Spark by Agustín Fuentes, however, has now radically upended my thinking, and transformed my philosophical and faith identity in light of this explication of human evolution. In short, the reason why we have desired our ethics to cohere with our biology is because ethics and biology are already inextricably tied. The mental tools we used to survive and thrive have persisted in our thinking and evolved along with our bodies into more sophisticated versions, giving rise to creativity, cooperation, and collaboration as biologically critical to our existence.  It is then no wonder that they become philosophically and religiously important in our personal and social lives.

What is more, the vision of humanity that emerges out of this is also quite stunning. Our creative problem solving has given rise to compassion, kinship, family, domestication, technology, health, and art. In addition, violence, war, and exploitation can be better understood as dying elements of our ecological struggle giving way to cooperation, collaboration, and equity. Ethical dilemmas such as gender can be reframed within the proper categories of our cultural constructs rather than our genes, and religion and art can be appreciated for being the creative outlets of our storytelling.

So, let us continue in our heritage of curiosity, collaboration, and cooperation, extending these good ethical and biological virtues to ourselves and each other.

In short, let us continue to be creative.


Overture: Trumpeting Creativity and a New Synthesis

It is not, after all, a solitary endeavor limited to the work of a genius or some particularly original thinker. Creativity is built on interconnections of ideas, experience, and imagination. … We are creative every day. But we do not accomplish this miraculous feat on our own. (1)

…creativity is the space between the material reality and our imagination where intelligence, adaptability, agency, interpretation, and problem solving all come together, but [Ian Hodder] also emphasizes that it is a thoroughly social process. (1)

…creativity is at the very root of how we evolved and why we are the way we are. It’s our ability to move back and forth between the realms of “what is” and “what could be” that has enabled us to reach beyond being a successful species to become an exceptional one. (2)

…our distinctively human capacity for shared intentionality coupled with our imagination is how we became who we are today. (2)

The Four Big Misconceptions of Human Evolution

It’s the epic tale of all epic tales: the story of a group of highly vulnerable creatures–the favored prey of a terrifying array of ferocious predators–who learn better than any of their primate relatives to apply their ingenuity to devising ways of working together to survive; to invest their world with meaning and their lives with hope; and to reshape their world, thereby reshaping themselves. (4)

A New Synthesis

Evolutionary theory has changed considerably since Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace first proposed evolution via natural selection more than 150 years ago. Today our best understanding of evolutionary processes is called the extended evolutionary synthesis (EES), in which a range of different processes, beyond (5) just natural selection, are central in explaining how, and why, animals, plants, and all living things evolve. (6)

| Evolution as we know it today can be summarized as follows: Mutation (changes in the DNA) introduces genetic variation, which in interaction with the growth and development of the body (from conception until death) produces a range of variations (differences in bodies and behavior) in organisms. This biological variation can move around within a species by individuals moving in and out of populations (called gene flow), and sometimes chance events alter the distribution of variation in a population (called genetic drift). Much of this variation can be passed from generation to generation through reproduction and other forms of transmission and inheritance. Then there’s natural selection. (6)

natural selection is a filtering process that shapes variation in response to constraints and pressures in the environment. Imagine a giant strainer with openings of a certain size (that vary as environmental conditions vary), and then imagine that organisms come in different sizes and shapes (variation). These organisms have to pass through the strainer in order to get to the next generation (to reproduce and leave offspring). Those that fit through the strainer’s openings successfully reproduce, and those that do not, don’t. Some of the successful variants fit through better than others due to their particular size and shape, which results in their leaving more offspring (who inherit that specific size and share). This process, the filtering of variation from generation to generation based on pressures in the environment, is what natural selection is. So in evolution the type and pattern of variation and the pressures of the environment matter a great deal. (6)

| We now recognize that four systems of inheritance can all provide patterns of variation that influence evolutionary processes. (6)

  1. Genetic inheritance is the passing of genes, encoded in DNA, from one generation to the next.
  2. Epigenetic inheritance affects aspects of systems in the body associated with development that can transfer from one (6) generation to the next without having a specific root in the DNA.
  3. Behavioral inheritance is the passing of behavioral actions and knowledge from one generation to the next…
  4. Finally, symbolic inheritance…is the passing down of ideas, symbols, and perceptions that influence the ways in which we live and use our bodies, which can potentially affect the transmission of biological information from one generation to the next. (7)

There are two other key contemporary theoretical findings that are especially important for this new synthesis. They are: (1) a distinctive brand of cooperation and (2) the process of niche construction. (7)

| Humans have evolved to be supercooperators. (7)

A popular theory suggests that competition, and not cooperation, serves as the main stimulus in evolution. … If most individual organisms cooperate and a few did not, the cheaters would reap all the benefits without having to pay the same costs and put in the same effort as the cooperators. Consequently, the cheaters would come out ahead. They would “in” the evolutionary game. (8)

[via: Competition is inherently individualistic and isolating.]

Recent modeling work in evolutionary theory and economics uses equations that include the costs and benefits of cooperating, defecting, or being neutral. … This sophisticated mathematical modeling demonstrates that cheaters and defectors do not win out over the long term, and that cooperating, in many cases, is a good strategy (even if one doesn’t do it all the time). The math supports what we see in the natural world. (9)

Niche construction is the process of responding to the challenges and conflicts of the environment by reshaping the very pressures that the world places on (each of) us. A niche is the sum total of an organism’s way of being in the world–its ecology, its behavior, and all the other aspects (and organisms) that make up its surroundings. In short, the niche is a combination of the ecology in which an organism lives and the way it makes a living. (10)

…humans are in a class all on our own when it comes to niche construction. Towns, cities, domestic animals, agriculture–the list goes on and on. The cooperative and creative responses to the conflicts the world throws at us, and to those we create ourselves, reshape the world around us, which in turn reshapes our bodies and minds. We are the species that has a hand in making itself–niche constructors extraordinaire. (10)

| We’ve coshaped our bodies, behavior, and minds by our actions and the evolutionary pressures we’ve faced. The history of this process is the heart of the new synthesis and not only tells us how we got to where we are today, but also offers significant insight into where, and who, we might be in the future. (10)

Humans on the Tree of Life

Unlike the misguided linear diagram of human evolution suggests, chimpanzees (or even chimpanzee-like things) are not our ancestors. We are both part of a family (called “hominids,” or apes). However, each of our lineages has been evolving for at least 7 to 10 million years independently of each other (the lineage humans belong to is called the “hominins”; that of the chimpanzees is called the “panins” or the “Panina”). …evolution creates continuities and discontinuities. (11)

STICKS AND STONES: The First Creativity

1. Creative Primates

…we need to recognize that we (humans, that is) are mammals and members of a specific subset of primates called “anthropoids” (monkeys, apes, and humans), as well as a specific subset of anthropoids called “hominoids” (apes and humans). Humans are members of a specific subset of the hominoids called the “hominins,” which are humans, our ancestors, and a set of extinct humanlike beings. (16)

…before getting to what is distinctive about humans, we need to know what it is about us that’s not distinctively human, but rather distinctively primate. (16)

Social Hierarchies Aren’t Hierarchies

Understanding where you fit in the hierarchy, who is more or less dominant than you, helps primates navigate their daily lives. In a group with a set of well-defined dominant relationships, there’s little doubt (17) about who gets access to the better food, sleeping sites, grooming partners, potential mates, and so on. When relations are less well defined, there might be one or two “top dogs” (or top monkeys), and most in the group are on more or less equal footing. In any case, primate hierarchies are neither strict nor static–dominance relationships are negotiated with friends and foes. Mostly it takes only a quick look at the other to determine who is in the more powerful position. This flexibility reflects a primate knack for creative social solutions. (18)

| Primates change dominance ranks and roles throughout their lives, and each primate species has a different pattern through which individuals gain dominance or compete for resources.  (18)

Dominance is not a biological characteristic of an individual: it’s a social position. … We are multifaceted in how we build relationships and how we alter or destroy them. Still, the ways in which monkeys and other primates creatively navigate their social worlds serve as a guide to how the spark of primate creativity became the five-alarm inferno of human creativity. (19)

Most aggression in primates is limited to low-key threats and chases, with real physical fighting being far less frequent. And when aggression does occur, the resulting wounds are less grievous than one might expect. Primates check their violence, usually devising creative solutions to meet the challenges of social life. (19)

What Can Happen in a Soap Opera

Living organisms change and adapt, or they fail to and suffer the consequences. Animals have to respond to the pressures of the world to survive. But unlike a hermit crab that employs a dead snail’s shell to make itself a home, or an earthworm that through digestion changes the chemical makeup of soil to make it livable, primates respond to the pressure from the world around them not just by physically reacting to the environment, but also by constructing a network of peaceful and aggressive relationships with the other monkeys around them–a social niche. …these behaviors reflect a suite of successful responses to life’s pressures. (20)

“ecological release.” It’s not that the macaques don’t have to respond to pressures in their environment; it’s just that the pressures they face are not particularly harsh. These macaques have a good deal of free time. (20)

2. The Last Hominin Standing

…the last common ancestor… Dubbed “LCA”… (25)

Early Glimpses of Human Creativity

In trying to understand the emergence of human creativity from the fossil record, we face two core questions:

  1. When is an early apelike thing no longer an ape but rather a hominin?
  2. What is it about the early hominin fossil remains that illustrates a new creativity? (26)

When humans try to move around on all fours, it’s quite uncomfortable to hold our heads up to see in front of us for any period of time. This anatomical challenge, standing upright and looking straight ahead, is met with the foramen magnum–science-speak for big hole–through which the brain is connected to the spinal cord. … Additionally, hominins have canine teeth that are smaller and more in line with the rest of the teeth, whereas apes, especially the males, have larger, more protruding canines. (27)

| Among the earliest hominins, there are three contenders for the distinction of being our first ancestors. (27)

  • The first is called Sahelanthropus tchadensis
  • The second, from around the same time, is called Orrorin tugenensis. (27)
  • Ardipithecus ramidus roamed the forests and mixed woodlands of Eastern Africa between 4.4 and about 5.8 million years ago. (28)

While we don’t know for sure, it’s a good bet that the ability to carry and manipulate things with their hands–and the possibility that they had more collaboration between the sexes and among individuals–represents early versions of the patterns we know became central to the success of later hominins. (29)

…in 1975, scientists discovered their [seventeen hominins (nine adults, three teenagers, and five young children)] collective remains covered by a fine silt that held them together as they fossilized. This cluster of hominins, sometimes referred to as the “first family,” belonged to a hominin species called Australopithecus afarensis, which existed in Eastern Africa from about 4 million until about 3 million years ago, was bipedal, but had long arms and hands with long fingers (like Ardipithecus but more humanlike), which suggested they found climbing trees useful. (29)

About 3.2 million years ago the famous fossil now known as Lucy was a living adult female, near four and a half feet tall. … Lucy was the oldest and most complete hominin fossil ever found (at the time), and she finally put to rest an old debate about whether our lineage became bipedal before our brains got big or after: We were bipedal first. (30)

Lucy’s and her kin’s creativity become particularly evident at the site of Dikika in Ethiopia, with the oldest evidence of animal butchery. (30)

The butchered bones at Dikika represent one of the first times in the history of the planet that an organism came up with the idea to take a sharp piece of flaked stone and use it to more efficiently cut meat off the bone. The sharp flakes allowed the hominins to separate meat from the bones to carry that mean way to safety–thus increasing the value of getting meat and reducing the processing costs of doing so. (31)

cf. Lomekwi 3, near Lake Turkana in Kenya

…the creative process of envisioning, experimenting, and creating stone tools and the ways in which they are used and carried about requires some pretty elaborate collaboration and communication. (31)

Humans Emerge from the Evolutionary Bush

Stepping back and looking at all the fossil evidence we have between 2 and 4 million years ago, we see not a clean line of human ancestors one after the other, but a bushy cluster of possible human ancestors from which our lineage arose. (32)

Our lineage (Homo) emerged as part of what researchers call an “adaptive radiation” in the hominins, a grand evolutionary experiment in form and function. (35)


When a new range of environments open up or when pressures force a cluster of similar lineages to compete for different ways to make a living, the processes of evolution facilitate a bunch of experiments in form and behavior; some work and some don’t. (36)

We living humans are part of the hominin adaptive radiation. Today we are members of the genus Homo, species sapiens, and subspecies sapiens: We are the last hominin standing, the only one of the entire 7-million-year hominin experiment that made it. Our genus has a few physical characteristics that separate us from the pack of other hominins; our brains and bodies got bigger and our teeth got smaller, but the key difference, the one that truly matters, is that our lives got a heck of a lot more adventurous, collaborative, and creative. (36)

…by 2 million years ago, hominins from our specific lineage are found in both Southern and Eastern Africa, and that is when things really start to change. Within a few hundred thousand years of emerging alongside other lineages in the hominin radiation, our ancestors did something no hominin ever did before: They moved fast and far. Some groups of Homo left Africa. We find fossils and tools of Homo in Central Asia (at a site in the country of Georgia called Dmanisi) and in Southeast Asia (on the island of Java in Indonesia) by about 1.8 million years ago. (37)

| Between about 1.8 million and about 400,000 years ago, our genus diversified as they moved back and forth, in and out of Africa, around Central, Southern, and Southeast Asia, and into East Asia. In this time period there are many different populations of the genus Homo that vary in their bodies, the tools they make and use, and aspects of their behavior. (37)

New tool types, new behaviors, new ways of making a living and adventuring over most of Africa, Asia, and southern parts of Europe became commonplace. These Homo populations remained small, often on the move, and not always connected to other related populations, and thus were very susceptible to extinctions. The fossil record shows a lot of starts and stops, dead ends, narrow misses, and total failures. It is very hard to tell which of these populations between 1.8 million and 400,000 years ago contributed their genetic and behavioral legacy to those of us here today. Many did, but many more did not. (37)

Little Winners

we’d be amazed at how small the early members of our own genus were and how large, and dense, the predators were. Most members of the genus Homo at the time hovered around five feet tall, lived in groups of about fifteen to twenty-five, were foragers who moved across the landscape searching for food and shelter, and had a few simple stone tools and sturdy sticks as their only weapons. Across the African landscape roamed giant hyenas, saber-toothed cats, giant lions, leopards, and even huge eagles, all of which were particularly keen on eating the easy-to-digest, two-legged packets of protein running around. So how did these small-bodied, upright, naked primates with no horns, fangs, or claws survive? They began to meet these threats creatively. (39)

Larger brains differentiated Homo from the other hominins and the other animals around them. Brains are the most expensive organ to run, and to grow a larger one you need two things: a longer childhood (growing time) and more calories (energy to build and run the more expensive brain). This leads to a dilemma: The easiest way to get more calories and protein is to eat meat, and the best meat is large and fast, not susceptible to capture via a few sticks and stone tools. (40)

With no language, no bargaining chips, no substantive weapons, what could Homo turn to? (40)

| One another. (41)

| Working together, communicating through gesture and by example, our ancestors learned to cooperate in ways no one else could. (41)

As is often the case in food chains across different kinds of ecosystems, when one prey item gets difficult to obtain, it drops lower in the “preferred prey” category and predators shift the focus to another, more reliable source to make up the difference. This is where Paranthropus might have come back into the story. … Our ability to deal with challenges via cooperation and creativity probably hastened the demise of at least one other close hominin lineage. (42)

| Once our lineage spread around and out of Africa (from about 1.8 million years, as land connections became set between Africa and Eurasia), different populations encountered a wide array of new ecologies and new challenges. This spurred a diversity of creativity across the continents. (42)

E Pluribus Unum?

Up until the last 10,000 years or so, there were never many members of the genus Homo alive on the planet at any given time–probably less than a million or two for much of the more than million years of our history and less than about 8 million up until the last 20,000 to 30,000 years. … Today there are more than 7 billion humans–enough to fill 1,800 Manhattans. And today we are all the same species, even the same subspecies, which was not always the case. (43)

…most researchers agree that there are four general clusters, which might be divided into as many as eleven different species or subspecies: the early forms Homo habilis and rudolfensis, and maybe Homo naledi), the middle-range forms (Homo erectusergaster, and antecessor), the later forms (Homo heidelbergensisfloresiensis, and neanderthalensis, and the Denisovans), and us (Homo sapiens sapiens). (43)

Our Shared Trajectory

In the biological sense, a race is a population or group of populations in a species that are (46) on a different evolutionary trajectory from the other populations in that species. Biologists call this a “subspecies.” Subspecies are still in the same species, they can interbreed and share more in common with each other than they do with members of other species, but they are under different evolutionary pressures, producing significantly different versions of the same species. There are many ways to measure whether a cluster within a species is different enough to be labeled a subspecies, and they include both genetic and morphological (body) measurements. (47)

Apply any measurement of biological race (subspecies) to humans today and you always get only one race. We are all the same subspecies. Neither genetics, nor behavior, nor height, nor body, face, or head shape, nor skin color, nor nose or type of hair, nor any other biological measure divides modern humans into subspecies. If you compare the genetic differences between any two humans from anywhere on the planet, they are much, much smaller than those between any two chimpanzees from Eastern and Western Africa. It is a stunning fact. Humans are spread across the whole world and chimpanzees are found in only a relatively tiny swath across the center of Africa, but humans are far more genetically similar to one another. …we are among the most genetically cohesive and most widespread of any animal on the planet, a combination that is amazingly rare in the animal kingdom. (47)

The human evolutionary story demonstrates why racism is fundamentally misguided and just how amazingly biologically close to one another all humans are, despite the wide range of differences among societies across the world today. But the differences across societies and groups of humans, in dress, languages, food, religion, sports, living arrangements, and political beliefs, all come from the key characteristic that enabled us, the race of Homo sapiens sapiens, to be the last hominin lineage standing. (48)

Ours is the story of how we got from a small group in the hominin lineage that could make simple stone tools and creatively cooperated to avoid being eaten, to the controllers of fire and the hunters of large game, to the creators of art, farming, science, religion, cities, and nations, and even to piloting spaceships to other planets and beyond while we investigate the beginning of the entire universe. (48)

WHAT’S FOR DINNER?: How Humans Got Creative

3. Let’s Make a Knife

Active and organized hunting shows up pretty late in our evolutionary trajectory–scavenging, gathering, and innovating with diverse foods all precede it. Being the hunted rather than the hunters is the reality at the start of our lineage, and gender differences associated with food that we see today are not evident in our deep past. (51)

Top Chef

JwJj20 site at Koobi Fora in Kenya, dating to about 1.95 million years ago. There are turtle shells with clear evidence of cut marks from stone tools, indicating that the shells were cracked open and the meat cut from the interior. There are large catfish that have been filleted and have marks indicating that tools were used to scrape even the meat from their skulls. (53)

Aquatic food items like these offer a valuable nutritional alternative to a more landlocked diet. The researchers who reported on this find saw these advantages:

  • a reduction in the energy it takes to capture and process nutritionally rich food,
  • a reduction in competition with other species (most can’t do this kind of foraging), and
  • a decrease in the risks associated with the scavenging of large terrestrial carcasses (and running into, or competing with, predators). (54)

Our ancestors created novel ways to access the energy needed to expand their brains, bodies, and behavior over the course of the next million and a half years. They did it by modifying stones and wood, working together to expand their food options, and eventually mastering fire. Increasingly creative ways of getting food facilitated our lineage’s move from being the main course to being the top chef. What they ate led to changes that eventually enabled us to win the evolutionary elimination challenge. (54)

Getting an Edge

…when one consumes part of a plant or animal, the first goal is to convert the calories stored in that chunk of fruit or flesh into calories that the body can store and burn as needed. This is what we called the “macronutrient (54) challenge.” Macronutrients are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats (technically called lipids), and they are what bodies use for energy. (55)

Of course, plants and animals actively avoid being eaten–they make you work for it. The more work one has to put into getting the food, the more calories and water one burns and the more macro- and micronutrients one needs to make up for it. Getting enough of the right kind of food is an active process. So animals forage or hunt, or both. (55)

No monkey or ape has much in the way of honed hunting skills or bodily weaponry for it. And no other primate has as diverse a diet as humans. …no other animals process their foods to the extent that humans do, and no other animal cooks. Human foraging, hunting, and eating are quite distinctive. (55)

Our lineage created new ways to get food, increased the diversity of what was consumed as food, created new ways to process food, and eventually even developed techniques to alter the chemical and biological properties of food to make it better, easier to use, and tastier. The evidence of this exceptional capacity starts with our lineage’s ability to reshape rocks into tools. (55)

Looking at the early stone tools from today’s vantage point of steel knives and food processors, let alone spacecraft, they don’t look like much, at least at first glance. But these shaped rocks were the starting point of a distinctive history of changes to our brains and bodies. The simple sharp flakes and edged stones of the earliest tool industry are the first hard evidence of our lineage’s ability to see more than what is simply in front of us, to create new form and function in the world. (56)

Using stones or sticks as tools, especially in the search for food, is not uncommon in the animal kingdom, but significantly altering stones or sticks to make better tools is. (56)

First, chimpanzees are quite skilled in using lightly modified sticks and unmodified stones as tools. Second, because this skill set shows up (to some extent) in all the apes and in humans, it is likely quite old and may even be as old as the LCA (last common ancestor between great apes and humans), making this kind of tool use a basal part of hominin capacities–a jumping-off point for the evolution of our lineage. And third, using tools in this manner is not something that an individual just invents each generation; it is learned through exposure to others of the group, a kind of social facilitation and maybe even a bit of teaching. (57)

But no other animal in the wild, not even chimpanzees, can look at a rock, understand that inside that rock is another more useful shape, and use other rocks or wood or bone to modify that rock–and then share that information with the members of her group. This is exactly what began to happen 2 to 3 million years ago, at the very start of our lineage. (57)

The simplest and earliest stone tools associated directly with our lineage are the work of the Oldowan industry, which takes its name from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, where these tools were discovered by the archaeologist Louis Leakey in the 1930s. (58)

This simple stone toolmaking process opened up a space for our ancestors to grow their brains and increase social and cognitive complexity: two core features of our evolutionary history. (59)

| We know the brain is exceedingly expensive to grow, using 20 to 30 percent of the body’s energy during peak growth, between two and seven years of age! There had to be a pretty extreme increase in nutrition between 500,000 and 2 million years ago to power the massive increase in brain size we see in the fossils. (59) … Cleverly invented and utilized tools made the necessary increase in consumed calories possible. (60)

The behavior and collaboration involved in making tools actually changed the way our ancestors used their brains and resulted in changes in the way their (and our) brains work. (60)

Recently teams at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and Emory University in the United States began programs training people how to make stones into tolls (including Oldowan-style tools). (60)

This suggests that the action of toolmaking, and the watching, imitating, and communicating about (60) toolmaking, can set up and expand the activity and dynamics of particular areas in the brain–areas that we know began to grow between 2 and 1 million years ago, and areas that are eventually associated with language and other high-level cognitive behavior. (61)

| The complexity of toolmaking and the diversity in types of tools increase as does brain size and diversity of food types: It looks like there is a feedback process in action. (61)

This tool industry is called the “Acheulean” and can be divided into an early phase, about 1.5 million years ago to about 700,000 to 900,000 years ago, and a later phase, around 700,000 to 250,000 years ago. (61)

Achuelean Tools

Avoiding Being Dinner

Human bodies are very digestible (no spines, scales, fur, stinging barbs) and thus are quite desirable as food for many, many other animals. (65)

In getting more creative with their menus, our ancestors started to do just the opposite of what most animals, even our close relatives, do. Eating well meant accepting a higher risk of getting eaten. (66)

| This increase in dietary diversity and complexity occurred as our brains grew larger. Larger brains enabled us to do more cognitively, to get creative with stones, wood, foods, and one another. Getting those large brains was all made more complicated by the fact that having brains (66) growing for longer (which is how you get bigger ones) slowed down the pace at which kids developed, so by about 1.5 million years ago, the young of the genus Homo became more and more reliant on other members of the group to care for them for longer periods of time. (67)

This interactive process represents a critical part of the early human niche, our ancestors’ way of making a living in the world. Neither came first. There was a mutual feedback loop between the bodies and minds of our ancestors, mediated and made possible by changing behavior and the increases in nutrition that accompanied it. Creativity is a process, and as our ancestors began to construct their new niche around new ways to get food, more and more options began to open up–and not just for eating. (67)

| Carrying armloads of rocks, kids, and food, and moving around in high-predator environments with no fangs, claws, horns, or real weapons, does not sound like a strategy for evolutionary success. But it was. (67)

4. Killing and Eating, Etc.

Our ancestors needed meat. They’d become adept at scavenging, using stone tools to cut meat from the remains of kills left by predators, more than 2 million years ago. But passive scavenging, taking the leftover scraps, was not enough. They wanted the best, and the most, meat so they began to “power scavenge,” getting to kills early and attempting to take them away from the predators. Building on their cooperative coordination and what they learned about predator behavior while avoiding being eaten, our ancestors got creative. When they came across recent kills, or fresh carcasses with the predators still around, some in their group could charge in, shaking sticks, waving their arms, and making hooting and grunting noises. Others might have stood back, throwing stones at the predator. The predator would run off. When this worked, our ancestors got a fresh kill and lots of meat. When it did not work, the predators got one or more of our ancestors. But practice is everything, and over time, groups of Homo were growing smarter and becoming better able to imagine outcomes. (69)

| Getting to the carcass quickly, before the predator had stripped away the prime meat, was crucial. After chasing away the predator, the group could coordinate the removal of the flesh: cutting the ligaments and tendons with the sharp-edged small flakes; then switching to the larger-edged choppers to hack through the muscle; finally removing the meat (69) from the heavy bones in strips and chunks and passing those into the arms of the group members not processing the carcass, standing watch for predators, or fending off other scavengers (large vultures, jackals, and even stray hyenas). The predators, or larger groups of the more dangerous scavengers, could be back on the scene quickly, so time was of the essence. Having different individuals armed with stone tools at each of the limbs and on the haunches, the group could strip the big carcasses of the lions, stomach fat, and rib and limb meat relatively quickly. Having removed what they could carry, the group would then leave the carcass to the small scavengers. (70)

| If most groups of Homo within a region were able to do this with reasonable success, then their combined actions would force small changes in the entire ecosystem. … Power scavenging emerges as part of the Homo tool kit prior to hunting and is part of the suite of innovations including toolmaking and the expansion in both the types of foods gathered and how foods were processed that our ancestors began to develop over the first million years or so of their history. (70)

When you cut into the meat attached to a bone, the edge of the tool can come into contact with the bone and leave a cut mark, but one that is very different from that left by the bite of a predator or the gnawing of a rodent. If the cut marks from stone tools are overlaid on the predator teeth marks–that is, if they cut into the teeth marks–then we know the stone tools were used on the bones after the predator had used its teeth. Most of the early examples of stone tool use on fossil bone s(from 3.3 to about 2 million years ago) look like this and so are evidence of passive scavenging. However, starting about 2 million years or so ago we start to find the reverse: the predator tooth marks and other scavenger marks sit on top of the stone tool marks. This tells us that the stone tools cut the meat from the bones first; then the other animals got access to the kill. …the fact that the predators who likely took the kill down did not get much of a chance to eat from that kill leads us to a specific conclusion: Our ancestors were taking the kills away–they were power scavenging. (71)

| Where passive scavenging requires some creativity, power scavenging takes the creative process to a new level. Choosing when to try to take a kill from a predator, coordinating the behavior of the group to get it done, having the right tools handy, getting the meat from the carcass in a quick and organized fashion, and getting out of there before more predators show up is no easy task. (71)

underground storage organs (USOs)–basically big roots packed with water, carbohydrates, and calories. (73)

They also challenged bees for their honey. (73)

…honey could have been an important source of protein and sugars for early Homo. (73)

The collection of the honey would have resulted in some spilling on the ground and even small chunks of honeycomb littered around the base of the tree. This would attract some smaller animals drawn by the strong smell of the super-nutrient-rich resource (honey). Members of the Homo group likely noticed this pattern (after all, they were already adept at nothing, tracking, and even predicting the movements of the large predators) and realized that as soon as they moved away from the tree, these other small animals showed up to eat the remains. They also had sticks and stone tools handy…and some groups likely put two and two together. (74)

It is only a small step from chasing away predators from a kill to making the kill oneself–especially if there is a pretty low cost to the kill attempt (thus the focus on small animals). Creativity in getting food inevitably set the stage for experiments in early hunting. (74)

Hunting Parties

Chimpanzees hunt due to neither nutritional stress nor dire need for meat. Indeed, chimps seem to hunt more when they have lots of fruit available and lot of individuals around: Hunting is a social event rather than just a drive to get food. It’s sort of party. (76)

The social and creative ways in which early Homo got food generated a feedback loop that shaped their evolution–and hunting ratcheted that process up. (77)

| This feedback loop connection the nutritional stresses of growing brains and bodies, the shaping of stones and wood into tools, the collaboration and communication required for power scavenging, and USO and honey gathering and processing expedited the changing brains and behavior of Homo, increasing capacities for creativity. Human-style organized hunting soon followed. (77)

What Drove Communication Skills?

Human coordinated hunting is much more than a bunch of primates running around trying to capture animals to consume: It is a group of individuals using communication, collaboration, and tools to capture elusive and sometimes dangerous prey. (77)

But in each of these predators’ hunting styles, the weapon of choice was a feature of its body: running speed, massive teeth and jaw muscles, sharp fangs, deadly claws, and so forth. Our ancestors had none of those things. But, as they had already done for more than a million years, Homo went with what they did have: creative collaboration. (78)

The difference with human social hunting is twofold: We rely on tools or other forms of extending our bodies’ capabilities, and we share information via language. We communicate about the past, the present, and the future in great detail–one need not have ever hunted to participate, successfully, in an organized hunt. (78)

By at least 500,000 years ago we have evidence that members of the genus Homo used sturdy spears and maybe even threw them by about 300,000 years ago. Between 500,000 and 100,000 years ago we see the development of a whole range of better tool types, much more use of bone and wood for finer and sharper points, and the appearance of blades. Blades–flakes twice as long as they are wide–are the first step to making really good knives and eventually things like stone-tipped spears and swords. In this same time period there is evidence of the hafting of stone and bone to wood with glue and rope, the first composite tools and a radical expansion in how good the tools (and weapons) were. (79)

cf. Qesem Cave

Embedded in the tartar on the teeth of the individuals at Qesem are microcharcoal fragments–they were inhaling a lot of smoke and eating charred food items. Clearly, they were using fire, regularly. (80)

The Power of Cooking

Humans are the top (actually, the only) chefs on the planet. (80)

| People who argue that raw foods are the best for you are wrong. (80) … Cooking softens plant food, breaks down the cell walls containing cellulose (which humans cannot digest), reduces the chemical bonds of fats and other key aspects of meats and fibers, and generally makes the process of chewing, swallowing, and extraction the benefits of food (all called digestion) easier. Cooking increases digestibility of starchy plants by 12 to 35 percent and of protein by 45 to 78 percent. Cooking can also nullify toxins found in plants (especially in USOs) and cats to kill dangerous bacteria that can grow rapidly on exposed meat (like that scavenged from a predator kill). It makes a big difference. But one needs t control fire to cook with it. (81)

| There are some good indications (burned bone and heated rocks) that at least a few groups of Homo used fire as much as 1.6 million years ago, but we don’t see regular evidence of fire use at hominin sites (like hearths or evidence of smoke on bones and teeth) until about 350,000 to 450,000 years ago. The early examples of fire use are likely the products of lightning strikes or small patches of fire left after larger forest fires. (81)

The ability to be free from the constraints of daylight to work and to play was to become a crucial turning point in what made our ancestors human–fire and light became catalysts for colossal increases in our creativity and productivity. (82)

cf. Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in Israel; Beeches Pit in England; Schöningen in Germany; Zhoukoudian in China; all about 400,000 years ago…

Fire helped give us more than just food; it gave us cuisine. (82)

The story of human eating is a story of innovation, collaboration, and experimentation. (83)

5. The Beauty of Standing in Line

If you placed a group of related and unrelated chimps, monkeys, wolves, or hyenas at a table piled with turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberries, gravy, a fancy salad, and a pumpkin pie, you’d get a pretty violent holiday event. … No other species works together to collect, prepare, and share food the way we do, and certainly none do so as broadly and enthusiastically. (85)

Humans have a distinctive capacity for getting together. It is part of our niche, the way we “make it” in the world. (85)

| Next time you walk up to a movie theater, supermarket checkout counter, or bus stop and see a line, set aside your annoyance at least for a moment. It is a marvel of human nature. A group of unrelated people, who have likely never seen one another before, all wanting the same commodity, mutually agree to arrange themselves in an orderly sequence, (85) delaying immediate gratification. (86)

In 2005, after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, tens of thousands of people went to New Orleans as volunteers. They gutted and rebuilt houses; they offered skills of community development, food preparation, nursing, and teaching. They left their lives, not damaged or destroyed by the hurricane, to stand in solidarity with the people who suffered the worst of its effects. Using websites and social media, more than 200,000 people volunteered to shelter evacuees, many opening their homes to strangers. These people crossed economic, political, racial, and ethnic lines to help those in need, and they did this often with great risks and strains to their daily lives. Nothing else on this planet shows this kind of massive compassion and coordination in the face of adversity–but humans do, again and again and again. (86)

It is the capacity to develop this level of community, and the coordination and cooperation involved, that was a necessary precursor for our ancestors to make the leap from being excellent hunters and gatherers to the mastering of the manipulation of plants and animals we call “domestication.” How did that happen? (87)

Creating Human Communities

The human community is a collection of individuals who share a sense of belonging, what anthropologists call “kinship.” For humans this kinship can be biological, historical, social, or all three simultaneously–they are the people who matter most to us. The community is the primary source of shared knowledge, security, and development, typically across an individual’s life span. Communities share meaningful emotional bonds and experiences even when all members are not in the same place at the same time. But to build a community you first need to live together, and it turns out that there are many challenges to any animals trying to live together in a social group. The two most basic ones are coordination and size. (87)

It turns out that this limit [Dunbar’s number] has to do with brain size and complexity–you can see where this is going. Humans, with bigger and more complex brains than most, can have larger social groups, and we do, but we didn’t always. (88)

The capacity for larger and larger communal coherence is the result of our creativity. (88)

It Takes a Village to Grow a Human Brain

The infant is born very dependent on its mom. … That means that the very first thing mammals know is a tight social bond to another mammal, their kin. (89)

These realities have deep physiological impacts. For mammals it is critical to survival to have a strong bond and commitment from both mom and offspring to get along, a drive to be together. Over many millions of years, evolutionary processes have fine-tuned mammalian bodies to set them up for a strong physical sense of attachment and caring. Technically this is called a psychoneuroendocrine system, a complex of hormones, emotions, and affections. Humans took a basic mammalian trait and made it very complicated. (89)

Primates have large brains that take a good while to develop, and primates have complex social lives, and it takes a long time to learn how to navigate them well. This means that the mother-infant bond lasts longer and is more intense in (89) primates than in most other mammals. A second, less common but still important, primate twist is having multiple allomothers–that is, more individuals than just the mom take care of the infants from very early on. And these extra caretakers aren’t always other females. (90)

human infants are pretty useless to the group. They are a drain on the group’s resources, as they cannot produce or carry their own food, fend off predators, or assist in daily activities for at least the first three to five years of life (and in modern times some folks would argue that this period is stretched out into the late teens and early twenties). And herein lies the key to human success. By constructing a system in which we could have babies born well before their brains and bodies are developed, we have enabled a kind of learning, a complexity in brain development, and a potential for innovation, imagination, and creativity. And we did this by finding creative ways of increasing cooperation and constructing community. (90)

The critical creative act was to develop a social system, a way of living, that gave our ancestors the flexibility to have offspring that were helpless for longer amounts of time. That is, if early Homo infants began developing more slowly, inside of the womb and out, it enabled a greater amount of postbirth brain growth. Two things are required to make this happen: increased quality of food and increased abilities to care for the young. (90)

…humans have a distinctive system in which infants are nurtured not just by the mother but by a system of caretakers from day one. In this system ([Sarah] Hrdy calls it “mothers and others”), the members of a community take on substantial aspects of the care and development of children. (91) … Some researchers argue that this caretaking role is one of the reasons that human females, unlike all other primates, undergo menopause, where females live long after their reproductive cycling shuts down. (92)

There are two processes to focus on that will help us understand how key parts of the human community developed over this time: (92)

  • the new ways of thinking involved in the transition from early stone tools of the Oldowan to the Acheulean and more complex tool kits, and
  • the caretaking not just of infants but of one another with the emergence of compassion as a central part of the human community. (93)

The Emergence of Compassion

At some sites dating as far back as a million years (and older) we have all, or nearly all, of the flakes from a cobble (the debitage) as well as the final tools produced. This mean that through a very painstaking procedure, researchers can actually reassemble the entire toolmaking process, flake by flake. They can reconstruct the patterns, the decisions, and the actual strikes that went into making a specific Acheulean tool. The bottom line is that making these kinds of tools is not possible without teaching. (94)

How did ancestors without language as we know it or brains the size or capacity of ours develop and pass along such a complex and intensive skill set as complex stone toolmaking? [Kim] Sterelny’s answer is “the apprentice model,” essentially the way I learned to carve my mask. Young members of Homo communities were exposed to older individuals who made the tools, traveled with members of the community to gather the right stones, and handled the tools themselves, using the tools and even playing with them. But all of this is without schools or guilds or anything we might recognize as formal instruction. (95)

It is important to realize that nothing, not a thing, in the fossil or archaeological record suggests this specific sex or age makeup of who did what or that there were “jobs” like this in the past. We do know that in all apes, females use and make tools slightly more than males and the young learn to use tools primarily by watching their mothers. We also know that while male chimpanzees hunt most, females are the ones who primarily use tools to hunt. (95)

Strict specialization shows up much more recently in the archaeological record–and is an extremely important shift, changing the way communities work. But we need to keep that historic turning point in its place, which is not with early humans. (96)

The point is that rather than the others of the group ceding all responsibility to those individuals who seemed to have a better knack at the specific skill, they would learn from them. The knowledge spread within the community, taking hold such that most members became capable of at least passable performance of the critical behaviors: If such behaviors hadn’t been shared, they would not have survived the passage of hundreds and thousands and millions of years. (96)

This transmission of skill via learning, doing, and sharing information is reflective of a specific and very human capacity that the anthropologist Tim Ingold calls “enskillment”–and it always involves watching, interacting, and acquiring the patterns of how to be a member of the community. The quality of compassion springs from the same set of circumstances. (97)

…compassion goes beyond the community, beyond even the species, and can be extended to strangers, animals, objects, and even abstract concepts like “God.” (99)

We know that for the history of our lineage there is a common set of options for communities that encounter one another. I like to call this the “Three Fs” (flee, fight, or fornicate). “Fornicate” is really shorthand for getting along, which often results in some degree of coupling eventually, but “Two Fs and GA” does not sound as good as “Three Fs.” (99)

[via: So far, “food sharing,” “allocare,” “apprenticeship,” “compassion,” and “coordination,” to which I would propose that for believers, all of these are encompassed under the category of “theology.”]

Can We Remain Creative Within Ever Larger Communities?

By 15,000 to 25,000 years ago we are the only members of the genus Homo standing, the only sapiens left. (100)

| As we spread we encountered new lands and other peoples, animals, and plants. Entering new ecologies, we faced again and again the need for new ways to make a living. In a fit of creative exuberance, many populations of humans across the planet began to shape other animals and plants. Unintentionally at first, but then purposefully, we began to change the bodies and behavior of certain animals and plants and brought them into our lives, and our bodies, linking us forever to them and them to us. The expansion of our communities to the inclusion of other animals and the cultivation of crops changed the face of the planet and the way ecosystems work. In the last 10,000 to 15,000 years, our populations began to grow, climates were radically shifting, an ice age was ending, and the world as we, and every other form of life, knew it started to change. There was a perilous challenge ahead–a challenge that we had in a hand in creating and one that we met head-on. (100)

| We’ve named ourselves the double sapiens, meaning we are doubly wise, or at least that we have the capacity to be so. It turns out that domestication and the building of every larger communities is a two-way street with a lot of perilous curves, for which there is no perfect map. (100)

6. Food Security Accomplished

Open a kitchen cupboard almost anywhere in the world and it is likely that every single item of food that you see did not exist for 99.9 percent of our history. Not just the packaging and processing, the actual food itself. Almost every plant or animal that we eat, and most of the ones we see around us every day, is the product of human influence and engineering. Dogs, cats, chickens, cows, horses, pigeons, hamsters, guinea pigs, rats, pigs, goats, sheep, llamas, alpacas, water buffalo, ducks, geese, rabbits, turkeys, salmon, tuna, tilapia, apples, oranges, papayas, mangos, plums, tomatoes, carrots, bananas, beans, rice, wheat, hops, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, onions, beets, leeks, lettuce, cabbage, peaches, nectarines, chilies, vanilla, almonds, cashews, walnuts, sunflowers, corn, zucchini, pumpkins, cucumbers, cocoa, lemons, and limes are but a small list of the animals and plants that we’ve created or re-created in this most recent phase of our evolution. (101)

…in most cases the original version of that plant or animal doesn’t exist anymore. (101)

Food stopped being simply sustenance a long time ago. For many humans it is a lifestyle. We’ve created food, but it also has a hand in creating us. (102)

For most of human evolution, getting food was hard. Making it easy to get was fundamentally a process of domestication, of bringing the world around us into the social structures of our lives. The story of domestication is about more than food; it is about the creation of new lives–for us and for other species.

A Crucible

This cluster of remains [the Natufians] is central to our understanding of one of the most significant events in the history of the human species, the shift from a life of seminomadic hunters and gatherers to that of sedentary, village-living domesticators. … Most striking, the Natufians built houses. They constructed and maintained small buildings of stone and wood and by 10,000 years ago their villages grew to house as many as 300 to 500 people, surpassing Dunbar’s proposed limit of 250 people as the maximum group size for humans. (103)

But domestication did not start out as intentional manipulation by humans. The earliest domestication events were unintended outcomes of the creative hunting, gathering, and building of communities that characterized the earlier parts of our history, and they went both ways: As we reshaped others, they also reshaped us. (105)

Reshaping Animals

The archaeologists Greger Larson and Dorian Fuller recently summarized the three main ways in which animal domestication happened. They call these processes the “three pathways” and label them commensalprey, and directed. (106)

| The commensal pathway is the one that dogs took and the one in which humans and the other species of interest have the most mutualistic relationships, at least at first. There is no intentional action by humans at the start of this pathway; instead it is the other species that begins to hang around the humans. The commensal pathway begins when another species is attracted to the human niche. … These animals, the ones truly drawn to the human way of making a living, are called synanthropic. (106)

It turns out that intensive selection for certain behavioral traits has an impact on the way hormonal and developmental systems work and results in the “domestic” morphology of floppy ears and curled tails. (109)

As we were shaping the dogs, they also shaped us: They got themselves inserted into our communities and began to elicit the same kinds of compassionate, and physiological, responses that human community members elicited from one another. (109)

There are a number of other animals that became domesticated via the commensal pathway: cats, of course, rats and mice, guinea pigs, chickens (descended from the red jungle fowl that started to hang around human communities in Asia more than 4,000 years ago), and even carp. (109)

Humans,…identified patterns between what they hunted and how the prey reacted and how scarce they were in following years. By around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago we can see evidence in the bones of consumed animals of the preferential taking of young males and the avoiding of females, especially pregnant females. (110)

When a community stopped hunting female wild cattle, those herds would, over time, tolerate the closer presence of humans. … The selection of specific individuals to breed was a first step toward modern domestic animals. And hamburgers. (111)

So humans, using what they had learned in the early domestication process, began targeting wild animals and repurposing them, intentionally shaping the animals to provide specific services. Animals such as donkeys and camels were captured, selectively bred, and trained as pack animals; the same with horses. Even honeybees were brought in and put to work making honey for the humans. (111)

Once we humans discovered that we could manipulate, shape, and select patterns, varieties, and behaviors, our creativity (and some would say our cruelty) took off. Think about Holstein cows, all the dog breeds, fancy show chickens, and the entire range of household pets found around the world: The domestication of animals is a global biological and ecological fact created and maintained by human action. And all in the last blink of an eye in our evolutionary history. (113)

When Is a Forest a Garden?

…to the eyes of researchers looking into the former forests via pollen analysis, digging into the soils, and reconstructing past landscapes, a pattern emerges: The plant species that make up the forests are shifting in frequency and density. Certain palms and fruiting trees and vines are becoming more common, others are moving from one type of growth pattern to another, and others are simply disappearing. …these changes in Southeast Asian forests are not clearly linked to the climate. Something else started to shape the way forests look and work. Guess who. (113)

Today one plant, Oryza sativa, is the staple food for nearly 50 percent of the population of earth–we know it as rice. Domesticated a number of times over the last 9,000 years across Asia,… (115)

Domesticating Ourselves

Between about 7,000 and 12,000 years ago, many human communities underwent the transition from sedentary hunter-gatherers who affect the plants and animals around them to full-blown farmers and herders, relying heavily on their crops and domestic animals. Because this was so ubiquitous and happened with so many human populations, we assume that this transition was both attractive and beneficial to the communities involved. But when we look at the archaeological records of these early farming communities, we are presented with a vexing dilemma: The move to agriculture initially made human health worse. (118)

…with the agricultural transition, their health deteriorated, social and gender inequalities show up in the archaeological record, and, for the first time in our species’ history, evidence of serious coordinated and large-scale violence between communities (war) erupted. (118)

  • stability of food sources,
  • increased populations, and
  • being locked in to the land. (118)

As agriculture intensifies, women have more babies more often and the population goes up, fast. (119)

Once you’ve committed to agriculture, it is almost impossible to pick up and leave. (119)

The advent of agriculture corresponds with a multiplication of cavities in human teeth. Cavities are a disease that affects the hard parts of teeth by demineralizing and wearing them away via bacterial fermentation. Ever wonder how we got along without toothpaste? The bacterial fermentation is caused primarily by carbohydrates, which are much higher in domesticated plants than in the wild versions. In studies of oral health, researchers have noted that agriculturalists have as many as four times more cavities than hunter-gatherers, especially when those (119) agriculturalists boil their plant foods, creating mushy gruels that can hide out in the spaces between teeth and rapidly ferment (thus the advent of flossing and toothbrushing). Tooth loss during the lifetime is also higher in agricultural populations than in hunter-gatherers, suggesting that increased carbohydrates and reduced dietary diversity can also lead to periodontal disease, weakening the roots of teeth and the gums surrounding them. (120)

Hunter-gatherers don’t show gender differences in tooth disease, but studies of agriculturalists from North America, South Asia, and Africa reveal that females had higher frequencies of cavities than males, and researchers suggest that this could be due to women having higher-carbohydrate and lower-protein diets than men in these societies. (120)

The shift to agriculture also often involved a reduction in overall animal protein consumption and a reduction in the diversity of planet types consumed. That meant that while there may have been more overall food of a few types for the early farmers (like lots of rice grains), the range of the diet was reduced so macro- and micronutrient requirements weren’t always satisfied. People seemed to get shorter. Human bodies often respond to nutrient deficiencies by slowing growth and trimming bones’ growth trajectories. We know that a corn diet limits the niacin available to the body, a focus on wheat causes iron deficiencies, and an overreliance on rice can cause protein and vitamin A deficiencies. A number of studies of the bones of early farmer populations demonstrate the frequent appearance of bone disorders, like osteoarthritis, and overall declines in stature with the transition to agriculture. (120)

| The move to domestication also correlates with an increase in infectious diseases. … Being sedentary means not being able to move away from diseases when they hit. Having larger groups of people living closer together (and sharing latrine spaces) creates a perfect storm (120) for viruses and bacterial infection to develop and pass, quickly, through communities. Diseases like tuberculosis (likely evolved from the interface of human and cow mycobacterium) and treponematosis (yaws and multiple types of syphilis) appear in human communities with the advent of animal domestication. (121)

| Domestication must have had a massive impact on the human gut. … While humans share general patterns as a species, each different group of people around the world has a slightly different microbiome. (121)

Over time the upside of agriculture began to pay off, communities grew, systems of domestication improved, nutritional balances were found, and the domesticators developed new patterns that made their system all the more attractive. Some groups began to creatively manipulate the ways in which food was stored; salting meats made them last longer and letting grains start to ferment produced all sorts of new options for nutrition and enjoyment (beer!). Over time, even the shifts in the gut microbiome began to reap benefits; the challenges to our guts resulted in new relationships with bacteria, enabling us to get even more experimental with fermented and modified foods (yogurt, cheese, kimchi). And it was the ability to use cow’s milk in parts of Africa and Eurasia that enabled us to do to ourselves what we did to the rice plant: Humans bioengineered themselves to be able to drink milk. (121)

| All mammals produce the enzyme lactase early in life, as it is the critical piece the body needs to break down the key nutrients in milk. …if there is milk around and adults can consume it, then a new environment is established and the frequency of the mutation that leaves lactase production turned on becomes beneficial. Just as the intentional selection and protection of rice stalks that were more shatterproof increased the sh4 gene mutation in rice, the keeping of cows, goats, and sheep provided a new context in which those humans who could get benefits from drinking milk into adulthood tended to have an edge (be healthier and have slightly more children). (122)

But humans able to digest lactose are still a minority today. … Communities in South Asia experimented with fermentation of milk and found that treating the milk by putting it in combination with bacteria that produce lactase-like enzymes creates a new food that is digestible and very beneficial–in this case, yogurt. (122)

| As these modifications to food expanded, adding more types of bacteria and chemical landscapes to our guts, so did the action of our microbiome. (122) … These patterns are known as epigenetic processes and represent a deepening understanding that the most recent biological science is revealing. But the point for now is that what a mother eats and what an infant eats both go into shaping the child’s microbiome and influence the functioning of the child’s physiology, and that can be passed along across the generations. (123)

With domestication, which was triggered by the securing of the human food supply, the modern chapter in the human story had begun. For better and for worse. (123)

WAR AND SEX: How Humans Shaped a World

7. Creating War (and Peace)

There are more than 7 billion humans on the planet, but only an infinitesimally small percentage of them are engaged in any of these acts of violence, terror, and warfare. Even if we listed the total amount of human living in anything even approaching a war zone, it comes out to around 4 percent of humanity. Only about .005 percent of the population of the United States dies via homicide annually. (127)

The Gran Dolina case is a good example of how difficult it is to piece together the earliest history of human violence; to determine how common it was, the forms it took, and the motivations behind it. With the Gran Dolina find, all we really know is that the flesh of six young Homo antecessor was cut from their bones in the same manner as meat was cut from the bones of other animals at the site. But were these young from the same group that butchered and apparently ate them? Was such cannibalism common? Was it a ritual act or one of desperation? (131)

Despite the enticing ideas presented in these stories, they are all wrong, or at least severely incomplete. Though definitive conclusions about what occurred those 800,000 years ago in the Gran Dolina cave, and at a number of other sites that offer more telling clues, are elusive, a clear story of the overall trajectory of human violence does emerge, and it is different than many think. (132)

A View from the Primates

This way of thinking (called phylogenetic inference) assumes that more closely related organisms share more ancestral traits. (133)

There are situations and times when serious fighting does occur in primates. But it is rare and usually doesn’t do much damage. Primatologists Bob Sussman and Paul Garber asked the basic question: How much do primates use aggression, fight, and commit violence against one another? …physical violence usually makes up far less than 1 percent of all activity and even more rarely involves lethal violence. (134)

Primatologists and biologists have shown that competition is checked by networks of relationships and social alliances. Fights happen and violence is employed, but most conflicts are negotiated through getting along, breaking up, making up, and voiding one another. (134)

There is no pattern in primates to which we could point as a shared evolutionary basis for violence in humans. (135)

Just as within groups, between-group conflicts are often resolved via negotiations or avoidance. Or just running away. Severe violence and aggression between groups is rare and seldom results in death. (135)

After more than fifty years of focused study on more than eleven chimpanzee communities, there is no doubt about one thing: Chimpanzees can be really aggressive. (136)

Humans and chimpanzees are complex, socially dynamic primates who have the capacities to use tools, to coordinate with other individuals a bit more than other primates do, and to use different social strategies to negotiate our daily lives. The key point is the wide variation with which they take place. This variation happens because of a shared creative spark–one that we, and not the chimpanzees, have expanded on. (139)

Violence in Our Bodies

Violent behavior is directly affected by the nervous system, brain, and hormones. (139)

No biological system in the body can be distinctly identified as “for violence.” (140)

| Not even testosterone. (140)

What the evidence supports is that in competitive or acute-stress situations (like a fight), humans (both males and females) can rapidly (140) respond by increasing the production of testosterone. The increase can enhance muscle activity and efficiency and might also result in lower sensitivity to pain (again in both men and women). This might help make individuals adept in aggressive competition, especially most males, who are starting at a higher level of circulating testosterone than most females, but it does not cause or even control the pattern of violent behavior. (141)

Extreme Violence–Ancient or Modern?

[Christopher] Boehm discovered that in most of these societies adult men often positively reinforce nonaggressive traits. A preference for positive social relationships, and working as a group to maintain them, is widespread across societies, not just in foragers. It is not that modern humans are always peaceful or that men are not aggressive, but that we see constraints on aggression and a favoring of positive social interactions almost everywhere we look. (143)

Given the attention this idea has received, there are surprisingly few studies that strive to answer the question: Do aggressive males do better? (143)

Having more kids, for the Yanomamö, is as much about being older as it is about being more violent. (144)

It turns out that aggressive males do not “do better” in an evolutionary (144) sense in either of the two well-known, and well-studied, examples of hyperaggressive small-scale societies where reproductive success was actually measured. We see that in modern forager groups, most lethal violence is not warlike; it is most often the result of disagreements, grudges, and feuds within groups. We also see that the majority of these societies value friendliness and cooperation more than aggression and violence (just like in most other primates) and use social interactions to control aggression. (145)

Creating War

First, is there any link between the development of hunting and the emergence of a drive to violence or “bloodlust”? (145)

As plausible as the “man the hunter becomes man the killer” argument may seem, what we find from the analysis of the fossil and archaeological record is that the timing is all wrong. We now know that the damage done to the bones of australopithecines, and many members of early Homo, was the result not of their being hunters or predators, but rather of their being hunted by the range of large and dangerous predators all around them. As for their descendants (our ancestors), who learned to hunt, they became top-tier hunters well before anything like warfare, or even frequent homicide, shows up in the fossil and archaeological record. (145)

To put it in another way, approximately 98 percent of all the sites for which we have hard fossil evidence over the nearly 2 million years of human life up until 10,000 years ago show no signs of traumatic violence. (149)

Combining these data with the best available data from the period from about 14,000 years ago up to 5,000 years ago–the beginning of the historical record–we find the following:

  • From about 2 million to 14,000 years ago, approximately 2 percent of all fossils have signs of violent trauma and very few sites have any evidence of such violence.
  • From approximately 14,000 to 7,500 years ago, as many as 4 percent of all human skeletal remains show signs of violent trauma, and while sites with such remains are still not common, significantly more have been found.
  • From 7,500 to 5,000 years ago, up to 7 percent of all human skeletal remains have signs of violent trauma, and many of these come from a few sites where there are high percentages of damaged remains, real signs of organized and lethal conflict between groups. (150)

The overall story, then, is one of little evidence for regular or frequent violent interpersonal trauma for the vast majority of the history of the genus Homo and almost no sites with multiple instances of trauma, and then large upticks in the period from 14,000 to 7,500 years ago and again at 7,500 to 5,000 years ago. This leads us to focus not on the deep past to explain our current patterns of organized and lethal violence, but rather on the more recent past. (151)

So we see that up until the period of about 7,500 years ago, clear evidence of lethal violence between humans is still relatively rare, and it’s unclear in most of the cases whether the violence is indicative of warfare. But starting around 6,000 to 7,000 years ago we begin to find more examples of unambiguous evidence of coordinated large-scale killing. (154)

Sites with remains of mass killings are found increasingly all around the globe starting around 6,000 to 7,000 years ago. But it is vital to emphasize that for each of the sites described here, many, many more from the same time period, and even in the same areas, show no signs of organized violence. (155)

| The best conclusion, both from this detailed data at each site with evidence of coordinated violence, and from the collective data of all sites over the span of time, is that for most of our evolutionary history, human culture was not characterized by a high incidence of either homicide or warfare compared to the modern era. However, over the last 5,000 to (155) 10,000 years, the pace and intensity of this type of violence markedly increased. (156)

If you were to plot all of the data about the course of human evolution that we considered in chapters 1 through 6 on a curve over time and then compare that timeline with the timeline of signs of increased violence and of warfare, a much more compelling understanding of the origins and nature of our violence emerges. What stands boldly out is the coincidence of the emergence of more complex societies and sedentism with the rise of coordinated lethal violence and war. Broadly, the rise in economic, political, and social inequality correlates with the rise of war. (157)

…we have to consider the reasons underlying the pattern. Fundamentally, the relative bounty enjoyed by groups settled in areas relatively rich in resources, as well as areas that offered protection from the elements and from predators (such as Jebel Sahaba), incentivized other, less fortunate groups to raid them. This period is when we begin to see that the acumen we developed in strategic hunting methods was apparently turned on our won. (157)

A key component of the ratcheting up of this complexity in human communities was storage. Once foods can be stored, there need to be systems of maintenance, management, and oversight of the storage. Storage then produces the concept of “ownership” of control over the items being stored and over the locations and structures used for storage. … Avarice and envy do occur, but most day-to-day interactions over goods in forager societies are more (157) egalitarian and/or shared than in sedentary agriculturalist communities, where ownership of items and property is a key aspect of everyday life. (159)

…once people were settled into a village and practicing agriculture, property became a stark reality. The investment in reshaping the land and the plants and the community’s utmost reliance on both of those things for nutrition create a strong relationship between the land and the community. … It becomes something that the community created, built with their own hands; it is “theirs.” (159)

The increasing need for these diverse skills presented a stellar opportunity for human creativity and cooperation to shine as we divided up responsibilities, and rewards, in ways that were acceptable to the group as a whole. But the hierarchies in status, wealth, and power that went hand in hand with the management of larger surpluses of food and the division of land and other resources also created increased incentives for conflict, greed, distrust, and even cruelty. (160)

How does a community maintain a sense of cohesion with such stratification and inequality emerging? One mechanism is to develop symbols and rituals that reinforce the group identity. The importance of being in a group and the sense of community identity is likely very old in the human lineage given the core role that cooperation has played in every aspect of our evolution, as we’ve seen in the prior chapters. But when we start to see increasing role differentiation in communities, we also see the signs of the formal development of clans and lineages and of the creation of stories and beliefs that bind them together. The creation of such (160) connections enables larger and larger groups to work together, and to engage in peaceful relationships. And, of course, these same associations and beliefs may help to separate them from others.It is the institutionalization of these differences within and between communities that is core to the emergence of coordinated violence and warfare. (161)

For most of human history, lethal violence took the form of relatively rare homicides: revenge killings, deaths from fights over mates, and domestic disputes. However, the development of clans, and then greater political entities, provided both the incentive and the justification for one community to attack another without identifying specific individuals as the targets. Humans made the mental shift from individual-on-individual violence to thinking of a whole group or cluster of groups as “the enemy”: We creatively dehumanized other humans. (161)

War and peace must be seen as two sides of one coin of human creativity and part of the contemporary human niche. … The fossil and archaeological record combined with a comparative examination of the other primates and of human biology does not support the argument for a deep root to human warfare and organized violence. Rather, these data combine to powerfully refute the notion that our proclivity to organized violence and to waging war was a core, and early, adaptive outcome of human evolution. (162)

8. Creative Sex

Food and sex are the basic goals of life for most organisms, not just humans. (163)

As far as sex is concerned, animals generally come in two variants: female and male. … Because sex is so important, sexually reproducing animals have physiological systems that reward them for engaging in it. Sex feels good. (163)

| And because it feels good, many mammals take it up a notch–they have sex more often than is necessary to reproduce. We call this “social sex” and it comes with costs. Those animals that have more social sex also have more sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Increased sexual (163) activity means taking on more risks to health… The fact that some groups of animals so gladly take the risks of increased sexual activity leads many researchers to believe that there is more than just pleasure behind social sex. Primates are among the social sex champions of the animal kingdom, so it should come as no surprise that they are also the STI champions of the animal world. (164)

Humans also have sex in many different ways. For men and women ages twenty-five to forty-four, 98 percent have had heterosexual genital-genital sex, 90 percent have had oral sex, 36 to 44 percent have had anal sex, and 6 to 12 percent have had homosexual sex. These numbers make most other species on the planet look like prudes. by age twenty-four, one in three sexually active people have at least one non-HIV STI, and more than 19 million new sexually transmitted infections occur each year in the United States alone. Bottom line: Humans have more STIs than other organisms because humans have more sex, and more kinds of sex, and more contexts for, and issues with, sex than any other animal. We are crazy about it. (164)

We are so creative with sex that we’ve even developed a distinctively human category to mess with the basic biology of sex: gender. (164)

| “Gender” is a catchall term for the roles, assumptions, and expectations humans have for the biological sexes, and it creates a problem when (164) analyzing human sexuality. When humans say “male” or “female,” they are almost always referring to gender as opposed to biological sex–the two are not the same. Any specific human’s gender behavior profile is not simply determined by their biological sex or their patterns of sexual activity. (165)

There are important differences between the sexes: Women give birth and lactate, men are usually larger and more muscular, and the levels and patterns of some hormones vary between the sexes. There are also important similarities: Our reproductive organs come from the same embryonic tissues; our bodies are made of the same material and structures; our hormones and brains are the same; we are the same species. Humans have a unique sex/gender muddle that is both wonderful and a giant pain. (165)

How Sex Works

Reproducing by sex creates new variation by combining genetic data from two parents, providing the offspring with more options. (165)

[via: Options for survival.]

As long as some offspring do better in comparison with the asexual reproducers, the system (sex) has a chance of catching on. Added variation needs to work out in favor of organisms only on average to keep sexual reproduction in a system. (166)

Humans are the only mammalian species we know of where a percentage o the species has a consistent homosexual sexual orientation, and we are the only species to take vows of chastity (and sometimes maintain them). We are very rare among primates in that we often form long-term bonds between two individuals that can be related to sex and reproduction. We are unique in having sets of symbolic associations between sex, age, ethics, morality, and behavior: For humans, when, how, where, and with whom we have sex matters a great deal, not just to the individuals having sex but to their communities and the society as a whole. Humans have an enormous range of sexual tastes, desires, and habits, many of which veer very, very far from anything having to do with reproduction. Humans have taken the basic mammalian package associated with sex, and the primate twists on that package, and created a whole new way to have, think about, represent, regulate, and embody sex. (170)

| To understand how we got so creative with sex, there are three main aspects of the human story to understand: Parenting and bonding, gender, and the fact that for humans, sex is never just sex. (170)

Creative Parenting

No sexually reproducing species survives without a good parenting plan. (170)

The bottom line is that many, if not all, of the members of these early Homo groups likely took on substantial aspects of the care and development of children. This system of multiple caretakers enabled the mothers to participate in many of the group activities. (171) …some researchers argue that this shared caretaking role is one of the reasons that human females, unlike all other primates, undergo menopause, where females live long after their reproductive cycling shuts down. It’s clear that groups of early Homo, from at least Honmo erectus on, began to coordinate different actions, responsibilities, even roles, with one another in order to contribute to the survival of the infants as they built that particular niche that we call the human community. (172)

| What does this have to do with sex? Early Homo began the practice that we still see extensively today, of separating reproduction and sex. By developing a community approach to parenting, our genus was able to set up a system wherein larger-brained and more helpless infants were possible. Such developments would not have been possible if the standard mammalian pattern of Mom alone raising the kids held. Human children are basically helpless for years. The only way to enable such a system is to share the parenting responsibilities across multiple individuals. But such sharing also means that the biology of reproduction, and thus that of sex, is not limited in the way it is for most mammals. Because of the costs of reproducing, most mammals have a limit on sexual activity: The system turns on and off appropriately. Humans, on the other hand, are essentially capable of sex all the time. So the system of communal parenting, of mothers and others, removed the necessary link between sex and parenting. (172)

…having sex as a regular part of the social agenda presents two interesting quandaries: (172)

  1. Humans don’t have sex all the time and they don’t have sex with just anyone.
  2. We are quite particular about sex and tend to form long-term and very strong sexual relationships with one or a few individuals across our lifetimes. In fact, a large number of humans are relatively monogamous (most of the time). (172)

How did that arise from a lineage practicing communal parenting and frequent social sex? (173)

Only about 3 percent of all mammalian species are monogamous. … But pair-bonds do not equal monogamy. In fact, it’s clear that there are two types of pair-bonds: social pair-bonds and sexual pair-bonds. (174)

In many mammals pair-bonds develop and are maintained via social behavior combined with the physiology of neurotransmitters and the hormones oxytocin, vasopressin, dopamine, corticosterone, and others. (174)

Pair-bonds, with or without sex, are not the same as marriage and are not necessarily connected to monogamy:… (174)

Basically, anthropologists, historians, and sociologists agree that, in general, marriage (in both secular and religious systems) is best seen as a way of structuring the inheritance of property, as control and regulation of sexual activity, and (174) recently, as the culturally sanctioned outcome of romantic love. This is also an important way in which cultures can officially recognize and sanction sexual pair-bonds and the resulting offspring. (175)

…[marriage] is an outcome of human creativity in dealing with the complexities introduced by the evolutionarily recent innovations of property, inequality, towns, cities, gender, and importantly, organized religion. … The husband-wife relationship that is the mainstay of modern Western marriage was famously promulgated by the Protestant theologian Martin Luther. Luther, after forty years of celibacy, turned into a vehement proponent of the nuclear family and husband-wife structure that now typifies much of the world. (175) … The marriage systems we see today are part and parcel of the emergence of the modern political nation-state over the last four centuries. Sanctioning of offspring in regard to ownership, inheritance, and social hierarchy has become a very important aspect of the human niche. (176)

Creating Gender

Most people, and many researchers, use the words gender and sex interchangeably. Which is a mistake. (176)

We like to think that we use good biological characteristics, such as body shape, presence of breasts, and face and head form, to do so. But we don’t. We primarily use details like clothing, hair and makeup styles, posture, ways of speaking and walking, and how people “hold” themselves. For humans, gender is what matters. Gender refers to the social, cultural, and psychological constructions that are imposed on the biological differences of sex. … Sex is biology, male, or female, based on chromosomes and whether or not one produces a sperm or an egg. Gender is much more than biology. The formation of gender is the process by which males and females develop the expected psychological and behavioral characteristics that equip them for the tasks that their sex typically performs in the societies in which they grow up. (176)

| We tend to think of gender as binary–male or female–but it does not work like that. In most but not all societies, there’s more of a spectrum between masculine and feminine. (176)

Gender matters because it’s a core part of the social fabric in which all human develop the way they see and interpret the world. Gender also matters because it shapes our biology, even at the level of our brains. Substantial research demonstrates that there are very limited biological structural differences between male and female brains. In fact, there is much more variation across all human brains than there is between male and (178) female ones, so research into brain variation is often best done not on the male versus female level but at the level of variation among individuals and in populations. … But here’s the surprise: There are patterns in adult brain function that help you to sort them by gender. As a human develops, the patterns of connections the brain develops are influenced by the individual’s experience as he or she acquires gender. The process by which humans acquire gender shapes our neurobiology. (179)

Excavating Gender

Differences in body size and costly infants are the only clues we have to possible gender differences in our human ancestors between about 2 million and about 50,000 years ago. (179)

That’s it. Males are a bit stronger and bigger (on average), and females have some specific constraints due to our big-brained, costly infants. Nothing else in the fossil or archaeological record before about 30,000 to 50,000 years ago gives us any real clues to gender. (180)

We do not see good fossil or archaeological evidence of gendered hunting differences until recent times (the last 10,000 to 20,000 years or so). (180)

| We do have some evidence that while males and females hunted together, they may have differed in their roles in the posthunt processing of foods and hides. We know that earlier humans, especially the Neanderthals, used their teeth extensively as part of their tool kit. A recent overview of Neanderthal teeth from three different sites and of both males and females shows there were slightly different wear patterns between the sexes and that tooth chipping happened for males more on the (180) upper teeth and for females more on the lower teeth. While this is not much to go on, it suggests that males and females were doing slightly different things with their teeth in the processing of meat and hides. (181)

As for toolmaking,… There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that toolmaking for nearly the entire 2-million-year history of our genus was gender biased. None. … The modern gender assumptions about men and tools and men and hunting are really, really recent. But why? (181)

Art is another area where the re-creations show us men painting caves and carving figurines. (182)

By more recent times, the last 10,000 to 15,000 years or so, especially after the event of agriculture and settlements but including more recent forager peoples, gender roles become clearer. We start to see differences in the bone and tooth chemistry between males and females, suggesting slight differences in nutritional status; we also start to see (182) differences in the muscle scars and wear marks on the bones, suggesting slightly different lifestyles or work patterns. And we also see an uptick in the birth rates, suggesting that women were spending more time being pregnant and in the early infancy caretaking and feeding roles. All of these patterns could be reflecting gender. Grave goods and burial patterns also start to show some status and gender differences around this same time (in some cases males and females are buried with different items). …heightened social and material complexity, inequality, and gender all start showing up hand in hand in this most recent phase of human evolution. Males and females always overlap a lot, but the closer in time we come to the present, the more we see evident differences in their roles in the acquisition and processing of food, in the caretaking of young, in the production of art, in the social hierarchies of societies, and in their sexuality. (183)

Ordinary, Everyday Creative Sexuality

Social sex became an important part of social interaction in our apelike ancestors and likely even more so in our recent hominin ancestors. Human bodies evolved to be physiologically capable of engaging in sex year-round and across most of their lives. Humans developed caretaking systems that lessened the constraints imposed by the energetic costs of reproduction. We evolved a system that freed sex from a direct link to physiology and parenting and enabled its use more broadly as a social tool. Then we got really creative. (183)

| Humans evolved the capacity to form tight and lasting bonds between individuals that create physiological and emotional ties that are forged, broken, and remade in part via sexual activity. Humans created gender, where males and females adopted differing roles in society and the concomitant expectations for how to behave. Gender created a (183) complexity in how, with whom, and when humans have sex. Today sexual activity, or even the possibility of sexual activity, can be about pleasure, politics, power, or even just fun. The bottom line is that humans don’t just have sex; they have “sexuality.” (184)

…sexuality is a somatic fact created by cultural effect. – Anne Fausto-Sterling

Over the last 1.5 million years or so, the genus Homo developed a parenting system that radically shifted the costs from a single female to a wider range of individuals. … There is almost no evidence for the nuclear family as the core residence and social unit in the archaeological record until very, very recently (sometime between the last few thousand years and the last few centuries). (185)

Humans have created a set of expectations for how people should behave based on cultural assumptions about their biological sex. But these assumptions often rely on incorrect or at least overgeneralized notions about what being male or female means biologically. And because of this, many humans feel at odds with their culture’s gender assumptions. …over time, gender roles and patterns change, much more rapidly and widely than the actual biology of being male or female. That means gender is not a static thing; it changes just like all other cultural patterns and processes. Thus, the sexuality associated with one’s gender will, like just about everything else, change across time. (186)

| To top it all off, humans are strange-looking mammals with an amazing creative capacity for imagination and symbol. (186)

This weird focus on breasts emerges because some cultures have created an association with this part of female anatomy and what we call desire. Desire is as strong longing or sense of want and hope for acquiring someone or something. Much in contemporary human sexuality is built around desire. (187)

Once we throw together gender, language, cultural diversity, and the human body, we create a template for human sexuality that is wide open (187) to innovation, to alteration, and to limitation. Human sexuality is not fixed to reproductive sex, so we can exploit the physical sensations associated with sex in a variety of ways–for fun. This enables humans to make sex a part of many different aspects of daily life and manipulate that sexuality for social, political, and even economic ends. (188)

…we are not blank slates, but we are also not pink and blue notepads. – Rebecca Jordan-Young

THE GREAT WORKS: How Humans Made the Universe

9. Religious Foundations

The majority of the religions practiced today are no older than a few thousand years, and none have clearly identifiable roots older than about 6,000 to 8,000 years ago (Hinduism is the oldest we know of at present). This means that for most of our history, as a genus (Homo) and as a species (Homo sapiens), the world of organized religion, that thing that is so central to humanity’s everyday existence today, was either very different or not here at all. (195)

What Is “Religious”?

Regardless of how we classify them, most humans regularly behave as if there were a transcendent or supernatural reality whether they explicitly believe in one or not. People around the world have superstitions connected to everyday behavior, and they display them without (196) considering their origin or validity. Knocking on wood, avoiding the evil eye, carrying a charm for luck, believing certain things about certain dates, particular animals, and appropriate behavior around the dead, are all examples. These actions assume that there is an element of the supernatural at play, even if the assumption is subconscious. The most important and ubiquitous aspect of this human investment in the transcendent is that of wishing and hope. (197)

Wishing and hope reflect the human ability to generate expectations of future outcomes by using more than what is predictable based on one’s surroundings or based on what one has experienced. … Other animals might occasionally perform risky or unpredictable behavior, but humans regularly hope and wish for outcomes that seem beyond our capacities, and we try to achieve them, as individuals and as communities. This is a regular part of human existence. (197)

It’s very likely this ability to hope and wish preceded, and formed a baseline for, the capacity to be religious today. (198)

cf. “Why Religion Is Nothing Special but Is Central” by Maurice Bloch

…over our evolutionary history, we’ve gone from being transactional beings to being transactional and transcendent beings. … We have roles, rules, and interactions that are based on more than strict experience and material reality; these roles and rules are created by our individual and communal imaginations and made real. … The rituals we perform and the expectations we have in regard to genders, nations, religions, and economic systems are all part of this package. … This process is almost certainly tied to the emergence of what we call “religion.” (198)

There is an old joke among archaeologists that whenever you are digging up a site that is older than 4,000 to 5,000 years and you find an item that does not clearly have a function (such as for cooking, hunting, or storage), then you call the item either “art” or “religious.” (198)

Maurice Bloch points out a second problem when he tells us that “anthropologists have, after countless fruitless attempts, found it impossible to usefully and convincingly cross-culturally isolate or define a distinct phenomenon that can analytically be labelled ‘religion.'” (199)

The Sense of Identity

Anthropologists Candace Alcorta and Richard Sosis give us a list of four key patterns that appear in most, if not all, practices-and-beliefs sets that we usually call religion. (199)

  • First, they argue that religions are characterized by a belief in supernatural agents and counterintuitive concepts. … The belief in supernatural agents also creates the possibility of (199) what Alcorta and Sosis call “counterintuitive concepts,” such as talking animals, bleeding statues, virgin births, resurrections, and a range of what one might call “miracles.” (200)
  • The second characteristic is communal participation in religious ritual. … It relies on symbols, and the rituals themselves act to reinforce or increase the effect of the belief in supernatural agents. … The capacity to create symbols and to have them enable connections to the supernatural or transcendent is a distinctively human creative skill. (200)
  • The acceptance of the supernatural and a reliance on symbolic ritual lead to the third category: a separation of the sacred and the secular. The anthropologist Roy Rappaport tells us that “ritual does not merely identify that which is sacred; it creates the sacred.” (200)
  • Finally, Alcorta and Sosis suggest that all of this knowledge–the religious system and the behavior, beliefs, and patterns associated with it–has to be learned. (201)

Evidence of Religious Experience?

All of these early symbolic (or symbol-like) items tell us that the capacity for symbolic and possibly religious thought and behavior appears at least 300,000 to 500,000 years ago, sporadically across the range of populations of the genus Homo. (203)

It is the increasing use and diversification of sounds as part of the communication system that many researchers suggest might be a critical point in the development of (204) the capacity for symbolic behavior. … They began to communicate about the ideas behind the day-to-day facts of making a living. It’s not surprising that at this point in time we see the earliest symbol-like items. Our ancestors began to experiment with making meaning. (205)

| Once the process of making meaning had begun, it is not a giant leap to see what we might call “figurative language,” a system of sounds and gestures that enables the emergence of metaphor. The use of gestures and sounds to represent something else–an experience, a thought, a hope, or some other facet of the imagination…our ancestors were developing the capacity to share what was in their minds, to imagine and to share their imaginings. They were developing the capacity for a central facet of all human lives: the ability to tell stories. (205)

We have very little material evidence that transcendent experiences and a recognition of the supernatural were prominent in the lives of our ancestors for the first 75 percent of our evolutionary history. But over the last 25 percent of the history of Homo we see increasing evidence of symbolic meaning and the potential material evidence of transcendent experiences in the lives of our ancestors. …the capacity to be religious emerged over our evolutionary history, and religion eventually became a fixture of human identity. (207)

| But why? (207)

The Road to the Big God(s)

…humans are, first of all, embodied beings, and as such what we do, think, and feel is conditioned by the materiality of our embodiment. … There is a ‘naturalness’ to religious imagination and the human quest for meaning. – Wentzel van Huyssteen

…analyses must focus on the functional effects of the religious system, the coalescence of independent parts that constitute the fabric of religion. … These traits derive from pre-human ritual systems and were selected for in early hominin populations. … By fostering cooperation and extending the communication and coordination of social relations across time and space…the religious system…is an exquisite, complex adaptation that serves to support extensive human cooperation and coordination, and social life as we know it. – Richard Sosis

In this case, religion emerges from human capacities for ritual, symbol, and expansive emotional experience co-opted by evolutionary processes to solve the problem of obtaining the highest possible levels of cooperation. (209)

Some biologists and psychologists propose that the origin of religion and religious belief are adaptations generated via natural (or cultural) selection to help humans organize large groups and facilitate cooperation. Others posit that the patterns and structures of religious belief are both generated and constrained by the normal functioning of the human cognitive system (our minds). They argue that religion is best seen as sets of beliefs and that there are underlying psychological mechanisms that enable humans to conceive of supernatural agents and believe in them. (209)

Johnson and Bering argue that these major religions and their strong tendency toward moral policing and punishing god(s) are the direct product of evolution by natural selection for specific cognitive (neurological and perceptual) characteristics. (210)

The arguments for big and punishing god(s) have become very popular, and they seem to make a lot of sense. But there are a few problems with these hypotheses. (211)

The big and punishing god(s) scenarios overemphasize the need for human communities to develop new methods of coordinating cooperative interactions at larger scales. We know that intensive cooperation was already in place well before the advent of full-blown agriculture, sedentism, gender, and social inequality. The Big God(s) story overlooks the possibility that much of the infrastructure the scenarios assume (hyper-cooperation, complex communication, symbol use, etc.) was already in place by at least 100,000 years ago (or even earlier) and certainly well before the 5,000-to-7,000-years-ago time frame in which the current Big God(s) religions appear. (211)

Unfortunately, we end up with a “chicken and egg” scenario with the Big God(s) hypotheses. It’s pretty clear from the timeline that the presence and structure of Big God(s) religions are outcomes of the initial moves toward increasing social complexity and material inequality, but they are also likely driving forces behind the fostering of civil control, punishment, and intergroup conflict (such as warfare). It’s not so much that the Big God(s) story is wrong; it is more that it is incomplete and not a really good explanation of religiosity or religious experience. Rather, it’s an explanation about the rise of particular kinds of religion and religious institutions. Besides, to get the rise of such complex and coordinated religions, you’d need to have the religious experience already firmly as part of the human landscape. (211)

One critical point missing from many of the scientific explanations of religion is the religious experience. … The cognitive, physiological, and perceptual realities of people who believe in Big God(s) religions vary (a lot), and in that variation there might be a relevant complexity that is missed when we focus our explanation on what religion “does” as opposed to what it “is” for believers. (212)

My point is that we have to more seriously ask if we can disregard the lived experience of religious people in favor of providing overarching structural and evolutionary explanations for religions. (213)

Imagination, Faith, and Hope Came First

Well before the first appearance of modern humans there is ample evidence that our ancestors were developing increasingly complex substantial cognitive and behavioral responses to ecological and social challenges. Everything we know about the human past suggests that it was this behavioral and cognitive agility combined with increasing social cooperation and coordination, and the development of and experimentation with symbolic thought, that enabled humans to create our modern capacity for extensive shared intentionality, metacoordination, and language. At the heart of these innovations is the ability to create meaning in ways that are distinctive. (213)

| The study of how organisms approach meanings and patterns in the world is called semiosis” (literally “to mark,” the process of identifying signs and meaning). At some point in our evolution humans developed a new kind of semiosis–the use and creation of symbol. (213)

Perception, meaning, and experience are as central in human history as are muscles, bones, and hormones (at least over the last few hundred thousand years). How humans see the world–or better put, how humans perceive the world to be–is a major part of our evolutionary story. The manner in which symbols are generated, perceived, and utilized by humans structures perceptions and behavior and creates a human ecology where the material world (the physical environment) is never without semiotic (including symbolic) markings; we, in part, create the world we live in. The human perception of the world structures how we interact with it–belief matters in an evolutionary sense. (214)

In humans the ability to imagine responses to both material and perceived pressures, and to convert those imaginings into material items or actions, became a major tool in our success. This evolutionary benefit to having and deploying an imagination results in increasing use of the imaginative reaction to a diverse set of challenges, social and ecological. One way in which the imagination is deployed in humans is in religious ritual, structures, and institutions. (215)

…religious belief and practice, and the deep history of the religious experience, are not actually explained via current practices of religion. We have to identify the kinds of structures, behaviors, and cognitive processes that might have enhanced the role that human symbol creation and use, and the human imagination, had in the initial appearances of religious experience, belief, ritual, and their associated institutions, in our archaeological past. (215)

All religions have been changing since their inceptions and still are. Anyone who cannot accept that and asserts that their version of a given religion, exactly as it stands, is both unchanged and the one true human religion is wrong. There is abundant evidence that humans were religious long before any of the modern-day religions existed. (217)

Religious, Religions, and HUmans

It is highly likely that, as the theologian Wentzel van Huyssteen suggests, there is a naturalness to the human religious imagination and that it is part of the processes that facilitated the human evolutionary success over the past few hundred thousand years. (217)

Abundant research shows that those who argue that being religious or belonging to a religion makes one a better moral or altruistic person are wrong. (218)

10. Artistic Flights

Beyond Practicality

But do other species create “art”? (222)

…I have little doubt that other primates and humans can agree on some things as aesthetic. Maybe the capacity to sense and enjoy aesthetic beauty is shared across the primates. But it is what humans do with that sense of beauty, where we take it, that differs. There is more to art than aesthetics. (225)

| We assign meaning to patterns and processes of aesthetic ore ven anti-aesthetic designs, images, items, and behaviors. (225)

AN Elegant Stone Tool in a Noisy World of Color and Line

Contrary to popular belief, the first human art was neither paintings nor carvings nor melodies. It came in the form of shaped pieces of stone. (226)

…the “golden section” or “golden ratio” for a type of Acheulean tool called a biface (a stone shaped on both sides to create sharp edges and a point). … When the archaeologist Matthew Pope and colleagues looked at 148 assemblages comprising more than 8,000 bifaces from across the Acheulean record of Europe, Africa, the Near East, and India, they found that the vast majority fit in the range of the golden ratio. This is almost 100 percent impossible via pure chance. The members of the genus Homo, across vast distances, were making tools that were aesthetically pleasing, as well as good for using. Aesthetic taste had an impact on stone toolmaking. (228)

The stone tools and their manufacture became a way for groups (228) to develop their sense of identity and do what anthropologists call changing “space” to “place” in making the landscape their own. (229)

…the capacity to doodle is a necessary precursor to the capacity to draw, engrave, and create imagery. … The doodle, the active engraving of lines or shapes into an object, is pleasing aesthetically for whatever reason and is done to occupy the imagination, not to get food or get some job done. The capacity for idle daydreaming and doodling are connected and might be a critical ability that the lineage Homo developed and cultivated over the last 300,000 years. (233)


The transition from doodling to lines to creating objects that are shaped to look like people and animals took a bit longer. There are two possible very early figurines. The first is called the Tan-Tan figurine from Morocco: (234)

The second is a stone from the site of Berekhat Ram in Israel (about 300,000 years old) that also has a naturally human-looking form. (234):

Probably the best-known human-shaped figurine is the Venus of Willendorf, a four-inch-tall carving of a female found at a site in Austria and dating to around 27,000 years ago. (235):

The first question (why females?) has usually been answered by the old “it must be religious” line. … However, in the past few decades researchers have revised these ideas and offered alternatives. One idea is that female artists were making the figurines and the disproportionality of certain body parts came from the perspective one gets when looking at one’s own body. Others disagree about the auto-artistic pattern and suggest that (235) the varying emphases on different body parts are most likely due to specific cultural traditions and artistic tastes involving particular emphasis on female forms. Some even suggest that we are mistaken to think only about the visual here and that these figurines (as small as they were) were meant to be held and thus the exaggerated body parts were an element of the sensory aspects of holding the figures. (236)

[via: This feels like a depth psychologist’s gold mine.]

| If you look at the whole range of small figurines from the earliest human figurines at about 30,000 years ago to more recent ones even 10,000 years ago, you see a lot of variation. Most are females; some are males; many are also animals or hybrid human-animal mixes. They range in body shape and relative emphasis on different body parts. Rarely do they have details of all body parts clearly present. This diversity suggests a range of visual and tactile meanings from the purely aesthetic to the ritual and even the religious. The meanings behind these figurines probably depended a lot on the specific group that made them, and thus there were likely many reasons for the figurines. (236)

| One of the most interesting things about figurines is that they show up around the same time, or just after, paintings on cave walls. (236)

cf. Sulawesi, Indonesia, at a site called Leang Timbuseng:

cf. Leang Jarie at a site called El Castillo; the caves at Altamira, Spain:

As impressive as the cave art and figurines are, there is one curious subject missing from nearly all of them before around 8,000 to 10,000 years ago: detailed human faces. … The archaeologist Ian Kiujt and others argue that it is not until about 10,000 years ago or so, with the advent of villages and agriculture and the concomitant increasing commitment to senses of property, identity, and place, that the role of the human face in art starts to take shape. (238)

[Steven] Mithen suggests that part of this new system of communication was the increased use of “sound synesthesia,” in which vocalizations are used to represent the size of things, their movement, or both. … In this scenario, music and language go hand in hand, and there is some good neurobiological evidence that the two are tightly interconnected. (240)

In line with (240) Mithen’s assertions about melody and music, and those of the philosopher Merlin Donald, who argues for mimesis (in which humans began to rehearse and refine movements in controlled and systematic ways, with this ability enabling them to reproduce the movements on command and imbue them with more and more complex meaning), [Maxine] Sheets-Johnstone places and emphasis on dance and the use and coordination of movement to convey empathy, meaning, and content. Sheets-Johnstone argues that humanity danced itself into our current form. (241)

The jury is still out on the role of sound, melody, and dance in human evolution, but I’m willing to make a substantial bet that the sensations (241) one feels, and the meanings one infers, on hearing the “dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker or Charlie Parker’s “Summertime” or the Rolling Stones’ “You can’t Always Get What You Want” have very deep roots.

| Verbal and gestural storytelling is the final type of art that does not truly fossilized. In truth, all art is about storytelling of a sort. …the human capacity to gather a group together and, via sounds, gestures, and possibly visual aids, to relate a set of ideas, events, hopes, and dreams is more than just distinctively human; it is probably the key outcome of our evolution as a creative species. Storytelling is how we humans navigate the world. On a daily basis we relate to others events, ideas, and experiences that are separate from the moment in time and the physical place in which we are relating them.

The creation of art is the story of storytelling. Nearly 2 million years ago the earliest members of the genus Homo developed and shared the capacities to make Oldowan stone tools; then they coordinated power scavenging, the exploitation of new foods, and the development of new tool types. They moved on to hunting and fire and the use of ochre, the creation of engravings and figurines, the advent of domestication and agriculture, and the development of the visual arts. All the while our ancestors were moving, gesticulating, humming, grunting, dancing, singing, and eventually talking their way into the world we now live in. What’s more, there is no evidence at all that we have slowed down. The creative species is on a roll. (242)

Religion, Art, and …

Religious ideas are often symbolic, represented and revealed through art. Some even argue that art and religion are one and the same. but the evidence of artistic creativity predates, by far, the origins of any structured religious practices and rituals. … Across human history, and today, most art is not associated with any particular religion or religious practice. Religion uses art, but art is not necessarily religion. (243)

Our creative spark is also at the root of science. (243)

11. Scientific Architecture

We can’t seem to leave things alone–we keep tweaking, improving, and modifying them, and in the case of the toothbrush producing the humming, twirling, vibrating, plaque-destroying apparatuses of today. Humans rarely stop at one answer or one solution to a problem. Any solution can be tweaked, fiddled with, manipulated, and improved. (246)

But what if we think of science as a distinctively human way to understand the world, one that goes very deep back into our history? Then we discover that the human capacity for science is rooted in our creativity. (246)

Is It Just a Mechanism?

The scientific method can never “prove” something right. It can prove things absolutely wrong and it can demonstrate how something is accurate as far as our tests allow us to assess (supporting a hypothesis and developing theory). … Scientific inquiry does not end when we have a reliably tested answer, as current answers are rarely the best ones we’ll ever have. … The scientific method can tell us which explanations are not measurably correct, it can show us which explanations are likely correct via measurable verification, but it cannot tell us that those that appear correct now are the absolute best answers possible. (248)

The science fiction author Isaac Asimov tells us that “Science doesn’t purvey absolute truth. Science is a mechanism. It’s a way of trying to improve your knowledge of nature. It’s a system for testing your thoughts against the universe and seeing whether they match.” Meanwhile, the famous anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss tells us that “the scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.” Taking these three definitions of, or musings on, science, we can establish a baseline for assessing science in the human past: (249)

  • Science is about trying to figure out how the world works and seeking the answers in material explanations. (249)
  • Science involves some kind of testing of explanations or ideas in order to see if they “fit” with expected material outcomes (for example, things fall when you drop them; that is a material outcome, and gravity is our current, well-tested, scientific explanation for that).
  • The goal of science is to develop the best questions and improve our understandings, not to know all the answers. (249)

Undertaking science requires curiosity beyond just the drive to satiate hunger, thirst, or the need for sleep, sex, and safety. Engaging in science requires a deep desire to know how and why, and the persistence to try to figure out the answers to those questions, regardless of the frustration and failure we encounter. Doing science relies deeply on a driving curiosity and a capacity to imagine, to innovate, to experiment, and to create. Our creative evolutionary history, driven solely by neither competition nor sex nor violence, predisposed us to it. (250)


Humans investigate an experiment far more than is necessary for (251) function and survival. And then they teach one another about it. Humans want to know why and how, and we collaborate to build on previous information to develop more questions and ever more comprehensive, effective, and novel answers. This is the core of science. (252)

Beyond Hit or Miss

…in comparison to humans, chimpanzees use tools and innovate with tools much less. (253)

| There are a few reasons for this difference. First, humans ask “Why?” and “How?” more frequently and often do so collaborating in groups. (253)

Humans have the capacity to invent, but they also have the desire to take the invention and the information that comes from using the invention and revisit basic concepts and design. (254)

The Trajectory of a Spear

There is a very simple example that is used in introductory physics classes to illustrate how human minds began to incorporate math into their hunting. The model is called the “the monkey and the hunter.” (257):

This gives us the equation y = yo + vyot – 1/2gt2… Our ancestors did not envision the math as a literal equation. The formalization of algebra and calculus came much, much later. But they did begin to figure out the relationships described by the equation and use them as a basis for not just spears, but a whole array of other thrown items. (258)

Hafting is the creation of a composite tool: the combination of two tool types, stone and wood or bone and wood, via tying them and/or gluing them together. (258)

True hafted tools show up at least 125,000 years ago and more widely by 70,000 to 80,000 years ago. We can i imagine a lot of toolmaking and complex behavior going on without direct instruction and language, but composite tools are different–humans had to invent glue. (259)

The roots of modern science are evident in the creation of glue more than 70,000 years ago. (261)

The whole equation was females + male(s) + captivity + time = offspring, a kind of biocalculus. Once this was discovered, humans gained two important bits of data, true scientific insights: (1) Reproduction requires males and females (it takes two to tango), and (2) the offspring had properties similar to those of the parents. (264)

Scientific Inquiry Turned Inward

…there is another, equally powerful and important, outcome of our capacity to do science: a distinctive capacity to look within. We are the only species that has a scientific curiosity, and we have turned it on ourselves, producing both practical and existential challenges. In addition to seeking supernatural explanations for why we are here, we’ve recently begun to ask the questions, “Who are we?” and “What are we doing here?” through a scientific lens. (266)

The local people in part of southern Kalimantan (the Indonesian portion of the island Borneo) have an origin story about humans and orangutans. They tell of two brothers who lived in the forest. After many years one of the brothers tired of hanging out in the trees all day and decided to make himself productive. He set to work cleaning an area of the forest, building a house for his family, and starting to grow fruits and planting a garden. Meanwhile the other brother lounged in the trees, eating ripe fruit and teasing his industrious brother for working so hard. The hard-working brother became the ancestor of humans and the loafer in the trees gave rise to the orangutans. This story is not just something to pass the time. It contains scientific reflection. (266)

That humans were biologically related to (or even in) the mammalian order Primates was a well-known fact: Countless societies noticed it and the father of taxonomy, Linnaeus, placed it into the modern scientific canon more than a century before Darwin published his books. (267)

The human capacity for science goes hand in hand with our capacity for wonder and imagination: We are the creative species and our future depends on it. (268)

If this story of our past tells us anything, it is that we need to be truly imaginative and creative to best move forward as individuals, as communities, and as a species. It’s not that we won’t encounter, even generate, conflict and cruelty and make many mistakes, but our past demonstrates that it is in precisely those situations when things are most challenging that working and thinking together create the best solutions. (269)

Coda: The Beat of Your Creative Life

Martin Luther King’s impassioned vision strikes a chord not just because it argues powerfully against injustice and for equality, but because it draws on our shared capacities to imagine and create a better world. When Dr. King talks about his “dream,” he is really talking about our capacity to imagine and create change. (271)

Becoming and being human is messy, long, and difficult. (272)

Creativity is both an individual and a group activity. … Cooperation among members of a community across ages and genders from the very first day of life is our pattern. This pattern comprises innovation, sharing and teaching, conflict and challenges, communication and complexity, even failure. Living as a member of the creative species is no small feat, especially today. (272)

But today (272) we are in the Anthropocene (where human action is now a, or the, major force in climate and landscape change), the pace of change and the intensity of challenges make the Holocene look like it was in slow motion. The stakes are higher than ever before. It’s up to us not to screw it up. (273)

First Steps in the Human Dance

Diversity, challenge, and conflict help us maintain our imagination. … But small disagreements with family and friends, trouble with technology or finances, or challenges at work and at home can help us think through our own capabilities. Problems that need solutions force us to use our brains and one another in order to develop creative answers. Navigating landscapes that are varied, that offer trials and occasional conflicts, is more conducive to creativity than hanging out in landscapes that pose no challenge to our senses and our minds. (273)

The homogenization of the retail landscape in the United States has diminished the diversity of our experiences. (274)

So, embrace diversity. Accept the challenges it presents. That is the first simple guildeline. (275)

| What’s next? failure as part of the creative process. (275)

Human history is built from far more failures than successes. (275)

…without the sting of failure to spur us to reassess and rethink, progress would be impossible. – Hannah Bloch

Failing at an endeavor acts to demonstrate limitations, to force us to rethink or reevaluate how we do things, and to learn how to do them better. (275)

Sure, but Can You Be More Specific?


First, humans need a range of dietary items to acquire the correct balance of nutrients to keep us healthy. This is especially important for young humans. (277)

It’s very difficult to provide all the appropriate nutrition to growing human children without some animal protein. Humans start with an all-animal-protein diet via mother’s milk. … So while a non-animal-product diet can work for adults, it’s much more difficult to be safely vegetarian, especially vegan, as a child. (277)

Water does not get enough respect when we think of food. (278)

  • Forage wisely.
  • Eat fresh.
  • Eat socially.
  • Create equitable access.


Most people assume the gender differences we experience today are ancient, like sex differences. They are not, at least not in evolutionary time. (280)

…contrary to popular belief, the majority of gender differences are not linked to specific biological differences between males and females (which have not changed much in a long time). (281)

The best advice for navigating the complexities is to thine own self be true, as much as possible, and to be open to others following suit. Go back to that first principle in the human two-step: Welcome diversity. Dealing with issues of sexuality is difficult, but taking this implicit advice from our ancestors can help: Don’t go it alone. Discussing sexual relationships with partners and with communities, letting them be a part of the social fabric, can help make the complexity of human sexuality more navigable for all. (282)

| Sex, gender, and sexuality are frequently tied to marriage and parenting. Two key points derived from our evolutionary history are salient here: (1) Marriage and pair-bonds are not the same thing, and (2) parenting is not a solo (or female-only) activity. (282)

…the archaeological and historical evidence is pretty clear on this: Marriage is a recent human creation, not something from our deep past. While the goal of seeking marriage and a specific romantic relationship is recent, our drive to form tight pair-bonds is very deep. (282)

Importantly, our sexual pair-bonding, like our sexual activity, is not limited to reproduction. (283)

All the evidence we have suggests that humans are communal breeders and that males and females, young and old, had a hand in raising children for much of our history. (283)

(1) Humans evolved infants that are really, really needy, and a single caretaker (or even two caretakers) would be very stressed raising one. (2) Gendering the caretaking responsibilities in such an extreme manner has the potential to both limit the behavioral and social options of females, increasing gender inequality, and limit the exposure of the infant to a diversity of individuals and experiences, thus reducing the stimuli on its developing brain and mind and potentially inhibiting its imagination. (283)

We (283) should take a cue from human evolutionary processes and do all we can to create social and diverse exposure for developing minds and support and equity for females who are reproducing. (284)

Here are some sex and gender bullets:

  • We can recognize biological differences between females and males, but also that females and males are not as different as most think. This is a great start.
  • Gender is a spectrum, not an either-or human trait. Take comfort that no matter where one falls on the gender spectrum, it’s smack dab in the normal range for humans.
  • Humans have an expansive range of sexual behavior, and as long as one’s own version of it does not involve harm or coercion, it’s part of the range of regular human experience. No matter how one seeks to experience sexuality, it is highly likely that one is not alone.
  • Humans can develop pair-bonds (even multiple pair-bonds) across the life span. But these are not the same as marriage. Marriage is a recent creative development. Focusing on developing strong social connections first can make the other social goals (marriage, family, partners, or whatever one seeks) easier to achieve.
  • Parenting is hard. It’s best not to go it alone. If one does find herself with children and no partner(s), depend on family and friends. It is what we humans have done for 2 million years. (284)


Every time we watch news reports, read updates, or tune in to any media sources, the lead stories are almost always about horrific things. It would surprise no one to see a headline in The New York Times that read “Four (284) Killed in New York City Today.” But a much more common occurrence, the more important new story for that day, would be a headline we never see: “7,999,996 People Got Along Today in New York City.” (285)

Collaboration, cooperation, and coordination are not the opposites of, or antidotes to, violence and cruelty. … In warfare it is not the most violent army that wins, but rather it’s the most cooperative, coordinated, and caring to their comrades that does. That should give us hope for options and alternatives. (285)

  • No one is violent simply because of her or his genes or sex. Anyone who says these facets of our evolutionary history made her or him a rapist or murderer is lying.
  • Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. It can oftentimes be good. Conflict and competition are not synonymous with violence, aggression, or cruelty. (285)
  • Beware of the blaring media. They are trying to sell us something, using horror and fear to do it. Most of the time humans are getting along creatively.
  • Violence is an option for humans, not an obligation, fate, or necessity. Cruelty happens, but compassion happens more. Our challenge is to figure out how to use this fact in our daily lives.
  • Inequality is tied to violence, and it’s here to stay. But it’s neither static nor uniform. We can, and should, get creative about how we as individuals, as communities, and as a species develop and manage inequality. (286)


  • If one is not religious, one shouldn’t knock religious individuals because they have a particular faith. We should recognize and respect that most humans on the planet belong to a particular religion. We all share the same capacities for making and engaging with meaning. We just do so in different ways.
  • If one is religious, one shouldn’t think that there is only one way to be good and to understand the world and that it belongs to a particular religious tradition. There are copious data that prove this view wrong.
  • We should beware of people using the institutions or particular assertions of religions to destroy or reduce creativity and human potential. Denying our capacities and tendencies as creative species (e.g. complex sexuality, community, science, and art) is profoundly destructive. Religious fundamentalism typically results in repression and abuse and should be opposed. (287)
  • No single human tradition or institution, religious or otherwise, has all the answers or owns the right answers. There are many ways to be human. Be generous even as you hold tight to your own beliefs. (288)


The capacity to tell a story, to depict feeling, to sing and dance a sensation, is as important as our ability to make stone tools, to build a fire, to avoid being eaten, to figure out how to raise a crop. (288)

  • Everyone is an artist as a child. Why Stop? Foster art in children, but continue to foster it in adults. Do something related to art every now and then, and collaborate with friends and family.
  • Don’t confine what one considers art to “high” and “low” categories. Ballet and street dancing, graffiti and oil paintings, limericks and sonnets, doodles and marble sculptures–one doesn’t have to like it all, but it all art. It maintains humanity.
  • Respect your plumber, mechanic, and bus driver in addition to painters, sculptors, musicians, authors, and actors. Those ancestors who made particularly aesthetic stone tools, who were flamboyant and stylized in their defleshing of an elephant, or who created new ways of assembling food before presenting it to the group were all infusion their craft with a sense of art. Craft in everyday life can be artistic. (289)


Humans are never completely objective. Anyone, scientist or otherwise, who does not acknowledge that is deluded. So any science we hear of is going to have creative flourishes. The difference is that in science, no matter what a scientist says, one should be able to look into the data used and make one’s own judgment. (290)

As Isaac Asimov said, science is “a system for testing your thoughts against the universe and seeing whether they match.” Science is within your reach. (291)

  • Most science is not rocket science. Humans have the skills to understand a lot more than we think we do. Our particular blend of curiosity, cognitive capacity, collaborative teaching and learning, and creativity enables us to think about and digest information in particularly effective, and imaginative, ways. Using this talent can benefit us all.
  • Evolutionary approaches and all of the physical, biological, and social sciences are critical in understanding health, environmental issues, race and racism, aging, gender and sex, violence, and many, many more core issues facing humans on a daily basis. Basic science is as important as arithmetic, reading, writing, and history. We should teach it to children.
  • Science is supposed to have a built-in BS detector. If there is no way to assess what scientists are saying, then remain wary. Don’t let scientists off the hook; demand clearer and better translations of research into accessible information. Notice the boundary between the methodology and those performing it. (291)
  • Liv it. Science is about trying to figure out how the world works and seeking the answers in material explanation. Do it every day…Enjoy! (292)

Go Forth and Be Creative

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  1. Pingback: The Expanding Circle | Reflections & Notes | vialogue

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