Amongst life on earth, humans are undeniably exceptional. We write symphonies and plays, paint and sculpt. We create vehicles that can transport us underground, under water, in air, or even into space. We have multiple complex, symbolic languages that allow us to communicate abstract thoughts and emotions. And we have created tools that could lead to the utter destruction of ourselves and possibly all life on Earth, or at least a significant portion of it.
In this book, Agustín Fuentes asks: What truly makes humans unique? Is it our capacity for exploitation? Or cooperation? Our biological history, or perhaps our ability to use our intelligence to overcome biological limitations? Fuentes argues that these descriptions are all incomplete; instead, it is our creativity that sets us apart from other animals. The book is formally split into four sections that seem to divide neatly into two halves, first focusing on prehistorical human evolution, and then the past 10,000 years or so. In both sections, Fuentes provides a well-documented and detailed survey of research into human origins from ape-like ancestors to Homo sapiens sapiens. Whether his topic is tool use and modification, subsistence strategies, art, science, violence, or sex, Fuentes offers a thorough synthesis of historical and modern research on the topic being described.
One thing I really appreciate is his dedication to a phylogenetic comparative method, especially in the earlier chapters on tool use and social grouping. For example, comparisons with chimpanzee behavior show us that our most recent common ancestor (who lived around 5 to 7 million years ago) would likely have had the ability to walk bipedally for short distances, live in complex social groups, and have at least a limited use of natural objects as tools. All of these characteristics we generally think of as important for humans, but they are not unique to us, and this book does a great job of giving a comparative outlook where many do not. However, as I mentioned earlier, Fuentes’ main assertion is that the one thing that makes humans stand out is our creativity. In each chapter he describes the moments of creativity that lead to new behaviors or inventions, but in some cases they veer a little close to “just-so” stories. They are insightful and backed by evidence, but it is not made clear enough for my taste where the evidence ends and the supposition begins.
The book ends with a sort of motivational coda that, while interesting, seems a bit out of place with most of the book. Fuentes begins the section by acknowledging he is no expert life coach, but then proceeds to give bulleted lessons inspired by evolutionary history. This portion may sit better with a more general reader, but I felt that the space would have been better suited to a summary wrap-up and review of all the ways creativity played a role in human evolution to this point, without the vision-board mantras.
What this book does right, it does very right. Fuentes gives a thorough, but never dry or overwrought, overview of human evolution. He highlights the impact of creativity and the role of the hominin brain in our history, and uses our primate relatives to provide necessary and insightful contrasts. If you are looking for a personal overview of human evolution with a popular science feel, I would recommend this book. I also see its value in the classroom, and would recommend teachers already using a book like Nicholas Wade's Before the Dawn (2006) or Richard Wrangham's Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (2009) to look to this for a more current and socially conscious update. The reading level of this book is generally best suited for a postsecondary seminar course if read in full. In small sections, it would also serve as a useful supplement to high school course texts, especially if grouped with curricular materials from the Smithsonian's Human Origins website or U.C.-Berkeley's Understanding Evolution website.