This book explores a unique feature of humans: our ability to imagine, to improvise, and to create the unexpected. Using examples from music, comedy, philosophy, religion, as well as exploring concepts from evolutionary biology, animal behavior, and neuroscience, Stephen Asma attempts to explain this exceptional human quality. In addition to being a philosopher, Asma is also a jazz musician, and most sections begin by describing some part of the process of creating music, which was both understandable, as improvisation is a cornerstone of jazz music and creating music for pure enjoyment is a rare trait to find in the animal world, but also slightly grating as it felt like an overused device. However, as I progressed through the book, I found myself looking forward to the jazz descriptions, as they tended to be more relatable than several of the other “in-jokes” that permeated the tale. He explores early human and proto-human behavior and compares us to near and distant relatives. The presented information is guided by a diverse variety of disciplines, and makes for a tale that was different than what I had expected.
I was excited to read this book, as I have a PhD in evolutionary biology and have always been fascinated with “detours” that move us away from common topics, like how tool use evolved, and into the more esoteric realm, a realm dominated, if you will, by imagination. However, I struggled to remain engaged, primarily due to the author's tone. The goal of this book did not seem to be to educate the masses, but instead to draw new connections in knowledge that already exists. This led me to feel as though I had been thrust into a cocktail party where everyone already knew each other, so there was no need to explain the jokes. In retrospect, the disconnect could be a result of my own expectations and perspectives, as I am used to reading about evolution from a more scientific perspective, and while this book was certainly guided by science, it did not follow the conventions that are typical of science writing. The ultimate joke may be on me, as Asma takes great pains to define and illustrate the concept of the “self,” which must be defined at least partly by our own experiences. Perhaps my own imaginative mind could not connect with the product of his imaginative mind due to the presence of the self.
Despite this, I finally found myself engaged in the fourth chapter, which was about the evolution of language and storytelling. “When language emerged, imagination took off in a powerful way” (p. 147). I enjoyed learning about the dual functions of imaginative communication—social bonding and information transmission—and I was riveted by the idea of gossip, or social grooming, as a substitute for physical grooming. Asma presents the idea that gossip, as well as other forms of social communication, evolved as sort of “remote grooming” where people can share important information and develop bonds (in-groups and out-groups) at the same time. Then, in chapter five, I remained riveted as Asma described a theory of brain size evolution that may be related to prehistoric climate change, which would necessitate rapid adaptability. I found my own imagination devising various storylines for the future of humankind as we grapple with current climate-related pressures.
I would recommend this book to those interested in how creativity developed in humans, but I do not see this as a general use book. I teach AP Biology and weave evolution throughout the entire course, but aside from the occasional comment as I link seemingly unrelated topics together, I do not predict this book adding anything to my curriculum.