340 pages, b/w illustrations1 customer review
Creativity. It is the secret of what makes humans special, hiding in plain sight. Agustín Fuentes argues that your child's finger painting comes essentially from the same place as creativity in hunting and gathering millions of years ago, and throughout history in making war and peace, in intimate relationships, in shaping the planet, in our communities, and in all of art, religion, and even science. It requires imagination and collaboration. Every poet has her muse; every engineer, an architect; every politician, a constituency. The manner of the collaborations varies widely, but successful collaboration is inseparable from imagination, and it brought us everything from knives and hot meals to iPhones and interstellar spacecraft.
Weaving fascinating stories of our ancient ancestors' creativity, Fuentes finds the patterns that match modern behavior in humans and animals. This key quality has propelled the evolutionary development of our bodies, minds, and cultures, both for good and for bad. It's not the drive to reproduce; nor competition for mates, or resources, or power; nor our propensity for caring for one another that have separated us out from all other creatures.
As Fuentes concludes, to make something lasting and useful today you need to understand the nature of your collaboration with others, what imagination can and can't accomplish, and, finally, just how completely our creativity is responsible for the world we live in. Agustín Fuentes's resounding multimillion-year perspective will inspire readers – and spark all kinds of creativity.
"The Creative Spark is strong on man's imaginative accomplishments and offers an important corrective to the skewed debate on human nature. A species that, uniquely, ponders its own exceptionality will surely be fascinated by it."
– The Economist
"Fuentes presents his theories in a captivating narrative that feels like an intriguing mystery [...] To look up from The Creative Spark after finishing the last page is to see the world in new, complex ways. Fuentes's work adds depth to our reality and fosters a deep respect and appreciation for the many forms creativity takes."
– Shelf Awareness
"Harnessing the latest findings in evolution, biology, and archaeology [Fuentes] creates a new synthesis to show that the great drivers of human progress have been creativity and cooperation, and that many of the things we believe about ourselves, from religion to race, are wrong."
– NationalGeographic.com, Book Talk
"Condensing a great deal of anthropological research, Fuentes shows how imaginative resourcefulness enabled a vulnerable species lacking fangs and claws to survive in a world of fierce predators [...] whether facing the current threat of armed conflict or pondering contemporary controversies surrounding gender and religion, Fuentes draws one imperative lesson from humankind's deep past: we survive as a species only so long as we continue to creatively innovate."
"The diverse studies in creativity are good ones [...] encompassing everything from conflict resolution to learning how to use fire to cook – not just red meat, but fish and vegetables as well [...] an informative, readable introduction to recent scholarship on the anthropology of creativity."
– Kirkus Reviews
"Creativity is an essential reason why Homo sapiens have progressed to the point we have: dominating an entire planet and eagerly searching the universe, argues anthropologist Fuentes [...] His thesis is an intriguing and insightful one."
– Library Journal
"A revolutionary perspective on what it means to be human. Fuentes breathes new life into one of our oldest questions. So much of what we think of as uniquely human has stagnated around a linear version of intelligence. Fuentes introduces imagination as a powerful force that has shaped who we are, and how we have become so successful. Thoughtfully researched and beautifully written, The Creative Spark is destined to become a classic."
– Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, authors of New York Times bestseller The Genius of Dogs
"In The Creative Spark, everything old and familiar – from livestock and tools, to marriage and war, and everything in between – is made fresh and new in this fascinating retelling of the story of humans' unique evolutionary journey. Grand in scope, but packed with detailed research and intimate prose, Fuentes once again gives us the precious gift of an accessible demolition of long-held assumptions, and a compelling, important, and revelatory understanding of ourselves."
– Cordelia Fine, Prof. of History & Philosophy of Science, University of Melbourne, author of Delusions of Gender
"A magisterial tour of what makes us human, and how we got that way. Large and complex controversies are judiciously evaluated in a clearly written, fascinating way, and coherently assembled into a persuasive alternative to the simplistic biologisms that dominate contemporary discourse. This is the best guide I know on how the human world evolved, and a solid foundation for creative optimism."
– R. Brian Ferguson, Prof. of Anthropology, Rutgers University-Newark
"A perfect example of our humanness. It combines individual creativity with a synthesis of the works of others to describe how the lives of humans and our ancestors were changed, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, by harnessing and expanding creative abilities. Anyone who is curious about how we arrived at our present condition will want to read this book."
– Lynne Isbell, Prof. and Chair of Anthropology, U.C., Davis, author of The Fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent
With his new book, The Creative Spark, Agustín Fuentes, a primatologist and anthropologist currently at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, boldly puts forth the idea that what makes humans special is creativity. The ability of humans to switch back and forth between considering what is, and dreaming of what might be, and to then put these thoughts into actions (often collaboratively), has brought us a very long way from our primate origins to the tool-wielding, world-shaping force of nature of today. Along the way, Fuentes wants to do away with some of the dominant narratives regarding human evolution today, or rather, he thinks most of them oversimplify things and lead to distortions in our thinking. Instead, he presents a new synthesis that places creativity front and centre stage as being the most important mechanism that helped us overcome challenges.
After an introduction the book breaks down into four parts. The first shortly looks at creativity in primates and gives an update on our current knowledge on the adaptive radiation of our genus and our other evolutionary cousins. There have been tremendous developments in this field in the last few decades fueled by new fossil finds. The current picture of human evolution is more akin to a tangled bush of hominin lineages, many of which went extinct, from which ultimately we, as Homo sapiens sapiens, have been left as the last hominid standing. The book then proceeds to look at how creativity helped us to feed ourselves (from crafting ever more complex tools, hunting, and cooking with fire, to domesticating animals and plants and settling down as agriculturalists); the role of creativity in violence, warfare, and sex; and, finally, its role in the rise of religion, art and science.
You would be forgiven for thinking that this a lot of ground to cover. But Fuentes is on home ground here and has written about these topics before (his previous book Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths About Human Nature sounds like another interesting read). The Creative Spark is nuanced and draws on a solid basis of the latest science. Some things I have read about recently, but other ideas were new to me. In the chapters about food, Fuentes touches upon the work of Ungar and others who have shown what fossil teeth can reveal about past diets (see my review of Ungar’s Evolution’s Bite), and along the way he nicely makes the point that the cliché of man the hunter is wrong. Yes, we hunted, eventually, but for most of our evolutionary history we foraged and scavenged, and one of the first real developments is the move from passive scavenging to what Fuentes calls “power scavenging”, i.e. getting to a fresh kill and driving off the original predators before they have even taken the prime cuts. It requires a careful look at the data to come to this conclusion, but Fuentes makes a convincing point here.
And there are several other examples in this book where Fuentes carefully takes all the available evidence to come to conclusions that run counter to accepted wisdom. In The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker makes the point that violence has decreased lately, and that our past was a consistently violent one. The first point I think is certainly true, but not so the last one, argue Fuentes and others, such as primatologist Frans de Waal, who argue for a natural inclination towards compassion and altruism in our ancestors. The evidence for mass violence and warfare shows up late in the archaeological record, in the last 20,000 to 5,000 years. Really only when humans develop agriculture and settlements and have possessions to fight over. Similarly, in the chapter about sex, the idea that marriage and the nuclear family (husband, wife and children) are the natural order of things are shown to be recent inventions, more to do with inheritance of property than with how our forebears raised offspring. The latter likely involved communal effort in raising the needy, slowly-developing, big-brained babies. Fuentes is in good company here, and I have read several other books he also mentions that convincingly make this point, such as Barash & Lipton’s The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and Humans and Ryan and Jetha’s Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What it Means for Modern Relationships. Gender inequality is another “beautiful” example of something that only arose very recently, but has retrospectively distorted the picture of our prehistoric past; virtually every painting of cavepeople shows a young man returning from the hunt, older men crafting tools and women cooking and caring for the children – but a careful look at the archaeological evidence reveals that both men and women took part in tool production and organised hunts.
The chapter about religion is another good example of a very carefully written chapter. Fuentes opposes religious fundamentalism, or the dominion some religions wish to exert over altruism and morality – you can be both these things without being religious, and for the longest time we weren’t. But similarly, he is careful to make the difference that being upset with the actions of certain religious people is not the same as being against religiousness. He also would like to see our scientific models and hypotheses to better account for the importance of the religious experience to the individual. The most interesting point Fuentes makes here, I thought, is that wishing and hope are precursors to religiousness. Both are clear forms of creativity requiring the use of imagination to envision an outcome or a future that sometimes is unlikely, but that have time and again made humans go against the odds (e.g. when facing famine or battle) and sometimes succeed. I find this a more satisfying and logical explanation than what I read in Evolving God.
The Creative Spark is bristling with many other fascinating ideas and insights, many of which I haven’t mentioned here, and the book is a terrific read with a great narrative. If you have any interest in human evolution, this book comes highly recommended, and it certainly succeeds in making you rethink certain, by now antiquated, notions we hold.
Agustín Fuentes, during more than two decades of research, has published more than one hundred academic articles and book chapters. He has chased monkeys, apes, and humans in the jungles and cities of Asia, the mountains of Morocco, and the streets of Gibraltar. He’s explored the lives of our evolutionary ancestors and examined people’s daily routines across the globe. He is a professor and the chair of the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Anthropology and a National Geographic Explorer. His perspectives and research have been covered in The Atlantic, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and on NPR. He lives in Indiana.