What makes us human? Is war an inevitable part of the human condition? These are some of the questions that anthropologist Augustín Fuentes explores in his new book, The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional. Harnessing the latest findings in evolution, biology, and archaeology he 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.
When National Geographic caught up with the author at his office at Notre Dame University in Indiana he explained why dogs really are man’s best friends, why the evolutionary record does not support traditional notions of gender, marriage, and family, and why President Trump’s proposal to defund the NEA and NEH may cripple our ability to get along—and make war more likely.
You say there are big misconceptions about human evolution. What are they?
There’s a whole range. The first one is that we are bad to the bone, evil to the core. Or at least males are. And it’s this male aggression that has driven our evolution. But the fossil, biological, ethnographical, and historical evidence show that that’s just not the case. The really obnoxious people throughout history have not been the ones who, over the long term, have influenced us the most.
The second misconception is that males and females are radically different in their sexuality and gender. But while males and females are very different, there’s actually a lot more similarity than we think.
The whole idea that there are these single things, like aggression or sex differences, which explain the complex evolution of what it means to be human, is just too simple. This is why I’m proposing this idea of collaboration and creativity. It’s a much more complex, and exciting, way to think about who we are and why we do what we do.
The world feels as though it is on the brink of nuclear war again. Is war an inevitable part of the human condition?
There’s a huge debate around warfare. The first thing to do is to look at the archaeological and fossil evidence. What’s out there? What we see is that about 10,000-14,000 years ago we start to find examples of large scale or at least coordinated, lethal group violence, which we call war. But warfare today is not just about two groups of people fighting one another. It’s about political, economic, social, religious, and other ideologies coming into conflict and playing out in terms of violence, coercion or manipulation. That kind of warfare—large scale, intergroup violence around ideas, ideologies, money, and resources—shows up in the last 10,000 years more and more frequently because we have more stuff to fight over and more opportunities to do so.
But though the world might seem more violent than ever, it’s actually not. If you were to take a slice of time at this moment, the vast majority of the 7.5 billion people on the planet are actually getting along swimmingly. They’re not engaged in horrible violence or coercion or oppression. However, that’s only part of the answer. Just because most people are getting along doesn’t mean that we haven’t created new and more horrific ways to create violence against one another.
We’re in a double world right now—one where most people, most of the time, get along, but where we’ve also created a world where we are more cruel potentially and potentially more violent than ever before.
President Trump has proposed shutting down both the NEA and the NEH. Are the arts essential to human society?
Without art, we’re not human. The ability to imagine and to take that imagination and make it into reality is one of the things that is really distinctive about humans. Whether it’s painting, building airplanes, or figuring out how to make a paycheck last to the end of the month, it all stems from the same creative capacity. And there is no better way to flex that creativity muscle than to do art, be exposed to art, and to think about art.
What President Trump will be doing by taking away the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for Humanities and cutting public access to art, is to rob humanity of imagination and creativity and hobble us in our capacity to get along and make a difference in the world.
Is creating art a basic evolutionary trait?
It depends on what we call “art.” We tend to think of these beautiful cave paintings of the big mastodons and wild oryx as art. But that’s only about 40,000 years old. We know that 85,000 years ago, in southern Africa, our ancestors were carving on ostrich eggshells. Twenty thousand years earlier than that, they were drilling holes in small shells and wearing them around their necks. One hundred thousand years before that, they were crumbling ochre and rubbing it on their bodies. Five hundred thousand years before that, half a million years ago, they were making tools that were incredibly beautiful and more symmetrical and aesthetic than they had to be to do their jobs. Art is very deep in human history.
Nearly six billion people, or 83 percent of the world’s population, identify themselves as religiously affiliated, and religion is an especially huge issue today. Has religion and transcendent experience always been a fundamental, human activity?
An important distinction has to be made here. There’s a huge distinction between religion, as an institution, and religiousness, or a religious individual. There’s pretty good evidence that for a long time this notion of the transcendent, there being more in the world than just the material, has been important for humans. But what is new is big, institutionalized, organized structures. Let’s take Christianity or Islam or Judaism. That’s recent! Really, really recent. We tend to confuse humans’ capacity or tendency to think there is more to the world than just what we see or touch with these huge institutions and the political, historical, and economic concepts they’re trying to push.
“Dogs are man’s best friend” says the old saw. But they played a much greater role than that in our evolution, didn’t they?
Absolutely! Right now, I’m in my office looking at my dog lying between two chairs, sleeping. [Laughs] The story between humans and dogs is absolutely amazing. If a biologist or scientist from another planet came to this planet one of their first questions would be, “Wow, look at these symbionts! These two organisms that are wrapped in each other’s lives.” And they would be talking about humans and dogs.
The human-dog evolution is one of those examples where the idea of the creativity and complexity of evolutionary histories makes itself evident. Throughout the world, between 10,000-30,000 years ago, we start to see a couple of things happening. One is that we start to find fossils of organisms that are sort of wolf-like but have some changes to them. That’s probably the emergence of dogs. The second is that those fossils tend to show up more and more with people. Most people used to think that relationship was just for hunting. But many experts now recognize it’s a kind of companionship, a sharing of the world.
Traditionalists insist that monogamy is the natural, and only, arrangement for human beings, and that the nuclear family is the best way of raising children. Does the evolutionary record support that idea?
Anyone who argues that the human record supports one single way of humans having sex, getting together, or raising families, is wrong. Humans are more monogamous, that is they spend a lot of investment in these pair bonds, than most other mammals. But this idea that monogamy is who we are, and how we explain humanity, is not only blind to the data, but also not true in almost everyone’s life if they look around and are honest with themselves.
The evolutionary record also shows us clearly that the raising of young is more than a two-individual undertaking. The work of Sarah Hrdy and many others is fantastic in showing us that one of the kick-starts to the human capacity to succeed was intensive co-parenting or “mothers and others.” I don’t just mean Mom and Dad but, in fact, parenting by grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews.
To grow the kind of baby that we do, with this giant brain, who can’t do anything for the first 3-5 years of life, you need a lot of input. As much as 1.5-1.7 million years ago, we start to see a shift in the fossils, which suggests that more than one or two individuals became closely involved in taking care of the young. Fast forward to the last couple hundred thousand years, and it is absolutely clear that the human success story is part and parcel of our incredible ability to “take a whole village” to raise a child, as the old saying goes. The nuclear family—Mom, Dad, a couple kids, and a dog—is not only very recent but is not even typical of the way most people live in the world. This whole notion of a family house with a white picket fence is a very a-typical way to be human.
You refer to the “dark side of human creativity.” Explain how social constructs like gender, race, and nationality are unique to human beings—and breed conflict.
The idea of gender is this complex way in which humans interpret and think about the role of the sexes in society. That can be used in multiple ways. It can be beneficial and open. It can also be used to restrict people. In the U.S. right now we’re seeing an attack on equality and freedoms. That’s a very important way that gender can be manipulated. Gender is created because we invented it.
Race is another thing. Humans vary all over the planet and that’s fascinating and important. But labels like black, white, Asian, Latino are social constructs that can be used to enforce inequality, violence, and oppression. When we do that we’re seeing the really negative side of our ability to create things in the world and make them a reality.
Nationality is another perfect example. In the U.S. and Europe right now, we’re reverting to a new tribalism, this sense of, “I am THIS nation and you are THAT nation,” and flaring up again the exact kinds of conflicts and problems that led to massive wars in the last century.
You end the book with some tips as to how we can improve our creative lives. Give us some bullet points.
Do some art! Every kid does art and then we stop doing it as adults because we think it’s a waste of time. But doing art is flexing our creative muscle and it’s really important.
They second thing is: Make a meal. Gather some ingredients, some friends or family, and cook something. Demonstrate this incredible, multi-million-year-old capacity to take nutrition and make it amazing, imaginative, and tasty!
Another thing is to just reflect. Look back at your week at how many times you and others around you helped each other out, collaborated, or coordinated in some way. Even the act of getting in a line to wait for a movie or a supermarket checkout is absolutely incredible.
Finally, people need to not let the 24/7 news cycle get them down. There are a lot of major problems in the world, but the news is selling you fear, terror, and violence. They very rarely report on positive things. If you step back from the news and look at what’s going on in your life and the lives around you, hang out with friends or a dog, and check out the amazing human capacity to collaborate and create, the world might seem like a slightly better place, and you will have a more realistic take on what the world actually is.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.