Agustin Fuentes’s The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional

The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional

Agustín Fuentes

Penguin, 2017, 352 pages


Agustín Fuentes’ The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional (Fuentes, 2017) identifies creativity and an ability to cooperate at an unprecedented scale as key driving forces in human evolution. Setting this book apart from others about the evolution of human mental and social faculties is the theoretical framework, the extended evolutionary synthesis (EES). The EES encourages the use of multiple process models and comes bundled with an extended view of inheritance, permitting cultural, epigenetic, and enduring changes to environmental conditions all to structure difference through time (Jablonka and Lamb, 2008; Laland et al., 2015). Niche construction — the process by which organisms modify their environments to carve out places in the world to live — figures prominently in Fuentes’ theoretical arsenal and rounds out his take on the EES.

Fuentes defines creativity by ostension, using examples of great artists and thinkers from Shakespeare to Prince. He uses examples of how creativity is used in struggles against hardship and draws on a few direct quotes from anthropologists Ian Hodder and Ashley Montague. This largely ahistorical introduction misses out on a lot of past thought about creativity. Notable omissions include Dewey’s (1958) interactive view of humans in the world and Boserup’s (2017) reply to Malthusian demography allowing creative responses on the part of humans to build new ways of supporting population. The lack of a clear and theoretically connected definition of creativity makes interpreting Fuentes’ arguments difficult.

Fuentes begins the more empirically oriented chapters with an exposition of the kinds of social creativity exhibited by non-human primates. He richly describes social dynamics and organisms’ roles in societies with an eye toward the building and breaking of relationships. He then guides our imaginations back in time to describe early hominins as creative scavengers who sought out the kills of large predators opening up a new world of calories and protein. Stone tools equipped them to carve flesh from carcasses and extract marrow from bone. New sources of nutrition opened the opportunity for the growth of energetically expensive brains, which co-occurs with cognitive changes shaped by the newly expanding human niche. New ways of communicating and expressing in terms of symbols and ever diversifying cultures follow. Through construction of a niche made up of domesticated crops, animals, and large concentrations of populations into settlements we eventually arrive at the origins of religion and science.

Since the stories about biological and cultural change in The Creative Spark are so familiar, the success or failures of Fuentes’ argument for the centrality of creativity hinges on the ways in which he uses the EES to provide novel interpretive frameworks. We encounter theoretical trouble from the start.

Fuentes describes natural selection in terms of an abstract viability model with non-overlapping generations using the metaphor of a strainer. Objects (organisms) must fit through the gaps in the strainer to survive and go on to reproduce. Some will fit and others will not providing the variation in life outcomes characterizing natural selection. This is fair enough as descriptions go, and one like it is used to structure several questions in the philosophy of biology (Sober, 1993). The description, however, falls short of what one might like from an EES perspective. Fuentes does not consider that changes wrought by one bout of selection might lead to conditions under which the organisms alter the strainer in turn. This notion of an interactive relationship between organisms and their environments is a cornerstone of niche construction theory (Lewontin, 2001; Odling-Smee et al., 1996). Niche construction itself has an even less formal introduction and it is never made clear as to how it might operate in conjunction with other evolutionary processes.

In a move wholly at odds with the aims of the EES, Fuentes does not make use of the range of processes of evolution other than natural selection and under-theorized niche construction. Any sense that chance, in the form of processes like mutation or random genetic drift, might have played a role in the evolution of human creativity is elided from the book. This is a critical oversight as models relying on natural selection consistently prove wholly inadequate to explain the origins of complex eukaryotic genomes, multicellularity, and the structure of regulatory networks in development and physiology (Lynch and Conery, 2003; Lynch, 2007). Random processes are also indispensable parts of explanations of recent human morphological evolution (Schroeder et al., 2014). The origins of complexity may be dependent on diminishing the efficacy of natural selection. This may hold true for models of cultural change, which show we might expect a powerful effect of the random components of change (El Mouden et al., 2014).

Fuentes often words his statement about the evolution of features in terms of how they contribute to the success of the human species as opposed to how a trait evolves in a lineage. For instance, when summarizing the results of early hominin evolution Fuentes writes:

“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.” (p. 29)

Perhaps if we (more on “we” below) did not collaborate between the sexes or domesticate dogs, we wouldn’t be here, but this is not an explanation for how these phenomena came about. Evolutionary explanations for singular events need to pick a set of initial conditions prior to the observed evolutionary event, understand the variation (genetic, epigenetic, cultural, or other) available for the various processes to act on, and then articulate a set of possible ways in which processes of evolution might have worked on variation. Dynamical accounts, however, are all but absent from The Creative Spark. Niches are constructed and then filled without a sense of how different processes of evolution accomplish these changes. We rightly criticize evolutionary psychology for providing process-free accounts of evolution and it is only fair to hold The Creative Spark accountable for the same misdeed.

The bulk of the The Creative Spark reads like a more or less linear succession of humans through a series of niches. Side branches sprouting off the lineage leading to we humans today are briefly mentioned, often only to describe why they, and not we, went extinct leaving us as “The Last Hominin Standing” (p. 25). Fuentes chooses to do so in ways suggesting a kind of march of progress leaving some groups doomed to extinction.

Our direct ancestors supposedly outcompeted hominins of the genus Paranthropus by finding ways not to be eaten. Neandertals’ lack of creativity, purportedly evident in not having domesticated dogs, is proposed as an explanation for their fading into the wake of human progress. The causes of extinction in general, however, are poorly understood in spite of its ubiquity in the fossil record (Jablonski, 2009) and it is not easy to attribute the extinction of any lineage to a definite cause in a rigorous way. In the case of the Neandertals, a rare case in which multiple lines of archaeological, paleontological, and genomic inquiry may be brought to bear on the issue, it looks as though a random process driven by differences in population size is sufficient to explain why they faded away save for the remnants they left in the genomes of later people (Kolodny and Feldman, 2017). In light of that special behavioral or psychological explanation is unwarranted.

As the present pulls at the story, the issue of “us” and “them” become clouded and some unsettling implications of the lack of a theoretical framework in the The Creative Spark come into focus. More than passing into prehistory for lack of creativity, Neandertals are described as being members of another subspecies or race. Fuentes is quick to point out that there is only one race of humans on the planet today. In a break from his treatment of the mid-Pleistocene and earlier, he drops the notion of intergroup differences in creativity being a determinant of winners and losers in evolution when it comes to more recent times. He claims there is a single human niche characterized by creative and imaginative exercises with religious, artistic, and other dimensions in which all member of a single race of humans reside. Why this occurs only when the proportion of genomic differentiation among groups is below an arbitrary threshold is left unexamined.

A good example of how this single human niche perspective does not do good theoretical work lies in Fuentes’ embrace of the Anthropocene, the proposed geological time period defined by human action as the main force behind shaping the planet. Fuentes assigns blame for carbon production and other causes of anthropogenic climate change to all of humanity with an unqualified “we.” Not all of humanity has been involved in the activities most responsible for global climate change (Bauer, 2015). To lay blame for these changes on “us” is to ignore the inequalities in the world arising from something that might be better described as “niche imposition” by colonialism, empire, and other forms of rule by coercion and force. Likewise, not all humans today have ancestors who were involved in agriculture or the domestication of dogs. More generally, the collection of behaviors and symbolism used to define features of what Fuentes calls the “modern human niche” is heavily conditioned by the colonial and imperial origins of the study of human paleontology (Athreya, 2017) among other biases and theoretical problems (Ackermann et al., 2016).

Evolutionary theory, as it grows and resynthesizes, will continue to make important contributions to new ways of understanding humanity. If the formalisms and conceptual tools allowing us to describe and investigate dynamical and interactive relationships are left unused, however, an evolutionary account is a mere chain of facts connected in time or by taxonomy. A chain of facts can very easily look like a teleological and stadial account of change unless relevant theory is deployed in ways consistent with its labeling. While the evolutionary language deployed in The Creative Spark is that of an extended syntheses, the theory lying at its foundation is a retraction into the evolutionisms of anthropologies past.


Charles C. Roseman is an Associate Professor of Animal Biology and Anthropology at the University of Illinois. He uses a holistic approach uniting developmental, environmental, and genetic perspectives on organismal complexity to understand the evolution of organismal form (Supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada, [with B Hallgrimsson]). His more anthropological pursuits focus on issues of racism, genetics, history, and society.



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