The endless fascination with human history and evolution at the largest scale is due to the fact that the human story seems so improbable. Humans are simply one species of primate, sharing with chimpanzees both a recent common ancestor and 98.6 percent of their DNA. Yet culturally, humans and chimps could not be more different.
Chimpanzees do not experience cultural evolution or cumulative gains in knowledge, and therefore chimps today live in much the same way as they did thousands of years ago. Humans, on the other hand, went from nomadic hunter-gatherers to exploring the outer reaches of space in the same span of time. How can we account for such a large discrepancy between two closely related species? How is it that only humans have managed to escape the prison of genetic determinism?
Gaia Vince, in her latest book, Transcendence, provides the answer; she identifies four themes or elements around which the human story revolves. Together, they explain how we humans, “born a species entirely determined by our planet,” were able to “modify our earthly nest and control our fertility, until we became the only species to determine its own destiny.”
The story begins with human control of fire, which stimulated brain growth by unlocking the nutrients of cooked foods. Fire would allow humanity to outsource its energy needs, enabling us to transcend the limits of our biology and environment. The control of fire would lead to the invention of pottery, metallurgy, cities, and eventually to all modern technology.
The next element is language. Just as biological evolution requires high-fidelity copying of genetic information, with the occasional random mutation, cultural evolution requires the high-fidelity copying and transmission of stories and ideas through language. Unlike the slow timescales of biological evolution, however, cultural evolution is not dependent on random mutation; instead, ideas are consciously shaped and quickly improved upon.
The third element is beauty, which provides subjective meaning to our lives through its expression in art, music, literature, architecture, philosophy, religion, and more. Additionally, our desire for beautiful objects, apart from their functionality, is one of the primary catalysts for economic exchange.
The fourth and final element is time, which allows us to contemplate the past and plan for the future. Unlike other animals, humans can think ahead, using reason, to make predictions about future events and to assess the accuracy of those predictions, leading to the development of science and experiment and greater control of our environment.
Other animals lack these essential elements of cultural evolution. Animals cannot control fire and outsource their biological energy needs; they cannot transcend the present moment to contemplate time and future events and plan alternative behaviors; they cannot, through language, express abstract ideas related to the contemplation of their own thinking; and they do not value objects simply for their beauty, independent of their functionality. And so animals cannot evolve culturally, whereas humans, through these four elements, can.
This is an interesting way to present the human story, and Vince should be commended on the effort. However, the book is not without its limitations. First, its originality could be questioned; in other accounts of human “big history,” all of the elements Vince addresses—fire, language, beauty, and time/reason—are usually addressed in a similar manner, albeit not organized thematically by chapter.
Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, for example, provides a similar account. Harari describes human cultural evolution in terms of a “cognitive revolution” that resulted in abstract thinking, language, reason, science, etc. The reader of Transcendence might wonder how Vince’s four elements are not simply part of this “cognitive revolution.” The control of fire, the contemplation of time, reason, and beauty, and the transmission of ideas through language are all cognitive tasks. And so you’re not getting any special insights from this book that you would not also get from a book like Sapiens. In fact, many of the ideas and studies in the book are familiar, and I constantly got the feeling that I had read all of this before.
Second, you lose something by deciding not to present the human story as a chronological account, as the narrative jumps back and forth and feels like a series of articles rather than a true narrative.
And finally, the book is short on a host of important historical, political, and economic details, and it does not cover much of anything regarding the history of ideas or philosophy. If you believe, as I do, that ideas are powerful drivers of change, you might be disappointed to find a lack of information on important historical revolutions in human thought.
Verdict: A well-written account of human history that correctly identifies the key elements driving cultural evolution, with fascinating details for any reader that is new to the subject. Otherwise, the book falls short in terms of originality and delivers few new insights for experienced readers.