Book Review- The Creative Spark


The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional (2017), the latest book by Dr. Agustín Fuentes, explores the creative nature of humans through time. Fuentes, professor and chair of the anthropology department at the University of Notre Dame, is a pioneer in ethnoprimatology, the study of human-nonhuman primate interaction, and more recently has explored and critiqued arguments concerning aspects of human nature. In Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths About Human Nature (2012) explores rhetoric on human nature and The Creative Spark contextualizes much of what is included in the earlier book by linking human behavior to our capacity for creativity.

The book is an excellent read and is very easy to follow although it does lack Fuentes’ typical artful prose. It adeptly conveys aspects of human evolution and human behavior and is written for people without a substantial background in biological anthropology. This is important given that anthropologists, like other scientists, often write to other scientists and so information is not presented in a way that non-scientists can digest. Fuentes instead does an excellent job synthesizing and disseminating information collected across various fields to people that are interested in narratives about human evolution and human nature but would otherwise not engage as it is often hidden behind a wall of jargon; kept just out of the public’s reach.

The Creative Spark begins by introducing creativity as a characteristic in primates and other animals but then argues that human creativity goes far beyond that seen in the rest of the animal kingdom. As humans diverged from our ape-like ancestor, the LCA (last common ancestor), we see the emergence of bipedalism in the fossil record with the anterior movement of the foramen magnum (the hole where the spine meets the skull) and other anatomical changes. Bipedalism freed the arms to be used in a different manner than in the past- more creatively. Arms could now be used to carry food, offspring, and tools. This first transition, from quadrapedalism to bipedalism, was the first step (pun intended) in our journey as the most creative species the world has ever seen.

From here, the book examines topics and contextualizes them in space and time, beginning with subsistence. Fuentes evaluates the creation and use of tools in our distant past and the creative ways in which humans acquire and prepare food. He challenges the trope of “man the hunter” by demonstrating that early hominin diets consisted of meat but it was most likely scavenged. These early hominins were not the top of the food chain and therefore were not able to effectively usurp predators from their kill sites but instead may have relied on a strategy called “power scavenging”, where collaboratively working groups of hominins would run off predators and, by using Oldowan tools, would remove as much meat as quickly as possible and escape before the predators returned. Power scavenging is a creative solution to the problem of acquiring food in an environment where hominins were on the dinner menu. Today, humans treat food creatively- we season it, make it beautiful, and eat certain foods in certain cultural contexts which all emerge from the human creative psyche and does not function as a means of survival.

Fuentes then explores human creativity for war and sex. Before the emergence of sedentarism and the state, the archaeological record yields interpersonal violence but nothing that can definitively be called war. With the formation of states, humans used their creative capacity to commit large-scale violence against other groups for various reasons. What could be called the antithesis of war, sex, is also done creatively. While many organisms engaging in sex, humans do it in a much more creative way. We regulate who, what, where, why, and when people have sex. Permissive partners are a result of the creative control of sexual behavior by culture. We also engage in sex more creatively and even create new categories (gender) to engage with sex in a different way.

The final part of the book demonstrates the human capacity for creativity by examining the things we often view as creative. Human creativity has facilitated a new way of experiencing the universe that differs from an experience that is purely sense-based. Not only that, but humans have a hand in creating their own universe through religion, art, and science. This creation goes beyond ecological niche creation; humans create a new ecology that transcends the physical environment and we create imaginary worlds in heaven, literature, music, and other creative realms that humans come to inhabit.

The Creative Spark takes information from across multiple disciplines and constructs a narrative that puts on display the greatest feature of humanity and that which separates us from the rest of the natural world- our vast capacity for creativity. The book itself is a creative endeavor as it narrates our evolutionary past and presents evidence that tells a compelling story about our place in the world. We humans, all at once, are a part of the natural world and transcend it. We do not merely inhabit this world and universe but actively form it around us.



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