Transcendence: How Humans Evolved Through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time

(I’m trying to get in the habit of distilling some of the key concepts from the books I read, instead of just letting them wash over me before moving onto the next. I’m pushing 40, my memory isn’t what it used to be, and the act of summarizing is still one of the best ways for me to internalize a lesson.)

In trying to pin down the traits that have helped humanity thrive over our 35,000 post-Ice Age years, Gaia Vince lists four key technologies: Fire, Language, Beauty and Time. Really, though, she’s listing four aspects of a single technology. While I never would have thought to connect them in this way, Vince makes a compelling case that those four ideas, broadly defined, are all ways of offloading the work of evolutionary adaptation to external energy sources:

When humans began deliberately accessing resources of energy beyond their own muscle power, they transcended the realm of biological life and entered a new state of being.

In this reading, fire takes on many roles that would otherwise have to be done by the body: cooking food is a sort of pre-digestion, making it easier for our stomachs to break down tough meats and vegetables; it wards off predators overnight, allowing for more rest; it alters landscapes, creating grasslands that are more favourable to the endurance hunting techniques humans favour and making things more difficult for the other predators we compete with. The list goes on, but the commonality is that instead of relying on the energy we’re able to create with our own bodies, we outsource those energy needs to transcend our physical limitations.

Of course, that consumptive outsourcing has gotten us into all kinds of trouble over the millenia, and is at the root of most of our current environmental and cultural issues. There’s no denying that it has let us accomplish far more than we ever could have with our bodies alone.

Vince’s list of technologies gets more abstract as it goes, which is appropriate given that abstraction is such a seemingly unique human trait. Language offloads the energy requirements of teaching, allows for complex thoughts, and seems to structure how we percieve the world to such an extent that multilingual people will give different answers to questions of preference or opinion depending what language they are speaking at the time. It also allows for a “cumulative culture,” where knowledge gained by one person and one generation can be built on by the next, which is the key to the exponential growth of our technological sophistication.

Beauty, in Vince’s telling, is a tool for binding us as cooperative societies, promoting trade, specialization, and community. Time is the most tenuous of the topics, allowing for a conception of a future that led to multi-generational mega-projects and monoliths, and eventually to the predictive systems of science. It also moved us out of touch with our own natural bodily cycles as we increasingly defined reality and dictated behaviour through more objective, external measurements of time.

Humanity isn’t particularly well adapted to most of the environments we inhabit—at least not physically. Instead, we have a “developing bath” of culture, environment, and genetics, all of which influence each other, and which allow us to adapt to new situations at a pace that genetic evolution alone could never manage. As Vince says,

Local knowledge is indispensable because of an evolutionary trade-off, in which our species gave up innate adaptation to an ancestral habitat in return for the culturally adaptive versatility to survive any environment.

In her conclusion, Vince makes the argument that humanity is on the verge of transcending again, into a superorganism she calls Homo omnis, or Homni. Comparing humanity to a slime mold isn’t immediately flattering, but it’s an interesting thought; the mold is a collection of individual organisms that can, in times of stress, act as if it is one larger organism, capable of things that the individual units never could.

The book’s ending is a hopeful one, focusing on humanity’s collective triumphs while still nodding towards the (largely self-created) challenges we face. Homni seems a step too far for me, mostly because recent years have challenged my belief in our potential for collective action. But maybe that’s just me focusing too much on the short term, unable to pull back and see our deep history, or project into our deep future. I hope there’s at least some truth to it, that the pattern of transcending our limitations continues. Because Vince is right; our potential is tremendous.