Award-winning British science writer Vince (Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made, 2014) describes how the interplay of our genes, environment, and culture made us “the only species to determine its own destiny.”
In this captivating story of evolution from the Big Bang to the present Anthropocene, the former Nature and New Scientist editor traces four key elements—fire, language, beauty, and time—that have allowed humans to grow from “an endangered puny primate on the savannahs of Africa to become the most numerous big animal on Earth.” In thoughtful explorations, the author shows how each of these forces contributed, in powerful, often surprising ways, to humankind’s dominance. Fire made possible resources beyond our own muscle power, changed the food density of the landscape, and cooked meats, making them easier to digest. Fire also offered protection for childbirth, enabling us to grow bigger brains, become sociable, and acquire cultural know-how. “Making and controlling fire gave humans an amazing ability to transform the stuff of our planet into the materials of our manmade world,” writes Vince. Language gave us oral stories—“collective memory banks”—to guide and bind us, took the form of writing 5,000 years ago, and now makes “cumulative cultural evolution visible” through Wikipedia, where vast amounts of cultural information are conveyed with fidelity to many people at once. Beauty, much valued, spurred trade in trinkets and helped give rise to permanent settlements, ordering the world and expressing our values, whether in the monoliths of Easter Island or in cities conquering the natural environment. Lastly, the concept of time helped organize life, eased trade, removed uncertainty in interactions, and allowed us to predict events in an unknown future. The author draws on extensive travels and many interviews with scientists to offer vivid accounts of these forces at work in the lives of our “cultural forebears.”
A provocative, highly readable take on our astonishing emergence from the primordial soup.