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20180203 The Creative Spark



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The main idea here is to link creativity with human development from just another animal among many to what humans are now: unquestionably the most powerful living creatures that modified environment to fit their needs and overcame unreliability and difficulty of regular animal existence. Author uses archeology to support this by demonstrating how humans start using tools in qualitatively different ways than other animals and then managed to create complex cooperative relationship that supported not just survivability for all, but comfortable existence with unlimited potential for improvements.


Overture: Trumpeting Creativity and a New Synthesis

Author starts this overture with discussion on what is creativity and defines it as collaborative process of developing new ideas, artifacts, and methods rather than product of individual genius working in isolation. After that he moves to four major misconceptions about humans as the product of evolution:

  1. Humans being inherently violent and only somewhat subdued by civilization
  2. Humans being inherently good, cooperative, and altruistic and only somewhat corrupted by civilization
  3. Humans being a product of long evolution as hunter-gatherers well adjusted to this live style and therefore cannot handle civilization. As result they are getting fat, depressed, and sick.
  4. Humans by creating civilization and culture transcended boundaries of their biological and evolutionary nature and mold environment to their own design went beyond their ability to understand consequences of their actions resulting in development leading to the danger of complete destruction.

Author rejects these misconceptions and instead proposes the New Synthesis based on four systems of inheritance:

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This is supplemented by distinctly human brand of cooperation and by the process of niche construction, which is the change of environment to fit one’s needs. Finally author seems to believe that competition, ever since Darwin, was overestimated as the main engine of evolutionary process and that cooperation is playing not less important part in it. The final point author makes here is that humans, as different as they are, do not represent some king of the top of evolution. All contemporary species have as long history as humans, share lots of genetic information with them, and well adjusted to whatever environment they live in. So in order to understand humans it would help a lot to understand others.

PART ONE: STICKS AND STONES: The First Creativity.

  1. Creative Primates

This starts with discussion of our relatives – primates, their creativity, and complex relationships. Author describes the story of dominant macaque that was very mean to other members of the group. After breaking his leg, this primate lost power and even was pushed out of the group. Eventually he joined another group at the much lower place in hierarchy, which dramatically changed his behavior to the better. He became friendly, helpful, and overall nice primate. The moral of this story is that behavior to large extent defined not by purely personal characteristics, but also by position in society and primates are flexible enough to control and modify their behavior as dictated by circumstances. After that author moves to primate’s proficiency of using physical objects like rock for various needs either related to productive activities or just for playing. Here is a nice graph demonstrating our tree of relatives:

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  1. The Last Hominin Standing

This is about usually poorly understood fact that humans are not really unique in primate development and that there were a number of various hominins much close to us that apes. Author discusses relevant archeological findings and provides a couple very useful pictures demonstrating first relationships, then innovations of various groups and finally the timeline of our group development:

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WHAT’S FOR DINNER? How Humans Got Creative

  1. Let’s Make a Knife

This is about human food acquisition and consumption and it starts with little known and relatively recent discovery that hunter-gatherers actually become hunters quite late in their development. It took a long time before hominids, who do not possess any serious natural weapons like claws, sable teeth, and similar useful for hunting parts of body, learned to use tools and methods for effective hunting. Human hunting depends on two things: tools and cooperation between multiple participants in the hunt. Both these things were developed incrementally with improvement in survivability at each step. Author discusses how initial use of tool greatly approved human ability for scavenging by allowing much better processing of not easily accessible food like nuts, bone marrow, turtles, and such. Author reviews progressive improvement in stone-age technology of producing tools. Very interesting here is description of contemporary reproduction of such effort, demonstrating how complex is this process. Author also looks at usefulness of big brain in process of avoiding being eaten, which was kind of a regular occurrence at the time.

  1. Killing and Eating, Etc.

This is about continuation of human development when hominids started to apply “power scavenging” when they become capable to push away actual hunters that killed a prey and get to the body first. Interestingly enough, the contemporary technology allows using ossified bones to define which traces were left first: animal claws or human stone tools. There are also traces of cutting and transportation of parts of carcass from the place of killing to the place of consumption. Finally, the knowledge of fire control that was obtained some 1.6 million years ago allowed hominids start using of cooking, which allows extracting everything up to the last calorie from available food.

  1. The Beauty of Standing in Line

This is about human cooperation and the ability to form a Line as example of such cooperation, which is not replicated by any other species including our close relatives – apes. Author discusses how big brain development was part of feedback loop of increase in cooperation leading to increase in survivability which in turn led to increase in cooperation and level of its sophistication including compassion levels that no other species are capable of. At the end author points to the increase in complexity of human societies sometimes dangerously so and posits question if we are wise enough to overcome these complexities.

  1. Food Security Accomplished

In this chapter author discusses development of agriculture, domestication of plants and animals and, finally, achievement of food security that actually occurred very recently.


WAR AND SEX: How Humans Shaped a World

  1. Creating War (and Peace)

This is about war, homicide, and overall violence that is specific for humans and is not replicated by other species. Author discusses the two opposing views: one that it is unavoidable characteristic of human nature and another that it is product of specifics of condition of the society that could and is being overcome by process of civilization. Author also discusses difficulties in identifying levels of violence by using archeological evidence. His example is remains of primate that died 500000 years ago because smashed skull. It would not be possible to say whether it is result of violence or incident. But here is what is possible to say:

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All this implies increase in complexity of humn societies and competition, often violent competition between them. Author provides a nice road map of how we get from the point when our ancestors were roaming and scavenging hominids until now:

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  1. Creative Sex

The final part of this chapter is about sex and its role in human development, which is going way beyond pure biological necessity to produce the next generation. Human sex is highly diversified tool used for communications, establishment of societal rule and hierarchies, rewards and punishments, and multitude of other purposes. Author also discusses parenting and gender as notion separate from sex and used more for allocation of roles in the group and individual’s conditioning for such role. Author also points out that archeological artifacts does not provide clear evidence about existence of gender in hunter / gatherer societies. Neither toolmaking nor hunting nor any other activity described in ancient pictorials is exclusively male/female. The difference and correspondingly gender seems to be developed with advance of agricultural societies.

PART FOUR: GREAT WORKS: How Humans Made the Universe

This is about ideological representation of the world by human that is applied by using 3 different approaches.

  1. Religious Foundations

Here author reviews the religious approach to representation of the world. He discusses logic of this approach, various examples and provides population breakdown by religion:

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Author also discusses consequences, either positive or not, of religious believes such as sense of identity, religious experience, hope, and ability to cope with lives’ challenges. He provides a review of archeological evidence that indicates presence of religious attitudes since the very beginning of humanity. Another point is review of discussion about Big Gods ideas, how they were developed and their applications.

  1. Artistic Flights

This chapter is about artistic approach to live that humans also developed since the very beginning and author presents some interesting artifact supporting this idea.

  1. Scientific Architecture

This chapter correspondingly provides review of quite new scientific approach to the world that started as successful method of handling external material world and now in addition to this it turned internally, looking at humanity itself and trying to make some sense of it.

Coda: The Beat of Your Creative Life

This is a kind of summary of the book with stress on the main point of author, which is: “being human is a creative process” and that he hopes humanity will continue to maintain creativity and improve everything around for millions of years to come.


It is a pretty good review of human path from animal to something more than that. Especially interesting is information on stone tools, how they were produced and how their quality improved over time. I think it is mainly correct approach and it demonstrates an important notion that every step was evolutionary beneficial, so any improvement in stone tools led to improvement in food acquisition and efficiency of its use. As for other parts I think author underestimate role of war in all its form in formation of human brains and development of language and culture. The powerful and expensive brain has quite limited use for individual living in a small isolated group in environment with relatively plentiful sources of food. However as soon as number of groups become big enough so they had to compete for hunting ground and later for the arid land, the war probably became the most important activity that could provide easy access to somebody’s else resources and/or protect one’s own, especially with advent of agriculture, when resources become much less perishable and territorial control much more important. I think that role of creativeness somewhat overstated here, while communication, cooperation, and cohesiveness of the group were much more important. I also think that a bit underrepresented here is the difference between mostly informal communication and cooperation between individuals in the tribe of hunter-gatherers where these processes continuously involve activity of each individual and formal cooperation of contemporary humans when a lot of it occurs via all kind of governmental structures and laws that makes individual involvement from insignificant to non-existing such as transfer resources from producers to qualified consumers young and old.


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