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


  • 6. Story: Stories help us understand, organize, share, and remember factual information. Information told through stories is far more memorable. Stories are the cognitive tools we have evolved in order to understand and interact with the world. Hundreds of thousands of years ago our ancestors painted pictures on cave walls to tell stories that probably predate spoken language. Stories also have the power to bind people in a group together. Stories can inspire people to accomplish great things or engage in evil actions. Some stories travel from one culture to another and last for millennia. Stories are used to invent ideas. With the invention of writing about 5,000 years ago, stories were given a catalytic boost that facilitated the growth of large cities. For literate people, writing even changed the way our brain works.
  • 7. Language: Language is what makes us human. Words are thoughts. Without language, we have no inner monologue. Some languages rely on tone, that is which way the pitch is going as the word is spoken. Music and language are processed by the same part of the brain. Certainly, languages evolved over time and may have started with a mix of utterances, whistles, drum beats, and sign language. The evolution of the body and its shift to an upright posture made it easier to articulate language.
  • We are born with an innate ability to learn the rules of grammar and the meaning of words. They don’t have to be directly taught. Infants need to interact to build language skills as they learn little from videos or overhearing others talk. The more of these interactions a child has the better they are likely to do in school. Most children are fluent by age five. Context is also necessary for language learning and use. Languages evolve, and it seems that the more socially active females drive this process. Most people on Earth are bilingual and the brain can grow as we learn new languages. While the world has over 7,000 languages, we lose one every fourteen days or so as 80% of the people speak 1% of the languages.
  • 8. Telling: Gaia uses Wikipedia as an example of human collaboration. Cooperation became essential to human survival and cooperative people tend to be more successful. Telling lies is cognitively demanding as you have to first make up the lie and then remember it. Trade, for example, requires considerable trust. Some cultures like Japan rely on shame to keep people in line. Others, like the US, rely on guilt. People with prestige are the ones we then follow. They are either good at something and/or old. We have to be careful, however, of following people who are good at one thing, acting for example, when they deal with something outside of there area of expertise like telling us who to vote for.


  • 9: Belonging: Our cultural developing bath profoundly changes the way we think, behave, and perceive the world. The invention of beauty has its roots in the biology of sexual selection. Early humans were known to beautify objects and their bodies with skin painting and tattoos. Our decorations and ornaments reflect our cultural identity and social status. Fashion norms can be bizarre and impractical. Social norms emerge spontaneously in societies and are driven by our tendency to conform. This is the genesis of tribalism. Language is also a tribal identifier. Of course, cultural differences have lead to violence. However, being exposed to different social norms makes people more open-minded. When children attend culturally diverse schools, it leads to greater social cohesion between ethnicities.
  • 10. Trinkets and Treasures: From their earliest times, humans have collected objects of beauty in spite of the fact that they have no biological value. Seashells were among the first forms of money, followed by precious metals, silk, spices, and crafted objects. Trade for things like spices opened networks of trade routes that expanded exponentially with the domestication of the horse and the invention of the wheel. Diseases like the plague also traveled on these routes. Trade gave a boost to language and promoted cultural evolution. About 2,500 years ago coinage was invented in Turkey and China. It thus became the most important mass-produced item and transformed the economies that used it. Paper money arrived in seventh-century China and with it came forgery and inflation. Now credit cards, electronic transfers, and cryptocurrencies have almost replaced cash.
  • 11: Builders: As early humans made habitats and homes they transformed the environment. About 12,000 years ago they built monuments and buried their dead. Permanent settlements date back 10,000 years accompanied by early agriculture. By 5,000 years ago we had domesticated all of the plant and animal species we have today. People had as many children as possible to create more workers. With settled farming came early governments and taxes to build infrastructure.
  • DNA studies have helped science construct a picture of how human evolution took place. Trade and networking saw to it that human DNA varies much less than that of chimps and gorillas. We are essentially one family and the notion of race is nearly a cultural construct. Europe has an excellent network of waterways that helped transmit culture unlike Africa and South America. This helps explain why culture advanced there faster. Cities became the focal points for cross-cultural trade. When combined with trade, they also allowed rapid expansion of disease, which also served to create more genetic evolution. We have biologically evolved to live in urban environments. Today, the Internet seems to be producing cultural effects that will continue our evolution. For example, interracial marriages have increased thanks to online dating apps.
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