CARTA: Imagination: Agustín Fuentes – How Imagination and Creativity Reshaped Human Evolution

CARTA: Imagination: Agustín Fuentes – How Imagination and Creativity Reshaped Human Evolution


(clicking sound) (piano music) – [Narrator] We are the paradoxical ape. Bipedal. Naked. Large brain. Long the master of fire,
tools, and language. But still trying to understand ourselves. Aware that death is inevitable, yet filled with optimism. We grow up slowly. We hand down knowledge. We empathize and deceive. We shape the future from
our shared understanding of the past. CARTA brings together experts
from diverse disciplines to exchange insights on who we are and how we got here. An exploration made
possible by the generosity of humans, like you. (electronic music) (driving music) I wanna thank the
organizers for inviting me and for providing this
incredible opportunity for all of us to be
together and to imagine. It is the human capacity
to move between the worlds of what is and what could
be that marks the emergence of a particular evolutionary context and history for the
genus Homo, us, humans. I argue that it’s the
human capacity to imagine, to be creative, to hope, and to dream, to infuse the world with meanings and to cast our inspirations far and wide. Limited neither by personal
experience nor material reality, it has enabled our
lineage, the genus Homo, to develop a particular niche, a particular way of being in the world, where imagination plays a central role. Humans are very creative, and we use our imagination to be so. This has an evolutionary history. The real challenge to understanding
human evolution, then, is not just the tracing
of the bones and stones of the 2.6 million year
history of our genus. Instead it is understanding those changes alongside the reality. There are lineages that went from the makers of basic stone tools to the creators of amazing cave art to the constructors of massive cities and the dominant force
shaping the ecosystem today. Our lineage’s transition from a cluster of medium-sized, fangless,
hornless, clawless, semi-naked, or fully
naked, ape-like things with a few rocks and some sticks to a species who invented domestication, economies, cities, nations,
religion, warfare, and peace. That is the challenge of
understanding human evolution. Now, let me put human in context here before you think I’m talking only about human exceptionalism, that is, we know that there are many
other species that use tools, that have incredibly complex social lives, that use sound as communication traveling across incredible distance, and that have cultural varieties that actually impact the ways
in which their genomes shift. Here’s an example of hunting patterns across latitudinal variations in orca pods that has actually had a huge change in their structure of their genomes. So gene culture co-evolution
doesn’t just occur in humans, it occurs in many organisms. However, we have studied
other complex organisms, like chimpanzees and whales and orcas, for a long time, and we know
a lot about what they do and what they don’t do. We know that chimpanzees
don’t have cash economies, governments, religious
institutions, creeds, or fanatics. They don’t arrest and deport each other, and they don’t create massive economies of material and social inequality. They don’t change planet wide ecosystems, build cities, make airplanes, drive thousands of other
species to extinction, or give CARTA talks. (laughter) But we do. We are a particular mammal,
a particular primate, and a particular hominoid kind of ape that is able to look
at the world around us and see it as it is, imagine entirely new possibilities, and convert those imaginings
into material reality. We have evolved the most compassionate, the cruelest, the most creative,
and the most destructive of all life on this planet. And we demonstrate these abilities often. How this difference came to be matters. And it is by delving into humanity’s very distinctive history that we are able to understand
why we are the way we are. There’s incredibly good evidence that over the last 2 million years, the members of the genus Homo, all of those things that
have something to do with our specific ancestry, underwent significant in
their brains, their bodies, their behavior, and they
created a new niche, a new way of existing, both
ecologically and socially in the world. This is a human niche and this niche involves
a particular evolution of something called a human imagination. Human imagination, I would like to argue, is as important as the bones and stones in understanding the
processes and patterns of human evolution. Alright, here is a
summary of a whole bunch of interesting things that have happened over the last 2 million
years to our lineage. What I want to point out here, and I’ll provide some specific examples, is that this is not just about linear, even though it’s a line, linear evolution. This is about the changing
relation between individuals, between individuals
and the material world, between individuals, the material world, and their cognitive interpretation
of that material world, and that cycle getting
more and more dense. As we changed, as we changed the world around us, as we changed one another, we began an intricate dance, which is culminating today, and hopefully will
continue into the future. So rather than talk about
this shifting in crania or other morphologies, let’s spend a little time with a few of the pieces of evidence we have of our evolutionary history that talk about this incredible dynamic, this feedback between
the material, the social, the cognitive, and our
evolutionary histories. So we know that significant
dietary changes happened fairly early on in our history, but those significant
dietary changes enabled, for example, our brains to get much larger and a variety of other things. However, we sometimes forget that those significant dietary changes are really associated
with the use of tools. Now, I’m gonna show you some tools here. This is, up here in
your upper left corner, this is an Oldowan tool. It’s about 1.8 million years old. I’m sure none of you are impressed. It is a rock with some sharp edges. But you should be. Nothing else in the
history of this planet, aside from our lineage, has ever had the capacity to take a stone, to look at that stone, and to imagine something
else inside that stone, to talk another object and work it on that initial stone to create
something anew from inside. That’s fairly impressive. And we know how difficult
some of these processes are. If you look at the next illustration here, you will notice that this
is actually a reconstruction of all of the mapping
of a stone tool, right? So what we actually do is you go in and you get the detritus, the debris, and you piece it back together. So you can look at every single strike. Now, when I say we, I
mean the graduate students that actually did the
work, not the professors. But what you then know is you can see that the individual stone tool maker, even for these fairly old stone tools, here we’re getting into the
Acheulean stone tool industry, looking something a bit more like this, what we can see is that you take it, you have the platform, you
look at it, you strike it, you’ve totally, radically
altered the whole shape. You now have to reimagine
the entire thing, hit it in the next place,
hit it in the next place, and when we construct those together, it is unbelievably difficult. It takes a student today months to learn how to be a good stone tool maker. And that is with video training, with the rocks already brought to you, and without any large
predators trying to eat you while you do your work. We can underestimate
how important this was. Think about what I just said. Not all stones are equally
good for making stone tools. So, to make stone tools,
even the most basic ones, you have to be able to find decent stones and replicate that finding. You have to go back and
get them again and again. Then you have to carry,
I don’t know how many of you carry regularly 20 or
30 kilos of stones with you, but that’s a lot of work. Dispersing that socially
is very important. Then you have to make stone tools in an environment that is
packed with very large things with large teeth that want to eat you, and remember, you’re very small, naked, and you’ve got some rocks
and some few sticks. When you make stone tools,
it makes a lot of noise, so you’ve got everything
stacked against you. How did our ancestors figure this out? How did they work through it? Imagination, collaboration, cooperation, really focusing in on the social, but really interestingly, current work, looking at what it means
to make stone tools, by Dietrich Stout and a
number of other groups, have demonstrated that when
you make these stone tools, certain areas of neuro-biological activity are accentuated and there’s
some corollary patterns. Now, what are these areas, and frequently these are areas associated with higher functioning and memory, with planning and, interestingly enough, with language. But wait, don’t order yet, because it’s not just
the making stones tools that does these things in your brain, which probably means
they have a deep ancestry for doing that, but also if you are
watching a stone tool maker, you mirror some of those functions. And here is the critical component of stone tools: it’s not
about the tools themselves, it’s about the social context in which they were made and used. We can debate whether or not teaching occurred 1.5 million years ago. What we can’t debate is
these complex stone tools were made at 1.5, one million, five hundred
thousand years ago, that you or I could not make
without being instructed. Was there language? I don’t think so. But there was a broad bandwidth of highly dense information transfer that was social and it was imaginative. Now around this time period, and between about 1.5
and a million years ago, as I pointed out, that niche is constantly sort of augmenting as more ways of dealing with the world occur, that density and those feedbacks continue to shape our bodies, our
lives, our cognition. We know that by about
half a million years ago, give or take 50 thousand years, I like to work in big numbers, we had an incredible
capacity to collaborate in ways that seem to
exceed the collaboration of many other organisms. We had incredibly complex,
cooperative parenting where males and young were
also caring for offspring, we had a pattern of the
whole communities responding to environmental pressures,
not just individuals, and we had evidence of
augmentation and enhancement in our imaginative capabilities. For example, and we’ll hear more about this later today, fire. We heard about it already
in the previous talk. People underestimate fire all the time. Yes, fire is wonderful
because it allows us access to nutrients that we
wouldn’t have otherwise by heating food. It also allows us to
modify stones and wood to alter their physical structure so that we can better use them. But more importantly, as
was already mentioned, fire turns night to day. Fire releases us from the
constraint of the sun. Fire enables an expansion
of the time we have to be together, to think
together, to imagine together. But it’s not just evidence of fire, which maybe goes back as far
as 1.6 million years ago. We have glimmerings, elements, but it really isn’t until about four or five hundred
thousand years ago, three hundred thousand years ago, that we start to see it
with increasing regularity. But it’s not just fire, and really, from my perspective, cool stone tools. Here’s a nearly 300,000
year old clamshell from Java that, at some point,
something in the lineage Homo picked up, grabbed another
object, and doodled on it. Most people, just like that early Oldowan
stone tool I showed you, are not impressed by doodles. But you should be. Think what it means to doodle. Think what it means to take an object, to take another object,
and alter the surface to create a new sensation. We see this over the last three hundred, four hundred thousand years. We see glimmerings earlier, but it’s really over this last three to four hundred thousand years
that we start to see this with much higher density. At that same time period, we
also have two very interesting, okay, not very many, but two very interesting events. Here at Atapuerca,
about 400,000 years ago, we have a number of
bodies found in one place, a deep pit. In that deep pit are a couple cave bears that look like they fell in, and a bunch of other things that have been gnawing on the bones, but nothing else except
for, as you can see here, this beautiful hand ax, about this big. It’s made from a stone that is not local. And it is gorgeous. It was carved and thrown in, never used. What does that mean? We won’t ever know, but I
bet it had something to do with the imagination and
the creativity and meaning for that group of people. And more recently, about, say,
between two hundred thousand and three hundred thousand years ago, we have another evidence of
possible movement of bodies into an underground cave. People debate whether it’s burial or not, I don’t wanna get into that debate. But I do want to point out that we have glimmerings earlier on, but all of these things, burials,
art, creative imaginings, incredible manipulation of the world, all has a deep evolutionary history and didn’t just show up
when our species shows up ’cause everything I’ve just showed you predates homo sapiens sapiens. But by the last 30, 50
thousand years or so, we find clear examples of identity, clear examples of
individuals taking items, reshaping them to create
a completely new reality, a new imagination, a new
way to be in the world, and it is my, and many other’s, arguments that this new way to be in the world, these new senses of identity, this new deployment of imagination, had a huge impact on those feedback loops between our ecology,
between the materials, between our bodies, between our cognition, and between our societies. So the human niche is, of course, centrally located and focused. Our studies of understanding
human evolution has to be about our brain and our DNA and our morphology and our bodies, but it also has to be about
all of the different ecologies that humans have spread
across the entire planet, so it’s our brains, our
bodies, our ecologies, and, and you already all know this, our perceptual realities. The way we see the world, the way we think about the world, the way we feel the world is as important as our bones, our muscles, and our DNA because part of that
system, that feedback, that complex dynamic that is the human involves the imagination. So the human niche includes creativity, cooperation, and imagination. Meaning, especially making meaning, matters as an agent in the processes of our evolutionary histories. It is specifically feedback
systems between behaviors, ecologies, cognitive and bodily systems involved in teaching and
learning and meaning making, communicating, that
facilitated a new niche that had huge impacts. For example, it set up our brains, it structured them in a way that Michael Arbib calls “language ready.” You don’t just get language. It has to evolve, and the cognitive and neuro biological
structures have to be there. And part of that is this, we also have communities
of shared imagination, seeing these multiple, iterative events of meaning making across space and time shows that communities of humans, and I’m using the term broadly because I don’t necessarily
just mean homo sapiens, were capable of working
together to remake the world in their, and from their, imagination. So meaning making,
imagination, communication, creativity and community are central. And that’s my pitch. However, all of this stuff
sounds really positive and really, really exciting. I would like to say
that our capacity to be with one another, to share our minds, to imagine, to think
forward as a central part of our evolutionary niche also brings with it a few problems. Imagination made humans exceptional, but also potentially extremely dangerous. We have interconnected the world in a way that nothing on this planet has ever done, and through that
interconnection, we are reshaping what the world actually looks like. Here’s a global human density map. This is a better map than
most that you look at because this is the way we’re
shaping the actual surface and functioning of the earth. We have imagined ourselves into a position where it is in the balance. Our ecologies, our
capacities, our creativities are nearing, they’re
bringing us to the point where decisions have to be
made and have to be imagined. We know today, for example,
in the United States, we have systems of racism, mysogony, and inequality unknown before. So we need to understand
how our imagination and creativity has
gotten us to this state, always remembering that,
in fact, that imagination and creativity is the one thing
that can get us out of it. Being together with one
another, thinking together, creating, imagining, seeing
the world as the way it is, imagining other possibilities,
and at least trying to make them happen. That’s what got humans
to where we are today. Thank you. (audience applauds) (driving music)

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