Of all the alternative names that have been suggested for our species (out of which Linnaeus somehow chose Homo sapiens, “the wise”), maybe the most appropriate would be Homo narcissus, since we seem to delight so much in gazing at our own reflections. Like the Greek youth who fell in love with his own image, human beings have long been obsessed about what makes us so much “better” than other animals.
In “The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional,” [Agustín Fuentes] has done a fine job of summarizing recent research in anthropology and primatology. He argues, in short, that creativity combined with social cooperation can provide the key to human uniqueness, pointing to numerous examples in which problems such as the finding of food, the avoidance of predators, the transfer of information and the manipulation of the physical environment are solved by way of imaginative collaboration. The group achieves results that would be beyond the reach of any individual.
Perhaps not creativity but culture is what is most fundamental to our humanity—not just today but throughout our evolutionary history. This is the gravamen of Mr. Laland’s “Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind.” The author points to the qualitative gulf between, say, a nightingale’s song and a Verdi aria, or between the ability of many animals to count and Newton’s invention of the calculus. His explanation for the difference derives mostly, he believes, from the human ability to copy and teach (“high-fidelity information transmission”) and from the ways in which this ability, in turn, fed back into our evolution.
Darwin was certainly aware of the importance of human culture, but under Mr. Laland’s sophisticated interpretation, cultural innovations did not merely respond to environmental challenges but also helped create the elaborate surroundings within which natural selection made us what we are today.