cover image Transcendence: How Humans Evolved Through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time

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

Gaia Vince. Basic, $30 (352) ISBN 978-0-465-09490-5

Science writer Vince (Adventures in the Anthropocene) looks at human evolution in terms of four elements—dubbed Fire, Word, Beauty, and Time—in this stimulating account. She begins with humans’ literal and figurative quest for fire and other forms of energy in order “to escape our biological limitations and exceed our physical capabilities.” Word, meanwhile, covers how language and storytelling contributed to humanity’s evolutionary success. The final two elements are connected more tenuously to their titles, with Beauty referring to “the importance of meaning in our activities,” and Time to the human drive to understand and explain nature. Throughout, she uses up-to-date scholarship, such as on how Neanderthal and Denisovan genetic material expresses itself in current human populations. Vince’s fascinating examples draw from cultures as diverse as Ice Age humans, ancient Greeks and Romans, and contemporary hunter-gatherer societies—including one in which, anthropologists report, the “best storytellers have the most children”—as well as modern urban dwellers. While warning that the “norms” fostering “large and multicultural societies” have weakened recently, she urges readers to take a long view and remember that humanity has often effected “great social improvements in a very short time.” Even those broadly familiar with humanity’s story will find new information and insights in Vince’s fascinating study. (Jan.)