The meandering path of human evolution


Boomerangs, hands, stencil drawings of the Aboriginal tribes of the Karingbal and Bidjara People, Carnarvon Gorge National Park PHOTO/Alamy/Duck Duck Go

Any story that begins with the words “14 billion years ago” is bound to be epic, and “Transcendence: How Humans Evolved Through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time,” by Gaia Vince, is no exception. In the first chapter alone, Vince, an award-winning science writer and broadcaster based in London, covers the Big Bang, evolution, photosynthesis, the extinction of the dinosaurs, climate change, and the presence of our early primate ancestors on the African savannah. It’s a whirlwind and it’s only the beginning.

By the book’s conclusion, Vince has taken readers on a journey encompassing tens of thousands of years of human evolution that shows how our exceptional species has reset our relationship with nature and transformed into a “new creature from our hypercooperative mass of humanity: we are becoming a superorganism.” Vince calls it Homo omnis.

Whether you enjoy this kind of epic treatment of human history might depend on whether you like authors such as Jared Diamond, Stephen Pinker, Bill Bryson, and Yuval Noah Harari, who all write in a similar style: approachable, smart, and very ambitious. (Bryson got there first but nearly all of these authors’ books could have been called “A Short History of Nearly Everything.”) “Transcendence’’ is most comparable to Harari’s 2014 blockbuster “Sapiens”: Both offer a sweeping account of human existence beginning with our origin as a species and ending with the idea that our species is becoming something post-human.

Unlike Harari, who focuses on a series of revolutions from the cognitive to the scientific, Vince chooses to highlight more nebulous and even poetic turning points in human evolution like “beauty” and “time.” We exist as the result of what she calls an “evolutionary triad” of genes, environment, and culture, and are now “agents of our own transformation.” She defines Homo omnis as a species that has transcended our evolutionary purpose — to advance our genes — for our cultural purpose, which is to be self-determining. Today, we are organisms with options: We can edit our genomes, choose the embryos of our offspring, prolong our lifespans, and maybe one day defeat death itself.

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