Creatively Human: Homo sapiens sapiens, looking back and thinking forward

Humans call ourselves “doubly wise” (Homo sapiens sapiens). But what is distinctive about humanity? Things like birth to live young with extended childhood, large brains, and complex social lives seem like good places to start…but, these factors are also found in gorillas, elephants, and blue whales. It is not the capacity to have complex social lives and to cooperate and care for others that distinguishes humans, but it is the particular ways, intensities and processes by which we do so that are distinctive.

Over the last two million years, members of the genus Homo, our lineage, underwent significant changes in brains, bodies, and behavior. We created a new niche, a new way of being in the world. Understanding how this came to be is our challenge. I suggest we look long and hard at the human aptitude for creative collaboration—the distinctive process of human wisdom, our becoming sapiens.

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Creativity is everywhere in contemporary human experience, but creativity is older than most think and has a deep presence in the human lineage. We need to remember that, even today, when individuals contribute to major discoveries, they never do so out of thin air. It turns out that the initial condition, the requirement for human creativity, is an act of collaboration. Collaboration underlies creativity. Humans succeed by connecting the dots and recombining ideas and experiences, imagining new possibilities and making them happen.

It’s our ability to move back and forth between the realms of “what is” and “what could be” that has enabled us to reach beyond being a successful species to become an exceptional one. This process has propelled the development of our bodies, minds, and cultures, both for good and for bad. As I state in the introduction to a forthcoming book, we are “neither the nastiest species, nor the nicest species. We are neither entirely untethered from our biological nature, nor slavishly yoked to it. It’s not the drive to reproduce, nor competition for mates, or resources, or power, nor our propensity for caring for one another that have separated us out from all other creatures. We are, first and foremost the species singularly distinguished and shaped by creativity.”

Looking at the fossil and archeological records of the last 2 million years of human evolution, we can see that the challenges of eluding predators, making and sharing stone tools, controlling fire, telling stories and contending with shifts in climate, are all met with creative collaboration. Early on our ancestors did so in ways that were just marginally more effective than those of their pre-human forbears and other human-like species, such as the earliest stone tools, slight increases in the efficiency of scavenging or expansions in dietary diversity. Over time, that minor edge of advantage expanded, refined, and propelled them into a category all their own which included extensive communal care of young, power scavenging, and eventually hunting, more complex tool creation and use, and the mastery of fire and symbol.

Recent discoveries and theoretical shifts in evolutionary theory and biology, such as the insights about how our environment and life experiences affect the functioning of our genes and bodies, along with new findings in the fossil record and ancient DNA have changed the toolkit we have for thinking about the story of humanity. A new synthesis demonstrates that through various evolutionary processes, including selection, niche construction and multiple modes of evolutionarily relevant inheritance (genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic) humans developed a distinctive set of neurological, physiological, and social skills that enabled us to work together and think together in order to purposefully cooperate, compete, and create. Older versions of the human origin story that focus only on genes and selection tell an incomplete story of how we became capable of increasing levels of complexity in the world.

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Looking at the record of the past demonstrates that our ancestors started to help each other care for the young, whether or not those young were their own. They began to share food for both nutritional and social reasons, and to coordinate activities beyond what was needed for survival. These processes set up a feedback dynamic, that when tied with stone tool creation and use and expanded dietary breadth and foraging patterns, enabled changes in neurological pathways and behavioral outcomes. A human niche was constructed and helped shape the trajectories of various populations in the genus Homo. This baseline of creative cooperation, the ability to get along, to help one another and have each other’s backs, and to think and communicate with each other with increasing prowess, transformed us into the beings that developed domestication and invented the social processes and material technologies that facilitated large-scale societies and, recently, modern nation-states. This collaborative creativity within and between human groups also drove the development of broader meaning, of faiths and hopes, of religious beliefs and ethical systems, and opened the world to the production of masterful artwork. Of course, it also tragically fueled and facilitated our ability to compete in more deadly ways. We applied essentially the same creativity in killing other members of our species as we did to manipulating planetary ecology to our own ends, and most recently to the brink of devastation.

The human niche is nether static nor tightly bounded, just like we humans ourselves. We have named ourselves Homo sapiens sapiens, the doubly wise.  Reflecting on our two-million year history as a genus we can see where such nomenclature may be justified, we have had an amazingly creative and complex journey to the present. However, focusing on human action in the most recent past and in our contemporary lives today the justification for “doubly wise” seems a bit more tenuous. Human wisdom has served us well in the past and our capacities are neither diminished or showing any signs of curtailing. But given the contemporary state of affairs we have woven for ourselves, one that emerges from the very capacities and successes that come from being wise, it will take extreme creativity and collaboration to ensure that our wisdom continues to facilitate positive outcomes for a majority of humans, and other species, into the future.