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.
Vince takes care to deftly transition between one subject and another, bringing the reader along as she moves from topics like Wikipedia to cultural evolution to altruism to the neocortex to gossip to the survival of genes to monotheistic religion, as she does in the chapter called “Telling.” She argues early on that new collaborations between scientific fields, and in particular between the natural and social sciences, has allowed us to look “at ourselves with new eyes” and recognize “the deep links that run through our biology, culture, and environment.”
Our species has evolved into a “new creature from our hypercooperative mass of humanity: we are becoming a superorganism.”
Likewise, Vince assembles the threads of these different disciplines and weaves them together to create moments of revelation for readers. She is uniquely talented in this respect, capable of presenting an impressive breadth of research from paleoarchaeology to genetics to anthropology. In one of the best chapters, “Story,” she gives a rich and compelling account of Australian Aboriginal storytelling and the culturally universal strategy of the brain using story as a means to organize information and make it more memorable. “Stories are a powerful survival adaptation,” writes Vince, “because they don’t just allow us to travel back in time with our memories, they also allow us to mentally explore different future scenarios without expending time and energy.”
Vince offers readers a vertiginous perspective of our existence on the planet. The cumulative effect seems intended to create awe and wonder in the reader, and inspire them to take seriously the responsibility of being “an extraordinary species capable of directing our own destiny.” But such an approach doesn’t leave much room for nuance, and there are many instances when Vince presents readers with statements that would seem to merit greater skepticism, such as when she writes that “In the United States, southerners are, as a group, more friendly and polite than northerners, who are often more brusque and ruder.” Or, “that more intelligent people tend to have fewer children; perhaps intelligence is being diluted in the gene pool.”
Should we really accept without any discussion that people who live in cities are more inventive, or that the number of friends we have is determined by our genes? Other assertions seem intended to knock us over with profundity but end up feeling like platitudes. “While animals are driven by biological urges to find food and mate, humans are also motivated by meaning and purpose,” Vince writes. Or, “We are all creatures of time.”
In the end, Vince’s provocative assertion that we are becoming a new species and the implications for our future become somewhat vague. She writes that human cultural evolution involves “peaks and troughs,” and that while there are reasons for pessimism and despair about the fate of our species today, it’s mostly a problem of perspective. Once we recognize and embrace our shared humanity, according to Vince, we can “achieve a good, livable Anthropocene.” Perhaps. The lack of specificity regarding how our species will transcend the serious problems she enumerates (tribalism, individual self-interest, partisanship, fascism, war, violence, environmental catastrophe) feels like a letdown after such an intellectually voracious book.
It’s worth asking why there is such a public appetite for science books written from a God-like vantage point at this time. Why do we seek out authors who try to explain everything? Is there security in the sense that someone out there can offer a coherent narrative that makes sense of where we come from and where we are going? Unfortunately, such authoritative, sweeping narratives often leave out what makes science so interesting in the first place: not just the certainties but the unknowns. “Transcendence” never lets us in on the process or methodologies by which studies come to their conclusions. Readers aren’t given a sense of the evolution of ideas or debates within scientific disciplines, or the individual scientists behind these ideas and what might drive them to do their research. We are never shown that just as science gives us answers, it also exposes the mysteries of our existence.
M.R. O’Connor, a 2016-17 Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT, writes about the politics and ethics of science, technology, and conservation. She is the author of “Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things”and “Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the Earth.”