Read This Book! (Transcendence)

About once a decade I come across a book conveying so many fascinating insights that it stands out in my memory, forever, as a “boy I’m glad I found this before I died” experience. Two of those are The River that Flows Uphill by William Calvin and Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.

I now have another entry in this collection: Transcendence by Gaia Vince.

I came across Transcendence in a review in Nature, the British science journal. Don’t be put off by the title (or the author’s first name, for that matter :)). While the scope is vast and the points made by the author are no doubt subject to debate this isn’t a breathless, new-agey tome. It’s scope just makes it sound that way.

What Vince sets out to do is explain, based on the empirical data available to us today, why this not particularly impressive in any obvious way primate — humans — ended up dominating the world. Because no matter how long our “reign” lasts we have likely had more of an impact on the Earth than any other single species. Which, of course, is why we now are wrestling with things like trying to figure out how to avoid cooking the planet. That’s not something a minor player would ever have to worry about :).

Along the way she paints a fascinating picture of how a few seemingly-minor genetic mutations opened the door to a new kind of change not available (so far as we know) to any other species on Earth: cultural evolution. All other species, even ones using simple tools (e.g., crows, chimpanzees), adapt to the world. We evolved to adapt the world to us.

That turns out to be a tremendously powerful biological strategy. It drastically reduced the amount of time we must spend grubbing for food and water to stay alive, compared to other species, once we stumbled across a few basic tricks (e.g., fire, cooking). Which free time then got redeployed into further cultural development, in a positive feedback loop whose benefits we are still seeing today.

But it required another fundamental adaptation. As individuals we cannot survive, in any meaningful way, outside of a community of our fellows. When you switch to adapting the world to yourself you gain the ability to survive and prosper in many more environments…but you give up knowing innately how to survive and prosper anywhere based on what’s programmed in your genes. You need a community to learn the things you need to know to replace what other species have wired in their DNA.

That alone is a profound insight, with a lot of implications. For one thing, while it doesn’t demand acceptance of collectivism it does put the lie to the notion that success depends totally, or even primarily, on individualism. An independent human — not involved in, engaged with, a community of his/her fellows — is a dead human. We need each other to be successful as individuals.

I’m not arguing that Transcendence has all the answers. Or even that everything Vince argues is correct. As I like to say, anyone who thinks one book has it all must be really confused by all the billions of pages we’ve collectively written over the millennia :). I look forward to seeing the ideas she puts forth be challenged and debated.

But in the meantime, if you have the time, you really should read this book.


A friend more thoroughly versed in the intersection of philosophy and political science than me pointed out an abbreviated reading of my paragraph on collectivism and individualism could lead someone to think everything about life derives from the community we belong to. Which, while not what I said would recapitulate the “logical” basis of fascism.

Needless to say I find fascism abhorrent. It’s also probably one of the stupidest forms, if not the stupidest form, of government we’ve ever inflicted on ourselves.

More importantly, the perspective Transcendence’s author is putting forth does not state or imply everything human comes from the community. Quite the contrary! She’s arguing it comes from the shared culture created by individuals seeking to improve their individual lot.

But that culture can’t survive or thrive outside of a functioning community because too many of our individual survival skills aren’t, unlike all other species, coded in our DNA. They’re encoded in our culture, which we have to transmit to each other and to our descendants.

While that’s a significant limitation, being able to create and maintain cultures means we get the benefits of something that can adapt and evolve far more rapidly than DNA ever could.

I also liked how she brings a perspective too infrequently heard in scholarly work, namely, that of a woman. Like the research that showed ignoring the gathering side of hunter/gatherer societies — because most human hunting groups are dominated by males, and males wrote most of the original research tomes — missed the mark, Vince expands her thesis by virtue of being a highly-trained female researcher.

I will always remember her recounting how surprised she was, upon becoming a mom, that neither she nor her new baby instinctively knew how to nurse effectively. It took education from her community to do it right…something we all know and accept without realizing just how different that makes us from other species.

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