How Humans Evolved through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time


By Gaia Vince

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In the tradition of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Sapiens, a winner of the Royal Society Prize for Science Books shows how four tools enabled has us humans to control the destiny of our species

“A wondrous, visionary work.” –Tim Flannery, scientist and author of the bestselling The Weather Makers

What enabled us to go from simple stone tools to smartphones? How did bands of hunter-gatherers evolve into multinational empires? Readers of Sapiens will say a cognitive revolution — a dramatic evolutionary change that altered our brains, turning primitive humans into modern ones — caused a cultural explosion. In Transcendence, Gaia Vince argues instead that modern humans are the product of a nuanced coevolution of our genes, environment, and culture that goes back into deep time. She explains how, through four key elements — fire, language, beauty, and time — our species diverged from the evolutionary path of all other animals, unleashing a compounding process that launched us into the Space Age and beyond. Provocative and poetic, Transcendence shows how a primate took dominion over nature and turned itself into something marvelous.


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WHEN NEIL HARBISSON went to renew his UK passport in 2004, there was a problem with the photograph he had provided. It should contain “no other people or objects. No hats, no infant dummies, no tinted glasses.”

The regulations didn’t say anything about antennae.

Nevertheless, he was told to remove the accessory from his head and resubmit his application. Harbisson explained that his antenna was not an accessory, but a part of him—“an extension of his brain”—and anyway, he couldn’t remove it as it had been surgically implanted. The passport was issued.

That is how Harbisson became the world’s first officially recognized cyborg.

Harbisson describes himself as the first “trans-species” person. Through a technological adaptation he has evolved into something else—something beyond a biological human, something beyond nature.

Harbisson now has extrasensory perception: he can hear colors through his antenna. He had been born a biologically compromised human, unable to see in color, as the result of a rare genetic condition called achromatopsia. Through his eyes, the world appears in shades of gray. As a 21-year-old art student, he collaborated with a couple of software programmers and a musician to develop an electronic device that would allow him to sense colors as musical notes and chords. In 2004, after a difficult search, he found a doctor who, on condition of anonymity, would implant the device.

The antenna is a black flexible wand that emerges from somewhere under his straw-blond hair at the back of his head, and protrudes up and over his forehead. Harbisson wears his hair in a severe bowl-shaped cut, shaved up at the back, so that it resembles a helmet, further blurring the line between the biological and artificial. At the front of the antenna is an electronic “eye” that detects the colors of the objects around him and transmits these light frequencies to a chip implanted in his skull. There, these impulses are converted to sound frequencies and Harbisson hears the colors of the world through the bones of his head.

Initially, he struggled to make sense of the overwhelming color information flooding his mind, and to discern and distinguish color sounds by their names. But, 15 years on, he lives in a fabulous Technicolor symphony—he even dreams in color. His biological brain has merged so completely with the electronic software that he now experiences sounds, speech, bleeps, and other noise as color. He began painting people’s voices and musical compositions, from Mozart to Lady Gaga. Then he decided to expand his palette beyond the human range. Now, Harbisson can perceive ultraviolet and infrared, so that he can “see” objects in the dark, appreciate patterns invisible to the rest of us unenhanced humans, and even spot the UV markers left on tree trunks that animals produce in their urine. He has also upgraded his chip to allow Internet access, so he can connect to satellites and receive colors from external devices. It’s an organ that is still evolving, Harbisson says.

In 2018, he had compass components fixed inside his knees to allow him to sense the earth’s magnetic field, and his next implant will be a crown-like device he has designed, which he describes as an organ for time. It will span his head, producing a heat spot that will revolve around his skull in 24-hour cycles, allowing him to perceive time—to, in effect, sense the earth’s rotation. Once his brain has accepted and integrated the new organ, Harbisson hopes to be able to stretch or speed his perception of time by altering the speed of the heat spot’s motion. If he wants a moment to last longer, for example, he will be able to slow the heat motion. In this way, he might even be able to change his sensation of aging, manipulating his relative experience of time, to live to 170. “In the same way that we can create optical illusions, because we have an organ for the sense of sight, I think we can create time illusions if we have an organ for the sense of time,” he explains.

The term “cyborg” was coined in 1960* by American scientists Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, who were describing their vision of an enhanced human who could survive in an extraterrestrial environment. Now, this fiction has become reality for Harbisson, and also for the hundreds of millions of people who rely on contact lenses, cochlear implants, artificial heart valves, and a range of other bionic aids to enhance their natural abilities. Whether integrated into our bodies or not, our tools and gadgets give us exceptional powers: we can fly without wings, dive without gills, be resuscitated after death, escape our planet to set foot on the moon. More prosaically, they are the blades that improve on our teeth and nails’ ability to cut our food and the soled shoes that help our feet run fast on stony ground. In truth, we are all cyborgs for none of us can survive without our technological inventions.

But, to think of us simply as a sort of smarter chimp with cool tools is to miss what is truly extraordinary about us and the way we operate on this planet. Yes, we have evolved incredibly diverse and complex gadgets, but so too have we evolved languages, artworks, societies, genes, landscapes, foods, belief systems, and so much more. Indeed, we have evolved an entire human world—a societal operating system—without which Harbisson’s antennae would not only not exist, but would also be pointless. For it is our human world that gives our technologies meaning and drives their invention. We are so much more than evolved cyborgs.

I presume you are not reading this while perched naked in a tree in some jungle. You are, like me, wearing clothes, processed from plants grown thousands of miles away, woven, dyed, cut, and stitched by different hands, aided by several machines, to somebody’s design somewhere else, shipped to another place, priced and marketed by other people, working to various orders, and eventually, several steps later, of your own unique volition, wrapping your skin as wonderfully as fur. Perhaps you are sitting on a plastic chair formed out of the processed carcasses of long-dead sea creatures, held up by steel legs generated from mined rocks, blasted and refined and assembled in multiple steps by teams of people independently fashioning a structure that was devised and altered over millennia, millions of times.

Wherever you are, you are generating in your mind these words that I have written as though I were speaking them into your ear. My mind is directly connecting with your mind now, even though I wrote this in another time and place, perhaps in another language. It’s possible that I’m no longer even alive.

You are smart, but when alone, you are fairly powerless. We live our lives utterly dependent on countless strangers for our survival. Men and women have toiled to make and assemble the constituents of my lunch, clothes, furniture, house, road, city, state, and world beyond me. These many cooperating, collaborating strangers have themselves relied on thousands upon thousands of other people, living and dead, to shape the lives they lead. And yet there is no contract, no plan, and no common purpose to our 7 billion lives.

If it seems incredible that everything we see now—all the busyness and industry of billions of people living seemingly autonomous yet utterly interdependent lives—could have arisen without any plan, then consider this: each superb working body, from its eyes to its toenails to its consciously aware brain, emerged similarly from a single cell, in a matter of weeks. As a fertilized egg cell begins to grow and divide, the one cell becomes a mass of pluripotent cells, meaning they have the potential to be any type of cell in the body, depending on their biological developing bath. Thus, a cell that finds itself by chance on the outer part of the ball may end up developing into a nerve cell in the spinal cord; another cell, depending on its developing bath, will become a heart cell. Evolution has created a mechanism whereby a functioning system of cooperating organs and cells—a human being—can be built from a single cell.

We are each of us individuals with our own motivations and desires, and yet much of our autonomy is an illusion. We are formed in a cultural “developing bath” that we will ourselves then fashion and maintain—a grand social project without direction or goal that has nevertheless produced the most successful species on Earth.

Humans now live longer and better than ever before, and we are the most populous big animal on Earth. Meanwhile, our closest living relatives, the now endangered chimpanzees, continue to live as they have for millions of years. We are not like the other animals, yet we evolved through the same process. What are we then?

This question fascinated me, and I set out to understand our exceptional nature and what alchemy created humanity—this planet-altering force of nature—out of an ape.

What follows is a remarkable evolution story that has captivated me utterly. It all rests on a special relationship between the evolution of our genes, environment, and culture, which I call our human evolutionary triad. This mutually reinforcing triad creates the extraordinary nature of us, a species with the ability to be not simply the objects of a transformative cosmos, but agents of our own transformation. We have diverged from the evolutionary path taken by all other animals, and right now, we are on the cusp of becoming something grander and more marvelous. As the environment that created us is transformed by us we are beginning our greatest transcendence.

Let me explain.

We are Earthly beings—Earth-conceived and Earth-born. The role of our planetary home in making a species that would itself reshape that planet is little appreciated, and yet the environment made us the people we are today. After all, it is in response to our environment that we walk on two legs, speak tonal languages, have immunity to the flu virus, and developed culture. So, my story begins with the geological origins of our genesis. All life is formed of the stuff of the universe, and we humans are fundamentally a microcosm of the grand cosmos. The calcium in the limestone cliffs supporting our coastlines is also in the bones that support us internally—both owe their provenance to the stars. The water coursing through our planet’s rivers, much like our internal rivers of blood, has its origin in comets.

Humans emerged, like every other life form, through the process of biological evolution. Species change over time because randomly occurring genetic differences accumulate within populations over generations. Organisms whose genes make them more successful in their environment are more likely to survive and reproduce, thus passing their genes to subsequent generations. In this way, biology adapts in response to environmental pressures, and species have gradually evolved to exploit every habitat on Earth.*

Our intelligent, social ancestors also evolved adaptations to survive in their environment, which, for our early hominid forebears, was a tropical forest habitat, and one of these adaptations was culture. “Culture” has so many different interpretations, but when I use the term, I am referring to learned information expressed in our tools, technologies, and behaviors. Human culture relies on our ability to learn from others and express this knowledge ourselves. We are not the only species that evolved culture, but ours is far more flexible: it is cumulative and it evolves. Human cumulative culture ratchets up in complexity and diversity over generations to generate ever more efficient solutions to life’s challenges.

Cumulative cultural evolution has proven a game changer in the story of life on Earth. Instead of our evolution being driven solely by changes to environment and genes, culture also plays its part. Cultural evolution shares much with biological evolution. Genetic evolution relies on variation, transmission, and differential survival. All three are there with cultural evolution. The main difference is that in biological evolution, they are operational mostly at the level of the individual, whereas for cultural, group selection is more important than individual selection, as we shall see. It is our collective human culture, even more than our individual intelligence, that makes us smart.

We weren’t the only human species to go down this evolutionary route—and we will visit our cousins—but we are the only ones to have survived. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, we began to escape our original environmental cradle by using our culture to overcome the physical and biological limitations that trap other species into uncreative lives. Our extraordinary evolution is driven by four key agents, which I describe in the following sections: Fire, Word, Beauty, and Time.

Fire describes how we outsource our energy costs to escape our biological limitations and extend our physical capabilities. Word investigates the role of information in our success: the use of language to accurately transmit and store complex cultural knowledge and communicate ideas between minds. Language is a social glue that binds us with joint stories, and enables us to make better predictions and decide who to trust based on their reputations. Beauty encapsulates the importance of meaning in our activities, which enables us to coalesce around shared beliefs and identities. Our artistic expression produces cultural speciation—tribalism between and within our societies—but also enables the trade in resources, genes, and ideas that prevents genetic speciation, while leading to bigger, better-connected societies with fancier technologies. Lastly, Time underlies our quest for objective, rational explanations for natural processes. The combination of knowledge and curiosity has driven us further than any other animal: we’ve developed the science to order the world and our place in it, becoming a connected global humanity.

It is the interweaving of these four threads that creates the extraordinary nature of us and explains how we operate as we do: why people who live in cities are more inventive, why religious people are less anxious, why Filipino storytellers have more sex, why migrants have a greater risk of schizophrenia, why Westerners see faces differently from East Asians. The human evolutionary triad—genes, environment, and culture—are all implicated. For instance, the probability that any two of your friends are friends with each other—known as network transitivity—affects your individual fate, as well as the performance of the group.1 But transitivity is influenced by environment—isolated villages have higher transitivity (everyone knows each other). On top of this, the number of friends you have is influenced by your genes.2 The majority of all of this comes down to chance: who, where, and when you were born is likely to be much more important than any choice you will ever make.

This is a great time to be exploring such fundamental questions about how we became such an extraordinary species. Exciting advances in population genetics, archaeology, paleontology, anthropology, psychology, ecology, and sociology are beginning to reveal new insights into our history, fundamentally changing our understanding of how we developed as a species. For instance, the idea that a so-called behaviorally modern human emerged just 20,000 (or 40,000) years ago, through some sort of cognitive or genetic revolution, is being challenged. The first individual human genome was sequenced in 2007, and since then, thousands of people have had their unique genetic history decoded and, in doing so, helped us understand our collective history—how we are related and how we relate to our closest human cousins. Meanwhile, archaeologists using new dating techniques have made astonishing discoveries about our most ancient artworks and technologies, and paleontologists have shown the textbook tale of the simple ascent of man to have been anything but simple.

We are also entering a new era of collaboration: for the first time, many people from these famously protectionist research fields are beginning to talk to each other, upsetting well-established dogma but generating a wealth of data, insight, and experience. This meeting of the natural sciences and the social sciences is starting to resolve this central paradox of why we are biologically so very similar and yet behaviorally so very different. We are looking at ourselves with new eyes, and recognizing the deep links that run through our biology, culture, and environment.

As we will discover, human cultural evolution allows us to solve many of the same adaptive problems as genetic evolution, only faster and without speciation. We are continually making ourselves through this triad of genetic, environmental, and cultural evolution; we are becoming an extraordinary species capable of directing our own destiny. It is this that has allowed us to expand our population size and geographical range, in turn accelerating our cultural evolution to greater complexity in a mutually reinforcing cycle.

Today, the size and connectedness of our populations have reached unprecedented levels. At the same time, we have produced a dramatic shift in Earth’s environment, pushing the planet that formed us into an entirely new geological era known as the Anthropocene, the Age of Humans. The accumulation of our material changes alone—including roads, buildings, and croplands—now weighs an estimated 30 trillion tons and allows us to live in an ultraconnected global population that’s headed for 9 or 10 billion people.* Look around you: we are the intelligent designers of all you see. There is no part of Earth untouched by us—we’re even littering space.

I’m going to take you on a journey to show how our uniquely human attributes changed us as a species—and how, so doing, they reset our relationship with nature.

We are now, all of us, on the brink of something quite exceptional. The interplay of human culture, biology, and environment is creating a new creature from our hypercooperative mass of humanity: we are becoming a superorganism. Let’s call it Homo omnis, or Homni for short.

This is the story of our transcendence.



FOURTEEN BILLION YEARS ago, the Big Bang created just enough of an excess of matter over antimatter for the existence of everything that we see in the universe today.

Entirety exploded out of something as contained as a quantum dot, and it has been expanding into glorious disorder ever since. Here on Earth, the only known living beings in the universe attempt to do battle with entropy, create order out of chaos, and build complex structures from energetic particles.

Energy generated matter, and that’s made of atoms. Whether these crumbs make up a lump of iron, or an elephant’s ear, or the scent of a rainforest depends on the number of protons at its heart: a hydrogen atom has just one proton, whereas lead has 82. But it is how the atoms transfer energy that determines much of the difference between hydrogen and lead (and their usefulness to us), and that is determined by their electrons, which spin outside the atom’s nucleus and obey the strange rules of quantum mechanics.

The energetic exchanges made every time an electron moves within or between atoms are the basis for every reaction on Earth, from the replication of DNA to the laughter of a baby. It is the electrons embedded in our breakfast porridge that later provide us with the energy to chew our sandwich at lunch. These electron shifts allow atoms to combine chemically to form molecules, which are the building blocks of living cells, and so of us.

Around 90 percent of all matter in the universe is hydrogen; another 5 percent is helium, an unreactive atom with two protons. Both were produced in the instants after the Big Bang. As the stars shine, they fuse hydrogen atoms together into the heavier elements of our world, including oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, which are extremely rare in the universe but make up most of the human body. And the violent drama that birthed the stuff of us also produced the elements we prize most. If you are wearing a piece of gold jewelry, know that you are likely to be wearing the celestial debris of a cataclysmic stellar collision so devastating that it literally shook the universe.

Gravity pulled together the interstellar clouds of hydrogen, helium, and dust—the nebulae—with such force that their nuclei fused, releasing enormous amounts of energy and a new generation of stars. The star most important to our story, the sun—a nuclear reactor burning hydrogen in a cloud of cosmic dust—was born 4.6 billion years ago. Out of its dirty halo, a spinning clump of minerals coalesced: Earth, the third rock from the sun. Soon after, a massive asteroid crashed into our planet, shaved off a huge chunk—creating our moon—and knocked the world on to a tilted axis. That tilt gave us seasons and currents, and the moon’s influence birthed our oceans’ tides. Earth’s position, the pull of Jupiter,1 and our orientation from the sun all played their part in creating a crucible for the greatest experiment in the universe.

Just one in 3 million of the molecules of Earth is water, but they are concentrated at the surface, and that makes all the difference. The ingredients for DNA, amino acids, rained down from comets, combined with the elements on Earth, and kick-started life’s incredible genesis in the planet’s oceans some 4 billion years ago. At the nanoscale of atoms, where the masses involved are so small that the force of gravity becomes irrelevant, intermolecular forces such as electrostatic charges of attraction and repulsion dominate. One of the most surprising observations is that certain chemical processes become self-replicating. In this way, single molecules of DNA multiply, creating new life. Did the miracle happen just once or several times? We may never know for sure, but from one cell of self-copying magic evolved the incredible diversity of life that includes us, humans who have bitten the apple of knowledge and can now create nature itself.

Evolution has no aim and no direction—the ability to see, to walk, to fly, have variously arisen in creatures and been lost—but complexity takes time: billions of years of biological—and environmental—evolution occurred before anything resembling us emerged. Initially, there was nothing to breathe, as the world’s first atmosphere consisted of hydrogen and water vapor. It took around 2 billion years for the gas of life to pervade the air, courtesy of ancient blue-green algae, which used the energy from sunlight to make sugars from carbon dioxide, and in the process released oxygen as a waste product.

Photosynthesis and respiration, volcanic eruptions and tectonic movements, the tilt of the planet near or away from the sun—they all continually changed the balance of warming carbon dioxide and life-giving oxygen in the atmosphere, altering the climate as well as the chemistry and biology of the oceans. Over its first 3.5 billion years, the planet swung in and out of extreme glaciation. When the last ended, there was an explosion of complex multicellular life forms.

The emergence of life on Earth fundamentally changed the physics of the planet and transformed it into a living, breathing system. When plants evolved, they sped up the slow breakdown of rocks with their roots, helping to erode the channels that would become our rivers. Photosynthesis imbued the Earth system with chemical energy, and when animals ate the plants, they modified this chemistry, releasing warming carbon dioxide and, with their death, contributing sedimentary layers to the original rock.

In return, the physical planet dictated Earth’s biology, for life evolves in response to geological, physical, and chemical conditions. In the past 500 million years, there have been five mass extinctions triggered by supervolcanic eruptions, tectonic shifts, asteroid impacts, and other enormous climate-changing events. After each, the survivors regrouped, proliferated, and evolved as the Chinese whispers* of random genetic mutations passed down the generations. The environment applies an evolutionary pressure on life, which selectively adapts—and it’s been a two-way process: if plants became better at surviving in the desert (with genetic changes), they in turn changed the desert into less arid scrubland or dry forest. And this influenced which species (and which genes) could survive there.

There was no inevitability to our existence—to the existence of intelligent life—even if, looking back along our evolutionary route, it seems almost directed. Just an immeasurable rain of chance occurrences, big and small, splattering and splashing and, over the eons, trickling to unpredictable consequences: the delightful possibility of puzzle-solvers as different as an octopus and a human sharing space and time.

We can thank the heavens for our biggest evolutionary break. One day, in late June,2 66 million years ago, a meteorite so massive that it dwarfed Mount Everest, traveling at 14 kilometers per second (20 times faster than a bullet), plunged into the Yucatan Peninsula in present-day Mexico.3 The impact was so extreme, so rapid, that the meteorite reached Earth still intact, exerting a pressure wave on the atmosphere in front of it that was so intense that it began excavating the crater before the space rock even hit. On impact, the asteroid punched a 20-mile hole into the ground, deep enough to pierce the Earth’s mantle, and sent shock waves across the planet that generated volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, landslides, and blizzards of fire. What life survived the impact was mostly wiped out by the punishing global climate change that followed. Dinosaurs, which had dominated Earth for millions of years, disappeared; this ecological vacancy was filled by our mammal ancestors.


  • A best book of the year (Times of London)
  • "History doesn't get much bigger than this epic sweep through human progress....Vince takes dizzying leaps, making connections between archaeology, anthropology, genetics, and psychology."—Tom Whipple, Times of London
  • "Any story that begins with the words '14 billion years ago' is bound to be epic, and Transcendence is no exception... An impressive breadth of research from paleoarchaeology to genetics to anthropology."—M.R. O'Connor, Undark
  • "A hugely enjoyable sprint through human evolutionary history... and a good story."—Tim Radford, Nature
  • "Captivating... A provocative, highly readable take on our astonishing emergence from the primordial soup."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
  • "A wondrous, visionary work."—Tim Flannery, scientist and authorof The Weather Makers
  • "Transcendence is a beautifully imaginative overview of the biological and cultural evolution of humans. Richly informed by the latest research, Vince's colorful survey fizzes like a zip-wire as it tours our species' story from the Big Bang to the coming age of hyper-cooperation."—Richard Wrangham, professor of biological anthropology at HarvardUniversity and author of The Goodness Paradox
  • "An imaginative and inspiring adventure into the origins and evolution of what we hold most dear: our human culture."—Uta Frith, emeritus professor of cognitive development UCL
  • "This book goes from the Big Bang to the Hundred Thousand Genome Project to make a convincing case that Homo sapiens has become a super-organism. I learned a lot from it and so will you."—Steve Jones, Emeritus Professor of HumanGenetics UCL and author of Here Comes the Sun
  • "Science writer Vince looks at human evolution in terms of four elements -- dubbed Fire, Word, Beauty, and Time -- in this stimulating account... Even those broadly familiar with humanity's story will find new information and insights in Vince's fascinating study."
    Publishers Weekly
  • "An engaging, well-researched book for anyone curious about the development of humanity as approached through a social lens."—Library Journal

On Sale
Jan 21, 2020
Page Count
352 pages
Basic Books

Gaia Vince

About the Author

Gaia Vince is a science writer and broadcaster. In 2015, she was the first woman to win the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book prize solo for her debut, Adventures in the Anthropocene. She has held senior editorial posts at Nature and New Scientist, and writes for Science, the Guardian, and others. She lives in London.

Learn more about this author