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Experts Discuss Role of Cooperation, Creativity in Human Evolution

Agustín Fuentes and Ron Cole-Turner explored the ways in which teamwork and creativity have shaped human development for thousands of years during a lecture and discussion at AAAS on 7 December. | Stephen Waldron/AAAS

The human capacity for creativity and collaboration allows our species to make works of art as well as warfare, said anthropologist Agustín Fuentes during a lecture at AAAS’ headquarters on 7 December.

“The very state of being human endows us with this creativity,” Fuentes said, “and it’s this creativity, in collaboration with a particular brand of cooperative possibilities, that made us who we are.”

The presentation was part of the Holiday Lecture series, presented by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion program. During the event, Fuentes and Ron Cole-Turner explored the role of cooperation and creativity in human evolution.

Fuentes, a professor at Notre Dame University who was named a AAAS Fellow in 2011, proposed that creativity is what distinguishes humans from other species.

Early humans, whom Fuentes described as short, naked and without horns or claws, had to rely on each other to stave off predators. Eventually, he said, these ancestors used teamwork and stone tools to engage in “power scavenging.” This practice involved scaring off a predator from a fresh kill by making loud noises, then stepping in to claim the carcass.

Records dating between 100,000 to 135,000 years ago from northern and southern Africa revealed snail shells that humans had poked holes in and strung in order to wear them as necklaces, Fuentes noted, saying such behaviors are signs of humans creating meaning.

He went on to cite a burial pit known as Sima de los Huesos in northern Spain, roughly 400,000 years old, which contained 28 bodies and held a large stone tool. The tool had never been used and it has been suggested that it may have been placed in the burial ground as a tribute to the dead.

“We don’t know specifically what it meant,” Fuentes said, “but it meant something.”

While early humans used cooperation and creativity to hunt and create art, Fuentes said that they leveraged the same traits when engaged in coordinated violence.

Fuentes said that there is no evidence of “lethal, coordinated violence” in our distant past, but it begins to appear around 10,000 years ago. He referenced a database which compiled records from more than 400 sites and showed that less than 2% of fossils found show evidence of physical trauma. Between roughly 14,000 and 5,000 years ago, however, Fuentes said, that figure had more than doubled. The number doubled again between around 5,000 and 2,000 years ago.

He suggested that villages and senses of property developed, societies became more complex and violence increased. Fuentes noted that a previously unseen type of social inequality was introduced during this period.

Ron Cole-Turner, a professor of theology and ethics at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, delivered remarks in response to Fuentes’ presentation. He also serves as an adviser for the DoSER program.


Ron Cole-Turner, co-founder the International Society for Science and Religion, said that while humans can be imaginative in isolation, they can reach higher levels of creativity when they work together. | Stephen Waldron/AAAS

Cole-Turner described the lecture as thought-provoking and said that he was taken aback by the escalation in violence outlined in Fuentes’ presentation. He agreed with the assertion that warfare is reliant on organization.

“War is one of the most intricately orchestrated endeavors that we are capable of sustaining,” Cole-Turner said, “and yet disastrous in consequences.”

He said that while religion could be beneficial for individuals, “the evidence is a little more disturbing” at the collective level. He used the example of French theologian and preacher Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote and spoke in support of the Second Crusade in the 12th century.

Cole-Turner said that for those who value their spiritual traditions, it is time for an “unambiguous repudiation of the racism, violence and the genocidal tendencies that have been part of our traditions.”

It is important, he said, to turn the human capacity for cooperation away from destruction and toward creation.

“The best and the worst of us come from the same well,” Cole-Turner said.

During a discussion that followed Cole-Turner’s remarks, Fuentes argued that humanity is not doomed to a destiny of becoming more violent. Cole-Turner agreed, but added that improving would “take an intense amount of work.”

DoSER program director Jennifer Wiseman described the evidence presented by Fuentes and Cole-Turner’s reflections as fascinating and “potentially paradigm-shifting,” and thereby inspiring ongoing discussion and reflection. 

“We like to bring in experts to present interesting advances at the forefront of science that inspire discussion of broader implications for our lives, such as values, meaning, and what it means to be “human,’” Wiseman said. “Dr. Fuentes did just that.”

[Associated image: Agustín Fuentes, a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, said that creativity is the trait that distinguishes humans from other species. | Stephen Waldron/AAAS]