On Evolution and Defining Creativity—Agustín Fuentes, Notre Dame

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Episode Notes

Now a member of the faculty at Princeton University, Agustín Fuentes was previously the Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., Professor of Anthropology and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Notre Dame. He has published more than 150 peer-reviewed articles and chapters and authored or edited 20 books as well as a three-volume encyclopedia.

He and host Ted Fox focused in large part on one of his most recent books, The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional, published by Dutton Books in 2017. Covering millions of years of human history in a 33-minute brunch, Agustín unpacked myths about the differences between men and women, about what race is and isn’t, and about whether we’re inherently violent creatures—all the while showing why he says humans’ incredible capacity for creativity is the defining element in our evolutionary journey.


Episode Transcript

*Note: We do our best to make these transcripts as accurate as we can. That said, if you want to quote from one of our episodes, particularly the words of our guests, please listen to the audio whenever possible. Thanks.

Ted Fox  0:00  
(voiceover) From the University of Notre Dame, this is With a Side of Knowledge. I'm your host, Ted Fox. The idea behind this show is pretty simple: A university campus is a destination for all kinds of interesting people, representing all kinds of research specialties and fields of expertise. So why not invite some of these folks out to brunch-- yes, I said brunch--where we'll have an informal conversation about their work, and then I'll turn those brunches into a podcast? It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it. 

With a Side of Knowledge is supported by Sorin's restaurant inside Notre Dame's Morris Inn, which serves breakfast and lunch seven days a week and dinner Tuesday through Saturday. If you see us recording, feel free to stop by and say hi. Preferably not when we're chewing. 

Augustin Fuentes is the Reverend Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., Professor of Anthropology and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Notre Dame. Trained in zoology and anthropology, he is interested in both the big questions and the small details of what makes humans and our closest relatives tick. And in making sure his work is accessible to all of us who don't happen to be professional scholars. Augustin has published more than 150 peer-reviewed articles and chapters and authored or edited 20 books, as well as a three-volume encyclopedia. Our conversation focused in large part on one of his most recent books, "The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional," published by Dutton Books in 2017. 

Covering millions of years of human history from our booth in Sorin's, he unpacked myths about the differences between men and women, about what race is and isn't, and about whether we're inherently violent creatures--all the while showing why he says humans' incredible capacity for creativity is the defining element in our evolutionary journey. We also talked about dogs because, frankly, dogs are the best. (end voiceover)

Augustin Fuentes, welcome to With a Side of Knowledge. 

Agustín Fuentes  2:11  
Thank you, I'm very happy to be here. 

Ted Fox  2:13  
So I wanted to start by trying to put your research in a broader context for people listening, and was wondering if it would be fair to say that your book "The Creative Spark" and much of your work more generally is aimed not only at unlocking evolutionary science for a mainstream audience, but also getting people within your own discipline to maybe rethink some of the scholarly narratives we've told ourselves about the way humans have evolved.

Agustín Fuentes  2:38  
I think that's a perfect example. I think I'll steal that and put it on my website. This is, I think, really important, this idea that as a scholar, as a scientist, a lot of my work appears in the peer-reviewed literature and articles in jargon-laden contexts that most people couldn't understand, even those who are trained to.

Ted Fox  2:55  
(laughs) Right.

Agustín Fuentes  2:56  
But at the same time, what I really am trying to do is in both of those, in the sort of full-on academic world and in this sort of public world, to convey ideas, themes, and contexts that are inspired by the data, and the analysis, but that are not beholden to traditional assumptions about the way things are. It turns out that, you know, the best thing about science is that data force change frequently. And we need to be on top of that, not only as scholars, but as communicators, as teachers, and as people who engage with the public.

Ted Fox  3:31  
So when you talk about that data, what kind of tools do you use to--you talk about in your bio, the how and why and being human--what kind of tools do you use to study that?

Agustín Fuentes  3:40  
So I think what's really fascinating about humans is that we are animals, right? We are primates, we're part of the organic world. But we're pretty distinctive, right? Everything has this fascinating trajectory. Evolution is all about continuities, and discontinuities. And I'm particularly recently interested in the discontinuities between humans and other things. We're really pretty inconsequential in the entire panoply of life. And yet, on this planet, we're probably one of the major forces shaping it. And so that's a contradiction. And I'm really interested in looking at our bodies, our brains and physiologies, our behavior, and our histories, our deep histories, to try to put all those things together to think with as we engage with the complexities of today. Racism, inequality, misogyny, political discourse, conflict between nation-states, all of that actually is connected to our deep past and to our biologies.

Ted Fox  4:38  
Right, and I know one thing that was really cool, I think, and I don't know if I'm, I don't think I'm alone in this, but as someone looking at science from the outside looking in, I think archaeology is one thing that always intrigues all of us, and so much of what you're talking about in "The Creative Spark" is that you're looking at the fossil record and what can we find in the fossil record. Is archeology, is that kind of at the core of what you do?

Agustín Fuentes  4:39  
No, no, I'm not even an archaeologist. (both laugh) But what's at the core of what I do is most people don't understand what anthropology is, right? 

Ted Fox  5:09  
(laughs) Right. 

Agustín Fuentes  5:09  
So when you say anthropologist, people either say A, "Oh, like Indiana Jones?" No, that's wrong, he was a tomb robber and should have been put in jail. (both laugh) Or they think I dig up dinosaurs. Neither of those two things. What I'm really interested in, because I'm an anthropologist who studies everything about the human, but I'm very interested in those biological facets as they relate to the broader human experience. And so to study that I need to study bones today, and in the deep past. And I need to study the materials of the past, which is what most people associate with archaeology. These are the material remains of our behavior, of our thoughts, of our beliefs. So thinking about the past ecologies, the bones, the materials, and placing them in dialogue with what we know about humans today. That's the exciting part. That's what I do.

Ted Fox  5:53  
So in "The Creative Spark," fittingly, you talk about, for humans, it's not the drive to reproduce, it's not the accumulation of power. It's not even the, we're compassionate towards one another that sets us apart from the other animals.

Agustín Fuentes  6:09  
Although all those are cool, interesting things, right? (both laugh)

Ted Fox  6:12  
It's our creativity that sets us apart. And I know again, when you hear the term creativity now, we so often think of, limit that to just the artist or something like that. In terms of what you're talking about, what is creativity?

Agustín Fuentes  6:24  
So the problem with when we think about creativity, is we undercut what it actually means. We think of only, yeah, genius, or artists or individuals. It's actually not about any of those things, although creativity does show out in great art or in great individuals. So creativity is the human capacity to look around at the world, to see how it is, to imagine wholly new possibilities, and to at least try to make those things material, to make them happen. And so when we think about that, if we think about creativity in that way, and it's drawing on our experiences, the experiences of others, our connections, our capacities, and doing that to make our imaginations real. 

So when we think about it that way, everyone has that creative capacity. That's the one thing that makes us really distinctive, this incredibly complex brain, the bodies, these hands that we have, and our societies and social histories enable a kind of creativity. So getting together, solving the problems that we face together, collaboratively, imaginatively is that human creative spark. And we find the creative spark or capacity for creativity in other organisms, just not to the extent that we do in humans.

Ted Fox  7:37  
So I think for a lot of us, when we hear the word "evolution," it's still synonymous with Charles Darwin and synonymous with natural selection. And you make two interesting points about that in the book. One, that we've come a long way from natural selection being the thing that describes evolution, and two, what people think natural selection is, isn't what natural selection actually is. So I was wondering if you could talk about those two things.

Agustín Fuentes  8:01  
Yeah. So Charles Darwin, and I have to say, Alfred Russel Wallace, who- 

Ted Fox  8:06  
You did mention him, yes. 

Agustín Fuentes  8:06  
-who co-came up with this, and Charles Darwin, who always doesn't get the credit. But no, they both proposed the theory of evolution via natural selection of one form or another. Darwin was a brilliant scholar, an amazingly meticulous scholar who has revolutionized the way in which we can see the world and the way we can think about the world. But a lot has happened in the last 150 years, (Ted laughs) we've actually done a lot of science. In fact, today, Darwin would not write the same book that he wrote 150 years ago. And I think that's what people need to understand. Natural selection, sort of this process by which variation in nature is filtered and shaped across generations, isn't the only game in town for evolution, there's a lot of other processes. 

The problem with what most people think about natural selection is they think it's about things fighting, and dying, and having sex. Now there's fighting and dying and having sex in the world. But those are actually extremely rare events relative to what goes on day to day. So really natural selection, you can almost think of it as natural filtration. There's variation in the world. There's environmental challenges, and over time, the environmental challenges shape that variation in particular ways. It might have to do with sex, it might have to do with teeth and fighting. But it doesn't necessarily have to.

Ted Fox  9:20
I'm wondering if you could start with what's known among scientists as the last common ancestor, or the LCA for short, between humans and chimpanzees. Approximately when and how do we see humans and human creativity start to emerge in the fossil record?

Agustín Fuentes  9:39
So I mean, this is, you know, you could say this is one of the versions of the greatest story ever told, right? It's this great human evolutionary history. So drop back eight to 10 million years ago, somewhere across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Ted Fox  9:51  

Agustín Fuentes  9:51  
We know that there were clusters of these things called hominoids. It's the group today that contains humans and the other apes. There were all of these different populations--you can call them different species or different clusters, we don't really know--that looked like some hodgepodge that would have given rise to gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans. So. (both laugh) You can imagine that. And so over time, there's these different lineages diverging from one another and changing, and one of those lineages gave rise to a cluster of things that we call the hominins, and the hominins, between about six and four million years ago, are things that you wouldn't really recognize as being human. But you could say, Huh, you know-

Ted Fox  10:29  
There's something there. (laughs)

Agustín Fuentes  10:29  
There's something in there. Yeah. But by about two to three million years ago, this diverse groups of hominins have diverged into different clusters. And another one of those clusters is the first members of the genus Homo. We are Homo sapiens sapiens today. But these first members of our genus, we're not sure exactly what to call them. But we can tell they are our direct ancestors, they're the ones on the path to humanity. 

So over the last two, two-and-a-half million years, we've seen that evolutionary history, those changes, those patterns, their bodies changed, their brains changed, their behaviors changed, but most importantly, what they left behind changes. And that's where we see the evidence of creativity. The evidence of the use and control and mastery of fire, the ability to sort of build more and more complex and fascinating tools, eventually the ability to take ochres and pigments and paint their skins and their tools and their cave walls, to carve figurines, to build villages, to create cities, to change the entire planet. It's all this long story. The problem is, today, we think of history as something that's very recent. 

Ted Fox  11:35  

Agustín Fuentes  11:35  
So when I talk to my colleagues who are historians, like, Oh, yeah, I study the deep past, 300 years ago, you know, we have at least a good two-million-year story that we know a lot about. And it's a fascinating one.

Ted Fox  11:48  
It was really interesting in the book to watch you kind of, again, with how much history and how much of our perspective as humans is compressed into the recent past, but to think about, just as a for instance, and you talked about this, what a significant advance and how long it likely took for our ancestors in the past to say, Okay, first I made a spear out of wood. But what if I wanted--what if I could figure out a way to sharpen a rock, like, into a flake--and put that on there? And just thinking about how much even that took to do that? Because we just take that for, Oh, yeah, okay, it's a spear now. But it's just, it's amazing.

Agustín Fuentes  12:27  
We take iPhones for granted. (Ted laughs), so I mean. No, but what's really amazing, I'm gonna go back up here, because you use the individual thing there, there's an individual with a spear and that. You know what, it was always a whole group of individuals.

Ted Fox  12:40  
Oh, right. 

Agustín Fuentes  12:40  
And always this sort of a group, like a couple people coming up with some ideas, others come up with other ideas, that's really been our benefit. And in there is this capacity to communicate ideas, to teach, and to learn. And I can't emphasize enough how important that is. But we do take for granted this amazing capacity. Over the last, you know, more than two million years ago, our ancestors saw in rocks the capacity to change rocks, one of the hardest substances out there, into something else for a new purpose. We should be blown away because over the last two million years, nothing else has developed that capacity. 

Ted Fox  13:14  
And that's that creativity.

Agustín Fuentes  13:15  
That is that creativity.

Ted Fox  13:15  
To be able to look and see it in there.

Agustín Fuentes  13:17  
Absolutely. I mean, we can see in the early processes, in the capacities to take a rock and make a tool, we see in that same process, changed over time, the ability to think of computer systems and develop an iPhone.

Ted Fox  13:30  
Mm hmm. One of the things that really struck me in reading the book, and you alluded to it there a minute ago, is the sheer enormity of the timeline over which our evolution as a species has played out. The reason, I think it was because in reading it, you're sitting with it for a couple hundred pages, because I mean, I have two children who love dinosaurs, and you see things thrown out like, Oh, 65 million--you hear 65 million years ago, and you're like, Okay, whatever. But here, we're talking about several million years, and you sit there, and you think about it, and it's astounding. And then to consider that that entirety of our history is just a blip on the radar of the Earth. I point it out not only because it's really humbling- 

Agustín Fuentes  14:12  

Ted Fox  14:12  
If you really look at that and say, Okay, we really aren't, we're new here. 

Agustín Fuentes  14:16  

Ted Fox  14:16  
But also because you note how many of the ideas we have about who or what we are as humans, what's fundamental to our nature, didn't show up until the really recent past in relative terms. And so I'm wondering if we could talk about a few of those, specifically. So like, one that I think this idea that there's differences, the differences between men and women are some ancient, from the very get-go, these were two really different creatures.

Agustín Fuentes  14:45  
Well, I mean, so let's think about it this way. We know, right, for sexually reproducing species there are differences within any given species in males or females, right? Now, how that pans out is quite different in different species. But for humans, right, we know there's some real interesting biological differences between males and females, they have to do with reproduction. And they also have to do a little bit with body size and a couple other differences. These are critically important. But these few biological differences do not come even close to helping us understand why across human societies, masculine and feminine, male and female as genders are so all over the place. It's so spread. 

Ted Fox  15:23  
And you make the point of even saying it's not just a lot of just people in the general public that confuse sex and gender, it's a lot of researchers use them when they shouldn't be using them as synonyms.

Agustín Fuentes  15:32  
Absolutely. And so I'm not saying at all--and I get accused of this all the time--of saying that men and women are the same; of course, we're not the same. But we are the same species. So we're variants on that thread. And in fact, in almost everything, not everything, but almost everything, males and females overlap within populations and across the species. And so we need to ask ourselves, What do we want to know? Like so many people [are] like, Well, men are from Mars, and women are from Venus, so we want to know, Why are they different? Why don't we start with the fact that we're the same species with enormous overlap on almost everything and just a couple differences? Where do those differences come from? 

Well, biologically, we know. But those biological differences don't help us understand unequal pay in the workforce. They don't help us understand why the vast majority of our government in the United States is male as opposed to female. They don't help us understand why even looking across universities, even though most undergraduates are female, most full professors are male, right? Even though I have some colleagues who would argue that there are brain differences between males and females that make males better leaders, they're wrong. We know--there's a great editorial in The New York Times, just recently, by Daphna Joel and Cordelia Fine, just pointing out, we know that brains don't differ the way most people think they differ. So if that's the case, if capacities aren't quite as different as we thought, we have to come up with other explanations. And those explanations are in our recent historical past.

Ted Fox  16:56  
Right. How about the idea that race is significant biologically?

Agustín Fuentes  17:03  
Well, the whole idea that there's a European, an African, and an Asian cluster of humans that is definable, biologically, is false. And we could spend as much time as you wanted. And I could provide all of the genetic and evolutionary and physiological, morphological data to support that. But what's more important is that race, while biologically false, is absolutely real. It matters, for example, in the United States, and you're walking down the street, whether you're Black, white, or Asian, classified that way, by our racial infrastructure. There's differential treatment, there's histories of inequity and inequality, there's histories of oppression and systematic racism. So how can something be real on one hand and lived and experienced, and yet not be biological? And that's where this term "social construct" comes in. And most people completely misunderstand that when I say something is a social construct, it's totally real-

Ted Fox  17:51  

Agustín Fuentes  17:51  
Its created by society and implemented-

Ted Fox  17:53  

Agustín Fuentes  17:53  
Therefore it's real. And the social construct of race leads to racism, which can have real biological effects. But there is no biological difference between, there is no biological group called "white," biological group called "Black," biological group called "Asian." And we know that not just by looking at our DNA, but looking at our evolutionary history.

Ted Fox  18:09  

Agustín Fuentes  18:10  
Right. I mean, what do humans do? They move, they mate, they move again and mate some more.

Ted Fox  18:16  
That's right. 

Agustín Fuentes  18:16  
And it's really fascinating to look back over this long time depth. If you look back only a few hundred years, you see these differences, and you think those differences are deep? No, no, no, no.

Ted Fox  18:28  
Backing up a little bit with the differences or lack of differences, lack of many differences, between the sexes. You talked about and when you talk about people working in groups, and how often we see in museums these depictions of the hunter-gatherer community and the man is the hunter and the woman is tending the hearth.

Agustín Fuentes  18:50  
Yeah, what we know that in many cases where large game hunting happens, yes, males are more often--though not exclusively--hunters. And that has to do with some changes in upper-body strength and things like that. But many societies are not large game hunters. Many societies do a variety things. We know there's no clear fossil or material evidence of any gender differences or sex differences in stone tool-making. So it's not man, the toolmaker, it's human, the toolmaker. We know from the past, there's pretty good evidence in contemporary human bodies, that both males and females are integral to human childcare and child-rearing. 

So a lot of those reconstructions, like of mom at home taking care of the kids and cooking and dad out getting the money or the woolly mammoth, you know, that might characterize a few societies, but that by no means is representative of what we know about human diversity or human history. That doesn't mean that there aren't differences between males and females. 

Ted Fox  19:41  

Agustín Fuentes  19:41  
But it does mean that imposing our sort of static 1950s notions of what the family home life should be on the past is problematic. That was a long extended version of that.

Ted Fox  19:52  
No, no, I think you articulated that really well. The other one, and we touched on a little bit earlier. You go into this a lot in the book, about in terms of trying to trace in the fossil record where specifically we can start to see maybe an uptick in violence.

Agustín Fuentes  20:09  

Ted Fox  20:09  
And we have, often this idea that gets thrown out is like, Well, we're just inherently at loggerheads with each other, and since the earliest days, we've just wanted to beat each others' brains out.

Agustín Fuentes  20:18  
So I mean, there is this Hobbesian notion of we're wild at heart-

Ted Fox  20:21  
Nasty, brutish, and short (both laugh)

Agustín Fuentes  20:22  
Nasty, brutish, and short, that's what life is. And in fact, we know that's the case in some cases, and then not the case in others. And I think recent scholars--and here I'll call out Steven Pinker, amongst others--have made this argument that sort of warfare or interpersonal violence at a large scale is characteristic of most of human history. Well that's just not true, right? The data do not support that assertion. Now, were humans always peace-loving, did we run throughout the last two million years holding hands through fields of daisies? Of course not. We hit each other in the head and did horrible things to one another (both laugh), sometimes with frequency

Ted Fox  20:52  

Agustín Fuentes  20:53  
But large-scale organized intergroup, lethal violence, or what we would call war today, the evidence for that doesn't show up until fairly recently, last 10-14,000 years. And even then it isn't ubiquitous. It becomes more common as we have larger organized states, major economies, global political infrastructures, and different kinds of ideologies that facilitate warfare. 

Two colleagues of mine, Marc Kissel and Nam Kim, just came out with a great book called "Emergent Warfare." And it runs you through a couple million years and the comparison to our close primate cousins and says, Look, obviously, war is complicated. It didn't appear out of nowhere. But it is not deep in our history, it actually emerges through the capacity to be creative, to imagine, right?

Ted Fox  21:37  

Agustín Fuentes  21:37  
I mean, you gotta, you have to be able to think of other humans as something non-human, you have to imagine that ideology to be able to kill them. 

Ted Fox  21:44  
And even what you you talk about at one point, too, just, it's the flip side of humans' capacity to build peace is you're just collaborating towards a different end, but you still have to collaborate to wage war. 

Agustín Fuentes  21:55  
It is not the most aggressive army that wins the battles. It's the ones that care most for their comrades and the ones that collaborate best. So really cooperation wins wars-

Ted Fox  22:04  
Right, right.

Agustín Fuentes  22:05  
Not aggression. And I think that's really important to understand: Peace and war are not opposites, right? They're both potential outcomes of this incredibly complicated, creative, imaginative, sometimes wonderfully compassionate, other times horribly cruel, species.

Ted Fox  22:21  
It's an unfortunate reality that often, faith and reason have been and still are pitted as, if you embrace one, you're not gonna embrace the other, there's no overlap. And you point out that the vast majority of theories that attempt to explain religion in the context of evolutionary history, they either discount the supernatural, they're agnostic about it, or they just kind of avoid it altogether. And I'm wondering, in taking that kind of approach to explaining religion, what do we fail to capture about humans and the human story?

Agustín Fuentes  22:55  
Yeah, so I mean, a lot of recent attempts and older attempts to explain religion or faith practices and beliefs really try to focus on their function, like, Does it help organize groups? Does it help organize groups so they can fight with others? Does it help create hierarchy through threat of punishment? I mean, yeah, sure, organized religion, institutions, like economies and nation-states all do that. But is that why they're here? Is that why we have the capacity to do them?

So what I'm much more interested in is not sort of explaining the function of a particular religious institution, but rather trying to think with the experience of faith, the experience of the more than the here and now. This incredible, ubiquitous human capacity to live in a meaning-laden world, and to respond to the moral and ethical calls that living in such a world creates. So I think it's really interesting to look into our past and to try to find evidence of meaning-making, and then try to think how can we participate or at least give credit to faith practices as ways of being human rather than trying to explain them away as some sort of functional thing,

Ted Fox  24:02  
And I mean, it speaks again to the idea of creativity that you have, wherever our ancestors in the timeline doing this, that you're starting to contemplate--I'm contemplating something that's not here.

Agustín Fuentes  24:14  

Ted Fox  24:14  
And regardless of whatever you want to say about that, that's in there in what it means to be human.

Agustín Fuentes  24:20  
And the human is always like that. The anthropologist Maurice Bloch has this great way of positioning it; he says that most organisms, especially socially complex organisms, are transactional. They have interactions in the world, they deal with the world. But we are a particularly interesting primate in that we're not only transactional, but transcendent. For humans, it is never just the here and now. There's always the past, often the future, and frequently, there's this sort of transcendent experience in our daily lives. And we want to know why, and how, and what does this mean? And this is characteristic of all humans. So what's fascinating is, when do we find evidence of that starts to show up? It's pretty deep in our history, hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Ted Fox  25:01  
In the book, you go into the biology of this, I was gonna ask you just to talk about that a little bit. Because it's interesting how our brain capacity starts to grow over time based on changes in--what made me think of it again is when you talked about the idea of childcare because I know that part of--so I'm not gonna try to summarize it I'll just let you talk about it. (laughs)

Agustín Fuentes  25:22  
That's a huge, complex--over the last two million years, we can say our brains got bigger and much more complicated, and they're not going to get any bigger, we're pretty much maxed out on brain size. But they are getting more complex in some ways, or have been over the last couple hundred thousand years. But to get a bigger brain, you need to grow a ton of that brain outside of the womb. And so humans came up, developed this incredible capacity to give birth to infants who need incredible care. And that enables those infants to spend enormous--60% of our brain growth happens after birth. But we could only have that in a system that has sufficient nutritional because our brains are really expensive, they take a lot of energy, and has incredible care. 

This whole idea of like, here's a mom, give her the baby, and she's in charge of it till it's 18. Okay, you know, many people today have to do that. But there's great evidence that across human evolutionary history, and even for most people today, caretaking is a communal activity. That whole notion, it takes a village to raise a child, it's actually true. And there's no disrespect to people doing incredible jobs on their own. But our physiological systems evolved to be with one another. And so to get a big brain, you need a village.

Ted Fox  26:29  
To let you have time to develop that big brain.

Agustín Fuentes  26:31  
And so once we had these big brains, they start to get more and more complex. As we do more things materially and socially, the more complex our worlds became, we had a hand in shaping, the more things are starting to happen in our brain, the more capacities we have for teaching, for learning, for thinking, for doing stuff called mental representations, right? So humans developed some very complexities in the frontal lobes and other places allowed us to imagine and to create in ways that are not maybe the same as other organisms. And once we get to things like language and abstract art, I mean, that's just, we're just going crazy because those things live inside us and outside us.

Ted Fox  27:07  
Yes, we're just showing off. 

Agustín Fuentes  27:08  
Yeah. (both laugh)

Ted Fox  27:09  
So I don't know if this will seem random to you or not. But I looked at your acknowledgments in the book. So I hope not. There's some great insights about dogs in "The Creative Spark," and the one that really blew my mind when I first read it was, okay, we share 96% or so of our DNA with chimps, but with dogs, it's over 80% of our DNA shared with a dog.

Agustín Fuentes  27:28  
I mean with all mammals.

Ted Fox  27:29  

Agustín Fuentes  27:29  
We share like 70 or 60 something percent with a rat, so.

Ted Fox  27:33  
So because my wife and I are those people who share a bed with one of our dogs-

Agustín Fuentes  27:37  

Ted Fox  27:37  
I have to ask you at least one dog-specific question. At one point, you were talking about humans' domestication of plants and animals within the last 20,000 years or so, you point out that this relationship with dogs really kind of developed differently than a lot of these other animals that we've domesticated. And you said, "The mutually developed relationship between humans and dogs is surely one of the reasons for our success as a species," which as a dog lover, just warmed my heart. I'm just wondering if you can talk a little bit about that relationship between humans and dogs.

Agustín Fuentes  28:06  
So a lot of people have made this argument. And there's some really good work out there on it. But some people have argued that dogs and hunting helped our hunting and helped us get better, that companionship with dogs changed our societies. And all those things are probably true, but they're not the driving forces. What's really fascinating is over the last 25,000, maybe even 30,000 years ago, humans and wolves started to do things in concert with one another in particular ways. 

And there's a long sequence of events, and I summarized it there in the book. And I enjoy it because it's a great story. And it's drawing on the work of a lot of other great scholars, May Gohmert, Pat Shipman, and others. But this collaboration between humans and dogs has not just shaped our sort of social landscapes and each other; it also influences our microbiomes and influences sort of the way in which we think about other organisms. And it's not just about being pets, it's about reshaping sort of the human ecology. Now, humans everywhere didn't domesticate dogs and dogs everywhere didn't domesticate humans, but it is a particularly interesting story. And dogs give us insight to the world in ways that we wouldn't have on our own.

Ted Fox  29:12  
I enjoyed the entire book, but if anyone who's a dog lover listening, I recommend--even just for that piece of it specifically, it's really cool.

Agustín Fuentes  29:19  
There's also something I think that's critical there. And this is this notion that humans for a long time, if not forever, have been part of multi-species ecologies, right? We're never alone in the world--either in our own bodies, we have all these things living in us and all over us, but more importantly, we develop these relationships, these incredibly close, deep connections to other species that are central to our existence. And so for those people who do share their lives with dogs as companion animals, you know that you are in deep communication and interaction and maybe being heavily manipulated by this other species.

Ted Fox  29:56  
There's no maybe there, that's very true. (both laugh) The last thing I wanted to ask you, and it's gonna start with what no matter how long I do this podcast, I'm going to say that it's probably gonna be the most colossal understatement that I'm ever gonna make. And that is that humanity is facing a lot of challenges right now. So much of the news we consume about our world and our place in it is negative. And so I'm wondering, in light of what we've talked about here, in light of what you talk about in the book, what would you hope that people would take away from having maybe that better understanding about our evolutionary history, our development in the human story?

Agustín Fuentes  29:56  
First, a word of warning: Do not tune into the 24-hour news cycle all the time. I guarantee you, your large complex brain will punish you for it in many, many ways, (Ted laughs) as will your microbiota in your gut. So try to step away from the 24-hour news cycle if you can. So I'm incredibly hopeful about humans. We have demonstrated unbelievable capacities for destruction and cruelty, but even more so capacities and instances of compassion, of innovation, of imagination and creativity. 

And I think keeping that in mind, when we think about what humans have done and do every day, in and out. I mean, everyone is looking around the world right now thinking of all the horrors; at the same time, they go to the store, and they help someone get something off a high shelf and just hand it to them without thinking, Hey I don't even know this person, and I just did this because I wanted to, because it made me feel good. We go and we all, like, line up and get on into an airplane, you know, 200 of us, and we fly for 10 hours; do that with any other organism, (both laugh) you have 200 dead organisms. So we stand in lines, we collaborate. And we have friends and family and we break bread with them, and we sleep with them, and we hang out. So I think sometimes we need to step back and ask, What do humans do most of the time? And where do we put most of our energy?

It's in building bonds, being compassionate, being caring, being creative and kind. Not to deny there's tons of cruelty on the planet. But if we understand what our capacities are, then we can face that cruelty and try to push against it and make the world a better place. We know that we're messing up the planet, and we pretty much, it's pretty clear how we're doing it. And we've actually creatively come up with ideas how to sort of fix that, but we need the collaborative connection to really make things better. And so that would be the thing I would hope that my book provides: an understanding of what humans are capable of, who we are, what we've done throughout most of our history, and why that's exactly what we need to be doing now. We need to collaborate. We need to imagine. We need to create. And all of that together offers incredible hope for the future of humanity. 

Ted Fox  32:45  
The book is "The Creative Spark." I was telling Augustin before we started recording, I just finished it. Like I said, highly recommended it. Augustin Fuentes, thanks so much for coming on the show. 

Agustín Fuentes  32:55  
Thank you. It's been a great pleasure.

Ted Fox  32:56  
(voiceover) With a Side of Knowledge is a production of the Office of the Provost at the University of Notre Dame with support from Sorin's restaurant. Our website is provost.nd.edu/podcast.