One of the most unforgettable parts Gaia Vince’s Transcendence is a story about Emily Dial, the first midwife to deliver her own baby via c-section. As can be guessed, it’s a vivid story – Dial was anaesthetised, but pulled the baby out herself. Vince’s point, however, is not about the midwife, nor the baby. The story pre-empts an explainer on human head size versus our ‘hunter’s pelvis’ and how it means humans require assistance in childbirth.
Vince knows that such storytelling is one of the tools that sets humans apart. ‘Information told through stories is far more memorable – 22 times more, according to one study – because multiple parts of the brain are activated for narratives’. It’s why she introduces a chapter on language with a story about goat-herders who talk by whistle ‘cheaper and faster than a mobile phone’. As a journey through the tools that set us apart, each fronted by a gripping story, Transcendence reads like chicken soup for the mind.
In a way, the stories are deceptive. While anecdotes, reports or fables about individuals are easier for us to understand, the book’s underlying argument is that our greatest tool is our group effort and common bank of knowledge. ‘We are used to associating inventions with inventors,’ she writes. ‘Thomas Edison famously invented the light bulb and Johannes Gutenberg the printing press. But in reality nothing was truly invented by a lone genius.’ Instead, Transcendence celebrates humanity’s ‘collective brain’. Humans are different because we can learn from a bank of information and add adjustments. It is why new mathematicians don’t have to discover pi. Nor chemists the existence of electrons. Ideas, Vince shows, evolve by copying and mixing – like genes.
Exploring of our collective triumphs is a refreshing way to look at the past. But according to Vince, our cumulative knowledge has immediate relevance to today. She argues that the complexity of new technologies, and the speed of their development, is taking us farther away from our understanding them. On laptops, for example, Vince admits: ‘I don’t need to know anything about how the letters appear on the screen, only that I must tap the keys with my fingers for the letters to appear. I am relying on a complicated network of thousands of individuals, including engineers, craftspeople, factory workers, miners and more, without whom this would be impossible.’
The future is where the book takes a surprising turn. According to Vince, humanity is on ‘the cusp of something exceptional’. The transcendence, it turns out, is not about what makes us different from other animals, but about how we might be creating a new organism altogether. A superorganism she calls Homni, short for homo omnipotens. Superorganisms are natural ‘hyper-cooperative’ societies such as ant colonies, whose individuals ‘work together towards a common cause, sometimes sacrificing themselves’.
Superorganism life comes with a warning. Vince notes that even this unprecedentedly connected and global society would still have inequalities we see today. And if there are sacrifices in the Homni superorganism, it is likely still the poorest and most vulnerable that will have to make them.
What’s striking is the depth of a new inequality – that between the on and offline communities. So big, it could create even new subspecies. According to Vince, the societies who are not connected to the Homni network could find themselves, ‘isolated culturally, technologically, and even physically and cognitively.’ To fall outside of this new norm will be to ‘belong to a biologically different race of human, perhaps even a subspecies’. This is not because the superorganism would be more superior or evolved as ‘relying on technological complexity does not necessarily make life more joyful or meaningful.’
As it stands, 50 per cent of humanity is online, and 50 per cent remains off. Where our network is headed and how we relate to each other are important questions, especially as Vince says ‘we are not necessarily progressing to something better’. Transcendence is a vital argument that future humanity will be greater than the sum of its parts. And that great does not always mean good.