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A philosopher places creativity in evolutionary context

The Evolution of Imagination

Stephen T. Asma
University of Chicago Press
337 pp.
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The Evolution of Imagination, by philosopher Stephen Asma, is an ambitious and exciting book about creativity, rich with eclectic disciplinary references and enlivened with personal anecdotes. Charting new territory, Asma emphasizes the biological bases of imagination—sensory perception, emotions and affective systems, neurology, biochemistry, brain size and differentiation, and capabilities for motion and action—and casts these elements in evolutionary perspective.

One of Asma’s most striking claims is that imagination preceded human language. His main evidence for this assertion is that most biological requisites for imagination—including a limbic system to process affective states such as fear and attachment and sensory capability to recognize particular individuals—evolved in most social mammals, not only in primates.

Asma does not downplay the role of language in hominid evolution. Instead, he frames it as a powerful contributor to imagination and to the broader adaptive capability of improvisation—a type of performative creativity driven by intentionality and subject to real-time evaluation through feedback loops that monitor activity.

The book itself is a “jam session in six chapters,” each moving between occurrences of real-time improvisation and explanations of evolutionary origins, accounting for life span and species development, and individual expressive art, as well as group practices such as dance and storytelling.
Asma studied music and has played jazz regularly over many years. Accordingly, he uses one of his own jazz performances to introduce key aspects of improvisational group interaction: ritual and shared repertoire, synchronizing rhythm, turn-taking solos, leading imitative simulation in a sequential pattern (the “head” or melody), and exchanging subgroup improvisations to this established pattern (“trading fours”).

The book’s first chapter elaborates sources of what can be imagined, which Asma calls the “second universe.” Improvisational imagination is uniquely determined by past situations and the embodied experiences of each potential improviser.


Jazz musicians practice a form of performative creativity when improvising on stage.

In his quest to discover prelinguistic examples of group improvisation, Asma searches for evidence of the ability to “decouple” integrated systems of response into parts that can be stored in memory and later manipulated into new combinations as needed. Neanderthal cave art, he argues, represents this early form of “cognitive fluidity.” It is enough to support visual and embodied thinking for communicating with the self and others. It also enables improvisation of “task grammars” whereby bits of past recurrent experiences (e.g., hunting) are stored in conventional behavioral sequences.

In his discussion of human language, Asma emphasizes how its emergence dramatically increased cognitive fluidity and our powers of imagination. Naming, categorization, metaphor, narrative, gossip, and expanded cognitive structures that map semantics and syntax onto local ecologies are tools for improvisation enabled by language. Notable biological correlates include enhanced memory storage, a differentiated brain to support rational linear thinking under neocortical control, and an advanced limbic system to process emotions and embodied expression.

For the evolutionary success of a social species, there must be means for collective action and social reproduction. This requires the ability to monitor and imitate others and the capacity to perform together by taking turns or simulating synchrony. Interactional routines, gestures, and displayed recognition of particular individuals and environmental features are patterned behavioral resources.

In his final chapters, Asma dons his philosophical cap more assertively. Here, he compares Western and Eastern traditions and reviews cultural perspectives on the self and empathy for others. He discusses recent turns in the Western philosophy of science from more objective to more reflexive and speaks to the role of religions and national and intellectual ideologies that shape our cross-cultural interactions and mutual flourishing. But Asma’s overarching paradigm is that of Darwinian evolution and human origins, a rapidly expanding arena of science.

Having demonstrated that our evolutionary success has depended heavily upon imaginative improvisation—now amplified by, and intertwined with, the social and cognitive structures that emerged with human languages—Asma concludes that these combined imaginative powers are the driving force for contemporary cultural evolution. He urges us to embrace these often nonlinguistic powers and to nurture the sociocultural diversity that sustains them and, ultimately, to work collectively toward improvising moral solutions to shared challenges of our species.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Anthropology, George Washington University, Washington, DC 20052, USA.