A new book by Edward Wilson explores the question, what are the origins of human creativity? His book is called “The Origins of Creativity.”
It offers a theory that in order to understand creativity, you must understand the origins of humanity itself, and that any humanities department that has not integrated palaeontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology and neurobiology into its program is failing to come to terms with what creativity in humanity really is.
Edward Wilson, 88 and the author of “The Origins of Creativity”, is the grand old man of Harvard biology. His speciality is myrmecology—the study of ants. For a short book, “The Origins of Creativity” is brimming with ideas, many of which wander, as Mr Wilson’s writing often does, beyond the brief of the title. Ultimately, though, everything in the book ties back to genetics and evolution—and a belief that culture and creativity have genetic roots.
Mr Wilson traces the source of creativity to human prehistory, on the African savannah. Man’s ancestors were, for a time, dull, relatively asocial vegetarians. The crucial step, Mr Wilson argues, came with the switch to eating meat. This meant having to hunt in groups, and that meant becoming more social: people had to co-operate in the foray, and share the rewards. This change put an evolutionary premium on communication and social intelligence. Eventually, by way of natural selection, it gave rise to symbolic language. And thus the birth of the humanities came about, in storytelling and the “nocturnal firelight of the earliest human encampments”.
This version of events is relatively straightforward. More controversial is where Mr Wilson tries to take the reader next. In his eyes the humanities today are static and blinkered, hamstrung by their failure to acknowledge their evolutionary roots. The salvation of the humanities, he argues, lies in the “Big Five”: palaeontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology and neurobiology. By studying these different areas, scientists will be able to connect aesthetics and cultural evolution to the underlying genetic evolution that explains them. Thus Mr Wilson would expand the mantra of Theodosius Dobzhansky, a great geneticist: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” to “Nothing in science and the humanities makes sense except in the light of evolution.”
Where Mr Wilson focuses on the origins of creativity, Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman, a composer and a neuroscientist, focus in “The Runaway Species” on the act of creation. The book makes a single argument, clearly and thoroughly: creativity is never the creation of something from nothing. Instead, consciously or not, people refashion things. They do this for the most part in three ways: by bending, breaking and blending. Bending involves taking something and altering a property. Breaking involves taking a whole apart and assembling something new from the fragments. And blending involves mixing multiple sources together in new ways.