The Art Instinct: Evolving Creativity
Much discussion has been had both in this class and in the world at large about the purpose of our creativity as human beings. We all agree that it is a good thing which brings us a lot of joy, but we are not sure exactly where it comes from and why we have these creative inclinations. Dennis Dutton has recently publish a book in which he makes an evolutionary suggestion for why we are creative creatures. Jeremy McCarter discusses Dutton’s book and theory in his article “Rage Against the Art Gene” published a few weeks ago by Newsweek. This article and Dutton’s ideas have been running through my head a lot the last few weeks as we’ve talked about literary evolution. If storytelling started as a survival mechanism what can we say that it has evolved to become today?
Dutton’s idea about the evolutionary roots of human creativity has two elements: a natural selection element and a reproductive selection element. McCarter explains the first part as a stand in for trial and error, that story telling and being able to “work out ‘what if’ scenarios without risking their lives” gave those with creative minds a better chance at survival. (1) This element also favors good listeners, but does this necessarily have anything to do with creativity? McCarter sums up “The best storytellers and best listeners would have had slightly greater odds of survival, giving future generations a higher percentage of good storytellers and listeners, and so on.” (1) It seems to me that this part of the explanation is a pretty good start but it also seems a bit more complicated than Dutton’s explanation because of the fact that good listeners would also be selected for when this is not necessarily an element of creativity.
The second element of Dutton’s idea is that creativity in early human beings would have affected reproductive selection in both men and women. McCarter gives a good description of the concept:
On those long, dull savanna nights after the day's hunting and/or gathering was done, a big vocabulary and a creative streak would have improved a man's chances of wooing a lover (and thereby passing on his genes to a child)—just as an amusing woman would have been more likely to entice the guy to stay (thereby boosting the child's odds of survival). (1)
If we accept these two elements to be true, that creative men are more likely to find a receptive woman and that women’s offspring by these men would be more likely to survive if the men stay with the women and children because of the women’s creative or entertaining abilities, then we find that we must have been evolved from those with good problem solving skills, charming personalities, good storytelling and listening skills as well as creative tendencies.
In the last few weeks of class, I have started thinking about what this evolutionary significance may have done to affect current creativity. It certainly seems that we have evolved from this narrow initial form of creativity but how exactly does creativity continue to be selected for? It seems to me in much the same way that it was before. Even today it seems that more creative people are more likely to find a mate than less creative ones and thus more likely to pass on their genes. Don’t we find that people idolize creative people of all sorts? Singers, writers, actors, artists? All of these people are more likely to have their pick of the rest of the gene pool and very often we find that they select for creativity as well, marrying or connecting with or really even just sleeping with other artistic people.
But even if humans continue to reproductively select for creativity, how can we see the evolution of our creative talents. From the importance of figure out “what if” situations we have evolved to a place where creativity is manifest in millions of different ways and much more complicatedly than our earliest ancestors. We have poets like Whitman and novelists like Hustvedt, actors like Ben Kingsley and painters like Jackson Pollock, even philosophers like Dennett. The evolution of creativity seems a great illustration of the tree of evolution which keeps coming up for us again and again. At first there are only a few branches (storytelling, figuring out “what if” scenarios) and then we get more (writing, singing, dancing) only to find that the tree infinitely has more and more branches to come from those prior (poetry, fiction, memoir; rock and roll, opera, bluegrass; ballet, hip-hop, modern). And it seems to me that if we find the branches have split and created more new creative forms since our oldest ancestors, those branches are going to continue to branch without and end in sight, just as we understand with all evolution. If new forms have continued to come into being and some old forms have fallen to the wayside, as distinct species have, it seems that creative development is a greater depiction of evolution that we initially thought.
(1) McCarter, Jeremy. “Rage Against the Art Gene.” Newsweek. March 28, 2009. http://www.newsweek.com/id/191399/page/1