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The Art Instinct: Evolving Creativity

Rachel Townsend's picture

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.


Paul Grobstein's picture

story telling as science and story telling as arabian nights

Among other things, there's an interesting distinction between story telling as a way of being prepared for the future and story telling as ... something appealing to other human beings.  Simply because it shows preparedness for the future or because ... there is something appealing to humans about Scheherazade?
David Feingold's picture

Mental illness and natural selection: A 'crazy' idea?

Fascinating concepts. Speaking of creativity and natural selection, what about the often-considered connection between creativity and mental illness? Specifically, there have been many famous and influential artists, politicians, and entrepreneurs that had/now have bipolar disorder. If there is a connection between creativity and mental illness and creativity and natural selection, is it possible that those with mental illness might have a positive influence on natural selection for our species? Talk about erasing the stigma of mental illness!

Paul Grobstein's picture

Creativity and evolution, human and otherwise

For more discussion on creativity and mental illness, see The Bipoloar Brain and the Creative Mind and Bipolar Disorder and the Creative Genius, and postings there.  See also Creativity, the Mind, and the Brain for a broader treatment of creativity, and Complexity, Emergence, and Beyond for a context in which creativity is a central ingredient of evolution, human and otherwise.  

For more on David Feingold and his engagement with "erasing the stigma of mental illness," see  

Denis Dutton's picture

The Art Instinct

Nicely put, Rachel. McCarter has an adequate potted summary of some of the arguments in The Art Instinct, but as you might imagine, it's a lot more complicated than he credits. I find his criticism particularly weak, however. Who cares that he was a student of Stephen Jay Gould and Gould just must be right? I did write a letter to the editor of Newsweek that was published here:

You and your readers might be interested in see all the many reviews of the book at the books website here:

Some of the reviews are long and much more analytical than McCarter's. There are a few real stinkers in there too, but not many.

As for sexual selection, I'd recommend the book, but also this much earlier review of the work of Geoffrey Miller, which argues the the human mind evolved to be an overpowered Pleistocene home-entertainment system:

Best wishes, Denis Dutton