Creative Mutations

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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
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Creative Mutations

Lindsay Updegrove

Many other words, both positive and negative, spring to mind when one hears the word "mutation." In a scientific sense, one might think of the random variations that lead to evolution in species. In a sci-fi/ horror flick sense, one might think of a vicious monster that after contact with some radioactive substance became terribly disfigured. But rarely do we associate mutations with ideas pervasive to our culture. Daniel Dennett suggests that memes undergo a certain kind of mutation that is inherent to the creative evolution of culture.

The most important distinction to be made between mutation as it applies to biological evolution, and how it applies to creative evolution is the function of randomness. In nature, random variation is the cause of mutation, and therefore the appearance of different traits. In the generation of ideas, the role of randomness is not so easy to pinpoint. On the one hand, it seems that creative ideas are generated through patterns of association:

"During creative thought, memes potentially relevant to a solution would evoke or activate one another, altering or strategically (though not necessarily consciously) manipulating them..." (Gabora 1)

Yet, there is no predictability to these associations, and furthermore,

"The very creativity and activity of human minds as temporary homes for memes seems to guarantee that lines of descent are hopelessly muddled, and that phenotypes (the "body designs" of memes) change so fast that there's no keeping track..." (Dennett 355)

So perhaps what we would call "randomness" as it plays out in the evolution of species is really taken over by an element of disorganization in creative forces.

Dennett cites Stephen Jay Gould's point that it is common for cultures that have branched off from one another centuries earlier to communicate and continue to contribute to one another's evolutionary process. This may account for some of the messiness involved in trying to examine how mutations of creative thought occur; they are constantly crossing over between cultures. There is no neat diagram as with the branching of species to demonstrate the path that, for example, a thought may take on its way to becoming a theory.

This begs the question, then, how much control can the individual hope to exert over the way that ideas combine and affect one another within his or her own mind? Dennett writes that our ideas are limited by our personal histories and experiences (450), but this limitation is not conscious on the part of the thinker. Perhaps what are limited by our experiences are not the ideas we can possess at a given moment in time, but the way in which these experiences lead us to organize our thoughts. If we attribute creativity to a disorganized trading of memes in space, then how much can we credit an artist with her own brilliant work? But if instead we regard the thinker as organizer of thoughts, creative mutations occur as a result of a new method of organization based on what Dennett calls the thinker's "style."

"Each particular creator, each novelist or composer or computer programmer, is sped along through Design Space by a particular idiosyncratic set of habits known as style. It is style that both constrains and enables us, giving a positive direction to our explorations but only by rendering otherwise neighboring regions off limits to us...Individual styles are truly unique, the product of untold billions of serendipitous encounters over the ages, encounters that produced first a unique genome, and then a unique upbringing, and finally a unique set of life experiences." (450)

For Dennett, limitation imposed by the cultural experiences that comprise one's history is actually an impetus for creative mutation. Thus, a work of art, a new story, is the result of the thinker's struggle to organize in a way that only he or she can.

In nature, a mutation is usually fatal or detrimental to the organism in which it occurs. However, mutations are creativity's greatest asset: at one time, the great removal from more traditional realist art that impressionism posed seemed detrimental to the world of painting. The result was the beautiful addition of artists like Monet and Degas to the sphere of art. Whether one chooses to include impressionism in his or her organization of art history is dependent upon the thinker, but one cannot deny that creative mutation is ultimately beneficial to culture.

Works Cited
Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Touchstone, 1996.

Gabora, Liane. The Origin and Evolution of Culture and Creativity. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 1. 1997.

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