the origins of creativity

It is possible that early humans diverged from other primates when they began eating meat. This meat was likely burnt from frequent lightning strikes on the African savanna. They did not even have to know how start a fire, only how to keep one going. Eating cooked meat gave a much higher caloric intake and human brains grew significantly larger than their primate cousins. As humans developed a taste for meat and a source of constant fire at their campsites, they had to work together socially. Hunting or gathering during the day was very task-focused but in the evening groups of our ancestors sat around the fire for protection. This is where storytelling began. Modern day Ju/’hoansi of the Kalahari Desert reflect this in their daily routine — ‘daytime talk’ and ‘fireside talk’ are quite different. The vocabulary of the latter is much larger and evenings are much more engaged in storytelling.

This is one of the initial premises of Edward O. Wilson’s book, The Origins of Creativity. We all belong to, and still carry some of the attributes, of this early tribe. The creative arts, enabled by our ability to share language, are what makes us human. But the study of the humanities has lost its way, says Wilson.

“The shortcomings of the creative arts and humanistic scholarship that are becoming more apparent in the age of STEM have resulted, even in the outer reaches of science fiction, in an extreme anthropocentrism. Nothing, it seems, counts except the impact on people. One result is that we are left with little to compare and therefore understand and judge ourselves.”

Today, the humanities do not receive any of the level of financial support that the sciences do. The creative arts used to be funded by organized religion for long-term projects. Now STEM has become the new SPQR symbol of power in our AI-driven, automated, digital world, says Wilson. But they need to work together and combine into new fields of inquiry.

“Nothing in science and the humanities makes sense except in the light of evolution. As the philosopher Daniel Dennett has put it, evolution by natural selection is the acid that burns through every myth about ordained purposes and meaning.” — “We are by a fortuitous consequence of the fundamental principles of natural selection far more than trained savages.”

It is becoming essential that the humanities step up and understand science. Our survival likely depends on it. Only the humanities can weave the stories that can unite our common tribe.

“The humanities have yet to come to grips with the chimeric nature of our minds and creativity. We are ruled by emotions inscribed in our DNA by prehistoric events little known and only partly understood. Meanwhile, infinitely puzzled, we have been catapulted into a techno scientific age that may in time serve instructions to robots but not the ancient values and feelings that keep us indelibly human.”

Wilson discusses some common archetypes through history and highlights them with the most popular movies of the modern era. There is — The Hero, The Tragic Hero, The Monster, The Quest, and The Pair Bond. In addition, and of more interest to our future is The Other World or “meeting at the boundaries”. This is the area of science fiction, and perhaps can help address his two open questions:

  1. What is human nature?
  2. Why is there a human nature in the first place?

Wilson clearly states that organized religion, while important, should not be in charge of our knowledge quest.

“The study of religion is an essential part of the humanities. It should nonetheless be studied as an element of human nature, and the evolution thereof, and not, in the manner of Christian bible colleges and Islamic madrassas, a manual for the promotion of faith defined by a particular creation story.”

Wilson envisages a third enlightenment that will bring us closer to seeing humanity as one common group, with no concept of foreigners.

“Scientists and scholars in the humanities, working together, will, I believe serve as the leaders of a new philosophy, one that blends the best and most relevant from these two branches of learning.”

Ancient of Days, by William Blake showing the god Urizen — the embodiment of conventional reason and law — creating the second enlightenment and modern science

2 Responses to “the origins of creativity”

  1. Nancy Dixon

    Thanks for a thoughtful review of Wilson’s book. I especially encouraged by the last line, “Scientists and scholars in the humanities, working together, will, I believe serve as the leaders of a new philosophy, one that blends the best and most relevant from these two branches of learning.” A hope for the future.

  2. Harold Jarche

    Yes, it’s a hopeful piece of work, but there is a heck of a lot of work to be done, Nancy.


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