Creativity—For the Living Part Two

"Still Life: Vase with Pink Roses" by Vincent van Gogh (1890)

This article is part 2 of “Creativity.” Read part 1 here.

If you enjoy the idea that creativity is a natural aspect of our universe, you are probably thinking of all the ways creativity has culminated in human music, art, literature, and even the inventions that promoted (or threatened) civilizations. Life in the universe, however, had creativity long before we came along.

On at least one planet of all the trillions in our universe, life arose. There are interesting scientific theories, not involving anything supernatural, that try to explain how various molecules started replicating. However it happened, living organisms began, complete with an outer membrane, complex inner biochemical machinery, complex outer gadgets like flagellae, and, of course, genes.

Some scientists now postulate that the fundamental aspect of life is not those particles called genes. As Carl Zimmer said in the New York Times, “The true essence of life is not some handful of genes, but coexistence.” From bacteria that live inside other bacteria to humans swallowing lactobacilli to improve the health of their gut, everything is “nestled in life’s net.”

It took a long time for life to accomplish one of the more extraordinarily creative acts of coexistence—when single cell organisms joined together in a more complex way, adding to themselves in a way that made the resulting organisms very complex, evolving into the multicellular creatures we tend to think are the masters of the planet. This is wrong, since one-celled organisms still far outnumber the rest of us.

Skipping lightly over the eons of evolution, we come to the many forms of multicellular life that more obviously create things. There are plants that produce gorgeously attractive flowers, and others that smell good. There are birds making bowers to attract mates, and other birds making tools. Whales sing. Bees dance messages to the hive. The list is long, so I’m jumping ahead to those organisms that we humans tend to think of as possessing “creativity” in the conventional sense of the word.

Most of the time we mean us—Homo sapiens sapiens—but watch a crow solve a problem as creatively as any primate. And humans are not the only ones who can recognize themselves in a mirror (it’s done by elephants and great apes, for instance). Nevertheless, we primates do tend to be somewhat more creative than other animals.

Since we enjoy thinking of ourselves as a uniquely creative species, I will indulge our self-centeredness by concentrating on the creativity that has come from expanding our primate heritage.

I’ve been watching a baby orangutan on the Internet, seeing that marvelous primate hand clutching the red hair of the mother, who seems to be holding the baby but not as tightly as a human mother would, especially while sitting up high above the ground. Human babies have no long maternal body hair to hold onto but they have even more marvelous hands, and a longer time to learn to use them.

Our hominid ancestors could develop a deeper culture than that of the great apes, due not just to bigger brains but also to the construction of the hominid-human thumb. After Australopithecus afarensis, hominids owe their manual dexterity and manual power to the fact that our metacarpal bones are broad, providing attachment for big muscles, including three that chimps do not possess.

With strong, flexible thumbs on their deft hands, hominids began to make things to use. We look at these ancient artifacts and think they are beautiful in shape and purpose.  I think that their makers thought the same.

Creativity in humans was also fostered by the long helplessness of human infancy, which prolongs the period of learning from parents and, above all, play.

Most birds and mammals play when young. (If any reptiles do, I wish someone would tell me.) In play, the youngster practices and invents. Play no doubt helps an animal cope with and transcend uncertainty, and the more intelligent the animal, the more their play transforms them.

Rats are reasonably intelligent (they master mazes that would give me a bit of effort) but after a short period of playtime, they grow up to focus on adapting to changing conditions. Humans adapt too, but often by using imagination and creating something, some new way of adapting, or even finding a way of changing the conditions themselves.

I hasten to add that smart specimens of other animal species can learn to cope with the new and even to invent something.  There was a female monkey who invented washing food in the ocean—and now the whole tribe does it.

Humans, however, are remarkably inventive in play and, if they’re lucky, don’t lose it when they grow up. It’s been said that play using imagination—make-believe—is one of the needs that humans have more than any other animal. Even adults who swear that they are devoid of imagination do enjoy the creative results of other peoples’ imaginations.

A kitten pounces in a make-believe attack on its mother’s tail, but a human child may imagine, tell stories, and act them out with all sorts of symbolism. Does playing video games stimulate imagination as much as telling stories? I don’t know.

We humans are habitual symbolizers, who often express it in art. As philosopher Suzanne Langer said about art, “forms are abstracted….freed from their common uses only to be put to new uses to act as symbols. . .”

Studies show that creative people are able to question and test, take risks, and be tolerant of ambiguity. When being creative, people seem to experience time differently.  This “flow state”, in which you are using your skills so effectively that you exceed your previous limits, is intensely pleasurable and difficult to put into words, even for people using words during the flow state.  Furthermore, the creativity of the flow state can be impaired by too many words. “Brainstorming” sessions do not produce creative results as well as wordless meditation. Apparently compulsive verbalization louses up the ability of intuition to react and act creatively.

Creativity does not necessarily involve making something tangible like a tool or a painting. Humans imagine the most amazing things, from a god of the fire we’ve just tamed, to far-out planets settled by us in the future. We love mysteries, solving puzzles, imagining “Once Upon A Time.”

Perhaps creativity at its best is the invention and development of an idea. I will now list some ideas I think are very beautiful.  You probably have your own lists.

1)      There are many universes.
2)      Each of us is an ecosystem.
3)      Adaptive self-organization can—naturally—make a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.
4)      Humans can be good without God.

When you’re creating beauty, or enjoying it, be glad. You are not artistic? Remember that creativity also includes taking care of others, which reminds me of a cartoon I used to have on my kitchen wall: A male lion, resplendently maned, says to his comparatively dowdy female, “Shouldn’t you be out getting my dinner?”

There’s a story, which I think is true, about an ape who had collected food and was carrying it back home. She noticed that there was a beautiful sunset taking place. She sat down and watched it.  When it was over she dreamily got up and went home, forgetting to pick up the groceries.

May we all watch sunsets and create something, if only a memory of beauty in our minds.