Creativity: Then and Forever

Image: © A-papantoniou |

“CREATIVITY” is a word often associated with the beautiful in form and function, something precious to human beings, who tend to think they invented it. Beauty? If we’re so aware of that, why do we uglify the places where we live? Why do we do so much watching and listening to the uglier aspects of life, as if the important thing is for a camera to linger on a particularly messy corpse?

For that matter, why do we uglify the past in movies, making actors wear dun-colored clothes (I’m being polite) when our ancestors actually took pains to create whatever beauty they could manage? The Romans and their ancestors were creative in their use of dyes, especially the “royal” purple extracted from shellfish or from lichens boiled in urine. My Viking ancestors, who didn’t wash much and undoubtedly smelled bad, nevertheless had some brilliant red garments dyed with juice from the madder plant. And yet, in most of our films, including some recent treatments of poor William Shakespeare, the common people and the military are noticeably dirt-colored (again, I am being polite).

Let’s forget for a moment about the creativity that produces beauty, and simply define the word. The trouble is, creativity sounds so magical. It is, of course. Yet it is only a word, and like many words, it comes loaded with the baggage that we humans tend to bring to it.

I strongly object to the way “creativity” gets mixed up with certain other words, namely capital-C “Creator” and “Creation.” It always astonishes me how capitalizing words makes them seem so important, and in this case kicks them entirely out of the human realm. Those capitals show, again, that human beings have always had problems explaining the phenomenon of creativity.

To many ancient peoples, creativity seemed like a gift from the gods. Prometheus, “teacher in every art, brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends.” That quote from Aeschylus is on the granite wall behind the Prometheus statue in New York’s Rockefeller Center. When I look at it I don’t think of the fire, although of course the taming of fire was a vital part of the development of hominids. I think of Prometheus as a teacher “in every art”—perhaps a teacher of creativity.

My Great Big Dictionary (my caps), which I lugged to my desk because I thought I’d better use it instead of you-know-what on the Internet, defines creativity as “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.” This definition requires defining the word “create”:

to cause to come into being, as something unique that would not naturally evolve or that is not made by ordinary processes. . . . to evolve from one’s own thought or imagination, as a work of art or an invention. . .

Before I start quarreling with the words “not naturally evolve,” I ask: why do religious fundamentalists insist that their god created everything once and for all? I suppose it makes them feel safe, in a universe obviously teeming with uncertainty.

Great literary creations go beyond the fundamentalists of every time. In Marc Connelly’s 1930 play, Green Pastures, the character called De Lawd grows, uses his imagination, and changes—thanks to sacrifice—but the process brings a god entity closer to us and our own dilemmas about uncertainty.

asmiov_2I don’t see how creativity can exist without the ability to accept, anticipate, and use the everlasting uncertainty of Change (my capital). It was convenient to blame the gods for what seemed like uncertainty or, for that matter, the often unsettling ability of the creative person to go beyond conventional ways.

Before we get to creativity in life itself, I want to step on the toes of whoever put that definition in my dictionary, and especially on the toes of religious fundamentalists who foam at the mouth when Charles Darwin is mentioned. I think that creativity is a natural aspect of the universe, and not put there by a creator. To step a little harder on the various toes, I will say that evolution is a form of creativity not restricted to human beings, nor to life, for that matter. In a sense evolution is ultimate creativity. Please don’t ask me what that means. They’re only words. Choose your own meaning and run with it.

The emphasis I’m struggling to make is that evolution is not merely the creativity of life as it changes. The universe itself had a beginning and evolved. It did not start with a wave of some god’s magic wand—it started in a Big Bang. If you want to call that creation, go ahead, but remember that even cosmologists are not absolutely sure that the Big Bang came from nothing or from something.

I also think that our universe (there may be many others) is the way it is—with us around to make up stories about it and use science to check on the facts—because it is not beautiful in one sense of the word.

As I implied before, “beauty” is a word fraught with meanings that often conflict, which is why we say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That’s nothing to worry about. It makes life so interesting. Beauty, however, is often associated with another word: symmetry. Research on humans and many other animals has demonstrated the connection. Female finches, for instance, prefer males whose legs are adorned (by scientists) with symmetrically colored bands. Swallows prefer mates with symmetrical tails, and female elk go for males that have symmetrical antlers. Even bumblebees prefer flowers with symmetrical displays of petals.

We humans also tend to select as beautiful photographs of symmetrical faces, but the truth is that primates in general don’t seem overcome by physical beauty. Some awfully ugly apes have been clearly loved. Tests show that human females (I am not answering for human males) tend to prefer mates who are more interesting and smart than beautiful but stupid.

Perhaps this non-addiction to symmetry is due to the fact that primate brains function more asymmetrically than anything else’s. Communicative sounds, especially those of human language, are processed mainly by the left cortex of the brain. There are other neurological asymmetries, but perhaps the point is that in us and in our ancestors, asymmetrical brain function led to creativity.

A logically artistic god would not have created our universe but instead a very different entity that was a paragon of beautiful symmetry, consisting of, say, a smooth, featureless soup, without stars and planets and people. This certainly dull universe did not happen here because, right at the beginning, the results of the Big Bang were not beautifully symmetrical. We’ve got a lot of evidence for it, including the fact that we exist.

In the beginning of our universe, asymmetry was there. This made it possible for the first elements of the periodic table to form. Everything in our universe went on from there, with the first stars making elements and exploding, their remains becoming the start of new stars that created more complex matter. It’s a good thing this result of early asymmetry happened, because you can’t have the creation and evolution of life without the elements that combine to make biochemistry possible. So, I will say again—creativity is a natural aspect of our universe.

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 wrote in his New York Times “Matter” column last summer, “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, says Zimmer, “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 added to themselves in a way that made the resulting organisms very complex, evolving into the multicellular beings 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 flowers that are gorgeously attractive or smell good to us, and others that smell good to other animals. 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 a crow can solve a problem as creatively as any primate. And humans aren’t 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 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 people’s imaginations.

Photo: © OKSUN70 |

Photo: © OKSUN70 |

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 some sixty-four years ago in the Hudson Review, “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, and imagining “once upon a time.” Perhaps creativity at its best is the invention and development of an idea. What follows is a list of ideas I think are very beautiful. You probably have your own.

• There are many universes.

• Each of us is an ecosystem.

• Adaptive self-organization can—naturally—make a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

• Humans can be good without God.

When you’re creating beauty, or enjoying it, be glad. Think you’re 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?”

Then there’s the story, which I think is true, about an ape that 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.