What is creativity?

It is the innate quest for originality. The driving force is humanity’s instinctive love of novelty—the discovery of new entities and processes, the solving of old challenges and disclosure of new ones, the aesthetic surprise of unanticipated facts and theories, the pleasure of new faces, the thrill of new worlds. We judge creativity by the magnitude of the emotional response it evokes. We follow it inward, toward the greatest depths of our shared minds, and outward, to imagine reality across the universe. Goals achieved lead to further goals, and the quest never ends.

As usual I’m going to polish up the 2290 words of notes I took while reading this book, and bulletize them for easier skimming. As always Wilson’s writing is beautiful, as in the passage quoted above. Then I’ll extract a few key points to lead with.

The book is 198 pages of text, with an additional 45 pages of references and further reading, credits, and index.

Key Points:

    • Creativity is the quest for originality.
    • Wilson’s recurrent theme is the “consilience” or blending between the humanities and the sciences, and how the humanities will never *deeply* understand anything without insights from the sciences, in particular paleontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology.
    • The origins of creativity are … well, there is no crisp conclusion to that sentence. The emphasis of the book, again, is that the humanities and the science both stem from deep evolution, and are both needed to understand the modern human condition. He foresees the greater synergy of the two as a “Third Enlightenment.”
    • We get some interesting insight into Wilson’s literary and cinematic tastes, with many science fiction titles, in Chapter 17.



The book has five parts; each part is led by a single page summary, which I have boiled down into a line or two.

Part I:

  • The humanities arose from symbolic language, empowering us to imagine other worlds; but we retain primitive emotions. This makes us dangerous.

Ch 1, The Reach of Creativity

  • What is creativity? “It is the innate quest for originality. The driving force is humanity’s instinctive love of novelty—the discovery of new entities and processes, the solving of old challenges and disclosure of new ones, the aesthetic surprise of unanticipated facts and theories, the pleasure of new faces, the thrill of new worlds. We judge creativity by the magnitude of the emotional response it evokes. We follow it inward, toward the greatest depths of our shared minds, and outward, to imagine reality across the universe. Goals achieved lead to further goals, and the quest never ends.” P3.
  • Science and the humanities are complementary: p4: “The realm of science is everything possible in the universe; the realm of the humanities is everything conceivable to the human mind.” [[ a very nice complementary description ]]
  • Yet most people prefer to cruise along familiar lines, and people do not like the solitude of their own thoughts.
  • Any explanation involves three levels of thought: what, how, and why. We talk of proximate causes and ultimate causes. Humanities traditionally confine to what, seldom why. Sometimes they ‘feel’ that there is something special about our species, via evolution or God; “That supposition, which has dominated religious thinking for millennia, would almost certainly be wrong.” P8. Because other species exhibit similar features, e.g. the social organizations of some insects.

Ch 2, The Birth of the Humanities

  • …Was the nocturnal firelight of early human encampments. We get clues from other primates, how they interact to exchange information. The most successful have a strong sense of empathy—understanding what others are feeling. The brains of our ancestors grew from chimpanzee size 400cc to 600cc 3mya, then to 900cc 1mya, and finally to 1300cc in modern humans. With this came shifts to eating meat, to hunt on the Savannah, to control fire. (Caught from ground fires set by lightning, p18; no need for flints, etc.)
  • Earlier, 6mya, the species split into the chimpanzee line, and the line that led to us. Chimps are smart in ways, but cannot plan for the future, and cooperate only on simple tasks.
  • Why did our ancestors develop these skills? We get evidence by observing existing hunter-gatherers. They gather in evenings around campfires and talk, about different things than they talked about during the day, p22-23. The evening is for storytelling, singing, dancing, religion. These were about the big picture of the group’s existence, uniting them into a single culture, p24.

Ch 3, Language

  • Language is humanity; both cultural and instinctive, it appears instinctively, yet is learned culturally; while emotional colorings are universal. Chomsky’s notion of a universal grammar has been abandoned for lack of evidence, p27b. Personal story. How most people have a need to talk a lot. Alone, we speak to ourselves, as author did when following a trail.

Ch 4, Innovation

  • How do we judge literature? P36: “By innovation of style and metaphor, by its aesthetic surprise, by the lasting pleasure it gives.” Example of Nabokov’s Lolita, which he likes, and Jonathan Franzen, which he doesn’t. He considers his work hysterical realism; on the other hand, they are snapshots of segments of culture. But we value works that depict how life was lived; Proust, Updike. Innovation is like evolution, in that both exploit original ways to express themselves. By late 20th c, innovation was valued for its own sake. They are like mutations – some will survive, many will not.

5, Aesthetic Surprise

  • The overall feel of a creative work, its signature, introduces the aesthetic surprise; examples. Equivalent of stimulus among other creatures. Humans have a bias toward facial beauty in young women. Not just the average face – but a face with a smaller chin, eyes set apart, higher cheek bones; thus models and anime artists. Why? Signs of reproductive potential. Thus certain extremes evoked by poetry trigger us to pay attention. One way to raise the bar is by contradictions; Dickens, p48. Photography. Fables.
  • Can the creative arts be linked to science? Art criticism needs to excavate more deeply, and can be amplified with knowledge from science.
  • [[ note that using insights from science to better understand literature is exactly what my grand plan is about… ]]

Part II

  • The humanities lose esteem and support, compared to science, because they remain within the narrow audiovisual bubble we’ve inherited, and pay little attention to why our species acquired its distinctive traits.

6, Limitations of the Humanities

  • The humanities will remain rootless without better understanding of the evolutionary steps that led to present-day human nature. Not from STEM, but from the ‘Big Five’ 56b: paleontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology. Humanistic scholarship suffers from extreme anthropocentrism – nothing matters except the immediate impact on people. We’re left with no context.
  • The 6-10,000 years since global settlement began is equivalent to about five hundred generations; not enough time to account for human traits. We think we are aware of everything in our environment, but in fact we are not…; just the ‘Umwelt’. We are primarily audiovisual; yet our senses of sound and smell are minuscule compared to other animals. We are trapped within the humanities bubble, and unconscious of its limitations. Consider our vocabularies, p66. These shortcomings “have resulted, even in the outer reaches of science fiction, in an extreme anthropocentrism.” P67.4 “Nothing, it seems, counts except on the impact on people.” [[ here’s the core issue with traditional literary values and the ambitions of science fiction ]]
  • Not ‘man is the measure of all things’ but ‘all things must be measured in order to understand man.’

7, The Years of Neglect

  • Author recalls hymn as a child. The humanities (including religion) alone create social value. Are some things inherently good or evil? Maybe, but everything must be placed in context…
  • Education in both the humanities and science, once called rounded, is now called a liberal education. Began with Jefferson. In 2010 a report found that most Americans agree on the value of such an education. Yet humanities do not receive the support that the natural sciences, medicine, engineering, etc., do. STEM professionals make higher salaries than liberal arts graduates.
  • Partly this is because available resources are appropriated by organized religions. People are committed to one or another religious creation myth, not all of which can be true, and “almost certainly none is correct” p76t. Yet religious ceremonies can be moving, even as they are dedicated to creation stories over which wars have been fought. Secular humanities, in contrast, can innovate. Yet they are overwhelmed by STEM and the promise of ongoing technological progress.

Part III

  • Science and the humanities can be drawn closer through those five disciplines–paleontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology—bound together by the evolutionary process in heredity and culture.

8, Ultimate Causes

  • Modern criticism is of little help; understanding why creative arts are universal will come down to understanding the history of humanity back to 100,000, of which only the last tenth has been literate.
  • We’ve learned there are three preconditions for human-grade species: the creation of the campsite; high levels of cooperation; and competition among groups (he doesn’t actually state ‘third’ but this seems implied).

9, Bedrock

  • Humanities are stuck having to explain “a social world of Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology with no clear idea of meaning or purpose.” 90b; “…constrained by a swarm of competing nations, organized religions, and other selfish collectivities, most of whom are blind to the common good of the species and planet. The humanities alone can correct this imperfection.” By blending with science, p91.7 to form a bedrock of human intellect.
  • The quests for ‘theories of everything’ will fail p92b because they will not explain who we are. The five disciplines can; their common thread is evolution by natural selection, without which nothing in biology makes sense 93m.
  • Few educated people actually know how this works: hereditary changes through populations; the distinction between individual level selection and group level selection. Humanity is near the center; human nature is driven by the conflict between the two p98t. This is in contrast with kin selection, or inclusive fitness theory, now deeply flawed, p99.3.
  • Group selection explains how ‘noble’ traits came to be, how the ‘better angels of our nature’ are biologically inherited, as is love of nature.

10, Breakthrough

  • Thus human biology is the product of natural selection. … summary of that evolution.
  • Homo erectus, 2mya, lasting until 100K ya
  • Homo habilis, by 1.5mya in Africa; brain sizes grew.
  • We continue to evolve mainly through increased homogeneity.

11, Genetic Culture

  • The growth of brain size over 2my was driven by gene-culture coevolution, 107m. Triggered by a shift in diet from vegetarian to one of cooked meat. Changed the brain and anatomy. Brain size was halted by anatomical limitations.
  • Gene-culture evolution is fundamental to the unity of science and the humanities… 109.6 Why do we die? Because lifestyles evolved where most individuals die of external causes; thus frontloading vigor to the youngest adults.
  • [[ These ideas derive from Promethean Fire, cowritten with Charles Lumsden, 1983 ]]

12, Human Nature

  • The human condition depends on four levels of phenomena: sensory input; reflexes; paralinguistic; symbolic language. Sensory inputs are distorted in predictable ways: the Necker cube. Reflexes are common across cultures, as are paralinguistic signals like facial expressions. All societies employ the same facial expressions. Dominance signals. The Baldwin effect, and ants. Prepared learning, e.g. fear of snakes. Thus we remain subject to risks of ancient life, and not to modern ones. 124t

Part IV

  • We must consider our relationship to nature, a self-understanding that can be achieved only by blending science and the humanities.

13, Why Nature is Mother

  • We have always lived in nature. Julia Roberts. It’s still in our genes: thus our choice of environments, p131, the ‘savannah hypothesis.’ Architects know this. Why we enjoy walks in the woods. There is novelty even in microenvironments. Nature writing explores these, as does art like Pollock’s Number 8.

14, The Hunter’s Trance

  • The alertness of hunters. Excerpt of Carl von Essen. The naturalist’s ‘search engine’. Personal stories. Nabokov.

15, Gardens

  • Burial of the dead, later adding flowers, as long ago as 13,700 years. (More ideas from earlier books: Biophilia. Half-Earth.)

Part V

  • Metaphors and archetypes suggest how science and the humanities can be blended, to reinvigorate philosophy and begin a new, more endurable Enlightenment.

16, Metaphors

  • Metaphors are how new words or combinations of words are invented. “A well-wrought phrase that implies the essential identity of the two things compared..” p162.3. Metaphors are essential for humor. Animal words. But they are not about true natures; they reflect our human senses and emotions, 164.
  • [[ Douglas Hofstadter wrote an entire fat book (https://www.amazon.com/Surfaces-Essences-Analogy-Fuel-Thinking/dp/0465018475/) about analogies as the key to thinking. Is SF the ultimate analogy or metaphor? Because metaphor or analogy is a kind of scientific process – the identification of fundamental aspects of apparently disparate phenomena. ]]

17, Archetypes

  • Archetypes are universal stories and images. They derive from genetically based instincts to the ideals of the savannah hypothesis. A 1999 cinema poll identified distinguished movies and scenes; author here identifies the archetypes they illustrate.
  • Then follows a list of archetypes, with examples (many SF): the hero; the tragic hero; the monster; the quest; the pair bond; other worlds (note descr p172), many of them science fiction or fantasy.
  • “The magnetic pull of the other-world archetype reaches its highest intensity in the best of literary science fiction and cinema” p173, with examples from The Angry Red Planet (1960) through Interstellar, The Martian, Europa Report, and “a superlative parallel effort in literary science fiction,” Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves.
  • Remaining: drama is the addition of language and culture to the heredity emotion-based repertories of an Old World primate. This has worked to create certain archetypes. Does this apply to human creativity as well? This entails asking, what is human nature? And Why is there a human nature in the first place?

18, The Most Distant Island

  • Two stories about the promised unity of science and the humanities. An island off the coast of Chile; and the perennial question about the sound of a falling tree.

19, Irony: A Victory of the Mind

  • A prime example: “Send in the Clowns” and how Glenn Close’s version is the best.

20, The Third Enlightenment

  • Science and the humanities permeate each other. P187, “Where scientific observation addresses all phenomena existing in the real world, scientific experimentation addresses all possible real worlds, and scientific theory addresses all conceivable real worlds, the humanities encompass all three of these levels and one more, the infinity of all fantasy worlds.” (Extending comment on page 4.)
  • Note list of journals, 187.7, about the natural science and the humanities: Nature; Science; Proceedings of the NAS; The New Yorker; The New York Review of Books; Public Interest; Daedalus.
  • There’s a continuum between them. CP Snow’s gap has closed, p188.
  • Poets are notable for their ignorance of biology. They talk only to one another. T.S. Eliot: knowledge of life through fiction is only about other people’s knowledge of life, not of life itself. [[ –> very apt about ordinary fiction vs SF, p189.8 ]]
  • Yet humanities are unaware of the “vast physical and biological world in which our species originated and in which we continue to exist” 190.7; while scientists are too specialized, focused on making discoveries. Science is growing, and relies on large teams.
  • Mention of War of the Worlds film, 193.
  • 194b, the “elephant in the kitchen is organized religion”. P195:

It is one thing to hold and share the elevated spiritual values of theological religion, with a belief in the divine and trust in the existence of an afterlife. It is another thing entirely to adopt a particular supernatural creation story. Faith in a creation story give comforting membership in a tribe. But it bears stressing that not all creation stories can be true, no two can be true, and most assuredly, all are false. Each is sustained by blind tribalistic faith alone.

  • Philosophy might be returned to a central position; Anthony Gottlieb quote p196, about two historical bursts of creativity. (5th C BC; 17th and 18th centuries)
  • The combination of science and the humanities is in a position to answer the great questions of philosophy, 197t: why we exist, the nature of consciousness, the origin of life. The existence of two genders, the reason for sex. Why we die. The creation of artificial life.
  • This blending will be the third Enlightenment. It might bring about Diogenes’ prayer:

“For, while the various segments of the Earth give different people a different country, the whole compass of this world gives all people a single country, the entire Earth, and a single home, the world.”

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