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The core of creativity

24 December 2011

In a previous post about sex I mentioned that our sexual urge is strong in order to override our common sense and cold logic. Then @lgalaviz commented, saying that Steven Pinker states in How the Mind Works that men only create things to get sex. I disagreed. @lgalaviz retorted with the excellent blog post Why girls rule and boys drool, elaborating her point. She then posted a second, equally interesting post called Enjoy a life of crime, or scientific achievement, whichever. They are both great posts and you should go and read them. Now. Don’t worry, I’ll wait until you come back.

* * *

There. Weren’t they great? I told you so. Unfortunately for @lgalaviz, she’s still wrong. Not WRONG wrong, but ‘slightly off target’-wrong. My point is two-fold, as I’ll explain in detail below.

1. The reconstructive trap

One of the most common errors committed by evolutionary biologists is to try to explain every single character, trait or feature as an evolutionary end result. It can go something like this:

Sorry, that red hair doesn't seem to have any benefits what so ever. Apart from being pretty. (Hey, wait a minute..?)

Red hair is common in people living in Northern Europe. Something must have made that trait valuable. Perhaps red hair is better at letting sunbeams reach the scalp, increasing the production of vitamin D during the cold dark winters. Conclusion: Red hair evolved to help people survive in northern regions by stopping them from developing vitamin D deficiency.

In fact, red hair doesn’t seem to serve any kind of evolutionary purpose, and the majority of people living in northern areas around the world have dark hair. It is probably just one of those traits that aren’t harmful enough to be actively selected against and therefore are allowed to drift in the populations gene pool. If the population gets small enough, it could easily become a major variation of hair colour without having any benefits what so ever.

The lesson is to not see reason for things where reasons might not exist. Not all traits have evolved. Some have just sort of stuck, and as they didn’t do any real harm, no selection against them has been necessary.

Likewise, just because creativity might lead to sexual attractiveness (think rock star or famous actor), that doesn’t mean it’s the cause of creativity.

2. The source of creativity

To get to the root of the source of creativity, we have to return yet again to those famous grassy plains in Africa 800-900,000 years ago that witnessed the birth of our species Homo sapiens.

It turns out that those grassy plains weren’t always grassy. Or even plains, for that matter. Every now and again, whole valleys would be flooded and turned into lakes, only to later dry out and turn to dried out lake beds and then slowly turned back to grassy plains again. This seemed to happen as often as every 50-100 years, making our species birth place a very volatile environment. You either adapted, moved away or died out.

Yes, it is Rupert Giles. And no, he's not doing it to get laid. He's doing it for the creative PAIN!

We adapted. And we adapted in a way that no other species had done before – we evolved creativity. In order to survive subsequent floods, droughts and the grassy plains in between we had to be able to improvise rather that rely on behavioural patterns tought by our parents and grandparents. We needed to be inventive. Our species Homo sapiens is the youngest of all human species and still we were the first to invent throwing spears, slings, fish hooks and bows and arrows. This gave us a fighting chance of surviving the next catastrophe, whatever it might be. We simply HAD to be creative, not to get laid but in order to survive.

Creativity is the mother of invention

This surge in creative survival thinking had an interesting side effect: art. Once we got a reasonably decent quality of life, we could spend our spare time letting our now hyper-creative minds wander. And how they wandered! From bone necklaces, clay figurines and intricate cave paintings to fridge magnets, hummus and Spandau Ballet (to paraphrase comedian/musician Bill Bailey). Our imagination doesn’t seem to know any limits.

So I challenge anyone to argue that creativity has all to do with sex. Rather, sex will rear its ugly head now and again, trying to convince its arch rival creativity to give it a rest. And it might succeed. But it will never, ever be the reason for creativity. It’s a secondary urge, trumped by the primary needs of eating, sleeping and not getting devoured by a leopard. Creativity is the reason we are still here, free to have those sexual urges, and not the other way around.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 24 December 2011 08:44

    Interesting. I read the other article. I also disagree. I can see no correlation between my lady friends and stuff I make. My penchant for excellent software has no bearing on my mate. I know this from the glazed look she gets when I get excited about HTML5 graphs.

    In fact I can categorically and definitively say sex gets in the way of stuff I make. It’s a distraction and damned nuisance to the greater work.


    • 24 December 2011 09:08

      Wait. So you’re agreeing with me? Do you fully comprehend what you’re saying? You – Nathan Pledger – are saying that I – Andreas Heinakroon – am right?

      Ok, that’s it: I’m done. Things are getting too scary.



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