The Origins Of Creativity, by Edward O. Wilson
This book is a short one but a surprisingly complex one in terms of its subject. For one, the book’s contents on the origins of creativity are mostly not-very-creative evolutionary just-so stories that are filled with speculation as to human evolution in the mists of prehistory. There are at least a few occasions where the author manages to show some creativity, most notably in the way that he manages to bring his own research interests into various prehistoric groups as well as travel and the joys of creation into his discussion, although he likely considers himself far more original than he is, and far more accurate than he is as well. The author even takes the opportunity to speak about matters that are far outside of his bailiwick as a biologist, and manages to mess things up here as well. The author means well, to give an evolutionary-based discussion of creativity, but the result is not as good as he thinks. That this book isn’t a complete train-wreck based on its perspective (and the limitations and inaccuracies of that perspective) is largely due to the fact that when he isn’t arrogantly telling history and humanism how to change, he can be at least occasionally winsome, and that is enough to make this book tolerable given its mercifully short length.
This short book of about 200 pages contains 20 chapters in five sections. The first part of the book contains five chapters that deal with the reach of creativity (1), the birth of the humanities (2), language and how it supposedly evolved (3), innovation in the prehistoric past (4), as well as the human interest in aesthetic surprise (5). After that the brief second part speculates on some limitations of humanism (6) as well as the years of neglect (7). The author moves form this to discuss ultimate causes (8), the bedrock of evolution, without which nothing makes sense to the author (9), ideas of breakthrough (10), the genetic aspects of culture (11), and speculations on human nature (12). A brief fourth part of the book examines nature as a mother (13), the hunter’s trance (14), and the importance of gardens (15) to the author’s appreciation of nature. Finally, the fifth part of the book closes the material with a discussion on metaphors (16), archetypes (17), the author’s interest in islands, which I share (18), irony as a victory of the mind (19), and the author’s fervent hopes for a third enlightenment (20), after which there are references and suggestions for future reading, acknowledgments, credits, and an index.
There are at least two essential aspects of failure in this book. The first was inevitable, given the author’s evolutionary perspective and his (lamentably common) desire to shoehorn creativity onto the misguided and mistaken view of evolution. To the extent that nothing makes sense in biology without evolution, evolution is a pseudoscience like astrology that is based on mistaken foundations. The other problem is not inevitable, though, although it is equally lamentable. The author has the strange idea, borne out of his general cluelessness, that humanism focuses too much on human beings and needs to be less species-focused in its perspective, and that history is too bounded by texts and needs to extend far into prehistory in order to be “relevant” to contemporary scientists. Both of these ideas are ridiculous to the extreme, since humanism, by definition, focuses on the perspective and interests and qualities of humanity. Likewise, for something to be historical it has to have texts, and the artifacts of prehistoric mankind as well as fossils do not, alas, count as history unless we can find the historical writings of some ancient trilobite scribe. Now, if one could find the historical writings of some ancient trilobite scribe, no one would be happier or more interested in writing about it than I would be, let me assure you. As this book manages to be both creative and not nearly creative enough about creativity, it is not a great book but an occasionally entertaining one.