Chapter Sixteen – The Evolution of Creativity

As so often happens in reading this book, Deutsch makes an argument that goes against what I’d thought was true, yet he’s so compelling that I have to think about it. In Chapter sixteen, he goes after the idea that our creativity arose as a result of runaway sexual selection. I’d just finished The Red Queen when I started Beginning of Infinity, so I was predisposed to accept the sexual selection theory Matt Ridley forwards in that book.

Once again I’m not totally convinced Deutsch is right. I know it sounds like a cop out, but I’m not certain that both his idea and Ridley’s can’t be true. Deutsch’s reasons why sexual selection of creativity don’t make sense seem to me a bit weak. Why didn’t we evolve something easier, like pink hair or multicolored skin? Well, because we didn’t. Certainly the evolution of creativity was tough, that’s why we’re the only animals that went in that direction.

Deutsch’s other question is more on the mark. Suppose creativity did evolve by sexual selection. Why wasn’t it used for advancing society much sooner? What stopped it? Here is where I think Deutsch’s explanation may be the right one.

Deutsch explains that creativity was used by people in static societies to be more conformist than their neighbors. This sounds far-fetched at first, but then Deutsch asks a critical question. How do memes move from one mind to another? And he links the two ideas beautifully.

In humans, memes can’t move simply by copying behavior. As he’s pointed out again and again, all observation is theory-laden. Unless you have some idea of what another person is doing, you can’t copy it. Unlike parrots, which merely copy exactly the sounds they hear, and also unlike apes, which parse new behaviors like nut cracking into smaller pieces that are already in their behavior repertoire, humans can only learn new behaviors by understanding (however imperfectly) what the behavior is for. In the same way that the wrong directions from chapter ten must have come from within Socrates, so all learned behaviors must also begin within the learner’s internal conjecture and criticism.

Now Deutsch’s idea of creative conformity makes sense. Those who are better at learning what is in another’s mind will better be able to reproduce that behavior themselves, even in (slightly) different circumstances. By understanding the meaning of the behavior instead of just its superficial appearance, these learners can (slightly) modify the behavior to make it even more conformist than it was originally. This is creativity, but in the most perverted and depressing sense. However, as Deutsch points out, static societies are perverse and depressing. Though I still cling to the idea that runaway sexual selection had a lot to do with the evolution of our cleverness, I also am quite attracted to this idea (again, all about learning and how it works) that creativity allowed members of static societies to excel at conformity.

Some of Deutsch’s best lines here deal with how education is still stuck in its static society roots.

“Present day methods of education still have a lot to do with their static-society predecessors . . . (I)t is still taken for granted, in practice, that the main purpose of education is to transmit a standard curriculum faithfully.” This makes perfect sense when you think of the first use for creativity. What does the teacher want me to know? It’s still the question that students ask. Think about how perverse that is! And yet that’s what so many students (and teachers) still think education is all about. Consider that tests have answer keys. Can students possibly be creating knowledge if we already know what the answers are?

When we truly move from a static to a dynamic society, education will be all about encouraging learners not to guess what is inside the teacher’s head, but rather to create new knowledge within themselves. Of course they’ll still need to learn what the great thinkers of the past have done. But it will be in the context of creating new structures within their own minds. Learning the past will feel like background research, as it should. I learn what is already known so that I can conjecture, criticize, and create. That is education. It is an active, exciting, dynamic process, different every time for every learner. And it’s what I want to do with my life, starting now.