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Animal Innovation$

Simon M. Reader and Kevin N. Laland

Print publication date: 2003

Print ISBN-13: 9780198526223

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198526223.001.0001

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Human Creativity: Two Darwinian Analyses

Human Creativity: Two Darwinian Analyses

(p.309) Chapter 14 Human Creativity: Two Darwinian Analyses
Animal Innovation

Dean Keith Simonton

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter reveals of all species that evolved on this planet, Homo sapiens is without doubt the one that acquired the greatest capacity for innovation. This chapter discusses Darwinian theory in context to appreciating the contrast between human creativity and animal innovation having two parts. In the first part, human creative behaviour can be interpreted as a BVSR process analogous to what underlies biological evolution. After outlining the key features of this model, an overview of the supporting evidence is presented, with special focus on the cognitive processes, individual differences, developmental influences, creative careers, and socio-cultural phenomena associated with the behaviour's occurrence. There follows a brief discussion of the objections that have been raised against the model. In the second part, the evolution of Homo sapiens can be analysed in terms of the selection pressures that would support the emergence of this BVSR process in the human nervous system. These pressures include both natural and sexual selection, with the latter possibly exerting the most impact.

Keywords:   Homo sapiens, innovation, Darwinian theory, creativity, BVSR process, selection pressure, natural selection, sexual selection


Of all species that evolved on this planet, Homo sapiens is without doubt the one that acquired the greatest capacity for creativity. This human ability not only exceeds that of any known animal, primate or otherwise, but even surpasses the capacity of other hominids, no matter how closely placed on the evolutionary tree. Indeed, judging from both technology and art, the creativity demonstrated by the Cro-Magnons may even represent a quantum jump over that displayed by the Neanderthals—notwithstanding their assignment to the same genus and even species. It has even been argued that the human ability to generate creative ideas vastly exceeds evolution's capacity to generate novel life forms (Basalla, 1988). After all, human creativity has generated all of the diverse cultures and civilizations on this globe, each replete with inventions and techniques, mythologies and philosophies, works of art and musical compositions, customs and laws, fashions, games and sports, and a host of other artefacts having no clear counterparts in the animal world.

Not surprisingly, given the wealth of products generated by the creative mind, the subject of creativity has attracted a huge amount of scientific research. The earliest empirical investigations on the subject date back to the days of Quételet (1835/1968) and Galton (1869), and the pace of research accelerated appreciably in the last half of the twentieth century. The research literature has become so vast and rich that creativity has become the focus of several hefty handbooks (e.g. Glover et al., 1989; Sternberg, 1999) and, most recently, the two-volume Encyclopedia of Creativity (Runco and Pritzker, 1999). Accordingly, it is impossible to provide anything more than a superficial overview of the research findings within the confines of a single book chapter or journal article (see, e.g. Simonton, 2000b). Therefore, rather than do so here, I wish to take a more restricted approach to the phenomenon of human creativity. In particular, I will examine the literature from a single theoretical perspective, namely that of Darwinism. Because Darwinian theory plays such a substantial role in the scientific study of animal behaviour, this theoretical discussion will help define the connections, if any, between human creativity and animal innovation. In addition, Darwinian theory currently represents the only comprehensive explanatory framework that accommodates most major empirical findings in the field (Simonton, 1999b, in press). But before this theoretical treatment can begin, it is first necessary to make two distinctions, the first between creativity and innovation and the second between primary and secondary Darwinism.

(p.310) Human creativity and animal innovation

Creativity and innovation are closely related but not absolutely identical concepts. On the one hand, creativity is defined as producing an idea or behaviour that is simultaneously novel and useful (Simonton, 1999b). It is most often used in the context of problem solving, where a solution to a problem is deemed creative when it is original and at the same time satisfies some criterion or set of criteria for what counts as a successful solution. Solutions that work but that are not novel are considered algorithmic or routine, whereas solutions that are highly original but are totally useless are deemed non-creative, even crazy. Thus, accountants are not considered creative when they complete financial reports or tax returns because they are simply applying well-known techniques. At the other extreme, paranoid psychotics may devise extremely creative ‘solutions’ to life problems—such as the fantasy world depicted in the film Beautiful Mind based on the experiences of John Nash—and yet these solutions are maladaptive rather than adaptive. Rather than enabling these persons to hold jobs and to maintain relationships, their delusions and hallucinations serve to alienate them from meaningful activity.

On the other hand, innovation is usually defined as the act of introducing something new, whether a novel idea or an original behaviour. Although the criterion of usefulness or adaptiveness is not an explicit part of the definition, this standard is often implied. This implication holds because a new idea or behaviour would seldom be introduced unless it served some useful function (e.g. new weapons, agricultural practices, metallurgical techniques, fashions that indicate status in social hierarchies, religious beliefs serving as coping mechanisms or vehicles of social control). However, unlike in the concept of creativity, innovation does not necessarily stipulate that the innovator also be the creator of the innovation. Instead, the innovator may simply be disseminating the original and adaptive idea or behaviour acquired from someone who gets credit for the actual creativity. Hence, a farmer who adopts a new hybrid seed or a biomedical researcher who adopts a new staining technique would be styled an innovator, but not a creator. Even so, this distinction is not absolute, because the definition of innovation also does not exclude the possibility that the innovator and creator is one and the same person. Indeed, in most domains of human creativity, this distinction often breaks down. For instance, Albert Einstein's paper on the photoelectric effect applied Max Planck's quantum solution to the black body problem to a different phenomenon. Because Einstein had adopted Planck's new theory, he can count as an innovator. Yet because he was applying quantum theory to a phenomenon distinct from Planck's original application, Einstein can also be considered a creator—so much so that it was this work that explicitly won him the Nobel Prize for physics.

These ambiguities notwithstanding, one point is clear: Creativity is logically prior to innovation. Whether the creator and the innovator are the same person or different persons, one cannot innovate without an act of creation first taking place. It is largely for this reason that research on human creativity seldom uses the word ‘innovation,’ finding the latter process more secondary. Indeed, the term innovation is largely confined to extremely narrow applications, most often to work and organizational settings (West and Rickards, 1999). This situation contrasts greatly with practice in the research on animal behaviour where the word ‘innovation’ is used more or less the same way as ‘creativity’ is (p.311) utilized in human research (as is apparent in most of the chapters in this volume). For example, when Imo, the young female Japanese macaque, innovated the practice of washing of sweet potatoes (Kawai, 1965), she was displaying creative behaviour, because what she did was both novel and adaptive. Therefore, even though the review that follows the usage favoured in the human literature, it must be recognized that the discussion can also be said to treat innovative behaviour in the human species.

Primary and secondary Darwinism

By the definition of creativity just given, Charles Darwin's Origin of Species certainly must be considered an exemplary creative product. First, it was novel, so much so that it sparked considerable controversy, a not uncommon response to original ideas. Even Alfred Wallace, the reputed cofounder of the theory of evolution by natural selection, assigned Darwin primary credit for this creative achievement. Second, it was adaptive—in the scientific sense that it explained a tremendous diversity of biological facts using a highly parsimonious scientific theory. Moreover, by making a convincing case that evolution was a scientific fact, and by hypothesizing a process by which evolution could take place, Darwin provided a comprehensive framework for understanding all of life.

In effect, Darwin's Origin of Species offered an implicit theory of creativity. That is, Darwin proposed a process by which new life forms could emerge and evolve. This process consists of only two fundamental steps: (a) the production of spontaneous variations and (b) the selective retention of those variations that are the most fit. A significant feature of the variation process is what may be called its ‘blindness’ (Campbell, 1960; Simonton, 1999b). According to Darwin, the variations exhibited no foresight, nor were they guided by some presumably divine purpose. Although he was not able to specify exactly how these blind variations came about, later advances enabled subsequent evolutionary theorists to ground the mechanism in genetic recombination and non-directed mutation. The advent of genetics also provided the basis for understanding how adaptive variations were retained. The final product of these developments was what we will call a ‘blind-variation and selective-retention’ or BVSR model (Cziko, 1998).

So impressive was the explanatory power of Darwinian theory that the same BVSR model began to be applied to other phenomena. These applications can be considered as examples of secondary Darwinism, to distinguish them from primary Darwinism, which is confined to biological evolution (Simonton, 1999b). For instance, both the acquisition of immunity and neurological development in complex nervous systems have been described as BVSR mechanisms (Cziko, 1995). B. F. Skinner's conception of operant conditioning provides another explicit example of secondary Darwinism (Dennett, 1995; Epstein, 1991). The organism emits behavioural operants that are either reinforced or punished by environmental conditions. Even more strikingly, Skinner and his students soon extended the operant conditioning paradigm to creative behaviour (Epstein, 1991). This was by no means the first attempt to explicit creativity in BVSR terms. Only a score years after the Origin appeared William James 1880 proposed that the creative process might operate inan analogous fashion to biological evolution. Of special pertinence here is Campbell's (1960) article advocating an expressly BVSR model of the creative process (see also (p.312) Campbell, 1965, 1974). Moreover, for the past dozen years I have been actively engaged in developing my own elaborations and extensions of the same framework (e.g. Simonton 1988c, 1997a, 1999a, 1999b).

Given that the theory has received such extensive treatment, it is impossible to provide a complete presentation in the limited space allotted in this chapter. Consequently, I will only provide an abstract of the general framework and documentation. Furthermore, in presenting the BVSR model, I will confine discussion to the blind variation stage of the theory, ignoring the stage of selective retention. The reason for doing so is that the latter part of the model is the least distinct from alternative theories. In problem solving, for instance, the problem is already given along with the criteria for what constitutes an acceptable solution. Hence, it comes as no surprise that the BVSR model does not substantially differ from rival accounts of the creative process at this stage of problem solving. In a sense, the circumstance is comparable for what holds for primary Darwinism. Alternative theories of the origin of species all agreed that life forms were well adapted to their respective environments (Cziko, 1995). Where they differed is how that adaptation originated. Creationists believed that God preselected the adaptations, even arguing that the adaptations proved God's existence. Lamarckians, in contrast, held that adult organisms actively acquired adaptive characteristics that were then passed down to their offspring. Only Darwinism attributed the adaptations to the selection of those spontaneous variations that yielded higher fitness. In the case of secondary Darwinian theory, this contrast dovetails with the definition of creativity—the two-fold components of novelty and utility. The variation portion of the model is concerned with the generation of novelty, while the selection portion of the model is concerned with the determination of utility. The former process has primacy over the latter.

Readers who seek more information about the full model can consult the more detailed articles and monographs, especially my book Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity (Simonton, 1999b).

Human creativity and secondary Darwinism

According to Campbell's (1960) theory, creativity begins with the generation of behavioural or ideational variations. Moreover, this process almost invariably requires, at some crucial juncture, the generation of ideational variations that are to a certain degree ‘blind.’ Campbell's use of this particular term was perhaps unfortunate because it has caused numerous misunderstandings about the nature of his theory (Cziko, 1998; Simonton, 1999b). Some of these misconceptions will be discussed later in this chapter. At this point, let it suffice to say that variations are blind to the extent that the creator cannot completely anticipate what idea will work and what will not—or what idea will succeed and what will fail. As a consequence, the creative mind must engage in a certain amount of free association, primary process, defocused attention, exploratory play, tinkering, trial-and-error, or some other relatively unrestricted activity. Significantly, the BVSR model does not require that the variation procedure always operate according to the same mechanism. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of creativity is that it results not from one process but many, as illustrated in the following three examples.

(p.313) First, creativity can certainly work in a fashion hardly distinguishable from operant conditioning. The individual may generate various permutations of established behaviours—often through playful manipulation of objects in the environment—and thereby encounter a combination of acquired behaviours that serves to solve some problem. That is, behavioural creativity is the consequence of subjecting the components of a repertoire of acts to some exploratory combinatorial process. Köhler 1925 provided a classic illustration of such behavioural insights in his observations of how Sultan the common chimpanzee was able to join two sticks to retrieve a banana placed just out of reach. Epstein 1991 has proposed a model that explicates Sultan's insight behaviour in totally operant terms. Furthermore, Epstein has shown that this model does an excellent job predicting ‘insightful’ behaviour in pigeons that are given problems comparable to those that Köhler provided his apes. Although one might be inclined to dismiss this behavioural BVSR as too primitive to support major acts of human creativity, this behavioural process actually has considerable importance. Kantorovich 1993, for instance, has argued that playful ‘tinkering’ often provides the basis for breakthrough discoveries in science.

Second, for an organism that is endowed with sufficient cognitive complexity, the BVSR process can be rendered more efficient. As Campbell 1960 pointed out, both the generation of variations and the testing of those variations can occur covertly rather than overtly. Dennett 1995 styled creatures that engage in this kind of problem solving ‘Popperian,’ in contrast to the ‘Skinnerian’ creatures of the previous example. Such organisms take advantage of the fact that they contain internal representations of the external world, along with representations of various ways of acting on that world. The internal representation, for instance, might be a ‘cognitive map’ of the physical environment, which the organism can then use to conceive alternative routes should the normal pathway be obstructed. By engaging in such internalized ‘trial-and-error,’ the organism increases the odds that when it finally emits an overt behaviour, that action will be successful.

Third and last, although there is no doubt that much creativity operates in the above manner—especially in everyday problem-solving situations—many of the more impressive acts of human creativity rely on a more sophisticated BVSR process. Human beings have minds that contain not just images of themselves and the outer world, but also ‘cultural artefacts’ that can be used in lieu of those mental images. Those artefacts include language, logic, mathematics, graphics, symbols, and various tools and devices, whether mechanical or electronic. Dennett 1995 called creatures that can exploit these means to problem solving ‘Gregorian’ (a term inspired by some ideas of Richard Gregory, the British psychologist). The only Gregorian creature we currently know of is Homo sapiens. Probably the supreme vehicle for this highly abstract form of BVSR is mathematics. Once a correspondence has been established between mathematical symbols and the external world, the symbols can undergo efficient manipulations to yield discoveries that then can be tested against the world, and new discoveries thus made. Sometimes these predictions will be derived in a systematic fashion from the mathematical representations, but other times the predictions will be the serendipitous result of playful tinkering with the abstractions.

How plausible is the notion that human creativity represents another type of secondary Darwinian process? To address this question, I first provide a brief overview of the empirical evidence, and then turn to objections that are often raised against this view.

(p.314) Evidence

A vast amount of data can be marshalled in support of a BVSR theory of creativity (Simonton, 1999b). Below I can do no more than provide a tiny sample of the empirical evidence. This evidence can be grouped into the following five categories: cognitive processes, individual differences, developmental influences, creative careers, and socio-cultural phenomena.

Cognitive processes

The BVSR model provides a strong theoretical basis for understanding the significance of serendipity. In fact, serendipitous discoveries have a role in cultural evolution similar to that of the mutation in biological evolution (Kantorovich and Ne'eman, 1989). Both are unexpected events that can set the course of historical change in new directions. More significantly, the theory explicates the results emerging from laboratory experiments on problem solving and insight. For instance, creative problem solving appears to be stimulated when individuals are presented with unpredictable or incongruous juxtapositions of stimuli (Finke et al., 1992; Rothenberg, 1986). Such exposure evidently evokes more diverse and unconstrained ideational variations.

Individual differences

Secondary Darwinism offers a theoretical foundation for the psychometric instruments that assess the cognitive processes underlying creativity (Simonton, 1999a). For instance, the tests of divergent thinking that originated with Guilford 1967 and the Remote Associates Test of Mednick 1962 both assess the capacity to generate numerous and diverse variations, the bulk of which turn out to be useless and hence ‘blind’. Indeed, adaptive variations are a positive function of the number of non-adaptive variations that are generated (e.g. Derks and Hervas, 1988). The theory also dovetails quite well with the personality traits associated with creativity (Simonton, 1999b), especially with the tendency for highly creative individuals to exhibit a certain amount of psychopathology (Eysenck, 1995; Ludwig, 1995). So long as incapacitating mental breakdowns are avoided, certain seemingly psychopathological symptoms can facilitate Darwinian creativity by increasing the number and scope of variations generated. The association between creativity and psychopathology may largely reflect their common foundation in a deficiency regarding the cognitive capacity for excluding ‘irrelevant’ information (Eysenck, 1995). Although this deficiency is less pronounced in the creative than in the psychotic, it enables the former to generate variations that would otherwise be excluded from consideration. Even so, Darwinian theory predicts that the rates of these psychopathological symptoms should vary across disciplines according to the magnitude of ‘blindness’ each domain requires for successful creativity (Simonton, 1999b). For instance, artistic creators should exhibit higher levels of psychopathological traits than do scientific creators, and that is in fact the case (Ludwig, 1995; Feist, 1998).

Developmental antecedents

Any developmental factor that enhances the capacity of an individual to generate numerous and diverse variations should have a positive impact on the development of creative (p.315) potential. Consequently, the development of creative talent should include events and circumstances that encourage nonconformity, independence, appreciation of diverse perspectives, a variety of interests, and other favourable qualities. That indeed appears to be the case. For instance, eminent creators are more likely to have come from unconventional family backgrounds (Simonton, 1987), to have been subjected to multiple and diverse role models and mentors (Simonton, 1977b, 1984a, 1992), and to have had diversifying and atypical educational experiences and professional training (Simonton, 1976a, 1983, 1984b, 1984c). The distinction between artistic and scientific creativity is also relevant here. Developmental events that tend to nurture originality are prone to be much more frequent or intense in the lives of artistic creators relative to scientific creators (Simonton, 1984b, 1986, 1999b).

Creative careers

The Darwinian view of creativity makes a striking prediction about the relation between quantity and quality of output. In biological evolution, those individuals who produce the most total offspring will usually have more offspring survive to reproduce themselves. But the more prolific organisms will also tend to produce the most progeny who die before reaching maturity. Thus, reproductive success is often associated with reproductive failure. A similar pattern is observed in the careers of eminent creators (Simonton, 1997a). Those who are the most prolific will have the most successful works, but they will also have the most unsuccessful works. So, quality is strongly associated with pure quantity. Produce more variations, and the odds will be increased that some variations will survive. Even more remarkably, this same relationship holds within careers, not just across careers. The mathematical function that describes the changes in creative output across the life span is the same for successful and unsuccessful products (Simonton, 1988a, 1997a). Those periods in which the creator produces the most total works will be those in which the most outstanding works appear, including the single best contribution (Simonton, 1991a, 1991b). In fact, the ratio of successful products to total output stays more or less stable throughout the career (Simonton, 1977a, 1984b). In other words, the expected probability of success stays constant regardless of the creator's age, yielding what has been called the ‘equal-odds rule’ (Simonton, 1997a). Because of this principle, creative individuals are not able to increase their hit rates, nor do the hit rates decline with age, nor will they even exhibit some curvilinear form (Over, 1989; Simonton, 1997a; Huber, 2000). The fascinating aspect of this principle is that it be would predicted from the Darwinian viewpoint. To the extent that the variation process is blind, good and bad ideas will appear more or less randomly across careers, just as happens for genetic mutations and recombinations.

Socio-cultural phenomena

It has long been known that creative personalities are not randomly distributed across either cultures or historical periods, but rather such individuals will cluster into ‘Golden Ages’ separated by ‘Dark Ages’ (Simonton, 1988b). This fact suggests that there are special political, cultural, economic, and societal circumstances that may serve to either encourage or repress the development and manifestation of the individual capacity to generate variations (Simonton, 1999b). In the category of negative factors is international war, a condition that (p.316) even has an adverse impact on creativity in science and technology (Fernberger, 1946; Price, 1978; Simonton, 1980). More generally, threatening conditions of various kinds, whether political or economic, tend to restrict the range of ideational variations that are emitted or permitted in a given time and place, and thus undermine creative behaviour (Sales, 1973; Doty et al., 1991; Simonton, 1999b). With respect to positive factors, creative individuals are most likely to appear when a multi-ethnic civilization is fragmented into a large number of separate nations, which would presumably enhance the cultural heterogeneity while at the same time permitting cross-fertilization of ideas (Simonton, 1975, 1976d). In addition, when a civilization is characterized by conspicuous ideological diversity—the presence of numerous rival philosophical schools—then creativity tends to increase, even in those domains that have relatively little to do with intellectual trends (Simonton, 1976c). Finally, after a civilization opens itself up to foreign influences, it tends to become the site for a revival of creative activity (Simonton, 1997b). The process operating here has certain parallels with the role of hybridization in biological evolution (Harrison, 1993).

The foregoing comments should be qualified by the recognition that artistic and scientific creativity require somewhat different circumstances (Simonton, 1976b). Although both require a Zeitgeist that supports the free exploration of ideas, scientific creators generally require more stable socio-cultural settings than do artistic creators (Simonton, 1975), a finding that parallels the contrast mentioned earlier between the biographical backgrounds of creative scientists vs creative artists.


Although the secondary Darwinian theory of creativity has attracted many criticisms, these objections are almost entirely based on incorrect conceptions of what is and is not claimed by a BVSR model of creativity (Cziko, 1998; Simonton, 1999b). Thus, the theory is often taken to task for arguing that creativity is totally random and that the creator does not take advantage of acquired expertise in the field—when the theory claims nothing of the sort. In the first place, the theory assumes that accumulated knowledge and skill provide a necessary but not sufficient basis for creativity (Simonton, 1991b, 1996, 2000a). Something more must be added to take the creative mind beyond the limitations and constraints of that expertise, to generate truly original ideas that go beyond what has worked before. Moreover, although occasionally this additional step requires the introduction of truly random processes—James Watson's 1968 identification of the specific genetic codings providing a case in point—randomness in any strict sense is the exception rather than the rule. Much more often the creative act requires that the creator rely on the ‘quasi-random’ processes that are a natural by-product of free association, primary-process thinking, defocused attention, deficient perceptual filtering, playful tinkering, and the like (Simonton, in press).

Just as significant, the critics of the Darwinian theory repeatedly overlook the fact that the ideational variations that are proposed to feed the creative process are also expected to vary greatly in the degree of ‘blindness’ displayed (Cziko, 1998; Simonton, 1999b, in press). Some variations are highly constrained, almost algorithmically so, and others are almost completely unguided, with an unbroken continuum connecting these two extremes. This continuous dimension is analogous to what holds in primary Darwinism, where the (p.317) variations can vary from the ‘clones’ generated by asexual reproduction (the absolute zero point of the blindness scale), through genetic recombinations governed by varying degrees of chromosomal linkage and epistasis, to mutations, which can also exhibit varying levels of a priori constraints (including differential mutation rates at distinct loci). In addition, the relative level of variational blindness will vary across types of creative products and even within various portions of a single product (Simonton, 2002, in press).

Secondary Darwinism has received unanticipated support from computer programs that exhibit genuine creativity. So far, the only successful simulations of human creative behaviour do so only by introducing some form of stochastic mechanism, sometimes even in the form of a random-number generator (Boden, 1991). Of special interest to the Darwinian theory of creativity is the emergence of the set of programs known as genetic algorithms and genetic programming (Goldberg, 1989; Koza, 1992). Not only have they produced original and adaptive solutions to real problems, but in addition these programs operate in an outright Darwinian manner, via the technique of blind-variation and selective-retention.

Human creativity and primary Darwinism

A Darwinian treatment of human creativity cannot be complete without embedding the behaviour in primary Darwinism. To do this requires that we establish the selection pressures that might support the evolution of creativity as a characteristic human activity. These selection pressures may be of two kinds: natural and sexual.

Natural slection

Superficially, it might seem to be an easy task to attribute human creativity to the fitness it confers upon each individual member of our species. After all, it is obvious that the supreme adaptive success of Homo sapiens is immediately apparent in the impressive technology that we have acquired over the past few thousand years—a technology that must be cumulative consequence of human ingenuity. Even at the individual level of day-to-day living, creativity often comes in handy, enabling us to solve the problems that frequently throw themselves in our path. Such an adaptationist account is certainly plausible. Yet its very plausibility may in fact undermine its credibility. The adaptiveness of creative behaviour seems so transparently true that this account may represent nothing more than another of those ‘just so’ stories that plague so many Darwinian explanations (Rose and Lauder, 1996). Indeed, this explanation may raise more questions than it answers. One problem concerns the personal attributes of highly creative individuals. As observed earlier, exceptional creators often feature characteristics that would seem to militate against the attainment of fitness in the sense of primary Darwinian selection. The most conspicuous instance is the disposition toward psychopathology (Eysenck, 1995). Whatever the assets of creativity, overt psychopathology does not appear to constitute adaptive behaviour. So why would natural selection favour its emergence? This question becomes even more problematic once it is recognized that creativity and psychopathology share a common genetic foundation, as is evident in the shared family pedigrees of these two characteristics (p.318) (Karlson, 1970; Richards et al., 1988). Such a genetic link would seem to introduce selection pressures that would reduce the incidence of creativity in any human population.

One potential solution to this problem was offered by the distinguished evolutionists Julian Huxley and Ernst Mayr in collaboration with two psychiatrists who had special expertise in schizophrenia (Huxley et al., 1964). After noting the strong evidence on behalf of the heritability of this common mental disorder, the authors observed that the gene for schizophrenia appears too frequently to be maintained by mutation alone. They accordingly examined the benefits and costs of possessing a genetic inclination toward schizophrenic disorder. For example, they discussed data showing that schizophrenics may be more physiologically robust than normal members of the population. The authors also suggested that the low fertility of schizophrenic males may be more than compensated by the high fertility by schizophrenic females. Therefore, Huxley, Mayr, and their coauthors concluded that the high incidence rate of schizophrenia could be ‘the result of a balance between its selectively favourable and unfavourable properties’ (p. 220).

Unfortunately, these authors focused on the biological repercussions of mental disorder. It could just as well be argued that psychopathological symptoms may have certain social consequences that contribute to the survival value of the corresponding genes. This very possibility was put forward by Hammer and Zubin 1968. They looked at psychopathology as a manifestation of a more general syndrome of what they styled ‘the cultural unpredictability of behaviour’. Some individuals in a population inherit a certain tendency to do the unanticipated according to societal norms and role expectations. Although psychopathology is one manifestation of this genetic inclination, it is not by any means the only one. The innate proclivity for unpredictability may take the form of exceptional creativity, which can prove adaptive both to the individuals and to the culture that produces them. Whether this genetic endowment is positive or negative depends on certain cultural circumstances that channel the tendency in different directions. Hammer and Zubin directly compared this phenomenon with sickle-cell anaemia, which confers selective advantage in tropical climates where persons heterozygous on this trait gain increased resistance to malaria.

Whatever plausibility these arguments may have, they probably fall short of a complete Darwinian explanation. One basic objection concerns the presumed adaptiveness of creative behaviour. Although this assumption seems reasonable when it comes to technological domains—activities having to do with obtaining food, shelter, and self-protection—it is less apparent that creativity has evolutionary utility in fields that make no direct contribution to fitness. A clear-cut example is artistic creativity, an activity that is universal in the human species. To account for the evolution of these forms of creative activity, some other selection mechanism may be evoked.

Sexual Selection

In 1859, when Origin first appeared, Darwin avoided discussing human evolution. But in 1871 he was willing to take on the subject, publishing The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. In one respect, this title encompasses two separate books, one concerningthe evolution of Homo sapiens, the other the evolutionary consequences of courtship and (p.319) competition for mates. Yet in another, more profound respect, these two subjects are intimately connected. The connection stems from Darwin's belief that sexual selection played a major role in human evolution. In fact, he explicitly suggested that sexual selection might have driven the emergence of human creativity, including the ‘nonadaptive’ creative behaviour displayed by human beings. A peacock's brilliant tail display confers no advantage from the standpoint of natural selection, but does enable the male to procure a mate, and thus be favoured according to sexual selection. By the same token, singing, dancing, and other artistic activities do not help human beings to find food and shelter, but those activities may have a major part in obtaining suitable mates. For a long time, Darwin's ideas on sexual selection were neglected in favour of the concept of natural selection. However, after interest in sexual selection was revived, it became recognized as a potentially powerful evolutionary force in those species that engage in mate competition and selection (Andersson, 1994). Even more important from the perspective of this chapter, sexual selection can once more be seriously considered as a possible factor behind the evolution of human creativity.

Geoffrey Miller (1997, 1998, 2000) has extensively elaborated this very possibility. Miller 1997 began by arguing for the selective advantage of a personal characteristic quite similar to Hammer and Zubin's (1968) trait of cultural unpredictability. Miller's argument was founded on the notion of Machiavellian intelligence. According to the latter concept, human beings have had to evolve extremely complex cognitive and behavioural skills in order to survive the interpersonal politics of primate social systems (see also Byrne, Chapter 11). Such intricate systems require considerable acumen and dexterity to negotiate the elaborate web of cooperative and competitive activities that define an individual's place in the dominance hierarchies. Placement in the hierarchy is crucial insofar as it determines each individual's reproductive success. Because a premium is placed on being able to ‘outsmart’ rivals, the social primates have evolved a number of strategies that help prevent the disclosure of intentions. Among those strategies may be proteanism, that is, the capacity to be unpredictable when necessary in a given social situation (Driver and Humphries, 1988). Moreover, social proteanism would be useful in a diversity of circumstances besides domestic politics. In combat between rival males, for instance, the advantage often goes to the opponent whose moves cannot be anticipated.

One striking feature of Miller's (1997) theory of protean behaviour is that it provides an evolutionary explanation for the emergence of a mechanism that can generate quasi-randomness, the prerequisite for the production of genuinely unpredictable behaviour. Miller 1997 even made a specific connection between this intellectual capacity and Donald Campbell's (1960) blind-variation and selective-retention model. In doing so, Miller offered a primary Darwinian mechanism that would support the evolutionary emergence of the secondary Darwinian process of creativity. At the same time, selection for proteanism may also explain the connection between creativity and psychopathology (Simonton, 1999b). After all, mental disorder may be the unfortunate consequence of inheriting too much proclivity for proteanism. Presumably, the optimal amount of protean behaviour in the population would represent some equilibrium point between two maladaptive extremes on this trait—between psychosis and its opposite. At some point on the continuum between the optimally protean and the outright psychotic may then emerge the highly creative individual.

(p.320) Even though the emergence of proteanism can help account for the evolution of the BVSR process hypothesized by secondary Darwinian theory of creativity, it cannot be the whole story. The range of human creativity is just far too vast. However, according to Miller (1998) this incipient capacity might have been considerably expanded once it became a criterion for mate selection. Both men and women could try to attract mates by demonstrating creative behaviours, whether it is through singing or dancing, tool-making or basket weaving. Even more crucial was the advent of the human capacity for language, for then courtship could take place on a more intellectual plane. Flirtatious displays of humour and wit, wisdom and creativity could be conveyed in verbal terms. Lovers could woo each other with poems and songs as well as gifts and adornments. In fact, Miller believes that sexual selection for these creative skills could have instigated a runaway evolutionary process that favoured the emergence of the human brain. This is a crucial possibility, because sexual selection is as strong a force for jungle dwellers as it is for denizens of the city. The desire to win an attractive mate is a cross-cultural and transhistorical universal for all peoples that have survived eons of natural selection.

Under this scenario, mate choice is working on both male and female simultaneously and equally, because these assets are of comparable value to the reproductive success of their offspring. So men and women concurrently evolve the capacity for creativity. Figuratively speaking, both males and females acquire brilliant intellectual plumage. Furthermore, the augmented intellectual abilities of both genders would quickly become preadaptations (or exaptations) that would be later coopted for purposes besides winning mates. The most prominent spin-off would be the rapid evolution of human culture, which provided a totally new basis for adaptations (Simonton, 1999b).

At present, it is not possible to determine conclusively the relative contributions of natural and sexual selection to the evolution of the human capacity for creativity. Some would argue that natural selection alone is sufficient to account for the emergence of this exceptional ability. Others are not so sure, believing that the hiatus between human creativity and non-human innovation is too vast, implicating more the runaway process of sexual selection than the more incremental process of natural selection.

Future developments

I devoted less space to primary Darwinism than to secondary Darwinism. Although this difference might simply reflect my training as a psychologist rather than as a biologist, the differential allotment may accurately reflect our current state of knowledge. Far more is known about the psychological foundations of human creativity than about the biological origins of that capacity. One cause for this contrast is that creative activity has not been a high-priority topic in evolutionary psychology (see, e.g. Barkow et al., 1992). For instance, a recent book on the evolution of cognition devotes discusses almost every topic imaginable—even gossip—except animal and human creativity (Heyes and Huber, 2000). What is obviously needed are more books like the current volume to provide the comparative basis for deciphering the processes underlying the evolution of creative behaviour.

Yet a complete comprehension of human creativity may require more than such extensive comparative inquiries. To an extent unprecedented in the evolution of life, each (p.321) member of our species is the joint product of two interacting evolutionary forces, one biological and the other socio-cultural (Boyd and Richerson, 1985). Moreover, socio-cultural evolution has acquired sufficient power to override the dictates of biological evolution. As a result, human beings will often engage in behaviours that sacrifice their reproductive fitness for the sake of the socio-cultural system in which they live. Although altruistic behaviour represents the most discussed example, creative behaviour may well constitute another illustration. The potential selective disadvantage is apparent in the lives of those highly creative individuals, like Michelangelo, Newton, Descartes, and Beethoven, who left no biological progeny. In Dawkins' (1989) terms, these humans decided to contribute memes rather than genes to the human legacy.

A full scientific explanation for such oddities may thus require a complex model that specifies exactly how human creativity emerged through coevolutionary processes. Such a model would identify the essential theoretical nexus between primary and secondary BVSR mechanisms. The net result would be a Darwinian theory that will bridge the current chasm that separates the innovative behaviour of animals from the creative activities of humans.


Of all species that evolved on this planet, Homo sapiens is without doubt the one that acquired the greatest capacity for innovation. To appreciate the contrast between human creativity and animal innovation, this distinctive feature of the species should be placed in the context of Darwinian theory. This analysis has two parts. In the first part, human creative behaviour can be interpreted as a BVSR process analogous to what underlies biological evolution. After outlining the key features of this model, an overview of the supporting evidence is presented, with special focus on the cognitive processes, individual differences, developmental influences, creative careers, and socio-cultural phenomena associated with the behaviour's occurrence. There follows a brief discussion of the objections that have been raised against the model. In the second part, the evolution of Homo sapiens can be analysed in terms of the selection pressures that would support the emergence of this BVSR process in the human nervous system. These pressures include both natural and sexual selection, with the latter possibly exerting the most impact. Significantly, it was Charles Darwin himself who first suggested that sexual selection might have played a major role in the emergence of human creativity.


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