Published On: Thu, Jan 11th, 2018

What makes humans inventive?

The Origins of Creativity. By Edward Wilson. Liveright; 198 pages; $ 24.95. Allen Lane; £20.

The Runaway Species. By Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman. Catapult; 287 pages; $ 28. Canongate; £20.

DOES science spoil beauty? John Keats, an English Romantic poet, thought so. When Sir Isaac Newton separated white light into its prismatic colours, the effect, Keats wrote, was to “unweave a rainbow”. By explaining how rainbows occurred, the mystery and the lustre were lost. The idea that science and the arts are distinct, incompatible cultures is an enduring one. Two new books seem to cut to the heart of the matter: human creativity.

Edward Wilson, 88 and the author of “The Origins of Creativity”, is the grand old man of Harvard biology. His speciality is myrmecology—the study of ants. For a short book, “The Origins of Creativity” is brimming with ideas, many of which wander, as Mr Wilson’s writing often does, beyond the brief of the title. Ultimately, though, everything in the book ties back to genetics and evolution—and a belief that culture and creativity have genetic roots.

Mr Wilson traces the source of creativity to human prehistory, on the African savannah. Man’s ancestors were, for a time, dull, relatively asocial vegetarians. The crucial step, Mr Wilson argues, came with the switch to eating meat. This meant having to hunt in groups, and that meant becoming more social: people had to co-operate in the foray, and share the rewards. This change put an evolutionary premium on communication and social intelligence. Eventually, by way of natural selection, it gave rise to symbolic language. And thus the birth of the humanities came about, in storytelling and the “nocturnal firelight of the earliest human encampments”.

This version of events is relatively straightforward. More controversial is where Mr Wilson tries to take the reader next. In his eyes the humanities today are static and blinkered, hamstrung by their failure to acknowledge their evolutionary roots. The salvation of the humanities, he argues, lies in the “Big Five”: palaeontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology and neurobiology. By studying these different areas, scientists will be able to connect aesthetics and cultural evolution to the underlying genetic evolution that explains them. Thus Mr Wilson would expand the mantra of Theodosius Dobzhansky, a great geneticist: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” to “Nothing in science and the humanities makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Where Mr Wilson focuses on the origins of creativity, Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman, a composer and a neuroscientist, focus in “The Runaway Species” on the act of creation. The book makes a single argument, clearly and thoroughly: creativity is never the creation of something from nothing. Instead, consciously or not, people refashion things. They do this for the most part in three ways: by bending, breaking and blending. Bending involves taking something and altering a property. Breaking involves taking a whole apart and assembling something new from the fragments. And blending involves mixing multiple sources together in new ways.

“The Runaway Species” is not short of examples. For breaking, the authors cite Cubism, shotgun sequencing of DNA and photomontage in film. For blending, the minotaur and the mermaid, genetic splicing and creole languages. And for bending, the authors point to the artificial heart. At first, scientists copied the heart as closely as they could, beating and all. But beating led to wear and tear—and was unnecessary, as the heart simply needs to pump blood. Today transplant patients are given continuous-flow hearts. (It turns out that Dick Cheney, who had a heart transplant at the age of 71, has not had a heartbeat since 2010.)

In a way, Keats was right: applying scientific scrutiny to the arts runs the risk of feeling like an autopsy. Both these books, though, skirt around that danger. Messrs Wilson and Eagleman themselves are both scientists and novelists—living embodiments of the fallacy that there are two distinct cultures. Both “The Origins of Creativity” and “The Runaway Species” approach creativity scientifically but sensitively, feeling its roots without pulling them out.

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What makes humans inventive?