Creativity: A Survival Tool or a Higher Gift?

What are the roots of human creativity? Is it linked to our evolutionary struggles for survival? Or does it depend on the leisure that comes with security and civilization? Or do its sources lie elsewhere?

The scholarship suggests that it is connected to the needs for survival, but how and how much is still up for discussion. The current thinking is summarized by Liane Gabora and Scott Barry Kaufman in “Evolutionary Approaches to Creativity” in The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity. I’ve grouped their observations into four points:

  • One theory is that creativity has evolved because it fosters group bonding, which in turn supports survival. Music and art bring people together, give them a common object to admire or an experience to enjoy, and link them to each other with emotional ties. Think of “God Bless America,” the Mona Lisa, the Lincoln Memorial.
  • Another view is that creativity encourages sex. Darwin wrote, “It appears probable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females or both sexes, before acquiring the power of expressing mutual love in articulate language, endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm.” They did so because music and the other arts, by playing on the senses, convey reproductive fitness, a key in the evolutionary process. (Here’s the glitch in this theory: creative people, while they may be attractive as sexual partners, tend to be less likely to marry than others, and they have fewer children. More time in the studio, less time for kids. But see the next point.)
  • Perhaps creativity drives cultural evolution in much the same way that procreativity drives biological evolution. That is, the artist feels driven to create “offspring” in the form of works that will bring joy and insight to others and will survive for that reason. The reproductive impulses behind art and babies may be similar.
  • Another possibility is that creativity is merely a spin-off of evolutionary adaptations. It doesn’t serve any practical purpose; it’s just a set of “side-effects of abilities that evolved for other [more practical] purposes.” Color perception may have us helped us read the environment for ripe fruit and manual dexterity may have helped us manipulate tools; combined in some humans, they are the makings for a skilled painter.
creative mind

Imagination–for surviving, thriving, or creation?

Of these lines of thinking, the first two suggest that creativity emerged as a useful survival tool because it directly stimulated activities—bonding and sex—that are survival essentials. The other two theories suggest that creativity has not been directly linked to survival but is a kind of echo of our practical abilities, an echo that is pleasurable and thought-provoking, an exercise better suited for times of thriving than of actual struggle. The next time you write your blog or play your music or dance your dance, think about which description seems closer to home.

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