June 10, 2008
New light is being shone on the nature of creativity,
and it's coming from a surprising source: animals. If
you accept the idea that we are all fellow travellers
on this planet, right down to the simplest amoeba, and
that we are all continuing to evolve, albeit at
different speeds, the animal world is there to teach
Creativity is closely related to invention. Other
factors include the love of play and the ability to
use tools. Studies of animal behaviour are constantly
finding new evidence of play and tool activities.
Creativity is not just the property of Homo sapiens.
Apes select from a supply of different lengths of
prepared sticks to dig grubs from crevices. Dolphins
leap for joy and perform self-motivated tricks in
unison. Invertebrate octopi toy with plastic bottles
by squirting them with jets of water. Closer to home,
kittens and puppies show innate tendencies to play.
Researchers conclude that animal activities are based
on both inherited traits and observational learning.
Further, creative and inventive tendencies run in
families and species. For example, the comprehension
records for dog vocabularies--400 words or more--are
held by Border collies, a breed traditionally involved
in sheep management, where continued employment
depends on the accurate hearing of a master's
commands. These dogs learn words quickly--ball, stick,
keys, doll, Frisbee--and fetch the object called for.
Alert and cooperative, they can be called upon to
identify dozens of individual humans by name.
How should we be interpreting these wonders? First, it
seems that if your parents were creative, you are
slightly more likely to be so. Second, when there is
potential reward, even dull minds rally. The
creative-inventive animal asks, "How else can
this be done?" "What tool do I use to get
what I want?" "How can I play here?"
Artists do well to understand that
creative-inventiveness can be learned. With simple
desire, the vocabulary and range of creative moves are
broadened. Through ongoing play, the moves are further
deployed and perhaps later dropped. Even an octopus
asks the golden question, "What could be?"
This is the nature of not just human nature, but
PS: "Dolphins are our colleagues. They are
partners in our research, guiding us into the mind's
capabilities." (Louis Herman, researcher, Marine
Mammal Laboratory, Hawaii)
Esoterica: Even though its brain is the size of a
shelled walnut, the New Caledonian Crow solves
problems by creating and using tools. Fledglings
isolated from adult influence bend short lengths of
wire specifically to achieve certain tasks. The next
time you hastily improvise a custom scraper or other
studio tool, know that your action is part of an
evolutionary need to develop and improve. And when you
continue to play with that tool, you are doing the
natural thing as well. How far can this blessing be