Our creative roots

Robert Genn

June 10, 2008
Dear Rodney,
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 us.
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 Nature herself.
Best regards,
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 taken?