Why We Need Art

Can evolutionary biology explain the human impulse to create?

Edward O. Wilson in the Gorongosa National Park 
in Mozambique. He has spent much of his career 
trying to unify the sciences and the humanities. (Bob Poole)
Edward O. Wilson in the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. He has spent much of his career trying to unify the sciences and the humanities. (Bob Poole)

Listen to a narrated version of this review:

The Origins of Creativity by Edward O. Wilson; Liveright, 256 pp., $24.95

If you’re sketching out an abstract pattern to enliven, say, a corporate webpage or a team flag, here’s a simple rule to keep in mind: repeat about 20 percent of the elements in your design. Too much redundancy of parts and the image will risk looking dull; too much complexity and it can seem busy or crowded. But a mild salting of repetition, research has shown, will hit the brain’s Goldilocks spot and make the beholder feel good. In fact, much of the abstract and primitive art we find most appealing follows the 20 percent rule.

We don’t know why our aesthetics are tuned this way, but Edward O. Wilson suggests that the “optimum complexity principle” reflects a kind of compromise between the brain’s greed and its limitations. We crave sensory input, but we can process only so much of it at any given moment. Hence, a novel image that can be grasped whole, with a single glance, feels oddly satisfying, a prize for sore eyes.  The same reasoning may explain why the number seven is often considered lucky. A grouping of seven objects looks big enough to be worth our while but manageable enough to be quantified at first sight.

The optimum complexity principle is just one of many examples that Wilson rallies in The Origins of Creativity, his latest plea for the grand unification of the sciences and the humanities. The two camps are often viewed as enemy combatants, or at least paisley and plaid—best kept apart—but Wilson is deeply impatient with academic partitioning. Artists, he argues, should have a grasp of basic neuroscience and how the brain evolved. Scientists must appreciate the humanities for infusing human life with meaning. Only by joining cognitive forces, Wilson argues, can we hope to tackle the evergreen mysteries of existence and dodge the traps of our own making. Why are we so smart and so stupid, so violent and so generous, so besotted with nature yet seemingly intent on destroying it?

Science has granted us the power to “dominate Earth and everything on it,” Wilson writes, all the while remaining “blind to the common good” of ourselves and the planet we have no choice but to call home. “The humanities alone can correct this imperfection” and “swerve the moral trajectory into a new mode of reasoning,” he says. The humanities must blend with objective scientific research to divulge “a full and honest picture of what we truly are and what we can become.”

Wilson has sought to emulsify the disciplines for decades now, most obviously and authoritatively in his 1998 book, Consilience. Since then, he has continued the quest in a series of shorter and more essayish works, some aimed at scientists, others addressing the canonical liberal arts major, and all of them cleanly, cogently, unapologetically ambitious. The titles alone are spinal chutzpah: today it’s The Origins of Creativity; in 2014 it was The Meaning of Human Existence.

Wilson is a beautiful writer of astounding productivity. Now 88, he has published 30 books and shows no sign of quitting. He has won two Pulitzer prizes. The scope of his learning is immense. He is the bona fide Renaissance scholar he wants us all to be, but we rarely are and that disappoints him. You’ll learn a lot by reading his books. What you won’t learn is the definitive answer to the origins of creativity or the meaning of your existence. Instead, you’ll find the threads for a plausible first pass of an origins story, as well as advice on how we might break out of our intellectual ruts. You’ll also pick up a lot of asides and opinions, including Wilson’s preference for Nabokov’s Lolita (“the presence of greatness”) over Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (“a painfully ostentatious display of learning”) and his belief that of the many people he has seen or heard perform Stephen Sondheim’s ballad “Send In the Clowns”—Judy Collins, Judi Dench, Barbra Streisand, Sarah Vaughan, Carol Burnett—only Glenn Close gets it right. “She is, in my admittedly personal judgment, perfect,” Wilson writes. Close’s rendition captures what Wilson considers one of the most revealing and deeply human of cognitive-emotional states: irony. The small, sad smile, the proud posture, the exquisite mix of cynicism and hope. Anger and jealousy are “animal emotions,” Wilson says, and shared in some form by many other species. Irony is different. “It is ours alone, cerebral, pacific, and shaped substantially by cultural evolution.” To explain animal emotions, you start with biology and then stir in the humanities. “To explain irony,” he says, “requires the reverse.”

Where does our sense of irony come from, and why were so many people willing to pay hundreds of dollars to see Close in the Broadway musical Sunset Boulevard  ? The creative impulse is a human universal. Every known culture artifies, to use a term coined by the independent scholar Ellen Dissanayake. People make music, dance, paint, tell stories, adorn objects and self, and by all indication we’ve artified from our earliest beginnings. Archaeologists have found evidence from more than 100,000 years ago that early humans in southern Africa brightened up their cave walls with a few splashes of red ocher paint. Pretty soon our ancestors were stringing seashells into jewelry and fashioning bones into flutes. But why?

One reason we invented art, Wilson suggests, might have been to help us cope with the terrible gifts of consciousness and self-awareness that our bulging, deeply furrowed brains bestowed on us. We know that we and our loved ones are going to die. We know we’re miserable, flawed creatures who may not be as bad as our neighbors, but still. We need distraction. We need explication. We need a good excuse. It’s time for some irony belted out in a song.

The question then becomes, Why the big brain? What good is it, really, and why did it evolve? The human brain is indeed massive, a three-pound pudding of some 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections between neurons, packed into a volume of about 1,500 cubic centimeters—roughly the size of a cauliflower. That’s three to four times the brain volume of our nearest living relative, the chimpanzee, from whom we diverged about six million years ago. Chimpanzees, Wilson observes, are pretty smart, able to learn a number sequence like 64136 faster than we can, and retain it longer, too. But chimpanzees lack crucial skills that we can claim. They don’t have a real language, and they don’t work cooperatively to accomplish a goal. As the evolutionary anthropologist Michael Tomasello has observed, you don’t see two chimpanzees walking through the forest carrying a log together.

Our language and cooperative spirit likely had a synergistic effect, with advances in one spurring leaps in the other and the two driving “the most rapid evolutionary growth of a complex organ of all time,” Wilson writes. Today, we speak about 6,900 languages, as well as any number of regional dialects, patois, jargonese, emoticons, Klingon, and the paralingual abomination of all-caps acronyms like STEM. “Language is not just a creation of humanity,” Wilson writes. “It is humanity.”

We have also perfected the art of cooperation without self-abnegation, the flexible ability, as Brian Hare and Jingzhi Tan of Duke University have said, “to avoid high-cost helping … while recognizing the benefit of mutualistic endeavors.” You pay for the gas, I’ll give you a lift home, but the password to my bank account is my own.

Our brains might have continued to expand indefinitely, Wilson suggests, were it not for an odd anatomical limitation: a more massive head would bobble around too much on our slender necks, potentially damaging the delicate gray matter within. Thus the body “halted the advance of human genius,” Wilson says, and the flesh clipped the wings of the mind.

So, how did humans learn to talk and horse-trade when other primates did not? Wilson argues that Homo sapiens is among the rare category of animal that ranks as eusocial, or truly social: the primate equivalent of bees, wasps, ants, termites, and a handful of other organisms like aphids, thrips, and social marine shrimp. Many animals, including chimpanzees, are quite gregarious: they live in groups, know each other thoroughly, prefer this nitpicking friend over that sullen frenemy, and so forth. But eusocial animals go further. They practice a division of labor and display unmistakable signs of group loyalty, to the point where the group essentially operates as a unit of evolutionary selection. In the perpetual skirmish for resources, a socially cohesive and organized tribe will have distinct advantages over a ragtag band of less disciplined self-servers, but it’s extremely difficult to overcome innate animal suspiciousness long enough to get the team ethos started, which is why eusociality in nature is so rare.

Wilson argues that the key to eusociality is the nest—the place where the young are raised and the adults return each day. Bees have their hives, termites their spectacular Le Corbusier mounds, and early humans had their campfires. We became humanized by a Promethean light. Around a crackling fire, we felt safe from predators. We told stories and sang songs. We cooked our meat and tubers into a more easily digestible form to feed our hungry, growing brains. We planned the next day’s hunt, reaffirmed our bonds of friendship, and thought, Wouldn’t it be great right now if somebody invented the marshmallow? Campfires were worth defending, and orange and black look good on a flag.

Wilson is a master storyteller, but not everybody is convinced by his narrative. Lately, he and a number of his colleagues have waged a public battle against the importance of inclusive fitness, a stalwart principle in evolutionary biology that says organisms seek to promote their relatives’ genes as well as their own. Researchers have long cited inclusive fitness to explain such puzzling behaviors as altruism, homosexuality, even suicide, but Wilson, who was once an adherent, now insists that the math doesn’t add up. He asserts that most biologists are coming around to his point of view, yet I see little evidence of that emerging consensus in either the scientific literature or my interviews with scientists.

Nor is it clear to me that the humanities will benefit greatly by a mind meld with evolutionary biology, which Wilson counts as one of the sciences most likely to reanimate the flagging fortunes of the liberal arts. The trendy field of “literary Darwinism,” for example, has produced little to date but dreck, and to reduce a masterpiece like Pride and Prejudice to the stock conceits of evolutionary psychology—fecund virgin toys with handsome rake and his bad-boy genes before finally mating with wealthy provider—adds nothing to our understanding of the work or of ourselves. Wilson is a far subtler thinker than the average evo-psychologist, but even he can fall into the off-putting adumbrations of the field, like referring to women as a “resource” over which men compete.

Wilson has another suggestion that I embrace with every axon and dendrite in my bobbling brain: that the arts and humanities break free of their anthropocentric perspective to imagine the world as nonhumans live it. The dazzling viewpoint of the mantis shrimp, whose eyes have 12 color receptors to our paltry three. The pointillist soundscape of bats, bouncing clicks off their insect prey or detecting vibrations on water that tell of fish to be snared. The chemocopia of smells that a bloodhound can capture, its nasal passages carpeted with 220 million odor receptors—200 million more than our own. Soon we may have the technology to re-create, through virtual reality, selections from nature’s vast Umwelten that currently elude us. Our greedy brains will still have their limits, but we can take in the new world one step at a time.


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Natalie Angier is a Pulitzer Prize–winning science columnist for The New York Times and the author of Woman: An Intimate Geography, among other books.


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