Article: The Power to Create: Our evolutionary advantage - RSA

Article: The Power to Create - Our evolutionary advantage


  • Creative economy
  • Arts and society

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent,” wrote Darwin, “but the ones most responsive to change. Those who have learned to collaborate and improvise most successfully have prevailed.” Caroline Wiseman FRSA argues that the human power to imagine is critical to our survival as a species.

Every living organism has its own evolutionary advantage over its competitors or it becomes extinct. So, what is our evolutionary advantage? What propelled human beings from insignificant apes to being the most successful large animals on this planet? It is not just our big brains, whose size was surpassed by Neanderthals. We evolved not only to analyse, communicate, collaborate and love but – crucially – to imagine. This ability to imagine abstract concepts in our mind, the power to create, is what gives humans their evolutionary edge. It is the secret of our success.

However, as outgoing Director of RSA’s Action Research Centre, Adam Lent, revealed in a recent article, three quarters of citizens of the UK and other advanced economies feel they are not meeting their creative potential. They are unable to generate change, solve problems and turn their ideas into reality. Lent asks rhetorically how much this all matters. “Surely creativity is nothing more than something ‘nice to have’ at a time when we are faced with so many other pressing problems?” In fact our power to create matters very much; the human race needs its evolutionary advantage or it is in danger of becoming extinct.

Part of the problem is that the concept of creativity has been hijacked by art. The arts have an important role in evolution but they are just one manifestation of creativity. Creativity touches us every moment from the flush toilet we sit on, to our smart phone and the concept of money, which we use to pay for these things.

Creativity is the ultimate source of all economic value. During the big bang of human culture, each new idea became a valuable asset for its creator, which he or she could barter or trade. Each human is required to come up with something ever more creative to trade so that we each have a livelihood. Trade encourages specialisation, and a specialised society becomes very powerful as a group level predator.

Our creative ideas cross-fertilise with the creative ideas of others. The casual exchanges, which happen in social groups and are multiplied in cities, are the essential engine of innovation. Our ideas form a collective intelligence, which we call culture. This secondary, cultural, evolution uses a similar variation-selection model as primary, organic evolution and needs a large number of alternatives. But ideas are also shaped by chance. Our brain is a self-organising system and needs the provocation of random thought in the same way as organic evolution needs random mutation.

Every single person has the ability to be creative for this is built into the operating system of the brain. Humans have, uniquely, evolved a sophisticated layering of consciousnesses. We are able to blend concepts simultaneously. We use divergent (possibility) thinking to generate ideas in our subconscious then move to convergent thinking in our conscious brain when we refine, test and implement our ideas.

The brain is a massive network of neurological cells with the prefrontal cortex doing most of the everyday thinking. But when there is a fundamental (evolutionary) problem such as what one might want to do with our life faced with redundancy, this working memory is stumped. This is when creative thinking happens. We submerge ourselves in our subconscious to access the vast source of subliminal experience and information stored in its limitless caverns. Einstein was in a tram on his way to work when he glanced up at a clock and the theory of relativity floated into his brain: “Imagination is more important than knowledge”, he said.

The power to create operates at a macro as well as micro level. As a species we collaborate in large numbers, forming a collective intelligence, a culture. We dream of the sort of society we want and try to bring it into practice. Over the centuries we have invented money, laws, religion, the arts, politics; things which we all believe and abide by. This is important for the smooth running of human societies, the large units of population necessary to drive individual specialisation and yet more innovation.

Lent argues that in the 21st century, the macro level institutions that shape and govern our world are no longer able to resolve our biggest problems. The global economy needs to get back on track; inequality remains a problem; attempts to prevent climate change have moved from ineffectual activity to apathy. These failures share a common origin; they have relied on governments to drive change from above. This model, Lent says, is now defunct. In the 21st century the focus for social policy must shift to the individual. With a world faster, flatter and less predictable, this is exactly the sort of challenging situation, which the individual human brain is designed to find solutions to. But it demands many more than 25% of us to be thinking creatively. The good news, according to Lent, is that there is a burgeoning desire for individual self-determination; people hunger for real choice over their lives. The answer, he says, is to release the creative potential of the 75% who are not able or willing to do this.

This is not surprising if ‘schools kill creativity’ as Sir Ken Robinson claims. Creativity in schools is not valued, tested for or rewarded. Whilst all the necessary conditions may exist in schools like Eton, it is likely that hardly any or none exist in many of our schools. The problem may not be that they are at the bottom of the school league table but that, unlike Eton, they do not learn the skills of creative intelligence.

A fascinating study by Wollach and Kogan in 1972 set out to establish whether creativity exists as a cognitive talent in its own right, separate from intelligence. It found that it was the children who could not express their creativity who had problems in life. Interestingly, it was their attitudes which caused their problems; excessive fear of judgement in low intelligence-high creativity children and excessive fear of making mistakes in high intelligence-low creativity children. Researchers suggested that attitude training could rectify their disadvantages. As I have argued elsewhere, psychotherapy can give us an insight into the link between creative frustration and destructive behaviour.

Increasingly, as Lent argues, government must think of itself as a platform for the creative endeavour of millions rather than the direct providers of solutions. But this is not the same as a laissez-faire approach. This cannot happen without assistance and requires individuals to learn the skills of creative intelligence, to activate their power to create successfully. This means building self-confidence, often cited as a barrier to creative flourishing and our ability to turn this into cash.

At a time when parts of the economy are moving away from human expertise to one dominated by intelligent machines, creativity was selected as the most crucial factor for future success in a survey of 1500 CEOs from 60 countries. Creativity is one human skill that computers cannot, as yet, compete with. It is our evolutionary advantage.

A qualified barrister, Caroline Wiseman has been a dealer in modern art for the past 30 years, living and working in London and New York. She now runs the Aldeburgh Beach Lookout, a tiny temple of creativity. 
She is a Visiting Senior Fellow at UCS, University Campus Suffolk and an Ambassador for the Princes Trust.

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