conversation about creativity

At my work, our amazing new boss shared this article with staff back in January. He said a friend sent the article, “Infinite Stupidity” by Mark Pagel to him, and he wanted to have a conversation about it.
I read it and felt a bit flabbergasted.
You can read it here:
(I copy a few paragraphs from the article here in the post.)
The article made me need to talk about it. I turned to my friend, Peter, who reads many science writers, and doesn’t mind conveying their message to me. And this time, he didn’t let me down. I wanted to share his excellent thinking over here at Color of Sand. And here is the conversation which preceded it. Thanks Peter for allowing me share it.
Here is an article for you ^
tell me what you think sometime.
On Jan 31, 2012, at 12:20 PM, Callen Peter wrote:I read the article, and it is a lot of opinion, mixed in with scientific research into bio-genetics of the human race and its subsequent and recent “cultural evolution”, but I don’t agree with main premise of “infinitely stupid”, in fact, I think stupidity by its  “nature” is limiting and limited.  I came up with a bumper sticker saying a while back, “Fortunately, Stupidity is Limited” during the Bush years.  In the Buddhist view, ignorance(stupidity), greed, and avarice are unending in themselves, but can be overcome with wisdom(education), generosity, and compassion.  In other words, negatives can be infinite in themselves, but not in the greater context of reality.So thats what I think, what say you?Peter Callen
Pathways – Wildlife Corridors of NM

Pedro,Thanks so much for sharing your opinion – you share a viewpoint that didn’t even occur to me – the view of “stupidity” in itself. I am relieved to hear you say that his views are “opinion.” Somehow, when I hear someone talking from the point of view of being a scientist, even though I am skeptical, I guess I figure there’s a lot of science I don’t know, so I believe more of what someone, like this guy, would say … ha ha.I doubted his rationale – I felt he needed a whole second paper, a second exploration that would test his hypothesis on already existing ANTI-Establishment roles in society – like spiritual practice, self-expression (art poetry music, etc), the practice of observation/science … I kept thinking that he is not expressing who me and my friends are – whose motivations are to try to NOT be conventional, and are to try to be true to ones’ own process, path, vision, meaning. The role of hallucinogens, for example, that take you out of that plane of the day-to-day. Because some of us like to invent. A lot of us. And it’s where “critical thinking” comes to play.I have been thinking about the whole idea of randomness, and I actually can agree with that some. But I do have to say that sometimes synchronicity does happen!

Will end there!
Thanks again!

p.s. These were some paragraphs I just gathered to help me remember …

“But the key point about social learning is that this minor difference between us and the other species forms an unbridgeable gap between us and them. Because, whereas all of the other animals can pick up the odd behavior by having their attention called to something, only humans seem to be able to select, among a range of alternatives, the best one, and then to build on that alternative, and to adapt it, and to improve upon it. “

“Social learning is a way of sifting among a range of alternative options or ideas, and choosing the best one of those. And so, we see a direct comparison between social learning driving idea evolution, by selecting the best ideas –we copy people that we think are successful, we copy good ideas, and we try to improve upon them — and natural selection, driving genetic evolution within societies, or within populations.”

“We like to think we’re a highly inventive, innovative species. But social learning means that most of us can make use of what other people do, and not have to invest the time and energy in innovation ourselves.”

“Now, why wouldn’t we want to do that? Why wouldn’t we want to innovate on our own? Well, innovation is difficult. It takes time. It takes energy. Most of the things we try to do, we get wrong. And so, if we can survey, if we can sift among a range of alternatives of people in our population, and choose the best one that’s going at any particular moment, we don’t have to pay the costs of innovation, the time and energy ourselves. And so, we may have had strong selection in our past to be followers, to be copiers, rather than innovators.”

Hi cc,More about Mark P., if you can stand any more.

I really didn’t care for his global assumptions and broad characterizations, which boil down to his general worry about us becoming “docile copiers”. He begins the assumptions by talking about human intelligence in regards to creativity and “social intelligence”.  First off, these things are very subjective, hard to measure, and all in all, don’t mean that much.  A great capacity for intellect is one thing, but the real value of intellect is in its ability to:

1. teach others a less painful way to do things.

2. increase resources

3. have compassionate feeling as a goal.

These criteria of intelligence don’t necessarily require an increase in intelligence, an old way of ancient intelligence may work just fine forever.

I can understand that there is a lot of “easy” knowledge these days in Googling something, I do that a lot, but it only gets you so far, and not nearly as good as reading a good book or brilliant poetry.  Let me just launch into a full blown critique here, including referring to what I think is a much better (its a book) take on the subject by E.O. Wilson in his book “Consilience”.

First of all, what he’s calling “cultural evolution” isn’t really evolution at all, not in the genetic sense.  Our genes are almost identical to our Pleistocene ancestors.  The glacially (literally) slow pace of genetic evolution was matched by cultural norms and codes up until then, when we started progressing much faster in our brains than our genes.  Thats when we started putting taboos and social contracts in place, which are so deep in themselves it was hard to tease them apart from the genetic rules.  One way to see the horror (to our contemporary minds) of that difference, is to see how much and how quickly, in one human generation, all those 50,000 years of societal norms are swept away when the family unit totally breaks down, as in the case of street children in Brazil, or the drug gangs of Mexico.  This just shows how much investment in energy we put in to maintain those social contracts, polite behavior, appropriate behavior, legal behavior.  Even so, we still go behind closed doors to practice infanticide, bigamy, incest, murder, and there are even laws against altruism – giving away food or services that “compete” with businesses that are charging money for these things..  There is also difficulty in legal adoption, and big $ all out proportion to reason when it comes to social status.  This is all to show how close we still are to those old rules, and how much effort it takes just to maintain our social contracts, forget about being creative or innovative!

Mark P. seems to think we have not thought anything through, but seem to just randomly come up with new ideas.  Part of this line of thinking comes from the assumption that people are trying to come up with new ideas, which implies they have a problem they want to solve.  There are no “new” problems for the human race, in a way, we’ve already dealt with all the big stuff already, so we just use one of the standard methods and keep going.  People don’t really want to see new problems, its easier to say, “that is a solution for which there is no problem”.  Its hard to innovate for this reason, there is resistance to change the old methods.  So maybe its not so much seeing new solutions or coming up with innovation, but an ability to say, ” this is hard, we are suffering”.  (or, “this might be a problem, there might be an easier way”).  The other problem with innovation is expense.  Other than altruistic motivations, the way to compensate for increased expense is to increase payback (resources).  There may be cultural taboos on increasing resources, but (this) also means an increase in status, which is a hard genetic compulsion to resist, so there are equally strong social contracts to combat them (be a good liberal, don’t consume).

So there are some strong negative feedbacks on innovation, not just that we are becoming “docile copiers”.  But the real problem with Pagel’s worry is that its such a shallow mental argument.  To “get something” by copying it is not so “docile” as he says.  To really get anything out of copying can take a lifetime of discipline.  There a plenty of things that are very difficult to copy, even when you see them over and over.  Try to copy a professional gymnast, or a doctor, or anyone who has acquired a great skill.

When you look at how much these people are “copied”, the word copy becomes trite.  It is not “copying” to become a doctor, or acquire a great skill.  To reduce human learning to such is just a gross oversimplification.

The consilience of social studies into the other sciences is a long way off though, and it shows how far we have to go in understanding our “human-ness” in a scientific way.

—Peter Callen



Our Museum Director’s intention was to stimulate a conversation about how to inspire humans to think creatively.  He explained, the day we discussed the article, the role of a museum is to cause a visitor to leave feeling engaged and enlightened and in touch with a sense of inventiveness.  Mark Pagel’s “Infinite Stupidity” got us talking about human capacity to be creative, and how important it is to us.


6 Responses to “conversation about creativity”

  1. February 27, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    Thomas Edison wrote: “Opportunity is often missed because it comes dressed in overalls and is called ‘work.'” Edison and his laboratory turned out thousands of inventions. A very good excerpt on innovation and social learning you have put here, Cirrelda. If we integrate lessons, we gotta make sure they come from respectable sources. Being creative is trial and error for sure. Your director stimulated conversation I am sure. Thanks.

    • February 28, 2012 at 8:20 am

      What a great quote by Edison – had never heard it before. Thanks for sharing it.

      From what I know about you, Jack, I thought you would have discussed this topic before. Thanks for coming over and speaking your mind about it.

      When we do what Mark Pagel talks about – copying, we reflect our own choices, our own scruples. Respectable sources are reflected by respectable folks. (Respect – now there is a very important behavior in all of this!) When I am in a leadership position with folks doing art, I talk about copying. Usually teachers say, ‘Thou shalt not copy.’ (Especially on exams!) Do your own work. Of course! However, in a class of creating, I say, ‘If you see an idea someone else has that you want to do, you end up making it your own.’ In the best of worlds.

      There is the outright copying without putting your own into it, and then there is being inspired by someone’s idea. The ‘being inspired’ kind is what you want to encourage. And then, getting that person to see how their own version comes about, and appreciate it. I think the element of ‘respect’ will make one give credit when they copy, for sure, and that is the way to do it. “Adapted by.”

      How much do we do what we do because of what others are doing?

      How can we better tune-in to our own inner Muse?

      Gotta go to work.

  2. March 11, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    I confess I didn’t have the patience to carefully read the entire article, but I did go to the original, and came away thinking both “yes” and “no”. One or two thoughts:

    There’s no question social media are affecting the way information is passed on. And there’s no question that originality isn’t much of an issue there, especially when it comes to Twitter trending topics, Tumblr, viral videos, and so on.

    I left Facebook some months ago. My only social media involvement now is some minimal use of Twitter. One reason is time, but the other, more important, is a desire to hone my creativity. It’s a commonplace that we should tend carefully to the voices we listen to, because the words we hear will become the worlds we speak. In my writing, I wish my voice to be the voice heard. Ergo: I listen more to myself than to others. I don’t want to write your story, or Jack’s. I want to write my own. That means I need to know my own voice.

    At one point, I just laughed. He asked, rhetorically, “Do we know the answers to the important questions? What house we should buy? Which person to marry? ” and so on. His conclusion was that we don’t – and I couldn’t help but wonder, what world does this man live in? Of course I know the answers to the important questions in my own life – and when or if I don’t, I get busy and discover the answers for myself.

    Sometimes, what passes for stupidity is simple laziness. ;)

    It’s a very interesting topic. There’s an article I’ll bring back for you, if I can find it again. It was written by a woman who was, I believe, the head of Harvard Business School, and it’s about creativity. I’ve long thought the perfect metaphor for the creative process is a kaleidoscope, and she also points out its virtues. Right now I can’t even remember her name, but I’ll find it & bring you a link.

    • March 12, 2012 at 9:56 am

      Thank you, Linda, for bringing your careful thought to this issue. I like hearing your perspective. I laugh with you as you ask, “What world does this man live on?” – right-ee-oh, Linda!

  3. March 11, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    Oh – and as for copying? Nothing is more infuriating to me. I’ve had “essay mills” lift some of my blog posts to sell to students, and I’ve had to go after sites in Italy, Russia and the US that have scraped my material for their money-making blogs. I spend hours on many of my posts – days, sometimes. If anyone is inspired by what I do, good. If someone steals it in order to build on it or publish it as their own – there’s a take-down notice coming.

    Some people say, “If you put it on the web, you get what you deserve. It’s open season”. I don’t believe that.

    There’s an interesting article in the NYT about aggregators and the proposals that are coming out of the SXSW event in Austin. You can read that here.

    • March 12, 2012 at 10:04 am

      Well, this argument is definitely going to affect my later comments to young persons about copying. I still hold on to my observations of how an idea gets passed along in a group – and how folks should not simply squelch their impulse if they feel drawn to someone else’s idea. But I hear you loud and clear about the unjust situation you have encountered. Good for you for going after them – and more of us need to be aware of how much this is happening – and tener cuidado – take care to do things to combat it …

      I guess I forgot about the time when I did a google search on my name once, and found that a poem of mine from an online poetry publishing site was used for a university poetry class – they had never contacted me for permission. It is almost like we need a huge reminder sign – I know Jack does it … being in Academe, he is very aware of pilfering.

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