Herman Kruyder painted this self portrait for a 1917 exhibition. Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

How the human got his paintbrush

What can evolution tell us, if anything, about human achievements in the arts? Not as much as EO Wilson thinks
October 9, 2017

Edward O Wilson, the octogenarian Harvard biologist and ethologist, is one of the most productive, broad-thinking and important scientists of the past century. The central question of his work is why animals do what they do, and how evolution has shaped their behaviour. His new book, The Origins of Creativity, seeks to draw lessons from that understanding about “the unique and defining trait of our species”: creativity, which he defines, not without controversy, as “the innate quest for originality.”

Like Charles Darwin, Wilson’s research has mainly focused on non-human behaviour. His specialism is social insects, especially ants. His monumental book The Ants (1991), written with fellow myrmecologist Bert Hölldobler, won a Pulitzer Prize—his second such award—a testament to the fact that Wilson writes as eloquently as he thinks.

His first Pulitzer was for On Human Nature (1978), in which his readiness to generalise the lessons of natural history to humankind made him both influential and notorious. He was a pioneer of evolutionary psychology, which explains our impulses and instincts from a Darwinian perspective. These are, in this view, hardwired into our brains because of the reproductive success they conferred on our ancestors.

Public resistance to this idea, which he called “sociobiology,” has been widespread and vociferous. In the 1970s, Wilson was denounced as a crypto-fascist who was attempting to offer scientific justification for racism, sexism and bigotry. There were demonstrations at his lectures; during one talk he had water poured over his head.

The opposition wrongly assumed that sociobiology presented a rigidly deterministic view in which everything we do is preordained by genes. While there is reason to believe that much human behaviour—sex drive, aggression, violence and tribalism, as well as altruism and the nurturing of offspring—is instilled by evolutionary demands, genes are not destiny and our autonomy and free will are not at stake. What’s more, Wilson and his associates never made the mistake identified by David Hume of confusing what “is” the case with what “ought” to be.

This debate didn’t start with sociobiology, of course. In The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin examined the consequences of his evolutionary theory for human nature. Quite how this approach acquired its taint, especially in the eyes of left-wingers, is a complex story. It wasn’t helped by the racist essentialism of Nazism, with which the Nobel-winning ethologist Konrad Lorenz, the author of On Aggression (1963), sympathised. It’s also true that evolutionary psychology lends itself, in careless or biased hands, to the shoring up of prejudice about, say, gender roles.

But Wilson is more concerned with the better angels of our nature: altruism and our ability, like ants, to co-operate in groups. This remains a controversial issue among biologists. For the past few years, Wilson has disagreed with Richard Dawkins about “group selection.” Five years ago in a review in Prospect of Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, Dawkins thundered that Wilson’s belief that natural selection happens at the level of the group rather than the individual (or the gene) was “erroneous and downright perverse,” and that his book “should be thrown [aside] with great force.”

Dawkins believes that the “modern synthesis” of Darwinism and genetics explains altruism adequately. If behaviour is ultimately determined by what best supports the propagation of the gene, then individuals will be predisposed to help those with whom they have a close genetic relation: kin, not strangers. The degree of altruism is proportionate to that of kinship, an idea called inclusive fitness that was neatly summed up in a quote attributed to the biologist JBS Haldane: “I would gladly give up my life for two brothers or eight cousins.”

In this view, the social co-operation of some insects is explained by the fact that all individuals in a colony are part of the same genetically-related family. It also fits with our instinct to defend close family, especially our children (who will share our genes) before others. Sure, say kin selectionists like Dawkins, human culture can modify this instinct to give us a wider altruistic sense; but the origin is in the (selfish) genes.

Wilson argues that co-operation can arise among members of a social group irrespective of their genetic overlap—because this too gives them an adaptive advantage. The argument does not simply flatter us that we are better than our selfish genes; it is supported by rigorous mathematical modelling of genetic evolution. According to this view, Dawkins is wedded to an obsolete dogma, his models rooted in otiose simplifications. Wilson, once a staunch opponent of group selection until he dramatically changed his mind over the past decade or so (how many scientists will do that in the twilight of their career?), insists that there is no good evidence for the proportionality between kinship and altruistic instinct that inclusive fitness theory demands.

Frustratingly, both sides seem more interested in trashing each other’s perspective than understanding it. For there is more than science at stake. To Dawkins, a gene’s-eye view of all evolutionary change is the currency of his success and reputation. Many evolutionary biologists, however, accept that natural selection can happen at many levels, not just the genetic. At the group level, it seems possible that cooperation between individuals not closely linked by kinship may sometimes boost their reproductive success. This modern version of group selection, however, if it happens at all, is probably rather rare—except in one species in which complex cultures create a propensity for selective pressure to depend on the specific circumstances of the group. That species is us.

The Origins of Creativity shows why group selection matters so much to Wilson: because it enables a close and two-way interplay between evolutionary biology and culture. “It is impossible to overestimate the importance of group selection to both science and the humanities, and further, to the foundation of moral and political reasoning,” he writes.

Yet this book has in fact relatively little to say about its ostensible subject, and none of it is new. One might charitably ascribe this lack to Wilson’s wisdom: he is more cautious than some of his peers about speculative “Just So” stories in evolutionary psychology, which make plausible but untestable assertions about how this or that human attribute served an adaptive purpose.

Music is a good example. It arose, according to various theories, as a form of group bonding, or as an offshoot of vocalisations signifying emotional messages (such as warning calls), or from the instinctive tenor of mother-infant communication. Or, Darwin’s favourite interpretation, as a form of sexual selection like the peacock’s tail, a useless or even encumbering display that signalled superior fitness (“I can do this wasteful thing and still survive!”). All these stories are possible and they are not mutually exclusive—but they are awfully hard to test, beyond cultural anecdote (how the ladies swooned over Liszt!) More importantly, they tell us little about creativity as such.

Comparisons with other animals can be misleading. Male songbirds learn their songs, but they also innovate, putting together stock phrases in new ways. It’s not clear if this is adaptive behaviour: some individuals might benefit in competition for mates by standing out from the crowd, but there’s evidence too that the changes are random and generally have no, or even negative, effects on their prospects for mating. And anyway, there is no indication that birdsong has the kind of syntax, with a hierarchy of structures and relationships, that gives music its coherence; it is a mere shuffling of sounds aimed at capturing the attention. In such ways it can be very hard to connect creativity in humans—however one chooses to define that slippery notion—with animal behaviour.

But it’s not so much with creativity that Wilson is concerned; he seeks to understand the functions of the arts and humanities more generally. This book is a continuation—in some respects an appealingly streamlined précis—of his agenda in Consilience (1998), in which he set himself the ambitious task of demonstrating “the unity of knowledge.”

That earlier book was deeply informed about what makes creatures do what they do, from genes to societies; it displayed a sensitivity to the arts rare in scientific circles. And yet the argument was oddly redolent of scientism, with its implication that only a scientific grounding enables us to comprehend the arts. This attitude persists in The Origins of Creativity. “Until a better picture can be drawn of prehistory, and by that means the evolutionary steps that led to present-day human nature can be clarified,” Wilson writes, “the humanities will remain rootless.”

This leads to some peculiar assertions. When Wilson writes that “the main shortcoming of humanistic scholarship is its extreme anthropocentrism,” it isn’t clear if he intends it as a deliberately provocative tautology—but I fear not. The complaint that “meaning is… valued exclusively in human terms” is the cri de coeur of a naturalist who is passionate about biodiversity and the intrinsic worth—almost in a sacred sense—of the natural world. Wilson is right to protest against our solipsistic disregard for and abuse of it. But that motivates an odd perspective on the arts. We see them, says Wilson, within a “bubble of sensory experience” that neglects all we can’t perceive: ultrasound, infrared, electrical sensing, smells. Quite why superhuman senses would transform the arts, he doesn’t say.

More importantly, knowing the biological “reasons” for our “distinctive traits” promises little for our appreciation of creative arts. The least interesting thing about Oedipus Rex is that a taboo against incest stems from its deleterious impact on the gene pool. We do not need neo-Darwinism to explain why mother-son sexual relationships are a bad idea, and Sophocles did not write the play to remind us of that. The story is an exploration of the cultural anxiety that incest provokes, and if it is anthropocentric, that is because human society is precisely what it is about.

Wilson seems to share the common prejudice among scientists that art and  criticism are “merely subjective,” and thus arbitrary—or at risk of becoming so, without roots in science. He cites as evidence of the way “the insights easily slide across the surface and off target,” an interpretation by Wallace Stevens of Picasso’s cubism that is at odds with what Picasso himself said about it. But not only does this say nothing much more than that critics can sometimes get the wrong end of the stick, it also makes the mistake of thinking that in the arts, as in the sciences, questions have definite answers that are reached by assembling the objective “evidence.” Artists are unreliable commentators on their own work, and the best art has a meaning that is not exhausted either by what the artist says or by the context. Frankenstein or Hamlet, or indeed Oedipus Rex, exceed their origins. The role of the critic is not to explain like a scientist but to stimulate new thoughts and ways of seeing.

Wilson is right to suggest that ignorance of biology (and of science more broadly) can create problems for the arts. The elitist contempt with which serialist composers of the 1950s and 60s sometimes greeted the public’s struggle to warm to their music took no account of the way the cognitive principles of music perception made it objectively harder to process, and in some cases incoherent in a conventional musical sense—it wasn’t just about the audience’s “ignorance.” But the suggestion that there is some “ideal” that will trigger our biologically endowed critical faculties is anathema to creativity. Wilson makes much of the alleged preference in landscape images for the high view of a savannah, nurtured by a watercourse, that is said to be adaptively hardwired from the dawn of Homo sapiens. The evidence for such a preference is open to debate; but even if it is valid, what message exists for the landscape painter? What does it tell us about Henri Rousseau’s dense jungles, Monet’s lily ponds, Turner’s operatic sunsets, Peter Doig’s mystic forests?

Wilson rephrases the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky’s famous dictum about biology: “Nothing in science and the humanities makes sense except in the light of evolution.” This is uncharacteristically reckless. It’s trivial enough to say that evolution sheds little light on the theory of general relativity; more importantly, “makes sense” is fatally compromised in the arts. Where is the “sense” in John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme? Evolution enabled Coltrane to create it, and me to hear it as something coherent, and this is important and (to me) interesting. But sense is elsewhere. Wilson quotes with approval Daniel Dennett’s assertion that natural selection is “the acid that burns through every myth about ordained purposes and meanings.” As long as the idea persists that myth, purpose and meaning are things to be burned away by the acid of scientific reason, evolution and science will be silent about creativity.

The Origins of Creativity by Edward O Wilson is published by Allen Lane (£20)