Review of The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World
Catapult, UK, 2017
n/a pp. Trade, $28.00
Although creating a mess is not qualitatively the same as creating an original mathematical equation, what the word ‘creating’ denotes in each case is nonetheless clear. I cannot answer why we easily comprehend the meaning in both instances, but I do know that creativity’s amorphous and multidimensional reality is tantalizing even if our use of the word spans a spectrum of activities. In terms of discovery and human psychology, a good touchstone is a graphic that the creativity researcher Robert Sternberg put together titled “Cognitive Characteristic of Creative Persons” . In it he summarizes the views of 16 authors who contributed to an anthology he edited on this subject in 1988. One striking feature of the chart is that each author stressed multiple traits and yet no single trait was postulated by every one of the renowned contributors. Among them were Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Howard Gardner, Howard Gruber, and Dean Simonton. Equally striking 30 years later is that the distribution of the 20 relevant characteristics they identified seems dated now. Nine of the experts, the second highest number for any trait, argued for specialization (or creativity in a particular domain) in 1988. Given the emphasis on transdisciplinary work in the 21st century, I would guess that this factor would not rank as high today. By contrast, the top characteristic, stressed by 11 of the 16 authors, seems to still hold. This is the use of existing knowledge as a basis for new ideas. Even so, at under 70% it was nonetheless not universally chosen.
Given the evidence that creativity evokes an array of responses, bringing its amorphous quality into focus is no doubt a creative exercise in and of itself. Consequently, I was excited to learn that Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman recently released a contribution to the field, The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World. It seemed likely that their collaborative study would offer many morsels to chew on in exploring the elusive nature of creativity, particularly since Anthony Brandt is a composer and David Eagleman a neurologist. Early in the book they explain that the volume grew out of a dialogue between them that has been ongoing for many years.
While this book may have come out of this extended conversation, the end result suggests it served more as an add-on to their shared interests than an impetus to deepen the discussion. I say this because, to my disappointment, the volume lacks depth and breaks no new ground. The authors fail to actually probe the how and why of creative people instead offering truisms and generalizations as they essentially catalog many successful (and failed) projects intended to celebrate human endeavor. The sum total brings to mind the famous Sidney Harris cartoon where two mathematicians are standing in front of a chalkboard showing three steps. Step one is a complicated mathematical formula and step three is the solution to that complicated formula. Step two is simply the words, “then a miracle occurs.“ One of the mathematicians is pointing to step two and the caption reads: ““I think you should be more explicit here in step two.”
The beginnings seemed promising. Paralleling NASA’s response to problems impacting the Apollo 13 mission and Picasso’s creation of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), they state that:
“The human brain doesn’t passively take in experience like a recorder; instead, it constantly works over the sensory data it receives — and the fruit of that mental labor is new versions of the world. The basic cognitive software of brains — which drinks in the milieu and procreates new versions —gives rise to everything that surrounds us. … This book is about that creative software: how it works, why we have it, what we make, and where it’s taking us. We’ll show how the desire to violate our own expectations leads to the runaway inventiveness of our species. By looking at a tapestry of the arts, science, and technology, we’ll see the threads of innovation that link disciplines.” (p.7)
Yet, and despite the blurb of the book claiming the volume combines the latest understanding of the inner workings of the brain with inventions of human society, this isn’t the case. When the brain is mentioned at all, the references are so overly simplified that they are virtually invisible. Part of this is because, as the authors explain, it is not their intention to look at the brain functionally:
“We’ve all seen models in which the brain is presented as a map with clear territories: this region does this while that region does that. But that model ignores the most important aspect of human brains: neurons connect promiscuously, such that no brain region works alone; instead, like a society, regions work in a constant hubbub or crosstalk and negotiation and cooperation. As we’ve seen this widespread interaction is the neurological underpinning of human creativity.” (p.50)
Actually, we have not seen this at all when they make the statement. Essentially, their explanation is more along the line of humans innovate because they have a drive to innovate. For example, “innovation will never stop. It’s never about the right thing; it’s about the next thing” (p. 15). The why of this is because the brain is restless. Or, as they put it:
“The innovative drive lives in every human brain, and the resulting war against the repetitive is what powers the colossal changes that distinguish one generation from the next, one decade from the next, one year from the next. The drive to create the new is part of our biological make-up. We build cultures by the hundreds and new stories by the millions.” (p. 32)
While excitingly elaborated, the essence of the explanation is no more cogent than Aristotle’s explanation that things move because they have an inbuilt tendency to move. Part I, titled New Under the Sun, introduces their “bending, breaking, and blending” thesis. Bending is the first of the three legs discussed. This approach is a makeover of an existing prototype through alterations in size, shape, material, speed, chronology, and so forth. Examples emphasize how variations offer an array of perspectives. Claude Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series and Roy Lichtenstein’s homage to it offer compelling variety in that no two of the paintings are alike despite depicting the architecture from the same angle for each. Also, Claus Oldenburg crafted soft sculpture of things that we usually experience as hard or solid. Even time can be bent, they argue.
Breaking, unlike bending, is when you take something apart and assemble the fragments into something new. Barnett Newman, for example, snapped an obelisk in half and flipped it upside down to create his Broken Obelisk. Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso broke apart the visual plane with Cubism. Frederick Sanger, who won two Nobel Prizes, was able to ascertain the building blocks of insulin after he discerned that chopping the molecules into more manageable pieces would offer a path to figure out the structure of proteins. This was followed by a method of breaking up DNA that he used to precisely control how and when strands were broken.
Whereas bending and breaking operate on a single source, they define blending as occurring when the brain combines two or more sources in novel ways. Genetic engineering is one topic in this section. Another project focuses on chemists who blended microorganisms and building materials so that cracks in buildings would heal themselves. Google Translate, too, is presented as a form of blending because it does a word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase search of its database in an effort to match a request. This is a stretch in my view because this algorithmic approach doesn’t represent blending in any meaningful human sense.
In terms of the brain, here, too, we are presented only with superficial generalities. The authors tell us that “[t]he brain’s penchant for blending different concepts is reflected in how we communicate” (p.96) and “[h]uman brains often blend many sources together at once” (p. 98). Also, “[b]rains constantly wander through our storehouse of experiences, and they often link ideas through far-flung connections” (p. 102). The problem isn’t that these kinds of tropes are often found in discussions of creativity. Rather, and more to the point, the concepts were not unpacked in a full-throated way and as presented had little to do with the brain per se.
Part II, The Creative Mentality, discusses novelty, risk-taking, and options. Although they mention brain plasticity in one paragraph, the thrust of this rather short section is the kind of generality that diffuses probing interpretations. Critical analysis is clearly not their forte: “A lifetime of creativity helps to maintain this [the brain’s] flexibility. When we refashion the world around us, we also remodel ourselves” (p. 186). Suffice it to say, there are endless examples to demonstrate that things change, that both artists and scientists remodel the world, and that creative people often step outside of their culture’s tradition. For people who are simply looking for lists of “oh wow” examples, this kind of survey probably is fine. I found the explanation of the lists with comments like “[h]umankind constantly renews itself by breaking good” (p. 144) insufficient. Platitudes like “generating options is the core of the creative process” offer little new. The value of error, often stressed, seems to exist in a void: “Error is to be embraced, not avoided. In automated behavior, error is failure; in creative thinking, it is a necessity” (p. 161).
Part III turns to cultivating creativity, with chapters on creative companies, the creative school, and looking into the future. One paragraph in “The Creative Company” section illuminates the passion for lists evident throughout the book:
“[M]any good ideas die. In the early days of the automobile many car manufacturers failed, including ABC, Acme, Adams-Farwell, Aerocar, Albany, ALCO, American Napier, American Underslung, Anderson, Anhut, Ardsley, Argonne, and Atlas — and that’s just the As. In the realm of video games, Sears Tele-Games systems, Tandyvision Vectrex, and Baily Astrocade all fell by the wayside when the industry contracted in 1983. When the dot.com bubble burst in 2000, companies like Boo.com, Freeinternet.com, Garden.com, Open.com, Flooz.com, and Pets.com went under, costing investors hundreds of millions of dollars. Biotech companies have a 90 percent failure rate: in recent years, Satori, Dendreon, KaloBios, and NuOrtho are among the large companies that have gone belly up.” (p. 190)
This third part, like the earlier ones, celebrates imagination, noting that the human ability to ask “what-if” is a key component of creativity. Yet the imaginative is stressed to such a degree that this reader felt they neglected the value of technical learning and developing a skill set that that can implement creative ideas. They seem to take these things for granted. To my mind, the stress on “what-ifs” needed to also address that imagination and reality are not the same. For example, the kind of creativity that drove the NASA engineers to find a solution to prevent a pending disaster facing astronauts in outer space is not of the same quality as a fictional book that might postulate this kind of event.
As I read a few elements of the book stood out, in particular, although they are not all of the same quality. One element that bothered me was that all innovation was painted with the same “oh wow” type of brush. I would have, for example, liked some discussion of the ethical dimension that surrounds some of the projects discussed. One example is of biologists who have created a Neanderthal stem cell and claim it could be implanted in the womb of a compatible female host. When innovations are introduced without any sense of whether there is an ethical dimension and/or how the innovation would fit within the world at-large, I am inclined to think important components are missing.
I also was put off by mistakes and “alternative facts”. Perhaps it isn’t a big deal in the scheme of things that they decided Kitty Hawk was the name of the Wright brothers plane rather than that their plane, The Wright Flyer, was tested at Kitty Hawk hill. I do, however, object to their alternative facts when discussing something more consequential and complex such as Vincent Van Gogh’s creativity. As noted above they assert that no brain region works alone and “instead, like a society, regions work in a constant hubbub or crosstalk and negotiation and cooperation.” They use this concept to craft Van Gogh’s story, telling us that “A reigning misconception suggests that creative artists function best when they turn their backs on the world” (p. 29). Their example is Vincent van Gogh who, to their minds, is incorrectly represented when cast as a model of the go-it-alone artist, chronically cut off from his or her peers. Indeed, they claim this concept creates a somewhat mythical creature:
“Few figures epitomize the lone artist more than Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. He lived in the shadows of the artistic establishment and sold few paintings in his lifetime. But a close look at his life tells a story of someone engaged with his peers. He corresponded with many young artists in letters filled with shoptalk and unvarnished critiques of other painters.… So why do people still say that Van Gogh was a splendid isolationist? Because it feeds into a satisfying story about the fountainhead of his genius. But the story is a myth. Neither a misfit nor a loner, he was an active participant in this time.”Having read the pathos in so many of his letters it is quite clear that his yearning to be an active participant did not make it so. Even the van Gogh Museum site — an institution devoted to the artist’s legacy — recognizes that he felt isolated and his efforts to form social connections often failed. The museum page reads:
“However, both in his personal contacts and exchanges of letters Van Gogh rarely succeeded in making the relationships flourish. As in his relations with his family, his friendships were not always proof against criticism and differences of opinion, and they often ended in quarrels.” 
Suffice it to say that in my view this book’s account of Van Gogh misses on two fronts. First, Van Gogh is frequently characterized as a misfit for valid reasons. In addition, it is unclear to what extent his communication difficulties became the source of his artistic inspiration. Changing his story so as to pronounce him an active participant in his time puts aside key components of his human psychology in relation to society. This in turn strikes me as a disservice in probing his creativity. Of course, even more complex elements like the litany of neurological conditions authors have ascribed to him are worth considering as well.
In summary, the discussions in The Runaway Species are limited in value, particularly in relation to the brain and how the individual and society come together. Human psychology, learning, intergenerational learning, and discovery are only vaguely addressed and the lists upon lists of creative projects seem to subsume rather than illuminate the nuances of creativity. This is a book for those looking for page after page celebrating a range of ingenious human endeavors rather than a critical or scientific analysis. Whereas I was hoping that the book would inspire me to examine my thinking about creativity; it did not.
The authors themselves summed up the result in an interview they did to promote the publication. When asked if there are neurological correlates for bending, blending, and breaking, Eagleman responded: “It is not clear at this moment in time how the brain does this. There’s so much at this point that we still don’t know. It’s not a very basic question like, how are inputs stored? It’s something that awaits the better technology and future discoveries.” The interviewer then asked, “Can you really separate these three techniques?” The authors both answered,
Brandt: “Our argument would be that those three cognitive strategies are always intertwined. It’s not that they so much exist in a pure form, but you can highlight the presence of one or the other as being really important for a particular thing. It’s hard to in real life separate them out.”
Eagleman: “This is the basic cognitive software that’s running under the hood. The thing that we value about our computers is that we stick a file in and when we pull it out two years later it’s exactly the same zeros and ones. But the really wonderful part of the human brain is that you put information in there and it gets all smushed up with other information, and blended, and broken with other things and then we’re constantly generating this stream of novelty that way.” 
Hearing this explanation clarified why the book disappointed me. Indeed, the information about creativity seemed “all smushed up” in this book rather than presented so as to elucidate the concept.
- Sternberg, R. J., Ed. (1988). The Nature of Creativity: Contemporary Psychological Perspectives. Cambridge; New York, Cambridge University Press.
- See http://vangoghletters.org/vg/correspondents_3.html
- See https://www.theverge.com/2017/11/5/16597660/david-eagleman-anthony-brandt-runaway-species-creativity-neuroscience-psychology-design-interview.