The Origins of Creativity by Edward O. Wilson
E. O. Wilson is professor emeritus from Harvard, originally renowned as the world’s foremost expert on ants. He’s an entomologist, beyond that a naturalist, and beyond that a student of the human condition, still vibrant at the age of 88. We previously reviewed one of his recent books, Half-Earth, which advocates setting aside half of all the earth to preserve biodiversity. We should learn to live on the other half.
The Origins of Creativity is the latest of a series of books on saving ourselves along with the environment. Given our evolutionary history, Wilson proposes that we blend the humanities with science in order to understand mankind more deeply. Do this and he thinks that we might be able to enter a “Third Enlightenment:” humans genetically designed to live in the wild learn to culturally adapt to a much more complex, biologically threatened world.
An underlying question is why and how homo sapiens evolved at all. Nature created no other resource-gobbling creature like us. The next question is how homo sapiens must continue to evolve in order to survive as a species. Evolution has to be fast, through cultural learning; genetic adaptation is too slow. Nature has previously wiped out 98% of all species that ever existed, displacing them with new species. There is no reason to presume that we are special.
Wilson traces human evolution and how homo sapiens deviated from other primates. All are able to set goals and plan, up to a point. All empathize with others of their own species and other species; their lives are an interplay between cooperation and competition. And all learn by imitation. Innovation is mostly by happy accident.
Mankind is the only ape that developed the imagination and symbolism to be creative, to see possibilities that do not exist, to create music, art, and theater – to ponder the why of our own existence and to engage in scientific enquiry. Civilization exists because we have used our creativity. Now, to survive we must learn to use creativity and all our other abilities much more effectively. Our deepest need is to creatively consider “everything” in order to understand and modify ourselves. We have no predators except ourselves.
Humanity has been driven to dominate earth, constrained only by competing nations, organized religions, and other selfish collectives like big companies. We are tribal creatures. Our empathy for those outside our own tribe constricts considerably, but not completely. (How to form a “tribe of the whole” is a great question, asked but not answered in the final chapter of Compression.)
Science is not going to answer that question by force of logic. In the main, science consists of dispassionate, fragmented disciplines that are inhibited talking to each other, much less the public. Overwhelmed, we are choking on information, but starved for wisdom to draw it together and fuse it with our emotions – with our humanity, for lack of a better term. Wilson cites “Urizon,” William Blake’s evil god who invented science to force mankind into a single way of thinking. He doesn’t mention the tale of the Tower of Babel; confounded by speaking separate languages, its builders could never finish it.
In education, perhaps the humanities have been neglected because they have failed to develop beyond the bubble of our historic experiences. Wilson notes that the themes of modern movies and other arts, while well done, are twists on metaphors and archetypes that have characterized human drama for millennia. Science has escaped the bubble of our limited senses, but the humanities and all our creative story telling have not. Even in science fiction, we’re still the same old us in highly technical settings.
To this reviewer, Wilson’s proposals to remedy this conundrum remain murky, confined to artistic people becoming better grounded in how nature actually works when emotionally portraying what we really are, our flawed humanity with its built-in warts and ironic conflicts. Why are there no songs about beneficial microbes, the battles of our T-cells, or the wonders of quantum entanglement? Is it because few people have intrinsic emotional heartstrings about such things that an artist can tug on? How can we artistically escape the bounds of our immediate senses?
As for a massive shift in worldview, Wilson’s viewpoint is that of a naturalist. We all should be more emotionally attached to nature. He recalls his “hunter’s trance,” being so aware of nature around him that he felt himself merged into everything, an emotional state, not detached objectivity. But Wilson sees little of this in what passes for popular philosophy in modern media. It’s punditry from “scholars trained in humanities or economics.” And in an age of social media, anyone, no matter how shallow their understanding, can pose as a pundit, while expert pundits’ understanding is fragmented.
Narrowly focused groups attract interest in specific causes, like preserving the monarch butterfly, or food security in neighborhoods that are “food deserts.” Considered alone, each cause excites those concerned about it, but protectors of the monarch butterfly are not necessarily interested in food security and vice versa. It’s a variant of the silo effect in science, business, and in every aspect of a complex society.
E.O. Wilson is concerned about culturally creating a more competent human capable of functioning in a world made more complex by everything from technology to environmental catastrophes. He can’t see a clear pathway, so he wants people in the humanities to discover it. The few of us that try to encompass the myriad of issues roughly denoted by Compression seek the same thing.
Said more simply, we have to fix us – our historical beliefs and attitudes – before we can fix everything else that is not going well. This Is also our quest. Maybe you can help.
To do that requires us to dialog with open minds about subjects many of us prefer to ignore, like religion, folklore, politics, deeply held ideologies, and propaganda. Can we displace divergent special interests with convergent interests common to all mankind?
Failing States, Collapsing Systems: BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed
An investigative journalist in London, Nafeez Ahmed covers a huge range of topics from advanced software to food riots in the Middle East. He has a “Renaissance man” swath of interests. His well-documented research for this book ranges from the root causes of terrorism to the latest developments in Energy Return on Investment (EROI).
The usual journalist’s book appeals to a broad readership in flowing prose. Instead, Ahmed matter-of-factly tries to tell us what we need to know in a book more like an investigative reporter’s background notes. It’s classified as technical, expensive and crammed with facts, graphs, acronyms, and jargon. Ahmed probes topics that are not mainstream, but should be. He dishes up no comfort food for business leaders.
Ahmed views civilization as a complex, adaptive, whole system, not as separate fragments. His economy is a biophysical system powered by energy, lots of it. Those who see the economy through the filters of money and market models may have difficulty adjusting to his biophysical perspective, but it’s important to do so.
Ahmed classifies civilization into nine economic stages, about five more than most histories:
- Agrarian capitalism
- Industrial capitalism
- Neoliberal capitalism
The periods of dominance by each stage keep getting shorter, so we’re racing to somewhere, but where? Human consumption of energy and resources increased with each stage. A hunter-gatherer consumed little more than an animal, but 21st century advanced economies depend on voracious consumption. Multiply human population growth by higher consumption per capita and you get big numbers.
Only addict of financial and economic models assuming endless growth are surprised that human effects on nature are approaching catastrophic. At some time, not long distant, civilization has to collapse into a much simpler, lower-energy state.
Ahmed divides his research into two categories: First, the effects we are having on Earth System Disruption (ESD). Second, the knock-on effects ESD has on Human System Disruption (HSD). About a third of the book documents ESD. The rest describes HSD, much of which is evident in the news today.
Environmental System Disruption
Chapter 3 is the densest summary of the decline of fossil fuels that this reviewer has seen, and I try to keep up. The definition of Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI) is not the most lucid, but like most peak energy writers, Ahmed relies on it to explain much of what is happening. EROI estimates decrease when the boundaries of the system analyzed increase. The EROI figures Ahmed cites are low, suggesting that they came from comprehensive system analyses. (Want a high EROI figure? Just omit counting all the input energy required.)
Our energy picture is not pretty – globally. The EROI of conventional fuel sources is declining. Fossil energy will become more and more difficult to obtain, peaking sooner than the rosy projections of energy companies and government energy agencies. For example, Russia is well past peak oil and gas. The US is well past peak oil, and low EROI and land destruction portend fracking trailing off quickly. China is long past peak oil, and recent reviews predict Chinese peak coal in about 2020. (New coal plants are being cancelled.)
China, India and other developing economies cannot continue to develop by the old Western neoliberal model. Earth lacks enough accessible stuff to do it, and the environmental damage from doing it can’t continue. Both developed and undeveloped economies need new ideals of quality of life disconnected from high consumption.
To connect Earth System Disruption to Human System Disruption, Ahmed cites three factors that in his judgment will soon jolt human civilization: Ocean acidification, heat waves, and extreme weather. Recent hurricanes and wildfires point to causes other than coincidence. However, cautious climate scientists are not ready to aver that the primary cause is increased CO2. Ahmed does not hesitate. CO2 is a major factor.
An underreported danger is ocean acidification. Biologists are very concerned that increasing ocean pH is already crimping its food productivity and up up to 80% of human meat consumption in some way circles back to the oceanic food chain. Acidify the oceans and human global hunger will become acute. (I’m writing in a seafood town; fish and shrimp on every menu.)
The only global environmental danger of significance that Ahmed fails to call out is soil erosion and degradation. There are so many severe abuses that we can’t shrug them all off and go on – but we are. Without substantial changes before mid-century, by then Ahmed expects a triple whammy of energy shortages, food shortages, and environmental damage to force a total upchuck of industrial human systems. The neoliberal economic model will dominate no more.
Human System Disruption
If you connect ESD with human disruption, evidence abounds today. For example, terrorist zones generate floods of refugees. Compare these zones with maps of oil fields and maps of draught and high heat. Nobody welcomes floods of refugees. The Rohingya in Bangladesh are a harbinger of debacles to come. Global players vie to control petrochemicals while nature’s cataclysms rile latent tribal and religious conflicts.
From North Africa though the Middle East, water and food shortages are underreported causes of human strife. The Arab Spring uprisings began with food riots; then morphed into terrorist chaos. Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen: none fight formally declared wars; all have a shortage of peace and tranquility. Deaths by terrorism keep rising. Conflict zones keep expanding, provoking terrorist incidents in today’s most advanced economies.
One chapter picks apart neoliberal economics, and the United States is its bastion nation states keep expanding credit (printing money) and driving interest rates to zero in vain attempts to kick start high rates of economic growth, but they don’t get much. Economies are increasingly unresponsive to money stimulus, but very sensitive to jacking up interest rates on huge piles of debt. That pincer makes another collapse of the financial system inevitable, and next time might be the “big one.”
The advanced economics also like to waste their substance on side issues like wars on drugs and anti-immigration policies. Such policies provoke political violence elsewhere, and eventually the violence cannot be walled out of economies that are imploding internally. The armies and resources needed to prop up consumptive empires can’t be sustained much longer.
States dependent on petroleum revenue are either in crisis now, or soon will be. Venezuela is already in crisis, and its form of government might make little difference. Ahmed projects that Saudi Arabia, even if it manages to elude terrorist destabilization, is about 15 years from being forced to survive without gushers of oil money.
Ahmed knows that mankind needs a total strategic re-think and a complete values overhaul, but here he stalls out where everyone else does. He advocates the usual nostrums of alternative energies and circular economies, but with a systems caveat. No single model is predictable because of the mother of all wild cards – human agency. He wants more trans-disciplinary modeling, an academic approach.
At the very end, Ahmed wimps out with a paragraph about creating new cultures of collaboration. How to do this is not addressed, but the effort has to be action-oriented. He poses the problem in global terms. The rest is up to us.