Variation in Creativity and Imagination

Variation in Creativity    |    Culture & Reality    |    Impact of Globalization    |    Applying Cultural Evolution    |    Applied Working Groups

Social learning and innovation are the coevolved pillars of cultural evolution (Legare & Nielsen 2015, Street et al. 2017) as they underpin the evolutionary process of descent with modification. The cultural evolution field has invested heavily in understanding the role of social learning (e.g. Laland 2017; Henrich 2016) yet has largely overlooked processes underlying innovation such as creativity and imagination (Carr et al. 2016; Reader et al, 2016; Fuentes 2017; Gabora 2019). Creativity may be considered at the individual level and/or as something that emerges via collaboration or through a cultural evolutionary process (Fogarty et al. 2015). While innovation is taxonomically widespread (Reader & Laland 2003; Reader et al 2016), humans are undoubtedly exceptional innovators. In our species, imagination, whether under voluntary control or not, is manifest in the arts, science, technological achievements, language, cooperation, and religions we see today. These likely derive from the same creative capacity that enabled many of our ancestors’ achievements, including complex tool manufacture or large-scale cooperation for collaborative foraging and hunting (Tomasello 2009; Henrich 2016; Laland 2017). Moreover, and echoing the cultural intelligence hypothesis (Boyd & Richerson 1985; Whiten & van Schaik 2007; Henrich 2016; Laland 2017; Miller et al. 2019), these achievements resulted in a gene-culture co-evolutionary feedback whereby increasingly creative and imaginative feats became, intellectually and culturally, possible. 

Cumulative culture, the gradual change of technology, beliefs or institutions, over generations involves repeated creative refinement of the traits in question. There have been many suggestions regarding what underlies this distinctive aspect of human culture (Dean et al. 2012) yet variation, across (and within) cultures or across (and within) species, in imagination and creativity has received relatively little attention. However, recent evidence of cultural (Legare et al. 2018; Pope et al. 2019) and inter-species (Watzek et al. 2019) variation in cognitive flexibility, which may underlie creativity, is promising in this regard. In economics and entrepreneurship, the importance of the ‘extra-rational’ motivation of joy in creativity and discovery is recognized (Hwang & Horowit 2012), but this has not yet been incorporated into cultural evolution thinking.

Creativity and Imagination in non-technological domain such as art, design, literature, music, and religion, is relatively understudied in the cultural evolution field. Does innovation in these domains differ to that seen for technological evolution? For example, does the proposed link between cultural complexity and demography in the evolution of technology hold in other domains? A study of folk tales indicates perhaps not (Acerbi et al. 2017). To what extent are traits that “capture the imagination” a force for stability rather than cultural change in oral traditions, including religion (Boyer 1994; Barrett & Nyhof 2011)? Linguistics offers an alternative understanding of creativity in cultural evolution (Smith & Kirby 2008), manifest in the rapid evolution of dialects and slang.

Cultural norms
regarding the value of conformity versus individuality (Clegg & Legare 2016, 2017), and related concepts of intelligence (Clegg et al. 2017), are highly influential on population-wide levels of engagement in social learning or creativity (Mesoudi 2011, Heyes 2018). Yet, the extent to which these cultural norms have ramifications for the human ability to transcend our current limitations is unknown. How do the cultural evolutionary dynamics of the ‘social learning of social learning strategies’ (Mesoudi et al. 2015) influence the creation of new technologies or creative recombination of socially and individually learned information to tackle major societal issues? Here, cultural evolution would benefit from greater synthesis with fields such as sociology, history, and computer science, as seen in the recent finding that historical ‘loosening’ of American culture is associated with increased creativity (Jackson et al. 2019a).

Educational practices are variable, both between and within formal and participatory systems, and are known to influence individuals’ creativity and imagination (Bonawitz et al. 2011; Avila 2013; Tweed & Lehman 2002). A cultural evolutionary approach highlights that functionally distinct teaching types are combined dependent on learning problems children have faced within specific ethnographic contexts (Kline 2015). The impact of differentiated educational systems on cultural transmission was identified as one of the field’s ‘grand challenges’ (Brewer et al. 2017), especially pertinent given today’s children are humanity’s future. Humans part-control their own future by designing educational systems to promote creativity and problem solving. Yet more could be done to clarify the evolutionary dynamics of individual-level factors that affect creativity/imagination throughout the lifespan (e.g. interaction of personality and educational practices), facilitating superior decision making in future generations.