The Axemaker’s Gift

From the 318th page of Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, the disturbing truth that solutions cause problems of their own:

At the same time, It does not take much thought to realize that the main threats to our survival as a species, the very problems we hope creativity will solve, were brought about by yesterday’s creative solutions. Overpopulation, which in many ways is the core problem of the future, is the result of ingenious improvements in farming and public health. The loss of community and increasing psychological isolation are in part due to the enormous advances in mobility, brought about by the discovery of self-propelling vehicles such as trains and cars. The loss of transcendent values is the result of the success of science at debunking beliefs that cannot be tested empirically. And so on, ad infinitum. This is the reason, for instance, that Robert Ornstein calls human inventions “the axemaker’s gift,” referring to what happens when a steel axe is first introduced to a preliterate tribe that knows no metals: It leads to easier killing, and it shreds the existing fabric of social relations and cultural values. In a sense, every new invention is an axemaker’s gift: The way of life is never the same after the new meme takes hold.

Being a Good Ancestor

From pg. 224 of Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, a discussion on what matters at the end of life:

According to Erik Erikson, the last psychological stage that people confront is what he called the task of achieving integrity. What he meant by this is that if we live long enough and if we resolve all the earlier tasks of adulthood–such as developing a viable identity, a close and satisfying intimacy, and if we succeed in passing on our genes and our values through generativity–then there is a last remaining task that is essential for our full development as a human being. This consists in bringing together into a meaningful story our past and present, and in reconciling ourselves with the approaching end of life. If in the later years we look back with puzzlement and regret, unable to accept the choices we have made and wishing for another chance, despair is the likely outcome. In Erikson’s words: “A meaningful old age…serves the need for the integrated heritage which gives indispensable perspective on the life cycle. Strength here takes the form of that detached yet active concern with life bounded with death, which we call wisdom…”

The notion of integrity connotes the ability to tie together, to relate to others outside oneself. Erikson thought that the perspective of an older person is based on a new definition of identity, which could be summarized in the sentence “I am what survives me.” If toward the end of life I conclude that nothing of myself is likely to survive, despair is likely to take over. But if I have identified with some more enduring entities, my survival will provide a sense of connection, of continuity, that keeps despair at bay. If I love my grandchildren, or the work I have accomplished, or the causes I have championed, then I am bound to feel a part of the future even after personal death. Jonas Salk calls this attitude “being a good ancestor.”

Anticipation and Commitment: The Story of Motorola

From Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, a demonstration of anticipating a problem in the future and committing to solve it:

Robert Galvin’s father had founded Motorola early in the 20th century to make car radios. For several decades the business was a small one-room operation, with perhaps a dozen engineers and no large contracts, so Galvin’s father worked very hard to make ends meet. In 1936 he felt that he finally could afford to take a vacation. He took his wife and young Robert on a European tour. As they traveled across Germany, the elder Galvin became convinced that sooner or later Hitler would start a war. Upon his return home, he followed up his hunch by sending Don Mitchell, one of his assistants, to Camp McCoy in Wisconsin to find out how the army passed on information among its various units.

Mitchell drove to Wisconsin, rang a bell at the gate of the camp, sat down with the major in charge, and in a short time found out that, as far as communications were concerned, the army hadn’t changed at all since World War I: A phone wire was run from the front line to the back trenches. Upon being told this, Galvin’s ears perked up. “Don,” he is supposed to have said, “if we can make a radio that fits in a car and receives signals, can’t we marry a little transmitter with it, and could we add some kind of power unit and put it into a box so someone could hold it, and he could talk from the front trench to the back trench with radios instead of stringing out the wire?” They figured it was a good idea and went to work. By the time Hitler invaded Poland, Motorola was ready to produce what became the SCR 536, the walkie talkie of World War II. Robert Galvin uses this story to illustrate what he means by anticipation and commitment: on the one hand, having the foresight to realize how you could contribute to the future and thereby profit from it, and on the other, to have faith in your intuition and work hard to actualize it.

A Definition of Creativity

From pg. 25 of Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, a definition of creativity that illuminates what the book at large examines:

The problem is that in the term “creativity” as commonly used covers too much ground. It refers to very different entities, thus causing a great deal of confusion. To clarify the issues, I distinguish at least three different phenomena that can legitimately be called by that name.

The first usage, widespread in ordinary conversation, refers to persons who express unusual thoughts, who are interesting and stimulating–in short, to people who appear unusually bright. A brilliant conversationalist, a person with varied interests and a quick mind, may be called creative in this sense. Unless they also contribute something of permanent significance, I refer to people of this sort as brilliant rather than creative.

The second way the term can be used is to refer to people who experience the world in novel and original ways. These are individuals whose perceptions are fresh, whose judgments are insightful, who may make important discoveries that only they know about. I refer to such people as personally creative, and try to deal with them as much as possible. But given the subjective nature of this form or creativity, it is difficult to deal with no matter how important it is for those who experience it.

The final use of the term designates individuals who, like Leonardo, Edison, Picasso, or Einstein, have changed our culture in some important respect. They are the creative ones without qualifications. Because their achievements are by definition public, it is easier to write about them, and the persons included in my study belong to this group.

The difference among these three meanings is not just a matter of degree, The last kind of creativity is not simply a more developed form of the first two. These are actually different ways of being creative each to a large measure unrelated to the others. It happens very often, for example, that some persons brimming with brilliance, whom everyone thinks of as being exceptionally creative, never leave any accomplishment, any trace of their existence–except, perhaps, in the memories of those who have known them. Whereas some of the people who have had the greatest impact on history did not show any creativity or brilliance in their behavior, except for the accomplishments they left behind.

For example, Leonardo da Vinci, certainly one of the most creative persons in the third sense of the term, was apparently reclusive, and almost compulsive in his behavior. If you had met him at a cocktail party, you would have thought that he was a tiresome bore and would have left him standing in a corner as soon as possible. Neither Issac Newton nor Thomas Edison would have been considered assets at a party either, and outside of their scientific concerns they appeared colorless and driven. The biographers of outstanding creators struggle valiantly to make their subjects interesting and brilliant, yet more often than not their efforts are in vain, The accomplishments of a Michelangelo, a Beethoven, a Picasso, or an Einstein are awesome in their respective fields–but their private lives, their everyday ideas and actions, would seldom warrant another thought were it not that their specialized accomplishments made everything they said or did of interest.

The Process of Cultural Evolution

I’m excited to dig into Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention. Like his previous book Flow, he is insightful and eloquent from the first page on. Excerpted below is his discussion on the importance of a creative person’s surroundings and culture:

Creativity is the cultural equivalent of the process of genetic changes that result in biological evolution, where random variations take place in the chemistry of our chromosomes, below the threshold of consciousness. These changes result in the sudden appearance of a new physical characteristic in a child, and if the trait is an improvement over what existed before, it will have a greater chance to be transmitted to the child’s descendants. Most new traits do not improve survival chances and may disappear after a few generations. But a few do, and it is these that account for biological evolution.

In cultural evolution there are no mechanisms equivalent to genes and chromosomes. Therefore, a new idea or invention is not automatically passed on to the next generation. Instructions for how to use fire, or the wheel, or atomic energy are not built into the nervous system of the children born after such discoveries. Each child has to learn them again from the start. The analogy to genes in the evolution of culture are memes, or units of information that we must learn if culture is to continue. Languages, numbers, theories, songs, recipes, laws, and values are all memes that we pass on to our children so that they will be remembered. It is these memes that a creative person changes, and if enough of the right people see the change as an improvement, it will become part of the culture.

Therefore, to understand creativity it is not enough to study the individuals who seem most responsible for a novel idea or a new thing. Their contribution, while necessary and important, is only a link in the chain, a phase in the process. To say that Thomas Edison invented electricity or Albert Einstein discovered relativity is a convenient simplification. It satisfies our ancient predilection for stories that are easy to comprehend and involve superhuman forces. But Edison’s’ or Einstein’s discoveries would be inconceivable without prior knowledge, without the intellectual or social network that stimulated their thinking, and without the social mechanisms that recognized and spread their innovations. To say that the theory of relativity was created by Einstein is like saying that it is the spark that is responsible for the fire. The spark is necessary, but without air and tinder there would be no flame.