The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World, by Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman (Canongate, 2017)
Review by Robert M. Ellis
This is a highly appealing book about creativity, written jointly by a neuroscientist and a composer. It is lavishly illustrated, a feast of examples and pictures. It begins with NASA responding to the unforeseen breakdown of Apollo 13 in space, and cobbling together solutions to save the astronauts’ lives. It goes on to Picasso’s ‘Demoiselles D’Avignon’ followed by a host of other examples from music, art, literature, science, technological invention and business innovation. What they have in common is the openness to new possibilities: the optionality and provisionality that allows people to think about things in new ways.
This is a light and inspiring book rather than a heavy analysis of what creativity involves, but it does contain an interesting breakdown of three aspects of creativity: bending, breaking and blending. As David Hume first noted back in the eighteenth century, we think of new ideas by modifying or recombining old ones, and that’s how those three aspects of creativity work. We bend what we have into a new shape by creating variations on it (e.g. Hokusai’s 36 views of Mount Fuji), we break it into its component parts (like Seurat’s pointilliste paintings or the pixels on your screen), and we blend together previously separate elements (as in composite beasts of myth like the sphinx or the hippogriff).
The authors also offer us some advice on how to cultivate creativity: ‘Don’t glue down the pieces’ (i.e. don’t be dogmatic in your expectations), ‘Proliferate options’, ‘Scout to different distances’ (i.e. work out a range of different options from the safe to the extreme), and ‘Tolerate risk’. This is all fairly obvious advice (there’s nothing really ground-breaking here), but on the other hand the wealth of examples with which it is presented nevertheless helps to inspire.
These creative strategies are all, in some way or another, Middle Way strategies. We are creative when we avoid absolutizing our current assumptions; but on the other hand, the processes of bending, breaking and blending need something to work with and need to result in a new type of form that we can relate to. Total randomness would be no more creative than the exact reproduction of either an existing idea or item. We need to have an intention, but that intention also needs to tolerate the unexpected, the element of chaos amidst the order. So to be creative we navigate the Middle Way between absolute beliefs about what we should be producing, whether these are based on sameness or difference.
A previous book that I have reviewed about creativity, ‘Creativity Inc.’ by Ed Catmull (an MWS member also interviewed by Barry in his podcast) makes a similar point to this one, but this time illustrated by the growth and development of creativity in Pixar, the animation company. Catmull talks about the ‘messy middle’ in which creativity arises: where, in the language of Brandt and Eagleman’s book, the pieces are not glued down, options proliferate, and at least a degree of risk is tolerated in order to enable creativity to develop. Another connection that this book offered for me was with the mythic creativity of God in the book of Genesis, a theme that I explore in my upcoming book, ‘The Christian Middle Way’. There I argue that the meaning of God’s creativity in making the world can be a human meaning: a symbol of our ability to find exactly that balance between intention and the unexpected in the things that we create. Those things then attain a life of their own.
However, the central problem for most people who are creative is often the attitude of others to our creations. In a chapter called ‘Living in the B Hive’, Brandt and Eagleman try to tackle the difficult question of finding acceptance for innovations. They conclude, as usual through many examples, that the best chance of success lies in being slightly different from what went before, but not too different and not too much before your time. Again, the relative obviousness of that message is sweetened by the skill with which it is presented.
By the time I reached the final section of this book, however, I was beginning to find its approach a little simplistic and naïve, perhaps rather stereotypically American in its relentless upbeat optimism. In writing about the ‘creative business’ and the ‘creative school’ there are various suggestion that sound good in theory, but make no real attempt to engage with the complexity and difficulty that anyone actually working in a typical business or school will face when they try to be creative. It seems to be assumed that, at some level, creativity will always be rewarded, when it seems much more likely that a huge portion of luck is also required for your creativity to come to public attention sufficiently to be a success. Survivorship bias is a basic problem here, because the success of creative enterprises is judged on the basis of the ones that survived because they were successful, not the ones that languished in obscurity. There is also insufficient recognition given in this book to the fact that many people may feel forced by their circumstances to constantly repress their creativity, in order to get by in an environment that is very hostile to it. To someone working on a conveyor-belt in a factory in China, I can well imagine that this book might come across as a cruel joke.
Another possible shadow that this book does not contemplate is the side-effects of actions that are otherwise creative. With blithe optimism it talks about the value of constantly changing office layouts – from open-plan to closed-in and back again, without mentioning what a torture many people (particularly introverts) find open-plan offices, with their constant noise and distraction. When an important function is at stake, vague ideas about creative change are not the only criterion we need to judge by. Similar points could be made about change in education, where new initiatives to promote creativity may often just turn into yet another administrative burden for teachers that overall has more of an effect of stifling it, unless they are carefully judged and resourced in relation to all the other complex conditions that are already at work in the school.
Overall, however, this book is well worth picking up, as an inspiring boost to creativity in your life, and perhaps a prompt for reflecting on how you can be more creative. The creative path is very often the Middle Way, even though there are also many other ‘uncreative’ conditions to negotiate along it. I count myself fortunate to be able to pursue many creative activities in my life (primarily philosophy – the creativity of which is not really explored here, perhaps for obvious reasons). It is always good to be reminded of the importance of making full use of those opportunities.