The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World - David Deutsch (2011)
Chapter 16. The Evolution of Creativity
What use was creativity?
Of all the countless biological adaptations that have evolved on our planet, creativity is the only one that can produce scientific or mathematical knowledge, art or philosophy. Through the resulting technology and institutions, it has had spectacular physical effects – most noticeably near human habitations, but also further afield: a substantial portion of the Earth’s land area is now used for human purposes. Human choice – itself a product of creativity – determines which other species to exclude and which to tolerate or cultivate, which rivers to divert, which hills to level, and which wildernesses to preserve. In the night sky, a bright, fast-moving spot may well be a space station carrying humans higher and faster than any biological adaptation can carry anything. Or it may be a satellite through which humans communicate across distances that biological communication has never spanned, using phenomena such as radio waves and nuclear reactions, which biology has never harnessed. The unique effects of creativity dominate our experience of the world.
Nowadays that includes the experience of rapid innovation. By the time you read these words, the computer on which I am writing them will be obsolete: there will be functionally better computers that will require less human effort to build. Other books will have been written, and innovative buildings and other artefacts will be constructed, some of which will be quickly superseded while others will stand for longer than the pyramids have so far. Surprising scientific discoveries will be made, some of which will change the standard textbooks for ever. All these consequences of creativity make for an ever-changing way of life, which is possible only in a long-lived dynamic society – itself a phenomenon that nothing other than creative thought could possibly bring about.
However, as I pointed out in the previous chapter and Chapter 1, it was only recently in the history of our species that creativity has had any of those effects. In prehistoric times it would not have been obvious to a casual observer (say, an explorer from an extraterrestrial civilization) that humans were capable of creative thought at all. It would have seemed that we were doing no more than endlessly repeating the lifestyle to which we were genetically adapted, just like all the other billions of species in the biosphere. Clearly, we were tool-users – but so were many other species. We were communicating using symbolic language – but, again, that was not unusual: even bees do that. We were domesticating other species – but so do ants. Closer observation would have revealed that human languages and the knowledge for human tool use were being transmitted through memes and not genes. That made us fairly unusual, but still not obviously creative: several other species have memes. But what they do not have is the means of improving them other than through random trial and error. Nor are they capable of sustained improvement over many generations. Today, the creativity that humans use to improve ideas is what pre-eminently sets us apart from other species. Yet for most of the time that humans have existed it was not noticeably in use.
Creativity would have been even less noticeable in the predecessor of our species. Yet it must already have been evolving in that species, or ours would never have been the result. In fact the advantage conferred by successive mutations that gave our predecessors’ brains slightly more creativity (or, more precisely, more of the ability that we now think of as creativity) must have been quite large, for by all accounts modern humans evolved from ape-like ancestors very rapidly by gene-evolution standards. Our ancestors must have been continually out-breeding their cousins who had slightly less ability to create new knowledge. Why? What were they using this knowledge for?
If we did not know better, the natural answer would be that they were using it as we do today, for innovation and for understanding the world, in order to improve their lives. For instance, individuals who could improve stone tools would have ended up with better tools, and hence with better food and more surviving offspring. They would also have been able to make better weapons, thus denying the holders of rival genes access to food and mates – and so on. Yet if that had happened, the palaeontological record would show those improvements happening on a timescale of generations. But it does not.
Moreover, during the period when creativity was evolving, the ability to replicate memes was evolving too. It is believed that some members of the species Homo erectus living 500,000 years ago knew how to make camp fires. That knowledge was in their memes, not in their genes. And, once creativity and meme transmission are both present, they greatly enhance each other’s evolutionary value, for then anyone who improves something also has the means to bequeath the innovation to all future generations, thus multiplying the benefit to the relevant genes. And memes can be improved much faster by creativity than by random trial and error. Since there is no upper limit to the value of ideas, the conditions would have been there for a runaway co-evolution between the two adaptations: creativity and the ability to use memes.
Yet, again, there is something wrong with that scenario. The two adaptations presumably did co-evolve, but the driving force behind that evolution cannot have been that people were improving on ideas and passing the improvements on to their children, because, again, if they had been, they would have been making cumulative improvements on a timescale of generations. Before the beginning of agriculture, about 12,000 years ago, many thousands of years passed between noticeable changes. It is as though each small genetic improvement in creativity produced just one noticeable innovation and then nothing more – rather like today’s experiments in ‘artificial evolution’. But how can that be? Unlike present-day artificial-evolution and AI research, our ancestors were evolving real creativity, which is the capacity to create an endless stream of innovations.
Their ability to innovate was increasing rapidly, but they were barely innovating. This is a puzzle not because it is odd behaviour, but because, if innovation was that rare, how could there have been a differential effect on the reproduction of individuals with more or less ability to innovate? That there were thousands of years between noticeable changes presumably means that in most generations even the most creative individuals in the population would not have been making any innovations. Hence their greater ability to innovate would have caused no selection pressure in their favour. Why did tiny improvements in that ability keep spreading rapidly through the population? Our ancestors must have been using their creativity – and using it to its limits, and frequently – for something. But evidently not for innovation. What else could it have been used for?
One theory is that it did not evolve to provide any functional advantage, but merely through sexual selection: people used it to create displays to attract mates – colourful clothing, decorations, story-telling, wit and the like. A preference to mate with the individuals with the most creative displays co-evolved with the creativity to meet that preference in an evolutionary spiral – so the theory goes – just like peahens’ preferences and peacocks’ tails.
But creativity is an unlikely target for sexual selection. It is a sophisticated adaptation which, to this day, we are unable to reproduce artificially. So it is presumably much harder to evolve than attributes like coloration or the size and shape of body parts – some of which, it is thought, did indeed evolve by sexual selection in humans and many other animals. Creativity, as far as we know, evolved only once. Moreover, its most visible effects are cumulative: it would be hard to detect small differences in the creativity of potential mates on any one occasion, especially if that creativity was not being used for practical purposes. (Consider how hard it would be, today, to detect tiny genetic differences in people’s artistic abilities by means of an art competition. In practice, any such differences would be swamped by other factors.) So why did we not evolve multi-coloured hair or fingernails instead of the capacity to create new knowledge, or any one of countless other attributes that would have been far easier to evolve, and far easier to assess reliably?
A more plausible variant of the sexual-selection theory is that people chose mates according to social status, rather than favouring creativity directly. Perhaps the most creative individuals were able to gain status more effectively though intrigue or other social manipulation. This could have given them an evolutionary advantage without producing any progress of which we would see evidence. However, all such theories still face the problem of explaining why, if creativity was being used intensively for any purpose, it was not also used for functional purposes. Why would a chief who had gained power through creative intrigue not be thinking about better spears for hunting? Why wouldn’t a subordinate who invented such a thing have been favoured? Similarly, wouldn’t potential mates who were impressed by artistic displays also have been impressed by practical innovations? In any case, some practical innovations would themselves have helped the discoverers to produce better displays. And innovations sometimes have reach: a new skill of making a string of decorative beads in one generation might become the skill of making a slingshot in the next. So why were practical innovations originally so rare?
From the discussion in the previous chapter, one might guess that it was because the tribes or families in which people were living were static societies, in which any noticeable innovation would reduce one’s status and hence presumably one’s eligibility to mate. So how does one gain status, specifically by exercising more creativity than anyone else, without becoming noticeable as a taboo-violator?
I think there is only one way: it is to enact that society’s memes more faithfully than the norm. To display exceptional conformity and obedience. To refrain exceptionally well from innovation. A static society has no choice but to reward that sort of conspicuousness. So – can enhanced creativity help one to be less innovative than other people? That turns out to be a pivotal question, to which I shall return below. But first I must address a second puzzle.
How do you replicate a meaning?
Meme replication is often characterized (for example by Blackmore) as imitation. But that cannot be so. A meme is an idea, and we cannot observe ideas inside other people’s brains. Nor do we have the hardware to download them from one brain to another like computer programs, nor to replicate them like DNA molecules. So we cannot literally copy or imitate memes. The only access we have to their content is through their holders’ behaviour (including their speech, and consequences of their behaviour such as their writings).
Meme replication always follows this pattern: one observes the holders’ behaviour, directly or indirectly. Then, later – sometimes immediately, sometimes after years of such observation – memes from the holders’ brains are present in one’s own brain. How do they get there? It looks a bit like induction, does it not? But induction is impossible.
The process often seems to involve imitating the holders. For instance, we learn words by imitating their sounds; we learn how to wave by being waved to and imitating what we see. Thus, outwardly, and even to our own introspection, we appear to be copying aspects of what other people do, and remembering what they say and write. This common-sense misconception is even corroborated by the fact that our species’ closest living relatives, the great apes, also have a (much more limited, but nevertheless striking) ability to imitate. But, as I shall explain, the truth is that imitating people’s actions and remembering their utterances could not possibly be the basis of human meme replication. In reality these play only a small – and for the most part inessential – role.
Meme acquisition comes so naturally to us that it is hard to see what a miraculous process it is, or what is really happening. It is especially hard to see where the knowledge is coming from. There is a great deal of knowledge in even the simplest of human memes. When we learn to wave, we learn not only the gesture but also which aspects of the situation made it appropriate to wave, and how, and to whom. We are not told most of this, yet we learn it anyway. Similarly, when we learn a word, we also learn its meaning, including highly inexplicit subtleties. How do we acquire that knowledge?
Not by imitating the holders. Popper used to begin his lecture course on the philosophy of science by asking the students simply to ‘observe’. Then he would wait in silence for one of them to ask what they were supposed to observe. This was his way of demonstrating one of many flaws in the empiricism that is still part of common sense today. So he would explain to them that scientific observation is impossible without pre-existing knowledge about what to look at, what to look for, how to look, and how to interpret what one sees. And he would explain that, therefore, theory has to come first. It has to be conjectured, not derived.
Popper could have made the same point by asking his audience to imitate, rather than merely to observe. The logic would have been the same: under what explanatory theory should they ‘imitate’? Whom should they imitate? Popper? In that case, should they walk to the podium, push him out of the way, and stand where he had been standing? If not, should they at least turn to face the rear of the room, to imitate where he was facing? Should they imitate his heavy Austrian accent, or should they speak in their normal voices, because he was speaking in his normal voice? Or should they do nothing special at the time, but merely include such demonstrations in their lectures when they themselves became professors of philosophy? There are infinitely many possible interpretations of ‘imitate Popper’, each defining a different behaviour for the imitator. Many of those ways would look very different from each other. Each way corresponds to a different theory of what ideas, in Popper’s mind, were causing the observed behaviour.
So there is no such thing as ‘just imitating the behaviour’ – still less, therefore, can one discover those ideas by imitating it. One needs to know the ideas before one can imitate the behaviour. So imitating behaviour cannot be how we acquire memes.
The hypothetical genes that caused meme replication by imitation would also have to specify whom to imitate. Blackmore, for instance, suggests that the criterion may be ‘imitate the best imitators’. But this is impossible for the same reason. One can only judge how well someone is imitating if one already knows, or has guessed, what (which aspect of behaviour, and whose) they are imitating, and which of the circumstances they are taking into account and how.
The same holds if the behaviour consists of stating the memes. As Popper remarked, ‘It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.’ One can only state the explicit content, which is insufficient to define the meaning of a meme or anything else. Even the most explicit of memes – such as laws – have inexplicit content without which they cannot be enacted. For example, many laws refer to what is ‘reasonable’. But no one can define that attribute accurately enough for, say, a person from a different culture to be able to apply the definition in judging a criminal case. Hence we certainly do not learn what ‘reasonable’ means by hearing its meaning stated. But we do learn it, and the versions of it that are learned by people in the same culture are sufficiently close for laws based on it to be practicable.
In any case, as I remarked in the previous chapter, we do not explicitly know the rules by which we behave. We know the rules, meanings and patterns of speech of our native language largely inexplicitly, yet we pass its rules on with remarkable fidelity to the next generation – including the ability to apply them in situations the new holder has never experienced, and including patterns of speech that people explicitly try to prevent the next generation from replicating.
The real situation is that people need inexplicit knowledge to understand laws and other explicit statements, not vice versa. Philosophers and psychologists work hard to discover, and to make explicit, the assumptions that our culture tacitly makes about social institutions, human nature, right and wrong, time and space, intention, causality, freedom, necessity and so on. But we do not acquire those assumptions by reading the results of such research: it is entirely the other way round.
If behaviour is impossible to imitate without prior knowledge of the theory causing the behaviour, how it is that apes, famously, can ape? They have memes: they can learn a new way of opening a nut by watching another ape that already knows that way. How is it that apes are not confused by the infinite ambiguity of what it means to imitate? Even parrots, famously, parrot: they can commit to memory dozens of sounds that they have heard, and repeat them later. How do they cope with the ambiguity of which sounds to imitate, and when to repeat them?
They cope with it by knowing the relevant inexplicit theories in advance. Or, rather, their genes know them. Evolution has built into the genes of parrots an implicit definition of what ‘imitating’ means: to them, it means recording sequences of sounds that meet some inborn criterion, and later replaying them under conditions that meet some other inborn criterion. An interesting fact follows, about parrot physiology: the parrot’s brain must also contain a translation system that analyses incoming nerve signals from the ears and generates outgoing ones that will cause the parrot’s vocal cords to play the same sounds. That translation requires some quite sophisticated computation, which is encoded in genes, not memes. It is thought to be achieved in part by a system based on ‘mirror neurons’. These are neurons that fire when an animal performs a given action, and also when the animal perceives the same action being performed by another. These neurons have been identified experimentally in animals that have the capacity to imitate. Scientists who believe that human meme replication is a sophisticated form of imitation tend to believe that mirror neurons are a key to understanding all sorts of functions of the human mind. Unfortunately, that cannot possibly be so.
It is not known why parroting evolved. It is a fairly common adaptation in birds, and may play more than one role. But, whatever the reason, the important thing for present purposes is that parrots never have a choice about which sounds to imitate, or about what constitutes imitating them. A ringing doorbell and a barking dog may happen to provide conditions that meet the inborn criterion that initiates parroting behaviour, and, when they do, the parrot will always mimic exactly the same aspects of them: their sounds. So, it resolves the infinite ambiguity by making no choices. It does not occur to it to ignore the dog under those conditions, or to imitate the wagging of its tail, because it is incapable of conceiving of any other criterion for imitation than the one built into its mirror-neuron system. It is devoid of creativity and relies on its lack of creativity to replicate the sounds faithfully. This is reminiscent of humans in static societies – except for a crucial difference which I shall explain below.
Now, imagine that a parrot had been present at Popper’s lectures, and learned to parrot some of Popper’s favourite sentences. It would, in a sense, have ‘imitated’ some of Popper’s ideas: in principle, an interested student could later learn the ideas by listening to the parrot. But the parrot would merely be transmitting those memes from one place to another – which is no more than the air in the lecture theatre does. The parrot could not be said to have acquired the memes, because it would be reproducing only one of the countless behaviours that they could produce. The parrot’s subsequent behaviour as a result of having learned the sounds by heart – such as its responses to questions – would not resemble Popper’s. The sound of the meme would be there, but its meaning would not. And it is the meaning – the knowledge – that is the replicator.
The parrot is oblivious to the human meanings of the sounds that it parrots. Had those lectures been not about philosophy but about recipes for fried parrot, it would have been just as eager to quote from them to anyone who would listen. But it is not oblivious to the content of the sound – it is not like a mechanical recorder. Quite the contrary: parrots neither record sounds indiscriminately nor replay them randomly. Their inborn criteria do implicitly attribute meaning to sounds that they hear; it is just that the meaning is always drawn from the same, narrow set of possibilities: if the evolutionary function of parroting is, for instance, to create identifying calls, then every sound it hears is either a potential identifying call or not.
Apes are capable of recognizing a much larger set of possible meanings. Some of them are so complex that aping has often been misinterpreted as evidence of human-like understanding. For example, when an ape learns a new method of cracking nuts by hitting them with rocks, it does not then play the movements back blindly in a fixed sequence like a parrot does. The movements required to crack the nut are never the same twice: the ape has to aim the rock at the nut; it may have to chase the nut and fetch it back if it rolls away; it has to keep hitting it until it cracks, rather than a fixed number of times; and so on. During some parts of the procedure the ape’s two hands must cooperate, each performing a different sub-task. Before it can even begin, it must be able to recognize a nut as being suitable for the procedure; it must look for a rock and, again, recognize a suitable one.
Such activities may seem to depend on explanation – on understanding how and why each action within the complex behaviour has to fit in with the other actions in order to achieve the overall purpose. But recent discoveries have revealed how apes are able to imitate such behaviours without ever creating any explanatory knowledge. In a remarkable series of observational and theoretical studies, the evolutionary psychologist and animal-behaviour researcher Richard Byrne has shown how they achieve this by a process that he calls behaviour parsing (which is analogous to the grammatical analysis or ‘parsing’ of human speech or computer programs).
Humans and computers separate continuous streams of sounds or characters into individual elements such as words, and then interpret those elements as being connected by the logic of a larger sentence or program. Similarly, in behaviour parsing (which evolved millions of years before human language parsing), an ape parses a continuous stream of behaviour that it witnesses into individual elements, each of which it already knows – genetically – how to imitate. The individual elements can be inborn behaviours, such as biting; or behaviours learned by trial and error, such as grasping a nettle without being stung; or previously learned memes. As for connecting these elements together in the right way without knowing why, it turns out that, in every known case of complex behaviours in non-humans, the necessary information can be obtained merely by watching the behaviour many times and looking out for simple statistical patterns – such as which right-hand behaviour often goes with which left-hand behaviour, and which elements are often omitted. It is a very inefficient method, requiring a lot of watching of behaviours that a human could mimic almost immediately by understanding their purpose. Also, it allows only a few fixed options for connecting the behaviours together, so only relatively simple memes can be replicated. Apes can copy certain individual actions instantly – the ones of which they have pre-existing knowledge through their mirror-neuron system – but it takes them years to learn a repertoire of memes that involve combinations of actions. Yet those memes – trivially simple tricks by human standards – are enormously valuable: using them, apes have privileged access to sources of food that are closed to all other animals; and meme evolution gives them the ability to switch to other sources far faster than gene evolution would allow.
So, an ape knows (inexplicitly) that another ape is ‘picking up a rock’, and not performing any of the countless other possible interpretations of the same actions, such as ‘picking up an object in a given relative position’, because picking up a rock is in its inborn repertoire of copiable behaviours while the other possibilities are not. Indeed, it may well be that apes cannot imitate the behaviour of ‘picking up an object in a given relative position’. Note, in this connection, that apes are unable to imitate sounds. They cannot even parrot sounds (repeat them blindly), despite having a complex inborn repertoire of calls that they can make, recognize and act upon in genetically predetermined ways. Their behaviour-parsing system simply did not evolve a predetermined translation mechanism from hearing sounds to uttering them, so they cannot ape them. Consequently there are no customized sounds in any of the apes’ memetically controlled behaviours.
Thus, in the crucial respect that is relevant to meme replication, aping has the same logic as parroting: like the parrot, the ape avoids the infinite ambiguity of copying by already knowing, inexplicitly, the meaning of every action that it is capable of copying. And it is only capable of associating one meaning with each action that it can copy – one definition of how to perform the ‘same’ action under various circumstances. That is how ape memes can be replicated without the impossible step of literally copying knowledge from another ape. The recipient of the meme instantly recognizes the meaning of each element of the behaviour; and it relates the elements by statistical analysis, not by discovering how they support each other’s functioning.
Human beings acquiring human memes are doing something profoundly different. When an audience is watching a lecture, or a child is learning language, their problem is almost the opposite of that of parroting or aping: the meaning of the behaviour that they are observing is precisely what they are striving to discover and do not know in advance. The actions themselves, and even the logic of how they are connected, are largely secondary and are often entirely forgotten afterwards. For example, as adults we remember few of the actual sentences from which we learned to speak. If a parrot had copied snatches of Popper’s voice at a lecture, it would certainly have copied them with his Austrian accent: parrots are incapable of copying an utterance without its accent. But a human student might well be unable to copy it with the accent. In fact a student might well acquire a complex meme at a lecture without being able to repeat a single sentence spoken by the lecturer, even immediately afterwards. In such a case the student has replicated the meaning – which is the whole content – of the meme without imitating any actions at all. As I said, imitation is not at the heart of human meme replication.
Suppose that the lecturer had repeatedly returned to a certain key idea, and had expressed it with different words and gestures each time. The parrot’s (or ape’s) job would be that much harder than imitating only the first instance; the student’s much easier, because to a human observer each different way of putting the idea would convey additional knowledge. Alternatively, suppose that the lecturer had consistently misspoken in a way that altered the meaning, and had then made one correction at the end. The parrot would copy the wrong version. The student would not. Even if the lecturer never corrected the error at all, a human listener might still have a good chance of understanding the idea that was in the lecturer’s mind – and, again, without imitating any behaviour. If someone else reported the lecture but in a way that contained severe misconceptions, a human listener might still be able to detect what the lecturer meant, by explaining the reporter’s misconceptions as well as the lecturer’s intention – just as a conjuring expert might be able to detect what really happened during a trick given only a false account from the audience of what they saw.
Rather than imitating behaviour, a human being tries to explain it – to understand the ideas that caused it – which is a special case of the general human objective of explaining the world. When we succeed in explaining someone’s behaviour, and we approve of the underlying intention, we may subsequently behave ‘like’ that person in the relevant sense. But if we disapprove, we might behave unlike that person. Since creating explanations is second nature (or, rather, first nature) to us, we can easily misconstrue the process of acquiring a meme as ‘imitating what we see’. Using our explanations, we ‘see’ right through the behaviour to the meaning. Parrots copy distinctive sounds; apes copy purposeful movements of a certain limited class. But humans do not especially copy any behaviour. They use conjecture, criticism and experiment to create good explanations of the meaning of things – other people’s behaviour, their own, and that of the world in general. That is what creativity does. And if we end up behaving like other people, it is because we have rediscovered the same idea.
That is why the audience at a lecture, when striving to assimilate the lecturer’s memes, are not tempted to face the rear wall of the lecture room, or to imitate the lecturer in any one of infinitely many other ways. They reject such interpretations of what is worth copying about the lecturer not because they are genetically incapable of conceiving of them, as other animals are, but because they are bad explanations of what the lecturer is doing, and bad ideas by the audience’s own values.
Both puzzles have the same solution
In this chapter I have presented two puzzles. The first is why human creativity was evolutionarily advantageous at a time when there was almost no innovation. The second is how human memes can possibly be replicated, given that they have content that the recipient never observes.
I think that both those puzzles have the same solution: what replicates human memes is creativity; and creativity was used, while it was evolving, to replicate memes. In other words, it was used to acquire existing knowledge, not to create new knowledge. But the mechanism to do both things is identical, and so in acquiring the ability to do the former, we automatically became able to do the latter. It was a momentous example of reach, which made possible everything that is uniquely human.
A person acquiring a meme faces the same logical challenge as a scientist. Both must discover a hidden explanation. For the former, it is an idea in the minds of other people; for the latter, a regularity or law of nature. Neither person has direct access to this explanation. But both have access to evidence with which explanations can be tested: the observed behaviour of people who hold the meme, and physical phenomena conforming to the law.
The puzzle of how one can possibly translate behaviour back into a theory that contains its meaning is therefore the same puzzle as where scientific knowledge comes from. And the idea that memes are copied by imitating their holders’ behaviour is the same mistake as empiricism or inductivism or Lamarckism. They all depend on there being a way of automatically translating problems (like the problem of planetary motions, or of how to reach leaves on tall trees or to be invisible to one’s prey) into their solutions. In other words, they assume that the environment (in the form of an observed phenomenon, or a tall tree, say) can ‘instruct’ minds or genomes in how to meet its challenges. Popper wrote:
The inductivist or Lamarckian approach operates with the idea of instruction from without, or from the environment. But the critical or Darwinian approach only allows instruction from within – from within the structure itself . . .
I contend that there is no such thing as instruction from without the structure. We do not discover new facts or new effects by copying them, or by inferring them inductively from observation, or by any other method of instruction by the environment. We use, rather, the method of trial and the elimination of error. As Ernst Gombrich says, ‘making comes before matching’: the active production of a new trial structure comes before its exposure to eliminating tests.
The Myth of the Framework
Popper could just as well have written, ‘We do not acquire new memes by copying them, or by inferring them inductively from observation, or by any other method of imitation of, or instruction by, the environment.’ The transmission of human-type memes – memes whose meaning is not mostly predefined within the receiver – cannot be other than a creative activity on the part of the receiver.
Memes, like scientific theories, are not derived from anything. They are created afresh by the recipient. They are conjectural explanations, which are then subjected to criticism and testing before being tentatively adopted.
This same pattern of creative conjecture, criticism and testing generates inexplicit as well as explicit ideas. In fact all creativity does, for no idea can be represented entirely explicitly. When we make an explicit conjecture, it has an inexplicit component whether we are aware of it or not. And so does all criticism.
Thus, as has so often happened in the history of universality, the human capacity for universal explanation did not evolve to have a universal function. It evolved simply to increase the volume of memetic information that our ancestors could acquire, and the speed and accuracy which they could acquire it. But since the easiest way for evolution to do that was to give us a universal ability to explain, through creativity, that is what it did. This epistemological fact provides not only the solution of the two puzzles I mentioned, but also the reason for the evolution of human creativity – and therefore the human species – in the first place.
It must have happened something like this. In early pre-human societies, there were only very simple memes – the kind that apes now have, though perhaps with a wider repertoire of copiable elementary behaviours. Those memes were about practical things like how to get food that was otherwise inaccessible. The value of such knowledge must have been high, so this created a ready-made niche for any adaptation that would reduce the effort required to replicate memes. Creativity was the ultimate adaptation to fill that niche. As it increased, further adaptations co-evolved, such as an increase in memory capacity (to store more memes), finer motor control, and specialized brain structures for dealing with language. As a result, the meme band-width (the amount of memetic information that could be passed from each generation to the next) increased too. Memes also became more complex and sophisticated.
This is why and how our species evolved, and why it evolved rapidly – at first. Memes gradually came to dominate our ancestors’ behaviour. Meme evolution took place, and, like all evolution, this was always in the direction of greater faithfulness. This meant becoming ever more anti-rational. At some point, meme evolution achieved static societies – presumably they were tribes. Consequently, all those increases in creativity never produced streams of innovations. Innovation remained imperceptibly slow, even as the capacity for it was increasing rapidly.
Even in a static society, memes still evolve, due to imperceptible errors of replication. They just evolve more slowly than anyone can notice: imperceptible errors cannot be suppressed. They would generally evolve towards greater fidelity of replication, as usual with evolution, and hence to greater staticity of the society.
Status in such a society is reduced by transgressing people’s expectations of proper behaviour, and is improved by meeting them. There would have been the expectations of parents, priests, chiefs and potential mates (or whoever controlled mating in that society) – who were themselves conforming to the wishes and expectations of the society at large. Those people’s opinions would determine one’s ability to eat, thrive and reproduce, and hence the fate of one’s genes.
But how does one discover the wishes and expectations of other people? They might issue commands, but they could never specify every detail of what they expected, let alone every detail of how to achieve it. When one is commanded to do something (or expected to, as a condition for being considered worthy of food or mating, for instance), one might remember seeing an already-respected person doing the same thing, and one might try to emulate that person. To do that effectively, one would have to understand what the point of doing it was, and to try to achieve that as best one could. One would impress one’s chief, priest, parent or potential mate by replicating, and following, their standards of what one should strive for. One would impress the tribe as a whole by replicating their idea (or the ideas of the most influential among them) of what was worthy, and acting accordingly.
Hence, paradoxically, it requires creativity to thrive in a static society – creativity that enables one to be less innovative than other people. And that is how primitive, static societies, which contained pitifully little knowledge and existed only by suppressing innovation, constituted environments that strongly favoured the evolution of an ever-greater ability to innovate.
From the perspective of those hypothetical extraterrestrials observing our ancestors, a community of advanced apes with memes before the evolution of creativity began would have looked superficially similar to their descendants after the jump to universality. The latter would merely have had many more memes. But the mechanism keeping those memes replicating faithfully would have changed profoundly. The animals of the earlier community would have been relying on their lack of creativity to replicate their memes; the people, despite living in a static society, would be relying entirely on their creativity.
As with all jumps to universality, the way in which the jump emerged out of gradual changes is interesting to think about. Creativity is a property of software. As I said, we could be running AI programs on our laptop computers today if we knew how to write (or evolve) such programs. Like all software, it would require the computer to have certain hardware specifications in order to be able to process the required amount of data in the required time. It so happened that the hardware specifications that would make creativity practicable were included in those that were being heavily favoured for pre-creative meme replication. The principal one would have been memory capacity: the more one could remember, the more memes one could enact, and the more accurately one could enact them. But there may also have been hardware abilities such as mirror neurons for imitating a wider range of elementary actions than apes could ape – for instance, the elementary sounds of a language. It would have been natural for such hardware assistance for language abilities to be evolving at the same time as the increased meme bandwidth. So, by the time creativity was evolving, there would already have been significant co-evolution between genes and memes: genes evolving hardware to support more and better memes, and memes evolving to take over ever more of what had previously been genetic functions such as choice of mate, and methods of eating, fighting and so on. Therefore, my speculation is that the creativity program is not entirely inborn. It is a combination of genes and memes. The hardware of the human brain would have been capable of being creative (and sentient, conscious and all those other things) long before any creative program existed. Considering a sequence of brains during this period, the earliest ones capable of supporting creativity would have required very ingenious programming to fit the capacity into the barely suitable hardware. As the hardware improved, creativity could have been programmed more easily, until the moment when it became easy enough actually to be done by evolution. We do not know what was being gradually increased in that approach to a universal explainer. If we did, we could program one tomorrow.
The future of creativity
Before Blackmore and others realized the significance of memes in human evolution, all sorts of root causes had been suggested for what propelled a normal-looking lineage of apes into rapidly becoming a species that can explain and control the universe. Some proposed that it was the adaptation of walking upright, which freed the front limbs, with their opposable thumbs, to specialize in manipulation. Some proposed that climate change favoured adaptations that would make our ancestors more able to exploit diverse habitats. And, as I have mentioned, sexual selection is always a candidate for explaining rapid evolution. Then there is the ‘Machiavellian hypothesis’ that human intelligence evolved in order to predict the behaviour of others, and to fool them. There is also the hypothesis that human intelligence is an enhanced version of the apes’ aping adaptation – which, as I have argued, could not be true. Nevertheless, Blackmore’s ‘meme machine’ idea, that human brains evolved in order to replicate memes, must be true. The reason it must be true is that, whatever had set off the evolution of any of those attributes, creativity would have had to evolve as well. For no human-level mental achievements would be possible without human-type (explanatory) memes, and the laws of epistemology dictate that no such memes are possible without creativity.
Not only is creativity necessary for human meme replication, it is also sufficient. Deaf people and blind people and paralysed people are still able to acquire and create human ideas to a more or less full extent. Hence, neither upright walking nor fine motor control nor the ability to parse sounds into words nor any of those other adaptations, though they might have played a role historically in creating the conditions for human evolution, were functionally necessary to allow humans to become creative. Nor, therefore, are they philosophically significant in understanding what humans are today, namely people: creative, universal explainers.
It was specifically creativity that made the difference between ape memes – expensive in terms of the time and effort required to replicate them, and inherently limited in the knowledge that they were capable of expressing – and human memes, which are efficiently transmitted and universal in their expressive power. The beginning of creativity was, in that sense, the beginning of infinity. We have no way of telling, at present, how likely it was for creativity to begin to evolve in apes. But, once it began to, there would automatically have been evolutionary pressure for it to continue, and for other meme-facilitating adaptations to follow in its wake. This increase must have continued through all the static societies of prehistory.
The horror of static societies, which I described in the previous chapter, can now be seen as a hideous practical joke that the universe played on the human species. Our creativity, which evolved in order to increase the amount of knowledge that we could use, and which would immediately have been capable of producing an endless stream of useful innovations as well, was from the outset prevented from doing so by the very knowledge – the memes – that that creativity preserved. The strivings of individuals to better themselves were, from the outset, perverted by a superhumanly evil mechanism that turned their efforts to exactly the opposite end: to thwart all attempts at improvement; to keep sentient beings locked in a crude, suffering state for eternity. Only the Enlightenment, hundreds of thousands of years later, and after who knows how many false starts, may at last have made it practical to escape from that eternity into infinity.
Imitation Copying behaviour. This is different from human meme replication, which copies the knowledge that is causing the behaviour.
MEANINGS OF ‘THE BEGINNING OF INFINITY’ ENCOUNTERED IN THIS CHAPTER
– The evolution of creativity.
– The reassignment of creativity from its original function of preserving memes faithfully, to the function of creating new knowledge.
On the face of it, creativity cannot have been useful during the evolution of humans, because knowledge was growing much too slowly for the more creative individuals to have had any selective advantage. This is a puzzle. A second puzzle is: how can complex memes even exist, given that brains have no mechanism to download them from other brains? Complex memes do not mandate specific bodily actions, but rules. We can see the actions, but not the rules, so how do we replicate them? We replicate them by creativity. That solves both problems, for replicating memes unchanged is the function for which creativity evolved. And that is why our species exists.