What’s it about?
The Runaway Species (2017) is a gripping account of human creativity. Exploring the principles that underlie our inventiveness, as well as real-world examples of creative breakthroughs, offers a unique understanding of the abilities that make our species unique.
About the author:
Anthony Brandt is an acclaimed composer and a professor of music at Rice University. His musical compositions include an oratorio and two chamber operas.
David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Stanford University and the internationally best-selling author of The Brain, Incognito, and other works.
Revolutionary creatives owe their ideas to inherited invetions:
Emerging innovations and ideas come out of nowhere. We are more prone to view an idea as a bolt from the blue if it is daring and groundbreaking. Sure, it’s a giant stride forward, but we consider it as the improbable outcome of chance and genius in the end.
This is a reasonable attitude. After all, technological and creative innovations frequently amaze us with their novelty. However, if we genuinely want to understand creativity, we must examine innovation more critically. In other words, we must consider the debt that fresh ideas owe to older ones.
When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in January 2007, it was labeled the “Jesus phone” by many. It’s no surprise they were overjoyed. The iPhone changed the face of consumer electronics forever. It combined a music player, a communication device, and a personal computer into a slim, elegant device that could fit in your pocket.
The iPhone, like many great technologies, seemed revolutionary. Consumers believed there had never been anything quite like it before. The fact is, while being groundbreaking, the iPhone owes a lot of its success to less successful forebears. For example, IBM’s Simon, the world’s first smartphone, emerged in 1994. It came with a stylus and several essential apps. Then why don’t we recall it now?
For starters, the battery life was inadequate, lasting only about an hour. In the mid-1990s, making calls from a mobile phone was prohibitively expensive. And the emergence of today’s world of innovative and entertaining apps was still years away. So it wasn’t a surprise when the iPhone arrived on the scene in 2007. Other inventive but unsuccessful gadgets had set the framework in previous years.
This notion of creative reinvention also applies to the arts. Take, for example, the famed English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s writings. A scholar was examining Coleridge’s library after he died.
This notion of creative reinvention also applies to the arts. Take, for example, the famed English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s writings. A scholar was examining Coleridge’s library after he died. Many of Coleridge’s most memorable imagery and phrases were discovered to have their origins in the books that lined his walls.
Coleridge rebuilt and reinvented the raw material he found on his bookshelves in the same way that Steve Jobs and his colleagues drew inspiration from older devices. It demonstrated once again that even the most innovative acts owe their existence to an extensive line of forerunners.
Reshaping an established template is a common way for creative breakthrough to happen:
Innovation often entails going backward as well as forward. But resurrecting ancient ideas isn’t enough. Both Coleridge and Apple, crucially, put a bold new twist on the primary material offered by the world.
There are three basic ways that creators can modify what already exists, as we’ll see. The first is the most straightforward; it entails refining or upgrading an existing model or bending it in some instances.
Take the human heart. Most of the time, it does an excellent job of pushing blood through our intricate circulatory system. But, every now and then, hearts fail, and tragedy strikes. So, how might bending be beneficial? In 1982, it was demonstrated that rebuilding and improving the human heart was doable. Doctor William DeVries inserted a functional prosthetic heart that pumped blood inside a living individual. It was a breakthrough in medicine, but there was a catch. Pumps are difficult to power, and their systems and components might fail over time.
It was clear that more bending was needed. It paid off in 2004. The heart’s core mechanism was redesigned by doctors Billy Cohn and Bud Frazier. Instead of emulating a real heart’s pumping activity, their artificial heart relied on a constant blood flow, similar to a fountain. The concept worked, and it avoided many of the flaws that plagued previous models. Cohn and Frazier didn’t just mimic nature’s design; they bent it. They significantly improved a life-saving medical device in the process.
What about other fields, though? What role does bending play in arts, for example? Let’s have a look at a play written by Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter. Betrayal is about a love triangle in which a man’s wife and his best buddy Jerry are having an affair. But, rather than opening at the beginning, as most plays do, Betrayal begins after the affair has ended; Pinter defies conventional chronology to create a story unlike any other.
The play’s plot keeps going backwards to the night when Jerry first confessed his love for his friend’s wife years ago. However, the audience realizes that nothing the characters say can be trusted at this point.
dividing ideas into smaller components is a major key to the creative process:
Have you ever seen one of Pablo Picasso’s most renowned paintings, Guernica? It’s a big, intricate, and highly unpleasant piece. Picasso created a world of horrific distortions to illustrate the horrors of modern warfare. The bodies of distressed humans and animals twist, turn and overlap in his artwork. It’s a painful confusion of limbs and identities.
This unique and unsettling technique portrays the cruelty of battle in a way that is both innovative and upsetting. Picasso’s approach, for all its apparent innovation, was essentially a time-honored tradition: breaking or the skill of creating through breakage – the second method in which creativity may transform the world is through creativity.
One of the most prominent applications of the breaking technique is used in filmmaking. Have you ever watched a truly old film? Scenes took place in real-time and lasted as long as they would in real life. Only when one scene finished and another began did cuts occur. There were no different camera angles to invigorate the action or shift the focus of the viewers.
But, one by one, pioneering filmmakers began to deviate from the norm. Instead of portraying every step of a character’s journey to the bar, an actor may just remark, “I’ll be right there,” and then order a drink in the following scene.
Following that, filmmakers further fractured and tightened the situation. Take, for example, the iconic breakfast scene from Citizen Kane. The timeline jumps forward significantly every few pictures, illustrating the sad deterioration of a marriage over time. Cinematic time could be broken, recombined, and compressed; the pace of real life no longer bound it.
Because breaking is a natural skill for us, this evolution was almost unavoidable. Take a look at how we break down language to save time: we compress and cut words. We transform gymnasiums into gyms and TVs into televisions. That’s not to mention the more well-known acronyms we encounter daily, such as USA, FYI, EU, and CIA.
Although the process entails breaking things, its innovative results contribute to a crucial component of human inventiveness.
Human creativity is defined by the ability to combine diverse materials in unexpected ways:
Artists and storytellers in the past created odd and magical hybrid animals to populate the planet. Poets in ancient Greece told tales of minotaurs, who were half man and half bull. The sphinx is an Egyptian creature with a human face and a lion’s body. Even today, our superhero films feature Spiderman, Batman, and the Black Panther’s daring exploits.
Images and stories of hybrid beings such as these can be found almost anywhere humans go. But why are they so widespread and long-lasting? What part of human creativity do they use?
Blending is the third way that creatives might change existing concepts. Inspiring artists, philosophers, and scientists, combining different ideas is the foundation of creative thought.
In truth, mythology and superhero stories are no longer the only places where we combine animal qualities to create new, intriguing fusions. It recently made the transition from the virtual world to the real world of the laboratory.
Consider the work of Randy Lewis, a brilliant genetics professor. Lewis saw that spider silk possessed several characteristics that may make it a commercial success. It’s significantly more durable than steel, but it’s also lighter and more malleable. To give just one example, it may be utilized to create ultra-light bulletproof vests.
However, there were some issues. For one thing, cultivating spiders is complex; in huge groups, they become cannibals, devouring one another without hesitation. As if that wasn’t awful enough, gathering spider silk is a time-consuming and difficult process. These difficulties appeared to be the death straw in Lewis’s coffin.
However, this is where blending comes into play. Lewis had a brilliant idea: why not make spider silk without using spiders? Why not splice the silk-producing DNA into the DNA of a different animal? Why not make a goat that produces silk?
Doesn’t this seem like something out of a science fiction novel? Maybe, but Lewis did it, unveiling Freckles the spider-goat to the world. She appears ordinary from the outside. Her milk, on the other hand, includes that valuable substance, spider silk.
Freckles is a prime example of humanity’s propensity to develop unique, unexpected, and bold combinations. Species blend and morph naturally over millions of years in nature. Humans using creativity may achieve the same goal in a fraction of the time.
Rather than going after the perfect idea, you should come up with other backup options:
We’ve found that bending, breaking, and blending concepts can help us develop new ideas. But what if we’re still trapped in a rut, doubting everything we do? Well, we can’t do better than mimic Mother Nature when coming up with great ideas.
If there’s one thing Mother Nature is good at, it’s making things that work. There are so many amazing creatures on the planet, each ideally adapted to its habitat. So, what is the secret of nature? Is it a nagging desire to get things right the first time? Is it possible that Mother Nature is terrified of failing? Not in the slightest. Nature creates an infinite number of variations. The world then decides what survives and what dies.
In 1921, scientist George Washington Carver testified before a US House of Representatives committee on the subject of peanuts and sweet potatoes. He was well aware that Southern farmers’ dependence on cotton was causing soil degradation. He attempted to persuade them that peanut products had a market. What is his strategy? Carver presented choice after option, imitating Mother Nature, confident that something would make sense.
Carver listed peanut ice cream, peanut dyes, peanut flour, peanut inks, peanut relish, and even peanut coffee in a brilliant display of innovation. Carver spoke for 47 minutes straight and described more than a hundred uses for peanuts, all while ignoring racial remarks shouted at him by one congressman. Although Carver’s suggestions were not implemented, he became a folk hero among Southern farmers due to his resourcefulness and many ideas.
You know, when it comes to generating options, not every one of them may be successful. Even some of the world’s most brilliant minds, such as Thomas Edison, have developed failures. Because Steinway pianos are so expensive, Edison reasoned that a less expensive substitute would be sure to find a market. What is his solution? A concrete piano.
Expectedly, the concept failed to gain popularity. Concrete pianos didn’t sound particularly good, and their aesthetic value was minimal. However, Edison recognized that failing to develop good ideas was an unavoidable part of human creativity. He accepted his defeat and went on to the next project.
Organizations that look forward foster experimentation:
How should we create schools and workplaces that foster and capitalize on our intrinsic creativity now that we’ve grasped the foundations of creativity? It’s once again a matter of principles rather than specifics. Employees, companies, students, and institutions come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution. Nonetheless, all creative institutions share certain common qualities.
An emphasis on future challenges rather than today’s issues and solutions is one of the apparent signs of an organization that promotes creativity. However, this does not imply that every business forecasting company is innovative and forward-thinking. Aiming for the future entails devising solutions that may or may not work. It entails anticipating problems that may or may not arise.
Microsoft is one corporation that isn’t scared to take on such projects. Take, for example, the data centers it is now constructing. One of the most significant issues it faces is that these data centers rely on complex circuitry, generating heat. It’s still just a concept at this point; there are many questions to be answered and details to smooth out. What’s interesting, however, is Microsoft’s willingness to test an unconventional solution that isn’t already available.
When it comes to teaching, most institutions lack the resources to allow for large-scale experimentation on the magnitude of Microsoft. They can, however, assist in instilling the mental habits that lead to creative breakthroughs. How? By teaching students the belief that the world exists to be molded. Every year, art instructor Lindsay Esola teaches her class this lesson. She draws an apple on the board at the start of the semester and encourages the class to draw one as well; the great majority simply replicate hers.
However, after a few months of experimenting with Surrealism and Pop Art, everything changes. Esola repeats her experiment at the end of the semester. Almost no one mimics her apple this time. Instead, the students create a kaleidoscopic apple display, reimagining the styles they’ve been learning about all semester.
The students’ experimentation takes old forms and reinvents them. They’re bending, breaking, and blending the past with the present to create something new.