creativity without innovation

Posted in Uncategorized by sarkology on July 2, 2012

This is a straightforward report of an insight by David Deutsch as reported in his book The Beginning of Infinity. Although it does fit really well with my own thinking on the nature of learning and communication.

The problem is that archaeological and historical evidence show large periods of stasis in between bouts of innovation. If creativity was present, then why wasn’t also innovation present? If creativity evolved for the purpose of innovation, given the infrequency of innovation, how could there be consistent selection pressure for creativity?

His answer is that cultural learning (not only innovation) also requires creativity. Imitation is not direct. Imitation is theory laden. And where do these theories come from? Partly innate, but also partly the result of trial and error, i.e. creativity. So the original purpose of creativity was to conjecture at that-which-is-to-be-imitated, i.e. the underlying explanation (Deutsch’s term) for the behavior. He gives the example of a students not remembering any particular sentence uttered by the lecturer, but they remember the content. This is because they were, in a process of conjecture and refutation, using the lecturer’s sentences as evidence for the idea he was trying to convey. They were creatively postulating possible ideas the lecturer could have meant, and discarding the ones which didn’t fit, in order to arrive at the ones that do.

So let’s say some genius fellow tribesman of yours invented fire. But then that’s not the end of it. You can’t just free-ride off the invention without creativity on your own part. You need to conjecture at just what the hell this fellow tribesman is up to with his rubbing of sticks and stuff. Etc. Etc. Creativity is required even for the learning of something which was discovered via creativity!

So you see how your fitness would be higher if you were creative even if you did not employ your creativity toward innovation.

So how did creativity eventually come to be employed toward innovation? Perhaps we became richer and had more free time. Perhaps social norms evolved in favor innovation. Communication and recording technologies. Etc. Etc. But all these are merely the exaptation of creativity from its original purpose of imitation toward the glorious purpose of innovation.


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  1. JenniferRM said, on May 10, 2013 at 5:40 pm

    For years I have suspected that rates of what you’re calling innovation are higher in certain kinds of groups almost by accident than is typically found even with individuals who are actively focused on innovation in isolation. The key mechanism is “generous misinterpretation”. When people spend hours, days, weeks, or months (for example in a really good seminar, study group, or salon) working on ideas around a common theme you run into situations where ideas bounce back and forth between people, improving with each round trip.

    Imagine Alice explains a new theory with difficulty, then Bob (who never would have thought about the topic otherwise) clarifies by trying to repeat what he thought he heard, then Alice ends up saying “that isn’t what I was trying to say because it sounds *better* than what I was trying to say”. But now there are two theories on the table that a third might be built from, and spelling out how the two theories might be synthesized into a third could easily accidentally lead to a fourth and a fifth theory, especially when Carol comes in the next day and is brought up to speed on the latest developments.

    It is probably worth pointing out that there is an abstract pattern here that doesn’t have to involve human beings in a small group. It could be several distinct but high quality compression algorithms round tripping each other’s creative output generated by a simple “compress, mutate, decompress” process.

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