Human beings are unique in lots of ways, and human beings are especially smart in lots of ways. We are capable of acquiring and retaining immense amounts of information over the life-time of an individual; we are capable of learning and fine-tuning a great many skills and new activities; and we are capable of using and interpreting speech. But one of the most striking species-specific features of Homo sapiens sapiens, surely, is the degree of creativity and innovation which we display in our thought and behavior, both within the lives of individuals and across different human cultures. This manifests itself in story-telling, in art, in the construction of bodily ornaments and decorations, in humor, in religion-building, in theory-construction, in problem-solving, in technological innovation, and in myriad other ways.
Creativity, as I shall understand it, will normally manifest itself in new types of behavior, going beyond mere re-applications of established scripts or action-patterns. And creativity itself is constituted, in part, by a capacity to combine together ideas in novel ways in abstraction from any immediate environmental stimulation (see section 2 below for further discussion). So a creature adopting a novel solution to an environmental problem may be acting creatively, whereas one which is merely applying an old solution in new circumstances (e.g. dipping for ants with one sort of stick rather than another) will not be. And anyone who is imagining how things could be other than they are will be thinking creatively, whereas someone who thinks, ‘The cat is vomiting purple liquid’, in the presence of a cat doing just that, will not be, even if they have never before entertained a thought with that content. When applied as a predicate of individuals, ‘creative’ will be a matter of degree, of course¾a person or creature can be more or less creative by engaging to a greater or lesser extent in creative behaviors and creative thought-processes.
What makes the distinctively-human degree of creativity possible? And how did our creative capacity evolve? These are the two main questions to which I propose to sketch answers in this paper. To elaborate on them a little (in reverse order): Is our creativity a mere by-product of other selected-for traits (such as our language-capacity, or bigger brains)? Or was it selected for in its own right? And either way, what are its cognitive pre-requisites? That is to say, what had to be in place within our cognition initially, which either provided the sufficient conditions for our greatly enhanced creativity to make its appearance, or which supplied the background against which some sort of disposition to engage in creative activities could emerge or get selected for?
I should emphasize that I only propose to sketch answers to these questions in what follows, and to provide inconclusive¾but I hope plausible and suggestive¾arguments in support of those answers. In an interdisciplinary and wide-ranging paper of this sort, it won’t be possible to deal with the issues thoroughly, and much of the needed evidence is in any case lacking. My hope is to sketch out a framework for further enquiry, and to render it just plausible enough to encourage others to pursue these questions and to seek some of the necessary evidence from the standpoint of their own interdisciplinary perspectives.