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.
Any account of the evolutionary origins of creativity has to be consistent with the fossil record, of course. There is an emerging consensus that Homo sapiens sapiens first appeared some 100,000 years ago in Southern Africa. And there is evidence from about 90,000 years ago that this species was of basically modern intelligence, accumulating knowledge about its environment and making a number of important technological innovations; but that it was crucially lacking in creative imagination (Mithen ). Although the working of wooden artifacts may have undergone some change, and bone tools were introduced for the first time, essentially the same range of stone tools as had been employed by later sub-species of Homo erectus continued to be used unchanged for tens of thousands of years. And there was little sign of the use of body-ornaments and no sign of the production of art (and little evidence of religion), until all these burst onto the scene (together with new stone-tool industries) some 40,000 years ago on a world-wide basis (Stringer and Gamble ; Mithen ).
So far as we can tell from the archaeological record, then, human creativity first manifested itself to any significant degree about 40,000 years ago, continuing to emerge independently around the globe over the next 10-15,000 years. (This is the so-called ‘creative explosion’ of the Upper Paleolithic period.) The question is, what happened in the intervening 50,000-plus years from the first emergence of our species? The puzzle is compounded by the fact that by the time of the creative explosion human beings were already widely separated around the globe, and had been so for at least 20,000 years (with Australia having been reached by boat for the first time some 60,000 years ago). Yet this upsurge in human creativity occurred more-or-less simultaneously around the world (give-or-take 10,000 years).