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5.0 out of 5 starsFascinating if rambling proposal for closer ties between the humanities and science
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on July 23, 2017
In "The Origins of Creativity", E. O. Wilson doesn't provide a detailed discussion of the evolutionary and biological basis for creative thought, but instead uses that idea as the framework for an argument on the importance of the humanities in humanity's future intellectual development, and of the sciences in the future development of the humanities. Part manifesto for linking the humanities and science, part ramble through the intimate ties between humanity and nature, the book makes for thought-provoking if somewhat rambling and inconclusive reading.
The book begins quite close to the title, addressing the preprequisite developmental steps for creative thought in human beings, via symbolic language through campfire storytelling to the specifics of the culture we have today. Wilson is careful to note how recently culture has arisen on an evolutionary timescale, and therefore that much of our self-understanding depends on how creativity lets us explore "other worlds infinite in time and space" and he puts it. The humanities, and not just a biological investigation of the human organism, are therefore essential. Conversely, the existence of that foundational, evolved framework on which culture depends, means that the humanities can only go so far without collaborating with five critical fields: palaeontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology.
This posited partnership of the humanities and sciences leads off in a number of pleasant and surprising directions throughout the book. Wilson is much more interested in exploring the breadth of these ideas than drilling into definitive examples, which means the book lacks closure but is a fantastic springboard for further reading. It's slightly maddening that Wilson begins to posit what culture might be like for an organism with a completely different evolutionary history - termites, in his example - and then doesn't follow through into the details, but the book is full of these thought-provoking loose ends. I was particularly charmed by Wilson's often surprising summary of the movies he considers archetypal - although I would strongly disagree with him on more than a few of them.
This wouldn't be an ideal book for someone looking to get to grips with the technical detail of the evolution of creativity, or formally address the great controversies of scientism or "non-overlapping magisteria". However, if you are in any way interested in these topics and looking to broaden your horizons, this is a refreshing and greatly entertaining read.
5.0 out of 5 starsA book to savour, not rush, bringing together the humanities and sciences
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on August 28, 2017
It took me a little while to get into this book - the writing is rather old fashioned and not the easiest to read. Having said that, it's worth the effort. Most popular science books (Dawkins, Goldacre, Cox, Hawking and New Scientist) create their prose to be as readable as possible. No such concessions here, this is almost like reading the original The Origin of Species. The vocabulary is large and the sentence structure sometimes had me reading twice to get the gist. This from a long-term New Scientist reader; so here's a sample, taken at random by just opening the book:
"I might have left the discovery of this species unremarked here, except the account of its capture combines two archetypes resident in both science and the humanities."
So, it's clear enough, if you savour the words rather than skimming or speed-reading.
The title of the book is also a little misleading. It may be a gentle pun on "Origin of Species", as the over-arching thesis of the book is that everything, including all humanities, is dependent and a result of Darwinian evolution, i.e. natural selection.
You'll notice the word "humanities" above - this book is wide ranging, and attempts to bring the sciences and humanities together, and showing how they are connected. A worthwhile and honourable task.
I book feels as a series of essays - you could read any chapter in isolation. This can give the book a meandering feel. Often each chapter (some very short) has only a tentative relationship to the thread of the book. However, every chapter is fascinating, intelligent and highly original.
A quick look at the other reviews mentions his take on organised religion. I noticed he referenced it only twice, and then not as a subject of a chapter but in passing. He is, however, forthright in his views on religion, which may affect some sensitivities. I wouldn't let it put you off reading the book though - he is simply being consistent, and is not a central focus of the book (unlike, say, Dawkins' books on the subject).
Although at times repetitive or oddly anecdotal, E O Wilson is always engaging and brilliant in his assessment of both nature and the arts. Wilson promotes the need for a fusion of scientific knowledge and humanistic inquiry as the means for a new Enlightenment. The greatest opponent of this enterprise is religion, though I might add politics as well. After being educated in a post structural age where all beauty is supposedly a cultural construct, I find Wilson’s understanding of the origins of creativity compelling. His sensitivity to how and why we respond to beauty, as products of accident and a long prehistory of evolutionary adaptation, was spot on. I even came to understand why I like my home to be on a rise of land with trees nearby and water within sight. Yes, Virginia, there is a human nature.
E.O. Wilson has a unique, valuable take on creativity. A transcendental passage describes the differences in sensory input among varying creatures, reinforced by his lifetime study of biology. I focused on creativity in grad school, and this added another dimension to the category. Thank you, Edward!
Wilson began exploring the boundary between the sciences and humanities twenty years ago. If you found Consilience, his first book on the subject, intriguing, The Origins of Creativity will be striking and satisfying. Two decades of deep thinking by one of the most consequential scientists of our time has produced a beautifully written conclusive statement about the possibilities accessible to human thought, as well as the new questions we should be asking.