While reading Edward O. Wilson’s latest book, The Origins of Creativity, a quote from a recent read by Abby Smith Rumsey kept coming to mind.
“Scientists separate how questions from why and dwell exclusively on what is, not what ought to be. This is a moral hazard Socrates warned against—that by alienating our knowledge, making it ‘external to us,’ we have brought an immense measure of power over the world at the expense of having power over ourselves.”
Abby Smith Rumsey, from When We Are No More
It is these divisions between how and why, what is and what ought to be, that is the crux of the current clashing between the sciences and the humanities, which is the topic of argument in The Origins of Creativity. E. O. Wilson, for his part, attempts to remedy this poisonous conflict. The methods he uses are reason and (of course) scientific basis, and in doing so he seemingly accidentally pits the two against each other, plays favorites, and in a parental fashion portrays the two opposing parties as siblings who can’t get along: the sciences are the high-achieving older sibling who gets first picks, and the humanities are the younger sibling who doesn’t do the homework and has a ballooned head stuck in the clouds.
This, as you might expect, makes for a rather lopsided read.
“The humanities, particularly the creative arts and philosophy, continue to lose esteem and support relative to the sciences for two primary reasons. First, their leaders have kept stubbornly within the narrow audiovisual bubble we inherited happenstance from our prehuman ancestors. Second, they have paid scant attention to the reasons why (and not just how) our thinking species acquired its distinctive traits. This, unaware of most the world around us, and shorn of their roots, the humanities remain needlessly static.”
Peppered with images and classic art, The Origins of Creativity through a series of short chapters takes one on a logical anthropological dive into deep time and the buried instinctual underpinnings of human psychology. These scientific explorations are then used as the two oars E. O. Wilson paddles up the stream with in his personal observations of two notable and often very at odds subjects: sciences and the humanities. It’s a bit of slog, full of holes and fragmented musings, and instead of the top comes out the side, leaving the sensation of having experienced a horizontal fall. This book from the cover (and jacket) proposes to be about creativity in some vein or another. This is misleading, as the book rather meanders through this topic. Creativity is sometimes vaguely used as a referral to how the sciences and humanities will bridge the gap, but it’s a three legged table. Even so, after a couple days of mulling, I’ve decided this is a good book, despite its failings.
Yes, I didn’t like it. But it’s still a good read. I came to realize (or perhaps gave in), that this book is not about the past or the present, but the future. It should be pointed out that clearly this is E. O. Wilson’s goal, to have you peer ahead into the beyond and envision the world as he would like to see it – unified. But the scope he builds is muddy and speckled. This book seems incomplete, as though he had a grander work in mind but couldn’t cobble it together in time for the publishers. It reads more like a series of essays, or blog posts, and all this information and murmuring of his inner mind are stuffed together. With each page turn I kept giving Wilson the benefit of the doubt, that by the end all the pieces would be in place and he would unroll a marvelous patchwork quilt, a photomosaic of the proclaimed Third Enlightenment. Upon finishing, it’s just not there.
The book is broken down into five parts, and each part is (I imagine) suppose to act as a steppingstone to get to the matter at hand: the attainment of a Third Enlightenment. On this journey, E. O. Wilson takes jabs at everybody as to why we aren’t there yet, but humanities takes the brunt of it. The star students he openly lists: paleontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology. In E. O. Wilson’s opinion, organized religion has flunked. Organized religion has been in the hot-seat for some time now, so this is unsurprising.
E. O. Wilson is a naturalist, so the way living things came to be, how they operate, what they think and feel, and where they are headed is of particular importance to him. These are the bright parts of this book; his love of the natural world and the intricacies of the ever running earth inspire him, and Mother Nature’s endless forging of diversity and wellspring of creativity is Wilson’s rapture. Several chapters hearken back to other books authored by him, such as Half-Earth and many from what could be called his ‘ant days’, often co-authored with Bert Hölldobler. E. O. Wilson is in the twilit years, so his memories of the past he looks back on fondly. Wilson’s age might have something to do with the fragmented feeling of this book – but I don’t think so. In fact, I think his age is more a strength, and lends much to an otherwise empty read. Authors and writers who are on the way out have a particular taste in their writing that I’ve never been able to wholly put a name to. It’s a sense of settlement in their opinions. Conviction? It seems a bit stronger than the word I’m looking for. E. O. Wilson is a brilliant man who has lived a life with much wonder and discovery; he is a seeker, in heart and mind, and his journey has taken him far and wide and through all this he has developed his Truth. And we should pay attention. E. O. Wilson has made his decisions, knows what path he would suggest we take. This is the saving grace of the book, and makes it worth reading.
I debated long and hard how to rate this book, and in the end I’m giving it a good review. I disagreed with a good much of his presentation; it left me frustrated. But long after I closed The Origins of Creativity, I kept thinking about it. This alone is enough of a reason to give the book a decent rating, for a book that makes you think – even if it gets you thinking in the opposite direction – is a good book. (Most the time anyway.) The research is sound, and Edward O. Wilson’s accolades speak for themselves, and if they don’t impress for whatever reason, E. O. Wilson is still a damn good writer.
At the end, E. O. Wilson chooses someone else’s words to send us off. I would like to do the same, with words from Buckminster Fuller regarding to what I believe E. O. Wilson is trying to say.
“We are going to have to find ways of organizing ourselves cooperatively, sanely, scientifically, harmonically, and in regenerative spontaneity with the rest of humanity around Earth. […] We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody.”
Buckminster Fuller, from Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth
Three out of five stars for The Origins of Creativity, and also, that I hope Edward O. Wilson has one more book in him. (Would it be selfish of me to ask for two?)