I have argued more than once that the advice to “write what you know” is not very sound. After all, where would science fiction be if everyone followed that rule? When it comes to nonfiction, though, I think it applies. Edward O. Wilson is an esteemed scientist and deservedly so. He has written over thirty books and hundreds of papers and he knows a lot, but nonetheless, in The Origins of Creativity he clearly wanders far past his expertise and it shows in the somewhat shambolic organization and meandering arguments.
As someone who loves the humanities, who studied literature and history and loves art and music, I am happy that such a renowned scientist wants to defend the humanities in this era of retrenchment. Wilson certainly does a good job of showing how terribly the humanities are neglected and devalued, comparing funding for humanities to funding for science, technology, engineering and math, the STEM discliplines. The STEM vs. humanities facts are dismal and depressing. I am glad Wilson wants to step forward to defend the humanities, though I wonder if he has never heard of STEAM.
However, Wilson’s deep regard for the humanities comes across as damning with fulsome praise. We need the humanities, they are the locus of creativity which is what makes us human, he argues. So why are the humanities under-valued? According to Wilson, they are too anthropocentric–too much about humanity. Worse, the humanities do not look to biology and evolutionary science to explain human behavior and causation. They are trapped in human sensory experience. I get the idea he thinks there is too much humanity in the humanities. His entire complaint with the humanities is distilled into the simple fact they are not science.
He wants a fusion of science and the humanities which he believes could touch off a new enlightenment. If only practitioners of the arts would incorporate his “Big Five” fields: paleontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology then a new day would dawn and the fullness of the arts would blossom.
I struggled with The Origins of Creativity, not because it is difficult to understand but because it irritated me. I had to walk away, put it down and come back after venting a bit. Of course, that it irritated me speaks to Wilson’s ability to engage. That he does! This book had me calling up a friend of mine to vent. (She’s been on a Wilson-hiatus since Consilience.) There’s something to be said for books that get you worked up, even if what they do is make you angry.
There’s a falsity to a scientist emphasizing the importance of the humanities while simultaneously arguing that the humanities need to stop being what they are and be more like science. The humanities are too anthropocentric, he argues, which made me wonder what they should be called then.
However, I think this book fails in the end because Wilson merely asserts; he does not back up what he asserts. Are the humanities too anthropocentric? Maybe. Wilson says so, but why should I take his word for it? By what measure? What would humanities be if not centered on humanity?
Wilson seems to be out over his skis. He’s well-read and has a grasp of fine art, poetry, music, and literature, but that does not make him a good prescriber for the humanities. Strangely, why does he not talk about neuroaesthetics, the relatively new science that seeks to understand what underlies aesthetic perception?
The Origins of Creativity also fails because it does not tell us what the origins of creativity are. In fact, that focus is quickly dropped as Wilson moves on damning the humanities with faint praise. The book wanders, turns, repeats, stumbling back over itself as though it were just written off the top of his head–though that would be impressive given the many long quotes. But to give an example, he writes about the Big Five sciences and then later in the book, writes about them again with the same explanation as though it were the first time they came up. This speaks to disorganization which might be why so many of his assertions rely on “because I said so” instead of evidence.
I received an e-galley of The Origins of Creativity from the publisher through NetGalley.
- The Origins of Creativity at W. W. Norton & Company
- Edward O. Wilson at E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation