Book review: The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World

A new book about creativity by a neuroscientist and a composer will make teachers despair at the current school environment

Alistair McConville

News article image

The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World
By David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt
Canongate Books, 304pp, £20.00
ISBN 978-0857862075

This collaboration between a neuroscientist and a composer is not primarily a book about education, though it has much to say to our profession by implication. It is a paean to the ingenuity of the human species, a description of the anatomy of creativity and a rallying cry to cultivate our skills for the benefit of our collective future.

Employing a broad, lavishly illustrated tableau of examples, from Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon to the Apollo 13 mission, the authors demonstrate how innovation never emerges from a vacuum. It is always a reimagining and reconstitution of existing ideas, artefacts or habits.

The emergence of the iPhone has a history, as do the riffs of Jimi Hendrix. We bend, break and blend pre-existing materials to create new pathways, products and practices. The book is light on the detail of neuroscience, but offers a thumbnail sketch of the neural architecture of imagination. Where bees have a million neurons, humans have a hundred billion, and vast swathes of these are given over to the activities in between sensation and action. Our infinite capacity for imagining alternative realities fuels social, artistic and technological progress. We are restless innovators by nature.

Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman paint a convincing picture of society treading a line between its need for stability and predictability and our competing, fierce impulse to explore, ask “what if?” and embrace novelty. Societies, companies, individuals – and education systems – stagnate if they fail to constantly reinvent themselves while retaining the best of what went before. Blackberry, Kodak and Blockbuster stand as testament to the dangers of staying still. Adapt or die.

A little despair

The authors show that the best innovations come through proliferating ideas, and then pruning the hopeless ones, or the ones for which their audience is not yet ready – Esperanto GCSE? Einstein designed a blouse that has not stood the test of time. Nor has Edison’s concrete piano. But their imaginative fecundity was precisely what increased their chances of striking gold.

Only one chapter is devoted to education specifically, but it should set the pulse of a forward-looking educationalist racing, as well as stirring a little despair about the disconnect between the ideal world and our current reality. The authors demonstrate how the environment needed to cultivate creavity is one in which the answers sought are not fixed, there is space and time to proliferate alternative solutions to problems and the arts play a central role in developing risk-taking, alternative-reality-imagining traits.

It is in the section on the centrality of the arts that the book’s relevance to our schools comes to the fore. The active nature of the arts creates the habit of taking new perspectives, embracing anxiety and confronting risk. These habits are crucial in the advancement of any field, whether artistic, technological or political. The arts provoke a dynamic remix of normal life.

We are reminded that authoritarian governments have always clamped down on the arts when they have sought to limit human imagination for the sake of their own control. By doing so, they deaden the human experience. At a time when access to the arts is increasingly becoming the domain of the privileged, owing to funding cuts and a centralised education agenda designed to actively discourage their take-up even where facilities exist, this book should be read as a prophetic warning about our dreary future if we fail to put creativity back at the heart of education. We are not given any specifics about how to do this pedagogically. For that, read Bill Lucas and Ellen Spencer’s excellent new book, Teaching Creative Thinking, which reinforces the case for creativity and outlines how a school might facilitate its development. Brandt and Eagleman’s book makes an inspiring generalist companion to Lucas and Spencer’s more practical volume.

The Runaway Species cites Goethe’s laudable ambition: “Two lasting bequests we can hope to give to our children. One of these is roots, the other wings”. Were Goethe, the very embodiment of the beneficial intertwining of the arts and sciences, to survey the current landscape, he would surely lament the relentless emphasis on roots and bemoan the lack of flying children.

Alistair McConville is deputy head (academic) at Bedales School, Hampshire

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Latest stories