The Evolution of Creativity: Whats The Rush?

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Imagination is a very unique cognitive ability. Or is it a set of cognitive abilities? What is imagination? It seems as if this ability humans have can be split into two: one more rudimentary, the other more advanced (where Bogdan (2013) uses capital “I” imagination, I will say “creativity” or “creative imagining” or “novel imagination”etc. as Mithen uses). If imagination is the basic ability to form representations, it seems as if we are not alone in having it. Many animals seem to be capable of manipulating physical objects, and even interpreting the goals of other animals, but many of these abilities can only be used in limited ways, in which novel solutions to problems are rarely considered or discovered.

Creativity is the more robust aspect of the uniquely human cognitive abilities. It is what allows us to solve all kinds of practical and social problems in novel and useful ways. Creativity is what allows for the quick cultural advancement seen in humans. But just how and why did creativity develop in the first place? What selection pressures acted on our ancestors so that they would develop this strange ability? When it boils down to it, most (including Mithen) would cite pressures which required social intelligence and the representation of the mental states of others as the first(chronologically) and foremost culprit. It cannot be seen as the sole culprit in a vacuum, and as Mithen points out, physical and natural intelligence definitely played a key roles as well. For ‘crossing modules’ to be practical or effective, the modules had to already be very well developed. It is as if imagination left us in an alley with a block of marble and a chisel, and creativity took the marble to a studio and gave us a chisel.

Steps and clarifications.

In Mithen’s paper, he outlines 7 “steps” in the evolution of creativity which coincide with steps of human biological and cognitive development.These steps show how we got from something like chimps to how we are now. They are meant to be seen as separate but temporally overlapping evolutionary processes. He numbers them in order of approximately when they would have started, and not based on when they end because several of them are still underway, according to him. I have collapsed several of them, because It is my belief that they are descriptions of the same part of the process, but in different terms.

The first step, theory of mind is listed as starting 6.8 million years ago, around when our ancestors split off from the ancestors of chimps, but even Mithen admits that the seeds of interpretation may go much further back in time. He would not contest the point that the natural teleology chimps have today is ahead of most other animals. In that they interpret intentions of multiple conspecifics over long periods of time, and make rudimentary plans, it seems as if they have a somewhat well functioning form of interpretation, but we do not see the novel cultural development seen in humans in the non-human primate populations.Mithen stipulates that the important changes which occurred with interpretation were probably in the last 2 million years. He subscribes to a Dennet-inspired theory of orders of intentionality, and claims that somehow we were able to acquire the ability to conceptualize more orders of intentionality than our ancestors.

The life cycle and biological changes may be the most crucial causal aspect of Mithen’s picture. He cites several different changes to human life history and anatomy which allowed for the lifestyle changes which created the possibility, and the pressures for creativity. The first biological change he addresses is Bipedalism.He says this may have been the catalyst to later changes. Walking around gives one a different spatial perspective, and the diminished size of the birth canal led to increased altriciality.

Ontogeny Is also a crucial aspect of these processes. The changing of the stages of life from a 3 stage to a 5 stage lifecycle affected how we interact with each other socially (Feeding back into theory of mind competence). Hyper Altriciality also greatly impacted how we were raised, and the amount of information we absorbed in the first years of life.

Cognitive development refers to the separate honing of several cognitive faculties. These include but are not necessarily limited to physical knowledge, natural knowledge, and social knowledge. Social knowledge is one and the same as the earlier step “ Theory of mind” so it is safe to assume that this step refers to the other two becoming honed separately and specifically as well. This honing allowed for more advanced hunting techniques, technology, and social/cultural ritual and practice, But was it creativity?Mithen uses Neanderthals as an example of why it was not: They didn’t ‘crossed modules’ often enough, but they did get very advanced in each separate cognitive domain. This point about the neanderthals only lacking the interconnection between modalities is central to Mithen’s picture.

Merging modules

For this step, I myself merged several steps. What Mithen describes as “Cognitive fluidity” seems to be the most specific abstract attribute of modern human cognition which neanderthals were lacking in. He creates several ‘steps’ which really all seem to be ways of observing the development of cognitive fluidity. Fluidity between modalities is painted as the key difference which gave rise to creative imagination, symbolic thought, and language.

Mithen puts forward a theory of a precursor (or precursors) To language: called ‘hmmmm’. This stands for Holistic, Multimodal, Manipulative, Musical, Mimetic.He explains how utterances of ‘hmmmm’ would have employed vocal timbre, vocal tone, gestures, proto-dance, and mimesis/call and response.Specialization of communication systems. He is not specific in the paper as to how it happened, but his explanation of how language and music developed out of ‘hmmmm’ paint a very practical picture: namely that certain types of information were more easily transmitted in certain modalities.

For technical instructions, gestures and maybe vocal sounds would begin to show themselves to be more useful, Whereas during the hunt, gestures may have won out, for the sake of quiet. During group gatherings, rhythmic, tonal, dance like gesture, and primitive song or narrative structures probably began as a way to share emotional information, and cultural practice. This shows how language and music may have split from each other, with storytelling falling somewhere in between until language had already distinguished itself.Although Mithen admits that Neanderthals used ‘hmmmm’, he makes it clear that they were never symbolic, never used compositional communication systems, and remained culturally stagnant for millennia.

For our ancestors, early communication systems probably allowed for the first and most rudimentary forms of crossing modules. As the amount and complexity of utterances increased, learning ‘hmmmm’ began to fill their minds with information which was packaged in a more general-use way.  This general use mechanism is most likely exactly what allows us to think creatively and not just imaginatively, It allows us to take a counterfactual or suppositional stance, and find novel solutions to age-old problems.

The merging of cognitive modules and use of proto-language systems was most likely followed by an increasing need to save our ideas. This is the beginning of symbol use. Merging the modules gave us the workshop, we had the marble, the hammer, and the chisel.

We began making things permanent. Physical structures, practical knowledge, artistic creations, once we had a certain level of communication, we began to make things much more quickly, and our technology advanced that much more quickly, until we adopted agriculture, and settled down.

Like extension, the sedentary lifestyle step is still underway. It refers to the fact that we have gone from being nomadic, to largely sedentary people, making long term settlements and preserving our housing along with our ideas and inventions. This is seen as the last stage due to it beginning last, and still being underway.

Weighing in

How do other writers’ conceptions of creativity and human cognitive development factor in? It seems as if Mithen is in line with many great thinkers, despite the vague and abstract definition of ‘Hmmmm’, the steps which he explains fit very well into the cognitive and evolutionary picture. I have found some writers whose views can be interpreted as in somewhat agreement with Mithen’s picture.

In his 1988 book, The Intentional Stance in Theory and Practice, Daniel Dennet puts forward a framework for interpreting different types of systems. He endorses the intentional stance as a way of interpreting the actions of very complex systems, which cannot be or do not need to be abstracted to physical or design perspectives.He uses the intentional model to define the term order of intentionality. An order of intentionality is one level of representation or proto-representation: a ‘mental’ state which is to be analyzed by the intentional stance. 2 orders would be a chimp’s representation of a conspecific’s mental state. 3 is my thought about my friend’s opinion whether the chimp is angry or not.

Dennet claims that it is orders of intentionality which allow for abstract and meta-representational thought. He says humans have the capacity for about 4-5 orders of intentionality, Chimps have about 1 or 2, with most other organisms possessing 1 or 0. This is what Mithen would corroborate is responsible for novel creative abilities, and required for compositional communicative utterances.

In Godel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstadter explores many aspects of human cognition and their relation to creativity. In one of the last chapters, ‘Contrafactus’, he illustrates humanity’s crucial ability to take suppositional stances, and understand propositions and narratives which are not real, and require a new model of reality in order to think about.

The chapter begins with a dialogue in which several bizzare and surreal events are recounted. This is meant to illustrate the ability in the reader, proving that one can still follow the dialogue and the events being recounted. It is near the end of the book, because it ranks, in Hofstadter’s opinion, among the most advanced and crucial attributes of human cognition. He spends several hundred pages explaining different types of formal systems, recursive structures, and ways in which we might process and organize information, and one of the most crucial components which he “builds” is the ability to suppose idea’s which are counterfactual to reality, to imagine creatively.

Radu Bogdan’s writing on creativity mirrors Mithen’s in its stress on theory of mind and life history, and particularly how these apply to ontogeny. In Mind Vaults, Bogdan shows how the changes which occurred to ontogeny laid the groundwork for later cognitive development. These pressures seem to be interlocked into a set of feedback loops, with certain types of adaptations allowing for the possibility ( and eventually adaptive pressure) of the next step in the process.

In Origin of The Modern Mind, Merlin Donald follows human cognitive development in the very general sense, with no focus on imagination and creativity specifically. That being said, his views have very fruitful implications for the creativity-focused analysis. The episodic, mimetic, and mythic stages which he illustrates match up very well with some of Mithen’s thoughts about ‘hmmmm’ ‘pre-hmmm’, and advanced ‘hmmmm’. While it seems as if modern non-human primates have episodic minds, and the users of ‘hmmmm’ most likely had mimetic minds, Donald’s conception of the mythic mind allows for more wiggle room between ‘hmmmm’ and language/music. My own tentative theory(to be discussed later) shall center on the idea of another middle ground, between hmmmm and language, with remnant hmmmm structures assimilating into music, dance, and parts of language.

The Singing Neanderthals: Mithen’s View Expanded

In Steven Mithen’s 2005 book The Singing Neanderthals(TSN) he further illustrates his stages of human creative evolution, and includes further explanation of key concepts and changes which are only mentioned in the original paper. Specifically, his descriptions of the life cycle, ontogenetic, and prelinguistic changes add much detail to the original thesis.


Mithen cites bipedalism as both instrumental, and fairly underappreciated as a biological change which contributed to the emergence of the creative mind.But how did we even start walking? Why?

For a long time, it was thought that we began walking so we could free up our hands. Mithen points out that according to the archaeological timeline, the need to use our hands more would have happened after we were at least somewhat bipedal. While both chimps and apes can stand and walk upright, it is stressful on their bodies, and, as Mithen points out, on their brains. What physical changes did we develop? Locking knees, a broader pelvis, curved lower spine, and a head which was most comfortably held vertically (eyes facing the horizon)(140).

Mithen discusses two distinct stages of our bipedal evolution(144-145). The first was meant to save energy grabbing fruit, and made it natural for us to stand upright when we weren’t in the trees. This stage only gave us the broad pelvis, but few of the other changes. The second stage allowed for comfortable walking. Locking knees and curved lower spine were selected for due to our change in habitat. Due to climate changes, our ancestors moved to the savannahs, where walking saves energy, and the tallest animals see the furthest.

Mithen points out that H.ergaster had noticeably larger brains than australopithecines, even relative to body size, and another known factor which divided them was comfortably walking. On page 146, he claims that bipedalism actually made our brains bigger in areas associated with sensorimotor coordination.

Mithen also shows the evidence for bipedalism as an enabling agent for complex vocalizations, and gestures. On pg 146 he explains how the vocal tract changed shape and size upon human’s becoming bipedal. This corroborates theories which label bipedalism as a very general catalyst for later cognitive abilities.

According to Mithen, bipedalism laid the groundwork for several other components of modern human cognition. He has made his claim about how the physical changes made by bipedalism led to several evolutionary developments (sensorimotor growth – intuitive physics development, vocal chord changes – language/speech development, free hands – gestural development) but these changes are not as crucial as the way in which bipedalism changed ontogeny.


Mithen is always the first to point out this crucial feature of bipedal movement: As our bodies became optimized for walking, the birth canal became smaller. Now on top of all evolutionary pressures to be both strong and intelligent, babies had to face the ontogenetic pressure of being too big to be safely born after what should have been the right amount of gestation. The solution? Mothers began giving birth to babies which would have previously been considered premature, and were certainly not ready for the animal kingdom, but were small enough to make it out safely.

This meant that part of the life span in which some of our ancestors had been in the womb, some of our later ancestors were already out in the world absorbing information. This postnatal phase is now seen as one of the most crucial and influential stages of development.

Early on in the book (Pgs 69-81) Mithen talks about modern day mother-talk. He points out several peculiar aspects of this phenomenon: It seems to be somewhat like what ‘hmmmm’ was, It is universal among human mothers, and It implies music’s precedence in development. He cites a study which shows how babies are much more sensitive to tone and rhythm, and even claims that they hear the melody and rhythm of words before they grasp any sort of meaning.  This may be true, but it does not prove that music preceded language in its differentiation from ‘hmmmm’. Anyone out to prove that one way or another certainly has quite an uphill battle, as it seems as if it may be impossible to distinguish which one split from which.

Later in TSN(192-200), Mithen describes a scene involving a nomadic group of H.Heidelbergensis which is socializing while two use hand axes to cut up a horse. He describes them as all chattering their ‘hmmmm’ utterances, young adult males loud and bombastic, with elders, children, and women chattering to each other in the background.Their utterances and gestures are varied, with the aforementioned young males running around and doing rhythmic gestures, possibly coordinated with vocal sounds, and the others kind of gesturing to the food and making short little noises, or mouth pointing to another conspecific and making a certain gesture. It’s easy to imagine a mother speaking modern day motherese to her child at this scene, and fit in fairly well. In fact these types of gatherings are likely to be where motherese originated. Babies would be surrounded by attention, being shown gestures, spoken to, played with. This intense immersion into their culture, paired with their ability to absorb so much about the world allowed for the fertile development of more advanced forms of thought and communication.

Cognitive Fluidity and Holistic Communication

In both the paper and TSN, Mithen stresses the crucial difference between having highly developed domain-specific cognitive functions, and having the ability to incorporate information from multiple of them in order to solve difficult and abstract problems. He points out the communication systems of modern non-human primates. He is the first to admit that vervets and geladas’ chattering sounds like talk to the human ear (105-106). He also points out that gibbons sound as if they are singing (112). All of these modern non-human primates seem to have very complex communication systems, often employing more than one modality. But these systems seem to be holistic(147), that is, there is no combinable parts, each utterance has a specific message, usually very closely linked to a physically observable aspect of the gesture or vocalization.

Although we cannot fully understand modern primate communication, we can see that it seems to be not only holistic, but culturally stagnant. In the paper and the book, Mithen puts forward his theory about a communication system which existed between one’s similar to modern chimps, and the one we have now(language). It seems as if this is a crucial difference in communication system which demonstrates the difference in creative imagination.

What Mithen would like to prove is that it is this difference which directly leads to humanity’s remarkable lack of cultural stagnation. Could the lynchpin be compositionality? If so, was it a brain ability which allowed us to begin using compositional utterances, or was our need for more complex utterances a pressure which selected for compositionality?

Mithen describes the formative years of ‘hmmmm’ and how it distinguished itself as something more than the old forms of communication. He cites the increased cognitive capacities of the hominids which would have been using ‘hmmmm’. He also points out that these hominids travelled in larger social groups than apes, and were most likely more adept tool makers.He also cites the changes to the brain(130), and the teeth, tongue and palate which allowed for more complex vocal sounds(135). This makes them the perfect candidate group to have begun employing more ‘hmmmm’ like communication. These anatomical changes gave us the ability, and tool making, hunting, and social practice gave us the need to further differentiate utterances and types of utterances(138).

Upon leaving africa ( a process Mithen refers to as “dispersal”)(, Our ancestors came into contact with new and unfamiliar animals, plants, landscapes, and weather patterns(163). This created a pressure for ‘hmmmm’ utterances to have the capability to warn about or explain a natural hazard(166). This can be most easily conceptualized in the form of mimesis and onomatopoeia. The mimicking with one’s own body the movement of an animal, or the attempt to make a sound of a thunderstorm were very intuitive utterances to add to ‘hmmmm’ and as Mithen explains, their remnants can be seen today(168).

Mithen is not quick to condemn neanderthals to the same category as modern chimps. He even puts them above most other proto-humans of their era. He explains that the neanderthal version of ‘hmmmm’ was probably a very advanced form of it, surpassing heidelbergensis and ergaster. He also talks about how neanderthals measured up to us. According to him, in the separate cognitive domains, we were equals(223). He even claims that they would have had the same physical capacities to make speech sounds as us(226).Where we differ from them is in how these domains are integrated. He blames the absence of symbolic artefacts and cultural stagnation across long periods of time on the neanderthal’s lack of cognitive fluidity.

Could neanderthals have had more advanced techniques than the archaeological record suggests? its possible. I, like Mithen, am very suspicious of the Chatelperronian hypothesis which claims that the symbolic artefacts found in neanderthal settlements show the beginning of neanderthal symbolic thought. As Mithen points out (231), the fact that these artefacts only began to show up when homo sapiens arrived to Europe cannot be a coincidence. It seems obvious that neanderthals began to adopt our cultural practices, without understanding their symbolic significance.

Although Mithen allows for Neanderthal ‘hmmm’ To be more advanced, I do not see how this helps. At a certain point, our ancestors much have changed from holistic to compositional utterances. These beginning utterances are not ‘hmmmm’ because they are not holistic, but they were probably not instantly language. My tentative theory attempts to take a stab at categorizing post-hmmmm communication systems.


My main speculation is about the first compositional systems. These would have been employed by our ancestors during or after the time of neanderthals, but before we had full on language. It seems as if 3 compositional structures needed to arise out of these systems: Propositions, songs, and narratives. This is where language and music split, but the vagueness of these two systems makes them more transitional. They can each be seen as precursors to language and music respectively, with some overlap at the time that they split this way.

DSM stands for dual-modal, simplistic,manipulative. This is language’s precursor, The multimodal qualities seen in hmmm had been stripped down to voices and gestures. And now instead of holisticism, DSM utterances began having contextual meaning, or simple combinatorial meanings. These would have been sound-gesture concatenations, which would have been primarily to convey practical information. The most complex and exotic forms of DSM probably utilised rudimentary propositional structures in some way.

MRMT stands for mimetic, rhythmic, mimetic, tonal. This system would have also become compositional, but in a different way: the song. This structure is limited in carrying practical information, but a multi-part song was probably more effective at communicating more complex emotional messages.

Narratives are the oddball. It seems to me that they emerged out of both traditions, with certain song-like stories, and story-songs paving the way for a discipline which mixes language and art. Stories, in their modern form, are built from propositions (sentences), but must employ aspects of music (emotion) in order to be successful.

Works cited:

Mithen, Steven J. The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Dennet, D. 1988 The intentional stance in theory and practice.

Roth, Ilona. Imaginative Minds. Oxford: Published for the British Academy by Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

Bogdan, Radu. Mindvaults: Sociocultural Grounds for Pretending and Imagining. N.p.: n.p., n.d. – Bogdan Radu J. Web. 22 Apr. 2015.

Hofstadter, Douglas R. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Basic, 1979. Print.

Donald, Merlin. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991. Print.