Creativity, Evolution, and Extinction: Not the End of the World?

In an average week, I practice both science in a medical science laboratory, and art in my painting studio, and therefore creativity and what it means is a subject that I frequently think about. Creativity is rarely considered with respect to science, yet I believe that its place in science can be as important as that in art.

In The Story of Art, Ernst Hans Gombrich discusses the process of creativity in art, giving the analogy of a non-expert arranging a bunch of flowers [1]. The person will move the flowers around in the vase, perhaps taking into account colour, height and the arch of the stem, until the arrangement looks ‘just right’. The person will be seeking a sense of harmony in their vase, reflecting their personal taste and, subconsciously perhaps, their encounter with flower arrangements or more abstract arrangements in the past. The person strives to produce a flower arrangement that satisfies their own set of implicit constraints [2].

Mike Page has highlighted an interesting connection between the process of creativity and that of evolution [2]. Over millions of years, mutations build up in the genomes of all animals and plants from the mis-copying of DNA during cell division. Frequently, the mutation occurs in a region of non-coding DNA or other region that has no functional effect on the encoded protein or RNA – it is a silent mutation. However, sometimes the consequence of the DNA base change is unavoidable, and furthermore it may be inherited by the organism’s offspring. Adaptation occurs when the inherited mutation actually confers an advantage on the host organism; the environment in effect selects for the mutation. Without any pre-determined plan, the environment makes minor changes to the organisms within it according to its own constraints, much as the non-expert makes minor alterations in their flower arrangement. “The environment knows nothing about designing creatures, but it knows what it likes” [2].

During the creative process, an artist produces intermediate products, such as a sketch on the back of an envelope or a sculptor’s maquette. “There comes a point where the best way of determining what would happen if I connected this thing to that, or did that bit in blue, is actually to do it” [2]. At the time, these ‘test pieces’ or experiments might not have been intended to be kept or to have any kind of permanence; at some point a decision was made to keep the intermediate piece, to have it around in the studio for a little bit longer – just like Duchamp’s original ‘Bicycle Wheel’ (1913) was a piece he quite liked having around. The creation of these intermediate pieces is integral to the construction of the final work, yet in this way the path the intermediate takes is an offshoot from the path taken by the final work, permitting the intermediates to take on an existence as an artwork in their own right.

Similarly, evolution does not place importance on any one species over another, yet extinct species become escalated to a point of prominence in our thinking in the making of models or the preservation of fossils or other specimens for museum collections. Last month, I took a trip to see ‘Extinction: Not the End of the World?’ at the Natural History Museum in London. I’ve always loved visiting this museum: as a child, I lived 50 minutes from London by train, and the Natural History Museum was a place we would often visit with School, or with family during the holidays. However, I’ve always experienced some sense of sadness when looking at preserved specimens or stuffed animals in cases. The term ‘extinction’ has always been associated with negativity, perhaps because we are taught from an early age that the extinction of a species is a lost species and is invariably the fault of humans on some level (e.g. Rocky Mountain locust, see image text below). I was therefore pleasantly surprised to have this notion challenged at the Natural History Museum exhibition.

Locust (Schistocerca gregaria) (2013). Pencil and watercolour on paper.
The Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus) destroyed vast fields of crops in the 1800s. It was once one of the most abundant species in the world; a single swarm was once reported to have been larger than the entire state of California. This species disappeared in just a few years, most likely due to the accidental destruction of its breeding ground by farmers.

Trilobites lived in the oceans for 270 million years. Although they survived two mass extinctions, they eventually died out during the late Permian mass extinction, 250 million years ago. Trilobites are the prehistoric relatives of crabs, spiders and insects, and therefore although their particular class of organism disappeared from the fossil record at this time, they had in fact evolved into other organisms. Can the trilobite therefore be considered to be ‘extinct’? Its disappearance should really be celebrated rather than mourned, since it has given way to a greater diversity of life.

Asaphus Canadensis_Trilobite
Trilobite (Asaphus canadensis), E. J. Chapman [3]
This point is interesting with regards to human evolution. We do not seem to consider ‘extinct’ species of the genus Homo with such melancholy as we do for other extinct life. This is in no doubt related to the implicit assumption within our species that we are the most important species on the planet. We have overcome other Homo species in a battle of strength, and it simply would not be right if there was another closely-related species on the planet. Just think of how much of a struggle many cultures have and continue to have with different races of human beings within our own species.

Perhaps related to this and our egos, is the subject of conservation. Should we protect all life from becoming extinct, including that which threatens our livelihood? Here it is actually extinct, as a direct consequence of human activity (these species are not evolving into other species and therefore contributing to the diversity of life – our actions here produce the opposite effect, reducing the diversity of life). Should we protect life that we fear – viruses, diseases and species that can harm and even kill us? Indeed, is it even possible to eradicate all threats to our species? With the disappearance of one, there are likely to be other pathogens that evolve to fill their place. We are, after all, a vast food source waiting to be exploited.

Furthermore, should conservation be taken one step further so that we actually bring extinct species back to life – an activity currently being called ‘de-extinction’? We now have the technology to enable us to do this – all that is required is a well-preserved and complete DNA sample from the extinct species, and a compatible host mother. In 2009, the extinct Pyrenean ibex was cloned using DNA from preserved skin and a domestic goat egg. The clone survived pregnancy but died shortly after birth. How do we decide which species are worthy of de-extinction – aside from being those for which we have a complete DNA sample available? Just because we have the power and the technology, does that mean that we should use it? If the organism was driven to extinction because it was unable to adapt to its environment, who’s to say that if it was brought back to life now, that it would fare any better?

Wasp Wing
Wing of the common wasp, Vespula vulgaris (2003)
Hugh Garner. Ink on paper

‘Extinction: Not the End of the World?’ clearly presented some interesting ethical dilemmas and challenges to the way I thought about extinction, despite having studied evolution to undergraduate level. In addition, I was also intrigued to notice how the museum environment has changed since I visited as a child, specifically with the introduction of interactive technology. It is now possible to use the bar code on the exhibition ticket, or to pick up a special NaturePlus card at the entrance to the museum’s Darwin Centre, to enable the user to save content, images, videos and bonus features from their museum visit to access later through the Natural History Museum website. This facility reduces paper waste through the eradication of paper leaflets and enables the personalisation of material to take away – one no longer leaves with a handful of leaflets, not all of which will be of interest. This practice will be revolutionary to the way we visit museums. Having attended art school at the time I did, we were very conscious of ephemera – items such as tickets, leaflets and programmes designed only to be used for a short period of time before being lost or discarded. We would collect all manner of it to stick in our sketchbooks – sweet packets from a trip to Barcelona, tube tickets and maps from London, cheese wrappers and plastic bags from France. Furthermore, for me, part of the experience of visiting an exhibition is reading the exhibition leaflet or programme afterwards over coffee while my mind processes what I have seen. I also like to have the text and pictures to make notes on as I wander round – much in the same way having the hand-outs in a lecture allows you to pay more attention to the lecturer, without feeling the need to write everything down. In the future I may well experience a new nostalgia for the ephemera derived from museum and gallery visits. I have no doubt that I am in the minority, however, making notes and drawings as I walk round exhibitions. On a recent visit to the Hayward Gallery I noticed that they now collect unwanted exhibition guides for recycling, with the hope of reducing paper waste.



[1] E. H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, 16th ed. (London, Phaidon Press, 1995), p. 33.

[2] Mike Page, ‘Creativity and the Making of Contemporary Art’, in Strange and Charmed: Science and the Contemporary Visual Arts, ed. Siân Ede (London, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2000).

[3] E. J. Chapman, On some new Trilobites from Canadian Rocks, (Annals and Magazine of Natural History, 1858).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *