The Runaway Species is a great entry point into the ecosystem from which Worldview Ethics is arising. David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt present a wide and deep array of examples, each of which brings the reader a bit closer to the goal of understanding the sorts of things human minds and brains are. The pairing of a neuroscientist and a musician is a non-traditional one, but sometimes such combinations are the best way to generate new perspectives. New perspectives, Eagleman and Brandt argue, are a major component of what we do.
I was first introduced to The Runaway Species shortly after graduating from Texas State University with my Master’s degree. It may have been given to me in a goodie bag I received when I went back in 2018 to present Formal Dialectics to the Philosophy Dialogue Series but I do not remember for sure. The reason I had received the gift was because the philosophy department was to begin teaching it in undergraduate courses as a way of rapidly getting freshmen up to date with the sorts of things thinking makes possible these days. I took it home and though a few months went by before I read it, when I did I was immediately drawn to the delightful tension between the sheer volume of ideas the authors share and the singular subject matter of human consciousness’s manifold outputs.
The Runaway Species (2017) is a celebration of what it is to be a human being, indeed of what it has been over the preceding period from which we have history. We frequently do not see the future as it will play out over time, but that doesn’t stop us from guessing. Our minds are wonderfully creative and the insights they produce at scale, over the body of the human species as a whole, are without limit or prespecified form. We can do the most amazing things, when we put our minds to it! Worldview Ethics is about taking the time and energy to really see what’s going on in the world and, to whatever extent possible, understanding why things are the way they are.
From the anatomy of the body to one of the most abstract descriptions of rationality ever written, this book review series will guide the reader through a series of ten books. Review #1 was Outlive (2023) by Dr. Peter Attia & Bill Gifford, and it focused on health and mood as pertain to the good life. The Runaway Species is a way for us to take that basic understanding of biology up a notch — what kinds of goals do we have? What makes us happy? As Eagleman and Brandt observe in our behavior at scale, one strategy that has worked over and over again is to iteratively connect with our world. The Runaway Species is far from the most difficult book on the list (probably either Metaphysics or the Critique of Pure Reason could take that title), but it is a great entry level starter book for a layperson to read to get a feel for what it is we’re looking at.
Creativity Is How We Engage Our World
Just as Dr. Attia acknowledges the importance of the hands to the body’s interaction with the world, Eagleman and Brandt bring our attention to the imagination. Creativity is a process that benefits us greatly, indeed a process that it is almost impossible to keep us away from. The reason for this is given early in the text: our neurons are not like a bee’s neurons, which are more or less fixed and married to particular functions. Instead, we have an eleven or twelve figure number of them and they not only move around over time, but continuously shift to reflect the shortest path for a signal.
Our brains pull in information from our environment, develop goals for that environment, and then motivate our bodies to achieve said goals. This causes gratification, but also fatigue, and so something new needs to be found for the next run. The drive to novelty is described early on as a fundamental component of human consciousness, a survival instinct at heart which has helped us to learn to thrive in a difficult and unforgiving natural environment.
As a basic description of what we are as people, a physiological understanding of the body is a good place to start. Understanding some about hormones and hematology and the lightning-fast chemical reactions taking place inside our cells is important. But what do all those cells do? And why?
If we want to answer questions about where consciousness comes from, it seems likely that there will be many layers in our explanation. Physiology is a start, and the reason it is a start is that many physiological attributes of our bodies such as the heart rate or level of cortisol in the blood have direct relationships with how we feel. The level of explanation occupied by The Runaway Species is a layer above that of Outlive, reaching up from the individual body to the social network and its outputs, but nonetheless the continuous motion and oscillation of our culture is presented to us as evidence of the way the biological elements work together at scale.
I find it particularly pleasant that Eagleman and Brandt manage such a creative approach to a book about creativity, and an astute reader will already have guessed that respect for the individual person’s ability to create is a consequence of the view of self that will be presented in Worldview Ethics. The most contentious component of WVE is the idea that scientific thinking and moral philosophy can work together, yet in The Runaway Species we already have a quite successful example of the sort of thinking WVE intends to spotlight.
What is creativity, if not a healthy body’s way of relating to its environment?
Eagleman and Brandt provide many beautiful pictures to break up the text of the work and nail down their myriad examples. A few high points to look out for include the discussion of innovation in Chapter 1, the discussion of language in Chapter 2, and Chapter 6 in general from Part 1. Parts 2 and 3 respectively aim to provide the reader with information about how to take up and use the creative mentality and how to apply our ideas about creativity to business, school and more.
The Scope Of Creative Thought
Creative thinking is best seen in language. Linguistic anthropology argues that all languages are well-adapted to their own place in the world, at the cutting edge separating what came before and what will come after. Some parts of language fall away over time, and some get added each and every day. How? It’s quite natural, Eagleman and Brandt argue, because “We take the raw materials of experience and then bend, break and blend them to create new outcomes,” (Eagleman, 2017. Page 51). Taking the raw materials of experience in is simple enough to understand, but the bending, breaking, and blending that our minds put our experience through is perhaps a bit more challenging to understand as a newcomer to this school of thought.
What the authors mean is that we remember things that have happened before. Some of this uses memory in our brains, some of it can be written down or stored in art or photographs. The reason language changes so much is because we shape it to our desired outcome each time we use it. New words being created is one path this can take, but new grammars, new stories, and new verbal experiences are all equally valid and important. When any of these occur, Eagleman and Brandt would argue, people have bent, broken, or blended bits of experienced life and memory to produce something new. This process happens all the time with language and is perhaps one of the most fundamental parts of being human.
Pushing their point further, Eagleman and Brandt dive into language a bit in Chapter 3: “Language meets the needs for conversation and consciousness not just because it is referential, but also because it is mutable — and that’s what makes it such a powerful vehicle for transmitting new ideas. Thanks to the creative possibilities of language, what we can say keeps pace with what we need to say,” (Eagleman, 2017. Page 72). There’s something absolutely spellbinding to me about the way our language changes in response to changing conditions in the world. The interaction between human minds and the environments we engage with is on display in studies such as lexicography in a way it can scarcely ever be seen anywhere else.
Creative thinking, for Eagleman and Brandt, is a higher level of scope than mere language or mere art or mere culture. It’s a collective process we all participate in that yes, has outcomes in language, arts, and culture; but creativity is something more for the authors. These outputs are simply byproducts of human creativity. Creativity itself is a raw instinct in human minds, a survival instinct we never could have lived without. When we are creatively engaged with our environment, any number of different outcomes are possible. This unpredictable activity is how human minds reshape the world.
How We Can Be More Creative
Eagleman and Brandt move from explaining what creativity is and why to sharing strategies about how to boost it and studying history to provide us with myriad examples of creative forces at work at various levels of organization, from individual minds to entire cultures. There is a constant turnover in the world of ideas, and though some ideas never really go anywhere, it’s very important to have the freedom they need to develop in new directions so that the few that do take off can get their chance. Napoleon III may have created an overly restrictive art show, but eventually popular pressure forced him to open the Salon de Rèfusès and let all of the 400+ rejected pieces be shown anyway. It’s almost like there’s a blow-off valve that has to be opened if things become too resistant to novel cultural expression.
There emerges, in the text, an insight into a circular social creative process: individual creators need society, and society needs individual creators — especially the ones who think differently and do new things. The lone genius is a myth because “creativity does not emerge out of thin air: we depend on culture to provide a storehouse of raw materials,” (Eagleman, 2017. Page 134), but likewise the starving artist is capable of pushing society forward with great power and should thus not be overlooked.
The creative process itself, at any level we choose to examine, is a whirlwind of change. Ideas are created and many are discarded but some have a profound impact upon the world. Many are much simpler, like trying a new restaurant, but creativity shines through a kaleidoscope of options and is not a simple or linear process.
If you’re trying to do something creative and want to improve, strategies listed in the book include a variety of different approaches. Creating many options is a thing most of us mentally do to one extent or another, but many of the great innovators from Hemingway to George Washington Carver and Mother Nature have found their success in what the authors call a proliferation of options. Many investments of time, energy, money, and effort yield the few amazing novel ideas, products, and creatures that thrive.
Open frameworks that are subject to iteration are also worth considering, when one is in the process of deciding what to do. Once the decision has been reached, risk enters the equation because innovators have to choose only one ending for the novel, one project to build, and there is always a cost to creation. Our ability to tolerate risk long enough for an idea to catch on can often determine the success or failure of an idea.
The process Eagleman and Brandt lay out for us, simply, is to open up the environment, create many different options, explore different possibilities for each of the options, then finally choose one and be willing to accept risk to bring it to life. Our creative process should operate something like this: we decide to write a novel, think openly about what it could be about, explore many possible story arcs, then choose the best way to tell the story and sell it as hard as we can.
How Creativity Makes Things Better
The reason The Runaway Species is one of the books being reviewed for my Worldview Ethics project is simple: it uses art, business, and school, along with history and many many examples to give the reader who does not completely understand the need for openness and creative thinking the opportunity to connect with these concepts in a deep way.
It seems very important to establish something like a historical track record, which Eagleman & Brandt do exceptionally well, for the open creative process. Many people look to a subject such as ethics with the intention of discovering the “one true” way to live. Insofar as it is possible to give an account of the “one true” anything, it seems more and more to be the case that the thing in question must be described as a tool that can be used or not.
This insight into how to give an account of the “one true” process has been thoroughly examined by philosophers throughout the twentieth century and is currently being examined as pertains to artificial intelligence and open source software, blockchain technology, and other platforms upon which eager developers and entrepreneurs intend to build the future. It was wonderful to see the clear and compelling arguments Eagleman and Brandt mustered up for our collective support of open systems. For my part, Worldview Ethics is a project in the discipline of moral philosophy that aims to give something along the same lines, a philosophical exploration of an open ethical system.
Worldview Ethics, if you're curious:
No matter who you are or what your background is like, if you choose to read The Runaway Species you will find a wealth of great stories, a beautiful presentation, and some of the most important insights of our time into what it means to be human. From the way our minds are geared toward the creation and destruction of systems of logic at a biological level to the way our culture seeks continual renewal via creative iteration and reinterpretation, human creativity is foundational to what we are.