Creativity and Tools: Boom and Bust
Humans evolved late in the lengthy, intricate, and wondrous progression of organisms that inhabit the Earth. To this day, evidence of our connection to our less complex ancestors is imbedded in our bodies and brains. But humans are not merely archives of evolutionary history. We have also evolved life-styles that resemble a grand experiment in expanding capacities to remember the past, to analyze the present, to anticipate the future, and to manage the materials that realize these conceptualizations in the physical environment.
The history of strategies humans have devised to provide for their sustenance range from prying out roots with a stick, to excavating millions of cubic feet of earth with giant bucket-wheel excavators. The vast majority of the entries in this diverse accounting of material interactions have either been motivated by self-interest or undertaken to benefit other humans. Such anthropocentrism has been the cultural norm since pre-history. Self-interest, as a driving force, is not unique to the human species. Nor is it necessarily objectionable. Self-interest is a biological imperative shared by humans, lions, dandelions, and every other form of life. Lions are not venal and greedy when they devour their prey. Likewise, dandelions are not intrusive and imperious when their seeds float on breezes and flutter down on a well-tended lawn. However, humanity’s self-interest seems to earn the adjectives ‘venal’, ‘greedy’, ‘intrusive’, and ‘imperious’ by exceeding its survival needs. The checks and balances of entire eco systems have been thrown out of whack by the unique abilities of people to surpass their biological imperatives.
The anthropocentric theme that persists throughout recorded history is revealed by humanity’s escalating powers to manipulate the physical environment within reach, to probe outer space, and to tinker with minute particles of matter. This historic trend made a dramatic entrance in the Neolithic period when a surge in human creativity introduced the ingredients that still define civilization - agriculture, cities, architecture, labor specialization, personal property, governance, trade, barter, war, etc. Throughout the succeeding 12,000 years, human interfaces with the physical environment have grown steadily bigger, faster, stronger, and bolder. Tools tell the story of the extension of human influence into the lithosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, and hydrosphere.
Tools have been humanity’s distinguishing trait since Homo sapiens developed thumbs and evolved into upright creatures. These landmark developments permitted two of our four limbs to function as full-time, flexible tools. The human race wasted little time in discovering that instead of relying on the anatomical tools we inherited, it was possible to augment our strength and flexibility by creating tools that allowed us to reach further, dig deeper, and displace more mass. . The work performed by tools received a massive boost when humans discovered the simple machines: levers, screws, gears, wheels, and pulleys. Even greater tooling potentials were unleashed when humans harnessed non-human sources of energy: cattle, water wheels, windmills, steam engines, internal combustion engines, electricity, jet engines, rocket technologies, and nuclear power. By augmenting both precision and power, these upgrades extended the range of humanity’s creative accomplishments, greatly amplifying ambitions and ensuring their fulfillment. The stirring narrative of humanity’s inventiveness is exemplified by the expansion of the carving potential of fingernails, stone flakes, metal blades, power saws, dynamite, sand blasting, pneumatic chisels, hydraulic excavators, and laser beams.
Tools are the physical embodiments of anthropocentric creativity – the brainpower that fuels the brawn power. If success of a species is measured in terms of its ability to secure its needs and multiply, Homo sapiens is an extremely successful species. This escalation was driven by the species-centric urge to serve our immediate self-interests.
But the historic evidence of humanity’s creative success becomes tainted with hubris when disruptions that result from these controlling strategies are taken into consideration. The ingenious tools we humans have devised to perform feats of manipulation are also responsible for intrusive meddling with the non-living environment and disturbances to non-human species. Thus, tools facilitate humanity’s grand achievements and its moronic misdeeds.
The bi-polar ability to ‘mastermind’ our needs and aspirations is summed up by the relationship between tools and the double meanings of the word ‘master’. Tools are commanders when ‘master’ is a noun; tools are purveyors of power when ‘to master’ is a verb. The convergence of these human capacities are materialized in revered artworks, architecture, and scientific breakthroughs, as well as oil spills, decimated forests, smog, and toxic waste dumps.
Despite its pivotal role, humanity’s tool chest is rarely included in historic accountings of the great sweep of civilization. Typically, these chronicles feature the end products of human interactions with materials and the remarkable individuals who are identified as their creators, not the means that facilitated these effects. This essay surveys the creative process, identifying pre-anthropocentric creativity, anthropocentric creativity, and post-anthropocentric creativity. The first two options account for the great expanse of civilization to this day. The last is a future projection. Its foundation is currently being constructed by environmentalists who are critiquing the fall-out from anthropocentric creativity, and are laying the groundwork for reform by restructuring humanity’s creative impuls