Steal this spear: Our long history of creative theft

Evolutionary biologists like Britain's Mark Pagel say we humans are more copycats than creators. So we should embrace our inner imitator, Richard Handler writes.

Evolutionary biologists say we humans are more copycats than creators

Do you believe you are a creative person?

You don't have to be humble (and Canadian). You can admit that somewhere inside your skull is an inner Steve Jobs aching to redesign the world.

There's no reason not to think this way. We are in a culture after all that applauds creative thinking and innovation.

Business books practically scream innovate your way to riches. And if you are an artist, the manifesto of the modern age is still "Make it new!" in the words of the zany poet Ezra Pound.

He didn't say make a few adjustments. Or imitate. But that is exactly, it seems, what we humans are so great at doing.

Evolutionary biologists like Mark Pagel are telling us that we should stop flattering ourselves about our creative genius and listen to our inner imitator.

In a marvelous talk on the science website Edge, Pagel, who teaches at the University of Reading in Britain, argues that humans are essentially copycats.

That's our genius.

Social learning

His argument is that we humans are evolutionary successes (that is, so far) because of what he calls "social learning."

Chimps are great imitators, too. But can they make a documentary film about humans?

Simply put, we watch and imitate. Not blindly, but with real purpose.

A chimp can imitate too, says Pagel. Our primate cousins can be taught to wash the dishes. But they will wash the clean and the dirty ones, for a banana.

Humans know to wash dirty dishes when they're dirty and leave the clean ones alone (oh please tell this to my children!).

Growing up in groups, only a tiny handful of people were truly innovative. Others round the fire copied. Then they spread their copying through language and group activity.

It's the same today except that we live in a more grasping culture pitched to copyright laws and lawsuits over the slightest smidgen of borrowing.

A case in point: when high-fashion designer Christian Louboutin came out with a $1,000 red-soled, high-heeled shoe, rival Yves Saint Laurent brought out its own version, provoking Christian Louboutin to sue for trademark violation.

But how do you copyright a colour? Or an expression like "You're fired"?

Donald Trump lost that one, trying to patent the famous line from his TV show, The Apprentice, and raising the question: How much new is really new?

The tinkering class

Pagel tells us that when some ancestor of ours came up with a new idea for a spear, the sensible thing to do was to steal the idea.

Why create something new — invest all that time, energy and calories — when you can just appropriate it?

Biologist Mark Pagel from the University of Reading and the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. (Santa Fe Institute website)

In fact, Pagel says, we're "sculpted" by evolution towards being master copiers.

What's more, as human social organization advanced from small bands to cities and, eventually, a globalized society, the number of true innovators actually decreased, in proportion to the population.

Almost all of us, it seems, are in the business of copying what we see and hear and experience. So what does the "creative class" do that the rest of us don't?

Well, they "tinker," Pagel says. Just like you do when you add a few ingredients of your own to a recipe.

Steal this essay

Some tinkering, of course, is more ingenious — or economically feasible and salable — than other embellishments.

We are essentially herd creatures. Isn't that what high fashion is all about?

So, with the right tinkering and red lacquer, $1,000 Christian Louboutin shoes become affordable Payless purchases.

Evolutionarily speaking, copying is a preferred strategy and, today, social media and the web make imitation easier. But even huge companies, if they can, choose to buy new start-up innovators rather than create something new on their own.

As for the arts and education, York University English professor Marcus Boon offers some similar insights and advice in his book, In Praise of Copying. 

"Copying," he writes, "is a part of being essentially human."

Now, for a teacher to say this in a world filled with cheating and cribbing essays from Wikipedia is quite daring, and Boon recognizes there can be problems.

So he makes distinctions between plagiarism (outright word-for-word appropriation without credit) and copying as a creative activity, like jazz where standard melodies are rearranged and refashioned.

At the same time, he recognizes the troublesome truth in which ingenious cheats who go to great lengths to hide their deception can be more creative than your honest, more humdrum students.

Remember that adage that great artists steal while others imitate? It's not the stealing that's important (legalities aside) since, according to Boon and Pagel, all of us steal constantly. It's what we do with it that counts.

In a sense, only a tiny number of us are creators. Essentially we're followers and, at best, engineers.

Evolution is, in fact, making us all "infinitely stupid," Pagel says, somewhat wryly.

But I'm more optimistic. When we "creatively" imitate, we recombine, we play and we break down the meat of what we steal into its vital ingredients.

So, embrace your inner copycat. But if you steal this essay without credit, expect to hear from the CBC lawyers.