Excerpt from the book The Creative Life of Animals
Some use their intelligence, self-awareness and flexibility, three essential elements of creativity, to build houses. Beavers build their elaborate dams and canals by controlling and creating a flow of water to transport food and building materials.
Understanding exactly the needs of their unique habitats, they devise appropriate and creative strategies to meet them. Each caddisfly larva, using the same creative qualities as the beaver, constructs a unique protective case around itself using sticky silk threads expelled from its head. Individuals carefully choose the right material, such as plants, grains of sand, wood fragments, pebbles and small shells. With these they build the extremely complex cases in which they live for up to two years until they lose them as adults.
Whether they are building, communicating their feelings of anger, empathy or affection, showing their personality, improvising a new song, charming and seducing a friend, inventing a new game to play or adding to their collective cultures, their creative processes improve their lives and often contribute to the diversity of this planet.
If I had said these things even five years ago, the amount of arguments I would have received would have stopped this discussion in its tracks. Audiences who read books on nature, the environment, animals and science and are now familiar with new thinking about animal intelligence, emotion and self-awareness will find additional reasons to consider animals as precious and powerful beings. Readers who still find this thought surprising will find explanations of how the creative behavior of animals relies on these and other qualities once considered unique to our species.
Most of us look at animals through a very narrow lens, which only sees fragments of beings that seem mostly peripheral to our lives. In reality, animals are complete individuals with the potential for creative behavior in many aspects of their lives. Hearing the beautiful and uniquely pure whistles of a sparrow refreshes our spirits. Recognizing these whistles as part of the creative languages of birds opens up a broader view of animals’ place in the world. What we may not know is that many songbirds are not born knowing how to sing. For these birds, their songs are not innate; they learn their songs. Not only that, but where songs are learned, when they are learned, and from whom they are learned are unique to each species. The ability to learn in a variety of ways indicates the traits we discuss when discussing the foundations of cognition, consciousness, and creativity in humans and is equally useful when discussing these foundations in animals.
The male birds of New Guinea and Australia have for many years practiced carefully constructing richly decorated arbors of several types, all out of love. To charm and seduce their future companions even more, they also dance and sing. Some garden birds indirectly grow a berry plant, which they use not as food, but as decoration in their arbors. Others collect specific colors of shards of glass, plastic toys, straws, flowers and, for an arbor, a glass eyeball.
Like birds, humans have often designed, designed and built beautiful homes for love. Our creative impulses intertwine with emotions of all kinds: curiosity, compassion, revenge, grief, and empathy, among many others. Birds, long accused of being stupid, possess perceptual and cognitive abilities that serve as the basis for their complex social behaviors. Scientists have now learned that birds have complex brains that are as inventive as any mammalian brain. Chickens – although I’ve noticed people often forget they’re birds – are social diplomats within stable groups, at least in healthy, open environments. Able to differentiate between at least 100 individual chickens by recognizing peculiarities in their facial features, they are keen communicators and use at least 30 different vocalizations that researchers have interpreted through careful documentation. The human creativity research community regards social diplomacy as a valuable creative trait, and those who spend time with chickens have long known how adept they are socially. While the idea that animals have the capacity for various forms of creativity is not new, it is only recently that scientists have considered it a serious source of investigation. As with us, animals’ creative choices affect their social, cultural and environmental world. Their life as emotional beings also affects their creativity. In a recent study conducted at the University of Bristol, researchers found that domestic hens exhibit a clear physiological and behavioral response to the distress of their chicks. The researcher explained: “We found that adult female birds possess at least one of the essential attributes of ’empathy’; the ability to be affected by the emotional state of others and to share it. Empathy helps prepare for a creative solution. Understanding the distress of others is essential to alleviating that distress.
Text of The creative life of animals by Carol Gigliotti. Copyright @2022 by New York University. All rights reserved.