I have always been impressed by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and have always been fascinated with scholastic attempts to apply Darwinian ideas to creativity and genius. My own outlook about genius has roots in Donald Campbell’s blind-variation and selective-retention model of creative thought which he published. Campbell was not the first to see the connection between Darwinian ideas on evolution and creativity. As early as 1880, the great American philosopher, William James, in his essay “Great Men, Great Thoughts, and the Environment,” made the connection between Darwinian ideas and genius.
According to Darwin, nature creates many possibilities through blind “trial and error” and then lets the process of natural selection decide which species survive. In nature, 95% of new species fail and die within a short period of time. Genius is analogous to biological evolution in that it requires the unpredictable generation of a large quantity of alternatives and conjectures. From this quantity of alternatives and conjectures, the genius retains the best ideas for further development and communication.
To discover a good idea you have to generate many ideas. Out of quantity comes quality. It took Thomas Edison 50,000 experiments to invent the alkaline storage cell battery and 9,000 to perfect the light bulb. For every brilliant idea he had there were countless duds like the horse-drawn contraption that would collect snow and ice in the winter and compress it into blocks that families could use in the summer as a refrigerant, his plan to run electric power lines underground, or his perpetual cigar, which consisted of a hollow metal tube with a spring clip that moved the tobacco forward as it burned.
An important aspect of this Darwinian theory of creativity is that in addition to quantity you need some means of producing variation in your ideas and for this variation to be truly effective, it must be “blind.” To count as “blind,” the variations are shaped by random, chance, or unrelated factors. In nature, a gene pool totally lacking in variation would be unable to adapt to changing circumstances, with consequences which would be fatal to the species’ survival. In time the genetically encoded wisdom would convert to foolishness. A comparable process operates within us. Every individual has the ability to create ideas based on his or her existing patterns of thinking, on the way he or she were taught to think. But without any provision for variations, ideas eventually stagnate and lose their adaptive advantages.
Typically, we think reproductively– that is, on the basis of similar problems encountered in the past. When confronted with problems, we fixate on something in the past that has worked before. We ask, “What have I been taught in life, education, or work on how to solve the problem?” Then we analytically select the most promising approach based on past experiences, excluding all other approaches, and work within a clearly defined direction toward the solution of the problem. In contrast, geniuses are willing to explore as many approaches as one can, including the least obvious as well as the most likely. Geniuses delight in looking at problems in many different ways and in inventing unconventional approaches.
When the Hubble Space Telescope was launched, NASA was embarrassed to discover that its mirror had been ground improperly and it looked liked the telescope was destined to become a colossal failure. Engineers worked feverishly round the clock searching for a way to fix the problem. One NASA engineer, James Crocker, while taking a shower in his hotel room, was playing with the shower head while thinking about the problem. The shower head could be extended to the user’s height. Suddenly he made a connection between the adjustable plumbing fixture and NASA’s problem. He invented the idea of placing corrective mirrors on automated arms that would reach inside the telescope and adjust to the correct position. The final device, COSTAR (corrective optics space telescope axial replacement), which consisted of eight motors attached to five metal arms holding ten coin-sized mirrors, was installed while Hubble orbited 330 miles above the earth and turned Hubble from a debacle into a spectacular triumph.
The point is that by introducing something “random” into his thinking, the engineer disturbed his conventional thinking patterns and he came up with an unconventional approach. In nature, a genetic mutation is a variation that is created by a random or chance event which ignores the conventional wisdom contained in parental chromosomes. Nature then lets the process of natural selection decide which variations survive and thrive. An analogous process operates within geniuses. Creative geniuses produce a rich variety of original ideas and solutions because in addition to their conventional way of thinking, they will look for different ways to think about problems. They deliberately change the way they think by provoking different thinking patterns which incorporate random, chance and unrelated factors into their thinking process. These different thinking patterns enable them to look at the same information as everyone else and see something different.
Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.