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Creativity and The Ecology Of Creation- Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity and The Ecology Of Creation- Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD


Creativity & The Ecology Of Creation

The following blog post is constructed from conversations between myself and my partner, Dr. Bruce Sawhill, Stanford educated theoretical physicist and mathematician.


In 2014, Bruce and I went on a wilderness raft trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho with a group of friends.

Each raft carried a map with descriptions of identifying characteristics of the river’s landscape to help you navigate the unknown perils ahead. I had taken off my glasses to better view the guidebook as I held it a few inches from my face while we approached Class IV rapids, river-speak for start praying!

My vision blurred from uncorrected myopia (near sightedness) and riddled with fear, I announced that there were metaphorical rocks ahead when the guidebook actually said, metamorphic rocks ahead.

We’ve had a good laugh over that memory many times since.

This is just to say that there are metaphorical rocks ahead, so hang on.


Metaphorical Rocks Ahead


In the previous blog post Creativity, Mistakes & The Unknown Unknown, we quoted the science historian and philosopher Karl Popper saying,


Ideas die in our stead.

Karl Popper


Intellectual and artistically creative evolution is different than the physical kind that Darwin talks about, where you don’t find out how you fared as the representative of a species until after you reproduce and die.

I don’t know about you, but I find that rather harsh- I’d like to have more frequent and less judgmental feedback and not have to wait until death to find out how I did.

The world of ideas allows this.


Less is at stake in the evolution of ideas.


Because of this, experimentation is less risky but never risk-free.

Still, there is much to be learned from the purely physical side of evolution.

The difference between the evolution of ideas and the evolution of organisms brings to mind the parable about the difference between committed and involved.


Nobody Here But Us Chickens


Creativity And The Ecology Of Creation-Nancy Hillis MD-Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity And The Ecology Of Creation- Nancy Hillis MD-Bruce Sawhill PhD


When you eat eggs and ham, you can say that the the chicken was involved but the pig was committed.

Creatives and their creations are like the chicken but they can also learn from the pig.

The chicken’s egg represents something that is both made of the deepest self and yet is also separable from the self, like an artistic creation. It has a life of its own.

And chickens get more than one chance. The eggs can perish but meanwhile the chicken lives on.


There is an old joke about chickens


A chicken thief is rustling around the henhouse in the wee hours, surrounded by squawkage and flappage.

The farmer, woken by the commotion, comes out with a shotgun.

The farmer shouts, “What’s going on out here!?” to the henhouse, not expecting a verbal answer.

The thief replies, “Nobody here but us chickens.”

This joke is deep because the thief didn’t have to say anything, and by saying something, has given himself away.

Owning up to your artistic side is like being a chicken thief. You find the eggs where you can and accept the consequences.


But a Jungian interpretation of the joke would say that you are also the farmer. This is inspired by the Jungian idea of dreams wherein all the characters in the dream are some aspect of yourself.

Part of you does not accept another part of you.

A judgmental part of you wants to shut down any messing with its eggs. They might hatch and then there’ll be hell to pay.

Creativity can be scary. The thought process and idea generation is not always straightforward.


Like chickens and eggs, most people are capable of producing more than one idea.

In addition, people often have many different ideas at the same time.

They may not be fully consistent with each other, they may not be logical, they may not be well-justified, but they’re rattling around inside of our brains nonetheless and we generally manage to function without having all of our ideas in perfect harmony.

We harbor an entire fleet of ideas, an intellectual armada bobbing at anchor in the round of our skull.


Creativity And The Evolution Of Creation-Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity And The Evolution Of Creation- Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD


Like boats, some are big, some are small, some are new, some are old, some are watertight, others not so much.

This community of ideas sounds a little bit like a community of people.

The Community of Creativity: We Are Ecosystems Unto Ourselves



In general, a community of people gets along, even though there may be strident conflicting opinions as well as harmonious ones.

Ideas move into the community but also pass on, like citizens coming and going over time.

Some are daily acquaintances like next-door neighbors, others you hardly know and maybe see in the grocery store once in a while. But the city has the same name even though the citizens change.

Managing our intellectual life is more like a democracy and less like a dictatorship.



Creativity And The Ecology Of Creation-Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity And The Ecology Of Creation-Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD


We are rarely of one mind. And, like a democracy, we are often untidy and roundabout in our lumbering lugubrious deliberations.

But even this idea of a community within an individual has lessons from the biological side.

Before Darwin there were other theories of inheritance and the acquisition of traits.

One of the earliest comprehensive theories of inheritance was due to Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who lived from 1744 to 1829, more than two generations before Darwin.



Jean-baptiste lamarck

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck



His theory of the elements of biological evolution was that it consisted of a mysterious complexifying force that drove organisms toward more complex structures, combined with a theory of use and disuse that modified traits during an organism’s lifetime depending on what the organism did.

Indeed, 250 years after Lamarck’s birth, we find his ideas of use and disuse modifying traits to be true in the brain in an individual’s lifetime.

We’ve learned in the last few decades that the brain is not static.


Rather, its neural architecture is continually structuring and restructuring itself depending upon how it is used and depending upon the environment.

On the other hand, Lamarck believed that creatures could act their way to becoming different than others, then pass on those differences. This is where part of Lamarck’s theory didn’t hold up.

It’s one thing for an organism to change or evolve in its lifetime, it’s another for the changes to be heritable.

Maybe Lamarck was a fan of evolution within a human lifetime because he lived to be 85 years old, very unusual for the time.

And yet, there’s more to this story.

Remember, in Lamarck’s and Darwin’s time, there was no concept of the gene.

They were flying blind without molecular knowledge.

But, about 100 years later, a new understanding showed up.

Two ideas have emerged in recent decades to challenge the Darwinian view that you’re stuck with what you inherit: epigenetics and the ecology of organisms. Everything points in the direction of more fluid mutability.



It turns out that there’s more to inheritance than genes.

Genes are like switches that can be turned on and off by a variety of things, including environmental factors.

In 1953, Conrad Waddington, a developmental biologist at the University of Edinburgh reported that fruit flies exposed to changes in temperature or external chemicals during embryonic development could be made to develop wings that varied in structure.

These changes induced in the laboratory by the scientists in that one generation would afterwards be inherited by progeny down the lineage.

Waddington coined the term epigenetics to describe this phenomenon of rapid change.

This epigenetic trans-generational inheritance means that genes can be affected by substances in their environment in such a way that affects the heritability of those genes.

Lamarck’s theory stands in contrast to Darwin’s, which said that evolution is driven by variation and selection- you’re stuck with your genetic inheritance and can’t change it by use and disuse.

Mixing it up and morphing it via recombination and mutation (as discussed in the previous blog post) generates offspring much in the manner of rolling dice.

Some dice rolls do well while others perish in the next generation.

Most biologists now just say that Darwin was right and Lamarck wrong and leave it at that.

But, as usual, there is an asterisk.

Simple organisms seem to be well-described by Darwin’s theory. But humans are anything but simple.


According to University of Hawai’i microbiologist Margaret McFall-Ngai, every human body harbors about 100 trillion bacterial cells, outnumbering human cells ten to one!

There’s been a growing consensus among scientists that bacteria are not simply random squatters, but organized communities that evolve with us and are passed down from generation to generation.

Human beings are not really solitary beings; they’re communities of organisms, whole ecosystems unto themselves.

If we’re made out of all of these different organisms, it’s not surprising that they live on different time scales.


Most bacteria evolve very quickly compared to human lifetimes, so parts of us can change in fundamental ways *during* a human lifetime, reacting to environments and actions of their host.

This looks an awful lot like Lamarck’s theory of use and disuse, even though it is fundamentally Darwinian in nature.

We harbor entire nations of ideas and ecosystems of organisms in our brains and in our guts- the microbiome.

It makes the concept of Self suspect as everything about us is mutable. And when we create something, who or what created it?

Arboreal Antagonism


This brings to mind the story of George Washington’s axe, the one he supposedly used to cut down the cherry tree that became a symbol of his forthrightness and honesty when he fessed up to his act of arboreal antagonism.

Never mind that George Washington may have never cut down a cherry tree, but that doesn’t matter since many good stories are unencumbered by facts.

This story is so universal in its appeal that it appears under other names such as Theseus’ ship, Jeannot’s knife and Locke’s sock.


The cherry chopper axe was put in a museum.

A century later, the handle had rotted away, so it was replaced. After another century, the head rusted through and had to be replaced.

The question becomes: “Is it still George Washington’s axe?”

Are we as humans so different than George’s axe? Our bodies renew themselves constantly, with a complete replacement of our cells taking 7 to 10 years and many of them much faster than that.

And then there’s all of those bacteria, changing and evolving all the while.

What if our minds were the same way?

Ideas come and go, contributing to a slowly morphing community of identity. We may be more mutable than we dare accept.


Why is this scary?

Because then the idea of self looks to be writ on water.

In Japan, Shinto shrines are rebuilt every twenty years with entirely new wood. The continuity over the centuries is spiritual and comes from the source of the wood.

In the case of the over a thousand year old Ise Jingu’s Naiku shrine, the wood is harvested from an adjoining forest that is considered sacred. The shrine has currently been rebuilt 62 times.

Perhaps it is more useful to think of identity as a process, not a specific constitution.


Most of us have seen rapids in a river. What is it that we call a rapid?


Creativity & The Ecology Of Creation -Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity & The Ecology Of Creation -Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD


It is a process of water flowing over the uneven riverbed, always new water, but generating a persistent form. The word rapid is a noun, but what it represents is a verb.

Language is powerful, but can be powerfully misleading.

Naming something is a double-edged sword that both frees something by giving it identity and imprisons it by freezing it in place.


The idea of identity coming from a community of thought was brilliantly explored by the absurdist playwright Pirandello in his play, Six Characters in Search of an Author.

In the play, six actors interrupt the rehearsal of a different Pirandello play, looking for an author to finish their story.

They are rancorous, confusing, and difficult. Their integration into the rehearsal gives them what they asked for and blurs the distinction between reality and fiction.

But it is achieved at great cost- Not all of them survive.

The author is the creative force. Not all ideas survive the hot flame of creation.

It’s not surprising we have the urge to create, we ourselves are being created continuously.



With gratitude from my studio to yours,


P.S. If you’re feeling cooped up, creatively stuck and restless…this is the TIME to create.

Why is this the time?

This is the existential moment- this is the time where we see what our life is about. We notice what is meaningful and alive for us.

TS Eliot wrote in The Wasteland


April is the cruelest month.


Perhaps he wrote that because in the northern hemisphere, April stands at the intersection between warmth and light and dark and stormy…

April giveth and it taketh away….

Well let’s turn that on its head and make it more like Chaucer’s opening prologue of The Canterbury Tales:


When April the sweet showers fall and pierce the drought of March to the root….


You might be thinking…I’m just too blocked, too down, too scared or frozen….or even just shy….

You may be feeling that you can’t create now….

But I say to you that you’re a creator…you’re an artist and artists create.

And there are many ways to create and be creative….

So, I invite you to nab a copy of The Artist’s Journey and begin! Named one of the Top 100 Creativity Books of All Time by BookAuthority! 


Pair this with The Artist’s Journey Creativity Reflection Journal!


Creativity Reflection Journal-Nancy Hillis

The Artist’s Journey Creativity Reflection Journal– Nancy Hillis, MD


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