What is it that makes us human? Many of the characteristics that appear unique to or species also exist in nature. Higher order animals can demonstrate self-awareness, tools are widely used from crows to beavers and creativity is often shown, from bird song to puffer fish who make highly decorative patterns in the sand. The true definition of humanness is something that scientists and philosophers have struggled with for eons. Cambridge psychology professor, Simon Baron Cohen, believes he has the answer – it is our ability to invent that sets us apart from the rest of the animal world.
In a new book, The Pattern-Seekers: A New Theory of Human Invention, Baron Cohen suggests that genetic development led to a distinct cognitive leap around 100,000 years ago that saw a ‘systemising mechanism’, resulting in human invention. Whilst birds may use a rock as a tool to access food, it is achieved through simple cause and effect. However, it lacks the foresight of true invention. Humans have a unique causal reasoning that sets us apart from other creatures. It allows us to think beyond immediate consequences to create inventions whether it be computer algorithms, smartphones or DNA sequencing.
For myself, I have been a strong believer that good ideas can come from anyone, thanks to our causal reasoning. The challenge, however, are the limitations that are put in place by work or education. There’s a perception that a scientist is not a creative thinker and an artist is not an engineer. The current emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) is not helpful either. It suggests that there is greater value in these areas and less in creative subjects. Yet, the process of invention is creative endeavour. New ideas result from making different and unusual connections, which is exactly what creativity is about. Not only that, but innovation is largely a collaborative process that brings in a range of skills and ways of thinking.
Not everyone is bounded by the limited definitions of scientist and artist which is why we are still able to invent. In education this is interdisciplinary approach more formalised through trends such as STEAM – STEM, with the addition of Arts. A creative approach is the way in which we will solve many of our current and future challenges. We may not all become the next Ada Lovelace, Hedy Lamar or Rosalind Franklin but there’s no question that the ability to invent or innovate exists within all of us.