In The Creative Lives of Animals (New York Univ., Nov.), scholar Gigliotti posits that creativity isn’t a trait unique to humans.
How did you come to write this book?
I have always been an animal person, and I’ve taught creativity for years. I had started thinking about animals being creative, but the idea was very ill-formed. And then I found some articles that actually were talking about this. Once I started learning about animal creativity, I wanted people to see animals not just as victims. They are victims, unfortunately, but they’re very powerful, and very essential to the entire planet.
Could you talk about how you define creativity?
I define it with lots of help from many evolutionary biologists. What I wanted to do was enlarge the thinking about creativity to include animals. And again, I found that scientists and psychologists were doing this already. There were two things that always had to be there for creativity, and those were novelty and meaningfulness or usefulness. I prefer “meaningfulness,” because creativity can be very useful to an individual, but not to anyone else.
Of the behaviors that you cover in the book, which struck you most?
What I found out about bees and their ability to actually put together the perfect creative brainstorming activity. Which for us as humans is often very fraught. Nobody wants to agree, and it’s just miserable. But with bees, there’s the idea that each individual is important, and that there’s no leader that drives things. What I’m talking about particularly is when bees look for a new nest, there are scouts who are particularly good at doing this. They have very specific ways of deciding what would make a new hive or a new location for a hive. They require a quorum of bee scouts to decide—not a consensus—that we can use this particular site, we have to find a new site soon, this is what we’re going to do.
Do you think appreciating animal creativity can change humans’ treatment of other creatures?
That’s probably the major reason why I wrote this book, to share the idea that individual animals are creative and form cultures, and then those cultures actually affect entire species. The easiest example to understand for the layperson is that when a matriarch elephant is killed, the wisdom of that particular group of elephants, which had been relying on that matriarch, can be lost, and it’s really quite difficult for that group to survive. Unless we really understand that individuals within a culture are important, and that culture is important, the kind of conservation that we do is not very helpful.