A fascinating new study could shed some light on the evolution of creativity in Homo Sapiens.
The April 2021 publication Evolution of genetic networks for human creativity by Zwir, I., Del-Val, C., Hintsanen, M. et al. looked at the genetic differences between Homo Sapiens (us, modern humans), Neanderthals and Chimpanzees, looking for genes related to coding three different modern mental systems:
- emotional reactivity
These three major systems of modern human personality and adaptability were found in a previous study, spread across 972 specific genes. The group of genes associated with creative self-awareness was estimated to have evolved about 100,000 years ago, around the time our ancestors spread from Africa around the rest of the world.
What they found was that there are 267 genes which were only exhibited in modern humans. Not in chimpanzees or Neanderthals.
Even more interestingly, 95% of the 267 genes we found only in modern humans were not protein-coding, including many long-non-coding RNAs in the self-awareness network.
The authors note:
These genes may have arisen by positive selection for the characteristics of human well-being and behavioral modernity, including creativity, prosocial behavior, and healthy longevity.
All of this together seems to indicate that something in our evolutionary history significantly accelerated our ability to be creative, a trait which no other animals truly possess (although many have shown curiosity).
And if it turns out that the evolutionary clock points to the moment when modern Homo Sapiens evolved (around 200,000 years ago), then it makes sense as to why this is when we began finding more and more evidence of creative production from around 160,000 years ago.
It is important to say though, these are not the genes which make us creative. Creativity happens across the brain, using a complex interaction of neural networks, experiences and memories. And we know that creativity is more determined by our upbringing than the genes we are born with.
However, it gives us insights into where it all began.