Review of The Creative Lives of Animals
New York University Press, N.Y., 2022
272 pp. Trade, $30.00.
In her finely written study, The Creative Lives of Animals, Carol Gigliotti notes that while invention among animals to express personality or communicate with others is accepted today, there were many doubters earlier. Resistance to acknowledging ingenious creativity in animals stems from a focus on humans and their supposed exceptionality. Each species is unique, and there are exceptional talents across species, whether through adaptation or intellectual flexibility. Just as humans create to accommodate their needs and desires, so do animals, whether a bird who reasons how to open a milk container or a bird who constructs an ornate bower to attract a mate. Animal creativity, Gigliotti assures, is heard every day in bird songs, which change over time through improvisation. She affirms that the creative lives of animals indicate their high degree of self-awareness and consciousness of others. Like humans, or more precisely humans, like “animals,” employ original acts and gestures to express deeply-felt sentience and high-functioning sapience.
In chapters covering intelligence, communication, play, niche construction, sexuality, emotions, and culture, Gigliotti’s effort is not to draw comparisons or contrasts between humans and animals. Rather, her purpose is to mine the roots of the creative process. This book could easily serve as a text in an animal studies course since it’s packed with information, details, and sources. For her, creativity means “a dynamic process in which novel and meaningful behaviors are generated...” (4). There’s more to the definition, but the word meaningful jumps out: While creativity can be accidental, much demonstrates intention, whether the expression of emotions, personal feelings, or the need for social communication. However, the process is what’s vital for Gigliotti, not necessarily the result. Some creativity contributes to biodiversity, an important consideration for the health of our planet in an age of climate crisis. Problem-solving can be adaptive, but it could also be a form of deliberately building an ecological niche. Gigliotti’s story of animal creativity is compelling and timely. The continued devaluation of animals despite their contribution to climate health is a noteworthy consideration and points to our dependence on animals for survival. Gigliotti would agree that this realization has not yet registered with enough powerful corporate and political people.
Gigliotti acknowledges the importance of animal individuality and not only as a species member; but personalities make creative innovations that can spread in a group. Animal intelligence has been confirmed in a lab, for example in the incredible memory capacity of some chimpanzees, and in the wild, for example with the migration patterns of birds. The intelligence of elephants and fish has been shown, Gigliotti remarks, so it’s unfair of humans to believe they alone are the intelligent species who can solve problems. As both “animals” and humans demonstrate, creative intelligence is not just numerical but a product of emotional impulses and cognitive sources. An example of animal intelligence concerns subway dogs of Moscow. These feral canines learn and remember complex routes to survive the cold, obtain food, and get assistance from human friends when needed.
Gigliotti discusses examples of learning and imitation with purpose and planning. Though mirror neurons might not appear in some insects, Gigliotti draws from scientists to show how tiny beings exhibit higher order thinking, individual personality, and creativity. Ants don’t rely exclusively on instinct to act but can manipulate instinctive behaviors to suit situational needs and wants. Pigs can quickly comprehend and respond to human directions. Yet some researchers are reluctant to claim that pigs are intelligent enough to teach and learn. This hesitancy stems from a realization that once we confess the psychologically real intelligence and emotions of animals, we’d have to start treating them better. Gigliotti says some scientists still hold onto the notion that animals do not possess mental interiority. Pigeons often pass the self-recognition test, a key element of higher awareness and consciousness. Pigeons are capable of abstract reasoning with a numerical capacity similar to that of primates, she goes on. Chauvinistically, some people might claim that animals are not as creative as humans, but that claim is flawed.
Semantic communication is evident among prairie dogs since their alarm chirps contain precise information about what type of predator might be looming, including color, and approaching speed. Although the communicated information does not vary, prairie dog voices can, so the group knows who is calling. All of this is creative communication, evident in how prairie dogs produce a new call upon seeing a novel object. Coyotes, similarly, have demonstrated creative linguistic capacities. Gigliotti reports on field researchers who try to understand creativity in animal “language,” rather than lab workers who teach primates how to use symbols or signs based on a human scale. In the anti-behaviorist turn, language as a form of communication is likely based in evolution, considering how it appears in many incarnations across species. As Gigliotti reminds us, animal language is not confined to vocalizations or gestures but manifests in combinations of biochemical reactions like pheromones and other sensory modalities like color.
Play is an important aspect of creativity. Bonobos interact with water in novel ways in spirited exchange. Play is non-functional, spontaneous, and pleasurable movement. There might also be an evolutionary component, and not just a relaxed, creative behavior for fun. Young animals play fight or test display movements that would be important actions as adults. Gigliotti speculates that the tolerant behaviors of bonobos might spring from their readiness to social play. This is not to say play is nonexistent in chimpanzees, just that there are characteristic cultural differences. Other species play, notably fish. There are elements of playful moods in many species, enabling discovery of one’s physical or social environment. Gigliotti cites a range of researchers who studied chimps, rooks, jays, magpies, and humpback whales. Play is not limited to youngsters as they test power and limits but evident in adults of many species, perhaps for behavioral modification in food sourcing. Play has been observed between two different species, particularly between an alligator and otter in the wild. Scientists are beginning to make the connection between play, real or imaginary, and forms of social survival or reproductive creativity, even among insects, turtles, and crocodiles.
Many species in routines or play act as ecosystem engineers, dispersing seeds, eliminating dead branches from trees, servicing the soil with nutrients, etc. Beavers are hydro-engineers with well-planned dams and canals. As water tables in streams rise because of beaver work, there’s more forest sustainability and less erosion, including better soil and more wildlife prompting river ecology. This complex architecture is a creative process learned and shared adaptively through evolution. Gigliotti would agree and argue beaver self-awareness in the foresight they demonstrate in habitat design and building, with each construction different depending on land contours, available materials, water flow, family size, etc. Indicating interspecies mutual aid, beaver lodges are often shared with mice, muskrats, and water voles, Gigliotti says. There is likely an aesthetic sense in beaver constructions where creative consciousness tops genetic instinct. Male bowerbirds go to extraordinary lengths concerning shapes, forms, and colors. The creative response is reflected in females as they choose whom to mate with based on a bower’s attractiveness.
Gigliotti also considers sexuality as a creative practice, primarily between those of the same sex. This activity defies evolutionary theory emphasizing gene survival through successful reproduction. Gigliotti sees same sex pairings as creative since animals engaging in this activity have chosen to do so for pleasure. This phenomenon occurs not only among invertebrates but with mammals, marine animals, primates, and birds. Many animals including humans engage in forms of display to court a mate, from dancing and singing with colorful projections to shapeshifting. Some of these actions, following Darwin, could be the result of aesthetic desire and female choice for its own sake and not just a consequence of fitness-enhancing natural or sexual selection. Additionally, some species are both male/female and can change sex as needed.
The ability to feel into another being and share an inner experience is critical for inventiveness. Gigliotti’s point is that humans and animals share a suite of similar social emotions. In her final chapter Gigliotti focuses on culture because it best epitomizes the curvature of animal ideas in behaviors. Cultural information is non-genetic, can happen and spread quickly, and is not predetermined. If imitation and learning underlie culture, then we see it in reptiles, as Gigliotti recounts. A theme is that preconceived notions about animals should be discarded. Ocean giants like sperm whales demonstrate culture through their language-like vocal dialects generated from and passed along for group identity. As with other chapters, Gigliotti offers examples of cultural transmission in animals, noted especially in the years-long learning and then hybridization of songs by humpback whales or songbirds over generations. Creative signatures make another’s sounds one’s own and perhaps more complex. Strikingly, Gigliotti turns to moral behavior in animals as creative, evident in judgments made in play or social behaviors. When Gigliotti connects moral behavior and creativity, she’s thinking of social cooperation, play, teaching and learning, rearing young, food sharing, etc., as seen in wolves. While these ordinary behaviors can be generated from genes and instinct, individuals typically modify such actions cleverly.
Gigliotti, tuned into nature and the lives of animals, offers a good model for the rest of us to follow, helping us see the world not from myopic humanism but from the perspective of animals. Implicitly, Gigliotti asks everyone and not just scientists to learn about the lives of animals in our shared ecosphere to which we are all tied with an equal fate. Much of this revelation comes not only from the academic side but also from the stories she offers as evidence. A virtue of this book is that it collects ample scientific research in one place on the subject of creativity across species. The book is well researched, though as Gigliotti herself admits, there will be skeptics about animal creativity.