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Creative Darwinism

What we can learn about creativity from Moths

Humans are predisposed to notice patterns, and once we think we've noticed a pattern, it can be tough to stop noticing. Lately, the thing I can't stop noticing is how often I see examples of Darwinism. First, there is the ever-growing list of COVID-19 variants that have competed with each other throughout the pandemic. Next, it was news of Netflix losing subscribers for the first time in a decade, which the company attributed to a growing field of streaming competitors. Then, I read an anecdote about how different variants of moths evolved and competed in Victorian era England. This pattern of adaptation and competition pertains directly to how psychologists study creativity, but first, about those moths…


For the skimmer

  • We produce creative ideas through a process that mimics natural evolution

  • There are two parts to that process: variation and selective retention

  • We tend to pay a lot of attention to the retention, and not enough to variation

  • Unlike natural evolution, our creative processes represent choices we make


In its most common form, the peppered moth is lightly colored with dark, spotty patterns (like pepper). As it hangs out on tree bark or among lichens and moss, its coloring provides camouflage protection from birds who enjoy snacking on moths.

The dark and light variants of the peppered moth

However, during the industrial revolution in England, coal-powered factories produced heavy pollution that killed off much of the lichens, and it darkened the trees and other surfaces on which the moths rested. As a result, the brightly-colored peppered moth lost its ability to hide from its predators and its population quickly declined. Meanwhile, a less common dark variety of the peppered moth enjoyed a population boon for the exact same reason: All that sooty pollution on trees helped the darker moth evade predators more successfully. Like a new strain of COVID-19, the dark variant of the moth began to outcompete the lighter variant, and it became more common.

Creativity can be studied through a Darwinian perspective, where new ideas are theorized to emerge from a process of random variation and selective retention. The idea is similar to how new species evolve as variants of their ancestors. Just like the genes of an organism are subject to small, random mutations from one generation to the next, our brains constantly churn through random combinations and pairings of our own thoughts, experiences, and knowledge. When this churning produces a new idea that fits certain criteria, it's retained.

French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincaré provided his own account of this process after a long night of insomnia:

"Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable connection. By the next morning I had established the existence of a class of Fuchsian functions."

You don't need to know about Fuchsian functions to appreciate the imagery in Poincaré's writing (I sure don't). He describes his mind sorting through random combinations of ideas until the right pairings found each other.

In natural evolution, genetic variations are retained from one generation to the next only when they help the species thrive in its environment, but most variations aren't helpful. They don't help the organism survive or compete in its environment more successfully than its ancestors, nor do they help the organism woo potential mates. The same thing happens in our thinking: Most variations and combinations of ideas we have aren't helpful to us, and they may not even rise to the level of our consciousness. But when they do, we experience the fleeting moment of insight, that "Eureka!" moment of an idea falling into place.

Survival of the Fittest

There are two things that make evolution work: random variation and selective retention. However, we tend to give more attention to the retention than we do the variation. For instance, "survival of the fittest" is the shorthand by which many people remember Darwinism. It manifests in things like the Darwin Awards or the corporate adage to "adapt or die." The emphasis in these examples is on people or organizations not surviving. Blockbuster Video passing on the opportunity to buy Netflix when it had the chance is perhaps the most clichéd example of an organization not adapting (which is ironic given Netflix's recent struggles).

I think this focus on not surviving is a little fatalistic - and a distortion of Darwinism. It implies blame, but only with the benefit of hindsight. It further implies that an organization should know how to adapt in order to survive. When Darwin wrote about the "survival of the fittest," he wasn't describing the strongest or most athletic creatures. He was describing random variations that happened to fit a species' environment.

The random part of random variation is easy to forget, but it's essential. In natural evolution, species don't choose how they adapt. The peppered moth didn't darken its pigmentation because of pollution, nor did it adapt to its polluted environment. A darker-colored variant was just one of countless other random variations, and was the one selectively retained because it worked in darker environment.

Quantity is Quality

Natural evolution isn't intentional, but creativity is. Individuals and organizations alike choose to try new things, and by extension, they increase the odds that an idea will fit the demands of its time and place. Linus Pauling, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist, put it succinctly when he said,

"The way to have good ideas is to have a lot of ideas."

One straightforward way to have more ideas is to give our brains more variety to work with. Creative ideas happen when the fragments of previously unrelated ideas are combined in new ways. Just like a species benefits from genetic diversity, our creativity is aided by contact with varied experiences from different domains or disciplines.

What is new to us can be uncomfortable, and so it can be a daunting task to acquire the raw material (i.e., new knowledge, experiences, perspectives) that fuels creativity. We incur the risk of being uncomfortable when we learn about something new or take a chance on an untested idea. We let our fear of embarrassing ourselves keep us from sharing a half-baked thought, or we let our indifference to others keep us from learning about their own nascent ideas. This is why being creative is a choice. We have to choose to learn about a new subject, and initiate relationships with and learn from people we don't know.

The creative process, like evolution, is a natural one. When we are intentional about increasing our sources of random variation, it is that much easier to let the process produce the ideas we choose to retain.

Timing is everything

If you were to find a peppered moth today, chances are it would be the lighter variant, not the dark one. By the end of the 20th century, the public health consequences of the industrial revolution finally spurred reforms that reduced air pollution. Once again, the environment changed (for the better this time), and the process of natural evolution led to the lighter variant of the peppered moth regaining its dominance. Three lessons come from the peppered moth's story:

  1. The environment never stops changing. The idea of a "new normal" is a misnomer, because every organism, individual, and organization exists in a perpetually changing world. That means the right idea today is very unlikely to remain the best idea tomorrow.

  2. Accordingly, creativity depends on continuously random variation as well. It's like an engine that's always running, and it needs a constant supply of fuel to keep working for you.

  3. Old ideas in new contexts can still be creative. Continuously combining and recombining the old with the new is a promising way to produce an idea that fits the moment.

Of course, there's another adage about creativity that seems to contradict all of this: Necessity is the mother of invention. The veracity and implications of that idea will need to wait for another time.


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