Neandertals Were Creative! Or were they?

We still don’t know. Don’t believe the headlines you read about a new scientific study of cave sketches by Neandertals.

The study itself is good, solid science: it demonstrates that Neandertals made rough sketches on cave walls–geometric shapes and stencils of hands. The study was published in the leading journal Science (read the article here). You can read the short version in today’s Wall Street Journal. The problem is with the overblown claims that are made from the findings.

Here’s what happened, and it really is pretty cool. Scientists demonstrated that Neandertals drew on cave walls. The study dated wall sketches of “dots, lines, disks, and hand stencils.” Before this time, we thought that all of those cave sketches were made by our homo sapiens ancestors. In previous studies, the available dating techniques showed that the drawings were made after humans took over Europe from Neandertals. Researchers thought that only homo sapiens could generate a wall sketch. (Previous studies had found some evidence that Neandertals generated visual images, but they’re inconclusive.) The researchers studied ancient cave drawings at three locations in Spain. They were able to date when the sketches were made, using a sensitive dating technique. The wall markings were made 64,000 years ago, long before homo sapiens (that’s us) was anywhere near Spain.

I love the study. But: This isn’t “creative.” It’s not even “art.”

It’s a cool study. You don’t need to make excessive claims that it demonstrates creativity. (Although news reports love it, and the original paper has gotten a lot of media coverage.) The study shows that Neandertals had a limited kind of representational ability. I think most people would agree that making marks on a wall of dots and lines isn’t creative; neither is drawing a line around your hand. Are researchers surprised that Neandertals possess the ability to do this? Not really. There was some evidence for it, but this new evidence is somewhat more convincing.

There’s another limitation of the study: The sketches that the researchers were able to date weren’t weren’t figural. Their study was limited to “dots, lines, disks, and hand stencils.” Most language researchers wouldn’t consider that to be “symbolic” because a symbol is usually thought to have an arbitrary relation to what it references. The word “dog” doesn’t look anything like a dog, and the word for “dog” is very different in other languages. So the word “dog” has an arbitrary relationship to the animal it refers to. With these stencils, a Neandertal placed a hand onto the cave wall, and drew an outline around the hand. That’s not an arbitrary relationship. Most scholars would call that an iconic sign, and that doesn’t require the same cognitive complexity as an arbitrary symbol. Specifically, it’s not enough to support symbolic communication. A Neandertal could draw an outline around his hand, and still not be capable of human language–because language is based in symbolic ability, defined as an arbitrary relationship.

So in sum, here’s the contribution of the study: First, it makes scientists somewhat more convinced that Neandertals could generate images; second, it increases the likelihood that the other more complex drawings in the cave–such as those of animals–were also drawn there by the Neandertals; but they could just have easily have been added there much, much later by homo sapiens. (However, even those animal drawings can’t be called “symbols” because they, too, do not stand in an arbitrary relationship to their referent.)

This is the way science works: Each study is an incremental contribution to our evolving understanding of the world. With this study, we’re more certain about something we suspected might have been true; and, the findings give us more reason to conduct research on a topic, when before, we weren’t as convinced that line of research would be productive. This is an important contribution, but it’s incremental.

Symbolic ability–defined as an arbitrary relationship between sign and referent–is very advanced, cognitively: The developmental psychologist Jean Piaget wrote an entire book, very theoretical and dense, about how symbolic thinking ability emerges in humans during childhood. Take-home message of the book: Learning how to think in symbols is hard and complicated. Don’t take it for granted. (In English the book is titled Play, dreams, and imitation in childhood but in French, it’s called The development of the symbol.)

The WSJ article, and so many other media reports, makes claims that are far beyond this study’s findings. For example, the story falsely says that the study shows Neandertals have “the cognitive capacity for artistic expression.” And the title itself states:

“Neanderthals were creative, studies show”

The headline caught my eye, so it did its job–to draw in readers. If it’s not outright false, it’s certainly misleading. One of the collaborators on the study is quoted in the WSJ article saying “from the point of view of cognition, Neandertals are indistinguishable from humans.” If the study had found evidence of the sort of symbolic ability that enables language, then we’d be more convinced that Neandertals had cognitive ability that’s closer to that of homo sapiens, but the study doesn’t find that. And, it certainly doesn’t find evidence of creativity.


The lead scientist on the study was physicist Dirk Hoffmann, at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany. Over 15 scholars participated in the research.

Learning with Robots at UNC

This week in “The Maker Movement and Education,” a UNC undergraduate class taught by Professor Keith Sawyer:

This week the students are exploring how to use programmable robots to help children learn. I asked the students to find a lesson plan activity on line, one that uses one of three robots to help children learn math: OZOBOT Evo, Sphero, and Dash. (The robots are surprisingly affordable, around $100 each, but when you buy enough for 35 students you’re talking a couple of thousand dollars! Thank you to the School of Education for supporting this class!)

Here’s a photo of the OZOBOT Evo, being controlled by the smartphone you see.

Here are a few other photos, with OZOBOT Evo and Sphero Mini:

Creativity in the Classroom: Everyone Agrees that We Need More

A new study from Adobe, on the importance of teaching creative problem solving skills, found that educators and policymakers agree that we need to weave creativity throughout the school day, in all subjects.

The study surveyed 2,000 teachers a policymakers from the U.K., Japan, Germany, and the U.S. They all say that creative problem solving is a critical skill, especially because of future workforce needs and careers, and they say what schools need to do to better nurture schools for creativity.

  • 97% of educators say that creative problem solving is important for students to learn
  • 74% of educators, and 76% of policymakers, believe that jobs that require creativity are less likely to be impacted by automation
  • 86% of educators say that students with high creativity skills will have access to higher-earning jobs
  • 69% of educators say that classroom curricula don’t do enough to teach and foster creativity
  • 80% of educators and 67% of policymakers believe that creative problem solving should be integrated into all courses.

The study hasn’t been published yet; keep checking my blog and I’ll let you know more details once the full study is available.

The Inventor of Emergence: George Henry Lewes, in 1875

Emergence and complex systems: These concepts are more and more important, with the growth of the Internet, distributed intelligence, social media, and collective consciousness. “Emergence” refers to higher-level phenomena “emerging” from lower-level components, organized into complex systems. For example, mental states — like memory, attention, emotions — are said to emerge from neurons and their interactions. The biological brain is a complex system, with its many components interacting in multiple and different ways.

Today “emergence” is associated with the Internet and social media. But “emergence” isn’t so new, after all. It comes to us from the 19th century. The term “emergence” was coined in 1875 in a book by the British philosopher, George Henry Lewes. The issue at that time was: Why doesn’t all science ultimately reduce to physics? After all, everything in the world is composed of atoms. So the science of atoms and how they interact could, potentially, explain everything. If everything scientific reduced to physics, then all of the other sciences would potentially be unnecessary: biology, chemistry, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, you name it. If that seems wrong today, then it seemed even more wrong in the 19th century, when science was a lot more primitive than now. But you can’t just say it seems wrong; you need a scientific and logical argument for why everything doesn’t reduce to physics.

“Emergence” was the answer to why all science isn’t physics, even though everything in the world is made up of physical stuff. (This is still, basically, the answer of today’s philosophers of science.) In 1875, George Henry Lewes wrote about the difference between mechanical effects (which he called “resultants”) and chemical effects (which he called “emergents”). (Lewes was borrowing from a similar distinction made by John Stuart Mills in 1843.) Lewes’ example of emergence was the combination of hydrogen and oxygen to make water. Because water doesn’t have any of the properties of hydrogen or oxygen, its properties were “emergent” from the combination. Contrast that with a steam engine: It’s a complicated system, to be sure, but the properties of the whole system aren’t that different from the properties of the components, the metal, water, and coal that make up the engine’s operation. They are “resultants.”

I tell this history in my 2005 book Social emergence: Societies as complex systems.

You’ve probably already noticed a serious problem with the emergence argument: In 1875, Lewes didn’t know how hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water. But a few years later, scientists were able to explain water, and how the properties of water were explained by hydrogen, oxygen, and their combination. Water doesn’t seem so “emergent” any more. This is why the reductionists, the people that argue that everything can be explained by lower-level sciences, dismiss the emergence argument. Sure, they say, it seems to us that consciousness can’t be explained in terms of neurons and the brain. But just wait a couple of years, a couple of decades, and we’ll see that everything is really just neurons.

I was reminded of G. H. Lewes this weekend, when I read a book review of the new book Reading the Rocks  by Brenda Maddox. The book is about Victorian geologists (it sounds like a snooze-fest, but the review calls it “engaging” and “absorbing” and it sounds like my kind of book!) and it starts with the novelist George Eliot. It turns out that she was a geologist, as well as a novelist. She was introduced to geology by–guess who–George Henry Lewes. They spent vacations together, hammering at rocks.

One sentence in the book review jumped out at me: “Ms. Maddox traces the emergence of geology in Britain during the 19th century.” Emergence is everywhere! But we still don’t know for sure: Does it really happen? Or is it just a figure of speech?


Group Genius: Today It’s the Accepted Wisdom

In 2007, my business book Group Genius  was one of the first books about collaboration and innovation. Since 2007, a lot more books have been published on that topic, each one affirming the points in my book. That’s because Group Genius  was grounded in scientific research, and that research has stood the test of time.

The March 13 article “In Search of the Perfect Team” in the Wall Street Journal* makes the same recommendations that I did in 2007:

  • “Each member of the team is engaged” (WSJ)–everyone talks and listens about the same. This is in Group Genius, pp. 50-51
  • “There are a diversity of ideas, and everyone is willing to consider new ideas” (WSJ)–In Group Genius, pp. 70-72, also pp. 14-15
  • “Everyone is setting goals for a project” (WSJ)–each person explores something slightly different, but goes in the same direction. This tension is one of the main themes of Group Genius, but it’s most explicit on pp. 44-46.

The WSJ  article connects these themes to new technologies, like Slack, and Google’s data-based approach to team productivity in their People Operations Department. These help drive collaboration; I talk about Slack and also Google’s research in the forthcoming second edition of Group Genius  (coming this May!). But this technology doesn’t change the underlying social dynamics of effective collaboration. Stay grounded in the research, and you’ll stand the test of time.

*2017, May 13, “In search of a perfect team.” Stu Wu, Wall Street Journal, p. R6.

Bumblebees Can Learn

Check out this cool new study published in SCIENCE Magazine. The study proves that bees can learn, and they can adapt what they’ve learned to new situations.

The researchers created some really clever tasks for the bees, and the descriptions of what the bees had to do are pretty complicated. First, the researchers showed the bees a small yellow ball at the center of a blue circle. The ball had a sugar solution inside, and the bees learned to go up to the ball, and get the sugar, pretty quickly (within 48 hours).

Next, they put the yellow ball outside the blue circle, and the bees could only get to the sugar after they pushed the ball into the center of the circle. The researchers started by showing the bee how to do it–they made a stick with a plastic bee at the end, and the manipulated the stick so that the plastic bee moved the ball into the center. At first, the bee could eat the sugar once the plastic bee had finished, but after a few times of this, the bee had to move it himself to get the sugar.

14 bees figured out how to move it themselves within 10 tries. The researchers got rid of the four dumber bees who couldn’t figure it out. Then, the researchers gave the bees a much larger blue circle, and all of the bees still could move the yellow ball to the center, ten tries in a row. The bees kept learning; on each of the ten trials they took less time to finish, and their path to the center become more direct.

Next the researchers put the bees through a complicated task that’s hard to describe briefly. In short, they showed that the bees learned best when they could watch another bee doing it, compared to another learning situation where they didn’t have another bee to watch. That’s social learning–learning from watching and imitating someone you recognize.

Then, with yet another complicated experiment, they showed that the bees aren’t just copying what they see another bee do, but that they learn to adapt what they’ve learned to new situations. For example, if they were shown another bee moving the farthest away ball, they knew to move the closest ball instead of that farther one. And second, if the ball color changed to black, they could still do it.

The researchers point out that these artificial tasks are way harder than anything bees have to do in the wild. Evolution didn’t require this adaptation (of being able to learn this way). This means that animals can end up smarter than they need to survive in the wild. (We’re talking about you, human beings!)

Here’s their conclusion:

Such unprecedented cognitive flexibility hints that entirely novel behaviors could emerge relatively swiftly in species whose lifestyle demands advanced learning abilities.

We Never Think Alone

Here’s a wonderful new book, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. The authors, professors Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman, argue that it’s “a misunderstanding of knowledge” to think that “it goes on between our ears.”

What really sets human beings apart is not our individual mental capacity. The secret to our success is our ability to jointly pursue complex goals by dividing cognitive labor. All of our world-altering innovations were made possible by this ability. Each of us knows only a little bit, but together we can achieve remarkable feats. Knowledge isn’t in my head or in your head. It’s shared.

I love it! I made the same point in my book Group Genius: creativity isn’t really about what’s going on inside your head. Of course, each person’s mind plays a key role in innovation; but creativity is always social, even when you’re alone. Lots of us have good ideas when we’re alone, but we can only have those ideas because of previous conversations, interactions, and encounters–with other people, with other ideas, participating in social networks.

Check out Fernbach’s and Sloman’s book The Knowledge Illusion!

The quotations above are from a NYTimes article by Fernbach and Sloman.

What Will We Do After AI Takes Our Jobs?

Christopher Mims predicts that artificial intelligence will increasingly put white collar, professional workers out of work. That means people who blog. 🙂 Muriel Clauson, of Singularity University, says “Education is often touted as the answer to the skills gap, but it is generally a blunt instrument.” She recommends this system:

First, break down every job into the smallest tasks. Then, figure out which of those tasks can be automated. The jobs that include those tasks are the ones at risk.

Second, assess what skills each person has, and compare those skills with the tasks, across all of the jobs, that can’t be automated. That would give you a pretty good idea of how to match up people with the remaining jobs. Each person would probably be missing a few of the tasks for any given job, so this “task mapping” assessment system would tell you how to design universities and other educational organizations.

I’ve always been nervous about designing education based on what jobs currently exist. It’s because today’s jobs are always going away, or transforming, and new jobs are emerging all the time. Those new jobs often involve new “tasks” that wouldn’t show up using any system based on today’s jobs. So the real challenge faced by education reformers, and education researchers like myself, is: What are the deeper, higher level skills that apply broadly across a wide range of tasks? Those are the skills that make you adaptable, ready to grow and change with the economy.

Are You Too Old to Be Brilliant?

When are brilliant scientists the most brilliant? What age are you likely to be when the Nobel committee comes calling? Pick one of the following answers:

  • You need a lot of expertise and wisdom to make a big breakthrough. You need professional connections, lots of research money, and big laboratories. Scientific breakthroughs come from people in middle age, or maybe even at the end of their careers.
  • It’s the young upstarts who have lots of energy and fresh ideas. After all, the old scientists are stuck in ideas from the past. They’re already past their prime. They’re tired and don’t have much energy any more. Am I talking about myself at the ripe old age of 56? I didn’t get much sleep last night, and my knees are kind of sore 🙂

A new study gives us the answer: None of the above. There’s no relationship between age and creative scientific contribution. The authors of the study analyzed 2,856 physicists, working from 1893 to the present. They found that the best predictor of exceptional creativity is productivity. It’s lots of hard work. The scientists who do the most experiments, and test the most hypotheses, are the ones with the big contributions. The researchers found that once they’d controlled for productivity, age doesn’t add any additional predictive power.

The researchers identified a second variable that’s related to scientific impact: They called it Q, and it includes intelligence, motivation, openness to ideas, ability to write well. Another surprise: The variable Q doesn’t change over your career. (Otherwise, you’d be back to the theory that age predicts creativity.)

It’s still true that younger scientists are more likely to make a significant contribution. But it’s not because a person has more brilliant insights in your 20s, and it’s not because their ideas are fresh and unbound by old-fashioned tradition. It’s because they work harder and that’s why they’re more productive. So if you’re older, there’s still hope.

Now if only I could get a good night’s sleep.

Free Improvisation in Music Groups

There’s almost no research on group musical improvisation, and I’ve wondered about that for years. I’m a jazz pianist, and I’m fascinated by how different people can come together, and collectively create something that no one could have thought of alone.

So I’m excited to see a new study, of group free improvisation in music trios.* Two of my most respected British colleagues co-authored the study: Graeme Wilson and Raymond MacDonald.

They brought together 3 trios of improvising musicians, from Scotland and the North of England. The musicians were from a range of backgrounds, including voice and electronics. And just for extra measure, they also studied 2 more trios of visual artists who work with sound performance. The trios improvised in a studio for about five minutes. Then, the researchers interviewed each performer separately, replaying the tape of their improvisation, and asking them to explain “what they understood to be communicated by their own and other improvisers’ contributions” (p. 1032).

The main finding was that the musicians spent a lot of time thinking about whether to “maintain” what they were playing, or to “change” to something different. If they decided to change, either it was an initiation on their part, or a response to someone else’s contribution.  This is an “active and iterative” process.

If a change was a response, it was either an adoption (doing something really similar to the other musician’s initiation), an augmentation (adopting one element of the partner, but modifying another element), or a contrast (play something really different, but that’s complementary). Here’s the bottom line:

The representation is of an open-ended iterative cycle where all choices lead to a subsequent reconsideration, with each trio member constantly “scanning” the emergent sound of the piece and actions of their collaborators. The improvisation was sometimes characterized by interviewees as an external entity or process, within which events arose independently of those creating it. (p. 1035)

That’s exactly my own experience with group improvisation, and in my own research, every musician that I interviewed spoke in very similar terms, about iteration, interaction, and the emergence of something greater than the individual musicians.

* Wilson, Graeme B., Macdonald, Raymond A. R. (2016). Musical choices during group free improvisation: A qualitative psychological investigation. Psychology of Music, 44(5), 1029-1043.