Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Is There A Creativity DNA?

I wonder where creativity comes from. Is it built into the brain? Do we struggle to find it? What nurtures it? I wonder if we can look at these questions from a biological perspective?

Apothecium Emerging

My formal scientific research focuses on the lichen family Cladoniaceae, a group with about 600 species distributed geographically all around the world. I became interested in these lichens because so many previous workers had struggled with their morphology. In addition to my taxonomic work with the Cladoniaceae I became enchanted with their developmental morphology--how each lichen attained its adult shape.

Over several years I took a whole series of scanning electron micrographs (SEM) that looked at the surface morphology of lichens and traced the changes in a given species. I ended up focusing on structures about 100 microns (1/10 millimeter), about the smallest size visible to the unaided human eye. The structures I studied were exclusively fungal. And these SEM photos show only fungal structures. There are no algae in these pictures.

Juvenile Thysanothecium

Why do I mention this? Because lichens are a combination of fungal and photosynthetic (either algae or cyanobacteria) partners. The photosynthetic partner produces sugars through photosynthesis and the fungus absorbs those sugars. The fungus provides a structure in which the photobionts can live. But it's the fungus, not the photosynthetic partners, that reproduces sexually. And, as I found out, it's the fungus (with influence from the photobiont) that determines the shape of the lichen.

The lichens I study are incredibly creative about their forms. They are branched, graceful, sculptural. And in spite of the photobiont's influence, the fact that the fungus leads growth would suggest that the DNA for this creative morphogenesis is in the fungus.

Maturing Thysanothecium

So, is there a creativity DNA? Roughly speaking, I think we see one in lichens, and certainly in other living forms. What about humans?

In my own experience it seems like there is some drive, at least in many humans, to create. Whether it's art or ideas or music or literature or gardens or recipes, humans are programmed at some level to create. Some of us are more "driven" about it and some of us keep it more under control. But if you ask me today I will vote for yes, there is a creativity DNA.

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