Evolution, Imagination, and Improvisation

Gregory F. Tague in the ASEBL Journal:

9780226225166Stephen Asma’s The Evolution of Imagination is a required addition to the library of academics interested in evolutionary studies. The well-organized book is thoroughly researched, engagingly written, and fortuitously illustrated by the author, who is also an accomplished jazz musician and philosopher. Asma is also fluent in the culture and philosophy of Asian countries, which impact directly on his main points and discussion, especially concerning creativity, self, meditation, mindfulness, and morality. No doubt this is a book I will refer to in the future, and I recommend it to philosophers of biology and neuroscience. I’d also recommend this book to scientists who wish to see how philosophy and the creative mind accommodate their research. Artists who are curious about the nature of their creativity will also learn much from this book. Stephen Asma’s beautifully-written scholarly study of the evolution of imagination is a powerful new approach to the adaptation of creative improvisation.

Broad areas Asma covers in terms of imaginative creativity include culture, storytelling, consciousness, and ethics. Lev Shestov said that all things are possible. Stephen Asma says that all things are possible because of the human imagination. What he sees as a mistake is how philosophers characterize imagination as cognition and not as action. Rather than ambiguous concepts and universals, Asma homes in on the particulars of sensation and emotion. What does it feel like to imagine oneself as…? There is an adaptive advantage to imaginative, playful what ifs. The imagination is physical sense that prompts one to improvise creatively. In evolutionary terms, then, the imagination helped us survive and reproduce in unprecedented ways. Improvisation especially helped us, says Asma, thrive in its inventive environment, but less as a computational and more as an emotional action. To be precise, imagination is not necessarily useful as noun; it’s more effective a gerund – imagining or the act of making.

More here.