I can’t think of a single species other than man that thinks about doing things better today than the way they were done the day before. Beaver dams look the same from one decade to the next, bird nests don’t seem to evolve architecturally, I’ve never seen any creature other than man build a box, write a story, build a fire, fabricate a wheel, bake a scone, or compose a new song. Doing something better is different from doing something differently. All creatures will alter how they do something to account for changing circumstances. But doing something somewhat differently is not the same as proceeding down a new path. My son Aaron mentioned that Bullnose whales alter their song every year. It is never repeated. This represents a degree of change but not a change of kind. What interests me in this short essay is the flowering of the inventive impulse, a fine phrase that Aaron suggested.
Man’s thoughtful consideration of what he’s been doing—with an eye out to do it better—seems to be the reason the human species has risen to the top of what some may call the evolutionary ladder on earth. I call this predilection for responding to the inventive impulse, betterment. Humans are not content to just keep doing the same thing over and over but rather seem compelled to imagine a new way. And we are blessed with the ability to effect those envisioned changes. An opposing thumb, arms free to hold objects, a vivid imagination, an effective memory are some of man’s nature-endowed faculties that contribute to our ability to change our world. Another important factor is play. In our early years, parents or guardians provide the luxury of and sometimes the necessary materials for creative playtime. It is during play that our minds are free to explore paths not taken before; for instance to build sand castles taller and more elaborate than those we built the day before. Or not to build castles at all but rather some other architectural or sculptural creation; that is what I mean by responding to the inventive impulse.
Betterment does not necessarily lead to good outcomes. A host of human emotions like greed, fear, and the need to dominate allows betterment to result sometimes in things not so good such as better weapons (which admittedly are sometimes necessary), or activities that result in the destruction of our natural environment.
We can only hope that our better angels will constrain our destructive proclivities and that betterment for good purposes will be fairly and thoughtfully applied to our world at large, to our fellow man, and to all the other creatures that share our fragile and special place in the cosmos.