Enconium Negativism

I rise today to sing the praises of negativism. In a society that has learned the power of positive thinking, that warns us to keep our mouths shut if we don’t have anything positive to say, negativism has become an outcast. We are optimists all; our entrepreneurial instincts demand a sunny outlook. Time and time again we have rolled back the limits of technology by refusing to accept the claim that "it can’t be done." We march into the future with jaunty step and a confident smile on our faces, conquering all obstacles with our positive approach. Hurrah for us!

Along the way we have learned to dismiss negativism as the outlook of failure. Only losers are negative. Cynicism, bitterness, defeatism, pessimism, circumscribed thinking, small-mindedness, crabbed thinking, narrow-mindedness these are the terms that we use to describe the various forms of negativism. We recoil from such terms. Surely a mentality that tolerates such thinking is doomed to endless failure.

But I say otherwise. I say that negativism is an under-appreciated part of the creative thinker’s bag of tricks.

Negativism in Evolution
I begin my defense of negativism by noting the strange asymmetry that nature has created in the learning process of living organisms. Consider genetics as a learning system. Here we have a species living in a constantly changing environment. How does the species learn about and adapt itself to environmental changes?

At the genetic level, the creation of responses to environmental change is a random process. New genetic ideas -- mutations are generated randomly by a variety of processes. Cosmic rays ionize water molecules inside the cells, leaving hydroxyl radicals to wander into the nucleus where they alter the DNA. Oddball chemical compounds can directly alter DNA. Viruses can mess up the code. These are for all genetic purposes essentially random processes.

While the creation of new genetic ideas may be random, the evaluation of these ideas is most certainly not random. An organism born with five legs or longer ears or shaggier fur will have to compete in a brutal environment. And that environment never, ever gently says to the organism, "Now, dear, your ears are a little long; why don’t you shorten them a bit next time?" The environment has just one way of expressing its disapproval: it pronounces a sentence of death upon the genetic wayward. Your ears are too long? "Death!" Your eyes are a little out of focus? "Death!" Your kidneys aren’t quite up to snuff? "Death!"

This is what my friends would call an overly negative approach to problem-solving.

Aesthetics Versus Nature
What bothers most people about this process is its lack of balance. Our sense of symmetry, of fairness, if you will, demands that the positive and negative sides of the approach receive equal treatment. We expect that there should be just as much energy devoted to the positive or creative side of the process as is given to the negative, destructive side. But that is not the case in nature.

Indeed, this aesthetic longing for balanced information processing in genetics led to something called "Lysenkoism". Lysenko was a Soviet biologist who found the brutal negativism of Darwinism distasteful. He developed a hypothesis that living organisms could alter their genes through behavior. For example (this is a simplification), under Lysenkoism, the giraffe’s neck is long because the giraffe’s ancestors stretched their necks reaching higher up into the trees to eat the leaves. All that stretching was transmitted to the genes, which in turn transmitted the longer neck to the creature’s descendants. This more positive, creative approach to genetics is more aesthetically appealing than the Darwinian survival of the fittest. The only problem is, Lysenkoism is pure balderdash. Nature doesn’t work that way.

Isn’t it odd that nature is so unbalanced? The positive, creative side is left to pure chance, and the negative, destructive side then passes judgement on the random creative impulses, ruling out the vast majority. There are no "constructive gene mutation" mechanisms in the cell that suggest, Lysenko-like, changes that are likely to yield useful results. The mutation system is utterly random. All the effort goes into the negative side, the system that kills off the vast majority of changes. What a cheap, shoddy approach! How wasteful that so many random schemes should be tried and rejected!

The True Balance
But here’s the rub: any such constructive approach would necessarily be built on a set of assumptions as to what constitutes "constructive". These assumptions would unavoidably narrow the range of possibilities. If nature had equipped living organisms with "constructive mutation generators", they would certainly have focussed on mundane improvements such as bigger teeth and stronger muscles, but the truly wild and crazy ideas, such as flight or intelligence, would certainly have been overlooked.

Brilliant leaps of creativity are not easy to anticipate. It is not possible to construct a set of rules that generate the grand leaps of creativity. You can come up with decent rules for anticipating minor, incremental creativity. But any species using such a mechanism would surely fail to cope with a sudden or dramatic environmental challenge.

Thus we come to the astounding conclusion that nature has stumbled upon the secret to true, wild-blue-yonder creativity: intense negativism judging random creativity. The formula is simple. First, you set up your system with killer negativism, negativism that brutally judges every idea by the harshest possible standards. Then you turn this killer negativism loose on wild, crazy, utterly random idea generation.

There really is a symmetry here. If your goal is to have the wildest, purest, most intense creativity, then you must match that creativity with the sternest, harshest negativity, for only the most disciplined negativity can harness the most soaring creativity. If the two are out of balance, then one will overwhelm the other. Restraining the negativism requires a counterbalancing restraint on the loftiness of the creativity.

So be careful before you condemn another person as overly negative. The iron exterior that you observe might be the walls of a fiery creative furnace, and the thicker those walls are, the hotter the fires they contain might well be.