UBC Faculty Research and Publications

An analysis of the ‘Blind Variation and Selective Retention’ theory of creativity Gabora, Liane


Picasso’s Guernica sketches continue to provide a fruitful testing ground for examining and assessing the Blind Variation Selective Retention (BVSR) theory of creativity. Nonmonotonicity—e.g. as indicated by a lack of similarity of successive sketches—is not evidence of a selectionist process; Darwin’s theory explains adaptive change, not nonmonotonicity. Although the notion of blindness originally implied randomness, it now encompasses phenomena that bias idea generation, e.g. the influence of remote associations on sketch ideas. However, for a selectionist framework is to be applicable, such biases must be negligible, otherwise evolutionary change is attributed to those biases, not to selection. The notion of ‘variants’ should not be applied to creativity; without a mechanism of inheritance, there is no basis upon which to delineate, for example, which sketch ideas are or are not variants of a given sketch idea. The notion of selective retention is also problematic. Selection provides an explanation when acquired change is not transmitted; it cannot apply to Picasso’s painting (or other creative acts) because his ideas acquired modifications as he thought them through that were incorporated into paintings and viewed by others. The generation of one sketch affects the criteria by which the next is judged, so sequentially generated sketches cannot be treated as members of a generation, and selected amongst. Although BVSR is inappropriate as a theoretical framework for creativity, exploring to what extent selectionism explains the generation of not just biological form but masterpieces such as Picasso’s Guernica is useful for gaining insight into creativity.

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