You are on page 1of 9

Animal innovation: A window into design thinking

Andy Dong The University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia Emma Collier-Baker The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia Thomas Suddendorf The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

Observations of animal innovations range from tool making by chimpanzees to elaborately decorated nests made by bowerbirds. Such behaviors raise fundamental questions about the evolutionary origins of design thinking. While none of these behaviors constitute what we would describe as design per se, specific cognitive mechanisms that make up what we describe as design thinking may exist in other species, even if they do not exist as a complete package or to the same degree of skill as in humans. Animal innovations thus provide a unique window into the human faculty of design. In this paper, we discuss two cognitive characteristics, meta-representation and curiosity, and argue that they have a central role in the origins of design thinking.

1. The origins of design thinking

Designing is a paragon of a highly complex functional capacity in humans because it entails the capability to mentally imagine and plan out a material artifact de novo in the absence of any prior sensing or knowledge of that artifact. By as early as 100,000 years ago, when the earliest evidence of symbolic design appears in engraved ochre (Henshilwood, dErrico & Watts 2009), it is likely that early humans (homo sapiens) were modifying the world to suit their needs for survival; in other words, they were designing. By 70,000 years ago, they were making bone tools following deliberate production methods (Henshilwood et al. 2001) and using complex adhesive compounds to attach handles to tools (Wadley, Hodgskiss & Grant 2009). They were also beginning to create ornamental objects using, for example, shell beads (Henshilwood et al. 2004). These findings raise two important questions relevant to design thinking. The first question is why human beings design many more artifacts than other animals. It has been argued that cultural preference for novelty can drive variation (Martindale 1990). The concept of culture is not exclusive to human societies though and has been attributed to chimpanzees (e.g., Whiten et al. 2001) and orangutans (e.g., van Schaik et al. 2003). Since culture is often defined by variations in patterns of behavior in the absence of plausible environmental explanations, an innate capability for representational variation must logically precede culture. Others have argued that sexual selection would have led to a reproductive advantage for those with creative skills (Miller 2001). Their explanation necessarily entails that females are the choosy sex, and that males must display behaviors that females prefer. Males who are creative, that is, have the ability to produce an idea or behavior that is both novel and useful (Simonton 1999), would have a reproductive advantage. This advantage generated a selection for brain


functions that facilitate creativity, leading to runaway selection for creativity and hence increasing variety in cultural artifacts and practices. Thus, while social factors are recognized as an important extrinsic factor for novelty production, designing requires a cognitive capacity for novelty that cannot be pre-determined by social or environmental factors alone. The second question, and the main concern of this article, is what set of design thinking skills are also skills animals possess to behave creatively and thereby produce innovations [1]. Creative outcomes can arise through a variety of behaviors. Not all are necessarily based on a mental representation of the external world and of processes acting on the world to achieve a desired outcome, which is a requirement of a cognitive view of design thinking; however, there is evidence of animal innovation not attributable to mimicry [2] or accidental discovery in nonhuman animals. In this paper, we look to other species that exhibit creative and innovative behaviors as a way to identify the cognitive processes that may underlie human design thinking [3]. We define animal innovation as the cognitive mechanisms and social processes that enable nonhuman animals to produce novel and useful behaviors (creativity), and for social groups to then adopt these new behaviors or cultural artifacts (innovation). Ever since Masao Kawai published the first observation of animal innovation by the female monkey (macaca fuscata), Imo, who discovered the process of washing sweet potatoes (Kawai 1965), there has been growing attention towards the capacity of nonhuman animals to innovate. Animal innovations provide a unique window into the evolution of the human capacity to design in two ways. First, innovations have been recorded for all great ape species, with which we share a common ancestor. Chimpanzees can introduce behaviors that are otherwise absent in other chimpanzee populations. They exhibit a wide variety of cultural variations in tool use, for example in their preference for using wood or stone hammers and anvils to crack nuts, even when both materials are available. Unique behavioral traditions have also been observed in chimpanzees, for example rain dances (Whiten et al. 2001). Orangutans produce innovations in the way that they obtain food, make nests for sleeping and resting, recruit and modify objects for comfort and protection (such as leaf umbrellas), and produce signals for social communication (van Schaik, van Noordwijk & Wich 2006). Innovation processes in orangutans take multiple pathways including applying old knowledge to new problems and independently working out a solution to a problem (Russon et al. 2010). The high genetic similarity between humans and the great apes demands an explanation for the gradual, intermediary steps in the evolution of homologous cognitive skills underlying the type of design-led innovations exhibited by humans. Second, innovations by species outside the human lineage, such as bowerbirds, have been recorded. Bowerbirds build elaborate bowers (nests) to attract females. The bowers may be up to 3m high and up to 4m in diameter, and are normally decorated with a diverse range of materials (Diamond 1986). The ability of the male bowerbird to build a nest of high quality and aesthetics (Wojcieszek, Nicholls & Goldizen 2007) correlates with its mating success (Coleman, Patricelli & Borgia 2004). The high-level of craft, the number of variables involved, the intraculture variation, and the choosiness of the males in selecting materials to get different nest objectives right suggests that the cognitive skills displayed by bowerbirds in bower-making appear similar to the kind of design thinking skills employed by humans while designing. If there is any overlap between the skills that allow bowerbirds to behave creatively and for humans to design, these skills are more likely the result of convergent evolution due to the distant relationship between bowerbirds and hominids. The skills most parsimoniously assumed to be homologous traits between humans and primates are the focus of this paper. While a more complete discussion of the package of cognitive mechanisms for design thinking based on biological evidence is treated elsewhere (Dong 2010), in this paper, we will discuss


two characteristics, meta-representation and curiosity, because of their central role in generating design situations and in framing those situations in alternative models. Before proceeding, we wish to emphasize that our aim is not to conclude that only humans design and animals do not design [4]. Instead, we wish to draw together evidence to establish a cline for capabilities that are likely to have the most significant effect on design thinking. Because the definitions of these two capabilities may not be familiar to the design thinking research community, we first start by defining them and then present a discussion of why they are essential to the evolution of design thinking. Finally we compare these capabilities in light of innovations in nonhuman animals.

2. Meta-representation
Designing, from a cognitive viewpoint, has been characterized as the construction of representations (Visser 2006), and we thus require, in a strong cognitive definition of design thinking, that models of the artifact and behavior to realize the artifact are represented within the mind (Schn 1988). Mental representation of design artifacts and processes is essential for designing (Purcell & Gero 1998), and it is possible to design solely using mental imagery in the absence of external representations (Bilda & Gero 2007). Such a definition presumes a mind that has symbolic, representational abilities. The study of the development of representational abilities suggests that humans progress through at least three stages (Perner 1991). The earliest stage is one characterized by a capacity for forming so-called primary representations only. These mental representations have a direct semantic relation to the world. The infant creates a single model of its environment that is constantly updated in light of new incoming information. In the second year of life, toddlers begin to go beyond the immediate present and entertain multiple models of the same referent. These so-called secondary representations are evident, for instance, in early pretend play, where the child holds both a representation of the world as it is as well as a representation of imaginary identity. Thus, a stick can become a sword or a horse, and yet the child is not mistaking the real object and the pretend identity. They do not typically (though exceptions prove the rule) actually eat their mud pies. At this stage in development, children demonstrate a variety of other evidence for secondary representational skills (e.g., mirror self-recognition, object permanence, insightful problem solving). Secondary representations are fundamental to our cognition as they allow us to entertain and compare multiple ways of seeing the same thing. In addition to primary representations of the world as it is, secondary representations allow us to imagine how the world was, will be, or could be. As Perner explains, secondary representations are purposely detached or decoupled from reality and are at the root of our ability to think of the past, the possible future, and even the nonexisting and to reason hypothetically (1991, p.7). Secondary representation also allows toddlers to interpret the representational content of symbols. Only now do they protest when a picture book is read to them upside down (DeLoache, Uttal & Pierroutsakos 2000). Indeed, they now appreciate that one thing (say a picture) can stand for another (say ones house), and can use information from one to inform about the other. Thus, even 24 month olds can be informed about the true location of a hidden object by an adult pointing out its location on a picture or video of the hiding place (Suddendorf 2003). However, they do not quite yet appreciate how a representation represents. This skill only emerges around age three to four. At this stage children begin to form representations of representational relations. This is known as meta-representation and is evident, for instance, in that children begin to appreciate that others might mis-represent the world. Children at this stage appreciate the representational relation between a symbol and its referenteven, for example, drawing a picture of themselves drawing a picture. This recursion is a crucial part of the human mind, and like the emergence


of secondary representation, is associated with a great range of new behaviors and capacities (Suddendorf 1999). In short, having meta-representation means understanding that representations have an interpretation. This allows us to compare alternatives, and consider the veracity of various representational relations. This is a fundamental aspect of design thinking since it is at the root of developing alternative useful representations of the same imaginary object that is to be designed. Thus, one can, for example, mentally compare multiple objects that may solve the same design problem, and construct new design situations for which the object is more suitable. Perhaps most crucially, meta-representation is implicated in one of the key skills in design thinkinganalogical reasoning. In making an analogy, the designer is making a representational relation between a designed object and its representation, wherein the representational relation can provide a design solution to a familiar problem type. The designer could invoke the representational relation as the schema for a new representation, what is known as schemadriven analogizing, or transfer the exact design representation in its entirety to a new context, what is known as case-driven analogizing in design (Ball, Ormerod & Morley 2004). There is considerable evidence of secondary representational skills in our closest living relatives, the great apes (Suddendorf & Whiten 2001; Whiten & Suddendorf 2007). Like human toddlers before the age of 4, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans show some capacity for pretend play; they can recognize themselves in mirrors, solve problems through insight, and reason about the past trajectory of an object. Unlike monkeys and lesser apes, they appear to share a package of these fundamental representational capacities with humans. Given this distribution of secondary representational capacity, it has been argued that it is most parsimonious that great apes and humans have inherited this trait from their common ancestor some 14 million years ago (e.g., Suddendorf & Collier-Baker 2009). Even our closest living relatives, however, have thus far failed to demonstrate a capacity for meta-representation. For instance, they have consistently failed tasks involving the appreciation of a mis-representation. Thus, this meta-representation appears to be a uniquely human trait. It follows that in this analysis, design thinking is uniquely human and must have evolved after the split from the line that led to modern chimpanzees over the last 5 million years.

3. Curiosity
We have good reason to believe that our insatiable thirst for knowledge is what partially drives humans to undertake an extraordinary range of activities to gather information that explains the world around us. Yet, is this thirst the same one that drives us to produce artifacts with an exuberant range of variation and sophistication? A wide range of developmental factors and traits could play a role in creating the potential to produce functional and aesthetic diversity and complexity in cultural artifacts (Simonton 2003), but we believe that curiosity is a central component to design thinking. The emphasis on the role of novelty (neophilia and neophobia) in societies (Martindale 1990) reflects a tendency to downplay the fact that when variations occur, processes of learning and knowledge reproduction were instrumental in generating them. The education of designers requires that students acquire and reproduce the form of knowledge that is valued and cultivated within a discipline so that the student can perform design activities according to the written and unwritten rules of the discipline (Carvalho, Dong & Maton 2009). Since it is spontaneous variation which matters in the generative processes of design wherein a designer responds to the current design situation or produces a new design situation to give rise to an expansion or


projection of possibilities (Dong, McInnes & Davies 2005), the generative properties of associated cognitive mechanisms merit special explanation. One possible reason for designers capability to give rise to new situations may be that the brain is innately predisposed to seek and create novelty and change (Mesulam 1998, p.1044). We define this predisposition as design curiosity. While curiosity can incite the goal of seeking out new information, the goal of design is not sated simply by the discovery of new (to the information-seeker) ideas or information-seeking behavior. The widely cited models of curiosity (Berlyne 1954; Litman 2008) simply avoid the issue of the type of feeling one obtains during discovery and invention (Csikszentmihalyi 1996) and that the goal of design is not mastering a subject. Beyond Berlynes model of perceptual and epistemic curiosity or Littmans model of Itype and D-type curiosity, we have a design curiosity that can only be sated by the realization (mental or material) of a novel and useful artifact. We can derive satisfaction from mentally imagining an artifact without building it, such as designing our dream home in our heads. In other words, there is an intrinsic curiosity that is satisfied simply by thinking about designing. The combination of curiosity and meta-representation would help to explain how humans loosen the rigid stimulusresponse bonds and inhibit a pre-existing representation to try a new one. That is, to even have an ability to appreciate different representational relations, we also need to have an explanation for why the brain would expend the energy to generate new representations in the first place and how the brain evaluates representations to distinguish the mundane and superfluous representation and the novel and useful one. Curiosity may be a primary motivator in the mental activation of alternative representations that provide some advantage in functional or aesthetic utility. Humans consistently direct more attention toward the novel over the familiar when given a choice (Berlyne 1960). Curiosity encourages new ways to model the environment through exploration of novel stimuli and information-seeking behavior, and, for example, asking questions about a stimuli would be an important factor in developing meta-representation skills in children (Maw & Maw 1961). Curious behaviors, such as investigating novel objects (Mayeaux & Mason 1998), are displayed by birds and advanced mammals, especially primates, but are generally absent in amphibians. Primates tend to be more curious about animate objects than inanimate objects (Jaenicke & Ehrlich 1982). Parker (1974) examined the response diversity of primate species by attaching a knotted rope outside of the animals enclosure and observing how subjects explored the object (including body parts used and actions performed). Great apes showed the greatest curiosity and tried out the most diverse range of actions in their object manipulations. This was replicated by Torigoe (1985), who examined 74 primate species. In what is perhaps the most comprehensive study of curiosity in nonhuman animals across species (Glickman & Sroges 1966), zoo animals were given novel objects in their cages. Primate species were the most curious in terms of the number of responses to the novel objects, orienting themselves or contacting the objects more often and for a longer duration of time than the other animals. The most interactive responses were reported for baboons and macaques who physically manipulated the objects by rubbing or stretching them, possibly to investigate the material potentials of the objects. Similar types of exploration of the properties of potentially useful materials are, of course, central to the study of materiality in design. This curiosity may have been of critical importance in allowing species, particularly those with opportunistic lifestyles, to adjust to changing or impoverished environments. Animals invent a new behavior or use existing behaviors in a novel context as a way to adjust to a novel context or to respond to environmental stressors or ecological challenges. This is known as behavioral flexibility (Reader & Laland 2003). Clearly, their behaviors are not merely new, but they must also be useful in order to have value and spread as innovations. There is evidence for creativity and innovation in many different species; however, the degree to which these behaviors show variation or complexity may rest in part on representational capacity, curiosity and behavioral


flexibility. Our closest living relatives show the curiosity and representational skills that are rudiments of the fundamental cognitive abilities that allow humans to design. Yet, even great apes appear to be lacking the full package of capabilities essential to design thinking.

4. Concluding remarks
We have presented a basic model wherein two key aspects of design thinking, framing and creating situations, are supported by meta-representation and curiosity. The cline in representational capabilities and curiosity from the great apes to humans cumulated in the ability to radically change the world to suit our needs. Some of the cognitive skills that allow animals to innovate may be shared with humans, but perhaps to a different degree. Other cognitive skills may be of an entirely different quality. Identifying these will help us narrow the search for the origins of cognitive mechanisms underpinning design thinking. We conclude with a brief comment about why we think this is an important question for the design thinking research community. When compared to our capacity for language, we know surprisingly little about the evolutionary origins of the capacity for design, yet, surely, this capacity would have been similarly crucial in shaping the modern world. The design thinking research community is particularly absent in the debate. In terms of the evolution of language, evidence for and theories of its origins are extensive. At present, knowledge about the evolution of design thinking is scant, but certainly design thinking is crucial to our survival today just as it was to our early ancestors.

1. Innovation is a behavior that is shown in some populations or individuals but not in others and the absence is attributable to lack of knowledge rather than state-dependent or ecological factors (Reader & Laland 2003).
2. While imitation is a key part of the social communication involved in innovation diffusion, the ability to imitate is itself part of a cluster of representational skills supporting innovation (Suddendorf & Whiten 2001). 3. Evidence that representational skills and curiosity are homologous traits shared with the great apes is emerging. However, evidence for representational skills is more complete (Suddendorf & Collier-Baker 2009) than for curiosity (Glickman & Sroges 1966). 4. A principal challenge in making this distinction is, of course, that there is no agreement on a test for designing. Further, nonhuman animals may not design because they simply have no need for this behavior.


Ball, L.J., Ormerod, T.C. & Morley, N.J. 2004, Spontaneous analogising in engineering design: a comparative analysis of experts and novices, Design Studies, vol. 25, no. 5, pp. 495-508. Berlyne, D.E. 1954, A theory of human curiosity, British Journal of Psychology, vol. 45, no. 3, pp. 180-191. Berlyne, D.E. 1960, Conflict, arousal, and curiosity, McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York. Bilda, Z. & Gero, J.S. 2007, The impact of working memory limitations on the design process during conceptualization, Design Studies, vol. 28, no. 4, pp. 343-367. Carvalho, L., Dong, A. & Maton, K. 2009, Legitimating design: a sociology of knowledge account of the field, Design Studies, vol. 30, no. 5, pp. 483-502. Coleman, S.W., Patricelli, G.L. & Borgia, G. 2004, Variable female preferences drive complex male displays, Nature, vol. 428, no. 6984, pp. 742-745. Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1996, Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention, Harper Collins Publishers, New York. DeLoache, J.S., Uttal, D.H. & Pierroutsakos, S.L. 2000, Whats Up? The Development of an Orientation Preference for Picture Books, Journal of Cognition and Development, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 81-95. Diamond, J. 1986, Biology of Birds of Paradise and Bowerbirds, Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 17-37. Dong, A. 2010, Biological first principles for design competence, Artificial Intelligence Engineering Design Analysis and Manufacturing, vol. 24, no. 4. Dong, A., McInnes, D. & Davies, K.P. 2005, Exploring the Relationship Between Lexical Behavior and Concept Formation in Design Conversations, paper presented to the 17th International Conference on Design Theory and Methodology, Long Beach, CA, USA, September 24-28, 2005. Glickman, S.E. & Sroges, R.W. 1966, Curiosity in Zoo Animals, Behaviour, vol. 26, no. 1/2, pp. 151-188. Gowlett, J.A.J. 2009, Artefacts of apes, humans, and others: towards comparative assessment and analysis, Journal of Human Evolution, vol. 57, no. 4, pp. 401-410. Henshilwood, C., dErrico, F., Vanhaeren, M., van Niekerk, K. & Jacobs, Z. 2004, Middle Stone Age Shell Beads from South Africa, Science, vol. 304, no. 5669, p. 404. Henshilwood, C.S., DErrico, F., Marean, C.W., Milo, R.G. & Yates, R. 2001, An early bone tool industry from the Middle Stone Age at Blombos Cave, South Africa: implications for the origins of modern human behaviour, symbolism and language, Journal of Human Evolution, vol. 41, no. 6, pp. 631-678. Henshilwood, C.S., dErrico, F. & Watts, I. 2009, Engraved ochres from the Middle Stone Age levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa, Journal of Human Evolution, vol. 57, no. 1, pp. 27-47. Jaenicke, C. & Ehrlich, A. 1982, Effects of animate vs. inanimate stimuli on curiosity behavior in greater galago and slow loris, Primates, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 95-104. Kawai, M. 1965, Newly-acquired Pre-cultural Behavior of the Natural Troop of Japanese Monkeys on Koshima Islet, Primates, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 1-30.


Litman, J.A. 2008, Interest and deprivation factors of epistemic curiosity, Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 44, no. 7, pp. 1585-1595. Martindale, C. 1990, The Clockwork Muse: The Predictability of Artistic Change Basic Books, New York. Maw, W.H. & Maw, E.W. 1961, Establishing Criterion Groups for Evaluating Measures of Curiosity, The Journal of Experimental Education, vol. 29, no. 3, pp. 299-305. Mayeaux, D. & Mason, W. 1998, Development of responsiveness to novel objects in the titi monkey, Callicebus moloch, Primates, vol. 39, no. 4, pp. 419-431. Mesulam, M.M. 1998, From sensation to cognition, Brain, vol. 121, no. 6, pp. 1013-1052. Miller, G.F. 2001, The mating mind: how sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature, Anchor Books, New York. Parker, C.E. 1974, Behavioral diversity in ten species of nonhuman primates, Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, vol. 87, no. 5, pp. 930-937. Perner, J. 1991, Understanding the Representational Mind, The MIT Press, Cambridge. Purcell, A.T. & Gero, J.S. 1998, Drawings and the design process: A review of protocol studies in design and other disciplines and related research in cognitive psychology, Design Studies, vol. 19, no. 4, pp. 389-430. Reader, S.M. & Laland, K.N. 2003, Animal innovation: an introduction, in S.M. Reader & K.N. Laland (eds), Animal Innovation, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 3-35. Russon, A.E., Kuncoro, P., Ferisa, A. & Handayani, D.P. 2010, How Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) Innovate for Water, Journal of Comparative Psychology, vol. 124, no. 1, pp. 14-28. Schn, D.A. 1988, Designing: Rules, types and words, Design Studies, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 181-190. Simonton, D.K. 1999, Origins of genius: Darwinian perspectives on creativity, Oxford University Press, New York. Simonton, D.K. 2003, Human Creativity: Two Darwininan Analyses, in S.M. Reader & K.N. Laland (eds), Animal Innovation, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 309-325. Suddendorf, T. 1999, The rise of the metamind, in M.C. Corballis & S.E.g., Lea (eds), The descent of mind: psychological perspectives on hominid evolution, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 218-260. Suddendorf, T. 2003, Early Representational Insight: Twenty-Four-Month-Olds Can Use a Photo to Find an Object in the World, Child Development, vol. 74, no. 3, pp. 896-904. Suddendorf, T. & Collier-Baker, E. 2009, The evolution of primate visual selfrecognition: evidence of absence in lesser apes, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 276, no. 1662, pp. 1671-1677. Suddendorf, T. & Whiten, A. 2001, Mental evolution and development: Evidence for secondary representation in children, great apes and other animals, Psychological Bulletin, vol. 127, no. 5, pp. 629-650. Torigoe, T. 1985, Comparison of object manipulation among 74 species of non-human primates, Primates, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 182-194.


van Schaik, C.P., van Noordwijk, M.A. & Wich, S.A. 2006, Innovation in wild Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii), Behaviour, vol. 143, no. 7, pp. 839-876. Visser, W. 2006, The cognitive artifacts of designing, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ. Wadley, L., Hodgskiss, T. & Grant, M. 2009, Implications for complex cognition from the hafting of tools with compound adhesives in the Middle Stone Age, South Africa, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 106, no. 24, pp. 9590-9594. Whiten, A., Goodall, J., McGrew, W.C., Nishida, T., Reynolds, V., Sugiyama, Y., Tutin, C.E.G., Wrangham, R.W. & Boesch, C. 2001, Charting Cultural Variations in Chimpanzees, Behaviour, vol. 138, pp. 1481-1516. Whiten, A. & Suddendorf, T. 2007, Great Ape Cognition and the Evolutionary Roots of Human Imagination, in I. Roth (ed.), Imaginative Minds, vol. 147, British Academy, London, pp. 31-59. Wojcieszek, J.M., Nicholls, J.A. & Goldizen, A.W. 2007, Stealing behavior and the maintenance of a visual display in the satin bowerbird, Behavioral Ecology, vol. 18, no. 4, pp. 689-695.