The Evolving Self (Csikszentmihalyi 1993)

Why use the evolutionary perspective to analyze and understand: Story, Screenplay and Movie – success ?

There are in fact, many reasons – but here is just one:

The Evolving Self (Csikszentmihalyi 1993)

Creativity is explained by evolutionary theory… (including systems theory).

And, importantly, there is the `4-c’ model of creativity:

The Kaufman and Beghetto 4-C model of creativity (diagram by Velikovsky 2014)

The Kaufman and Beghetto 4-C model of creativity (diagram by Velikovsky 2014)

Kaufman and Beghetto (2009; 2013) showed there is (1) `everyday’ (or Mini-c) creativity, (2) Little-c creativity, (3) Pro(fessional)-c creativity, and (4) Big-C Creativity.

Examples of Big-C Creativity (or “Historical” creativity, in Boden 2004) include Charles Darwin (1859-71), with the Theory of Evolution by natural, artificial, unconscious and sexual selection.

Charles Darwin photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron (1868).

Charles Darwin – photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron (1868).

Other `Big-C’ Creative individuals include Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Marie Curie, Jane Austen, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Shakespeare, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and Stanley Kubrick.

And – for how creative artifacts (such as: stories, screenplays, and movies) are caused, and emerge, and are judged by the relevant field to `fall into’ one of the four major categories on the creativity spectrum, there is: the systems model of creativity (Csikszentmihalyi 1998-2014):

DPFi systems model of creativity (Csikszentmihalyi in Simonton (ed) 2014 p. 538)

The DPFi (Domain, Person, Field interaction) systems model of creativity (Csikszentmihalyi in Simonton (ed) 2014 p. 538)

In The Evolving Self (Csikszentmihalyi 1993), Csikszentmihalyi explains precisely why understanding evolution is important:

`Flow (1990) ended with the proposition that by understanding better our evolutionary past we might generate the grounds for a viable meaning system, a faith that can give order and purpose to our lives in the future. To know ourselves is the greatest achievement of our species. And to understand ourselves – what we are made of, what motives drive us, and what goals we dream of – involves, first of all, an understanding of our evolutionary past.

Only on that foundation can we build a stable, meaningful future.

It is in order to develop further this contention that the present book was written.

The first chapter, “The Mind as History,” introduces the evolutionary perspective, and argues that to understand how our minds work we must take into account its deep roots in the slow unfolding of the past of our species.

It reflects on the network of relationships that bind us to each other and to the natural environment, and briefly describes how self-reflective consciousness arose, freeing us to a certain extent from the control of genetic and cultural determinism.

(Csikszentmihalyi 1993, p. xvi – bold emphasis mine)

One of the fascinating issues with the Evocriticism school of thought is that – some other scholars (in particular, those from the Continental Philosophy `school of thought’, who find science to be “just another discourse, like Marxism or Freudianism” *) is that – one common misunderstanding (or, false assumption) is that science and consilience is `reductionist’ or `determinist’.

As Csikszentmihalyi notes above, this is not the case. There is nothing reductionist or determinist about evolution; it’s just there. It created us humanimals, and, evolution (biological, cultural, and biocultural) isn’t going away anytime soon.

Here is an important excerpt from the chapter summaries The Evolving Self (1993):

`Our lives are not only directed internally by the instructions of the genes, the culture, and the self.

Evolution is the result of competition between organisms for the energy required for survival.

The forces of selection are still active around us; oppressors exploit us from above, and parasites from below.

The ideas we create, the technological artifacts we produce compete with each other, and with us, for scarce material resources and for attention – which is the scarcest resource of the mind.

The necessity of learning how to get along with these external threats is discussed in Chapters Four and Five, “Predators and Parasites” and “Memes versus Genes.”

“Directing Evolution” is the next chapter. It examines how the principles of evolution apply to the development of culture and consciousness, and it introduces the idea that if there is any meaning to the past, it is to be found in the increase in the complexity of material structures and information over time. It is this feature of the evolutionary process that can provide a meaningful direction to our efforts, a hope for the future.

Chapter Seven, “Evolution and Flow,” explains why flow experiences lead to the increase of complexity in consciousness. It argues that in order to have a future worth looking forward to, we must find ways to enjoy actions that lead to greater harmony within ourselves, society, and the broader environment of which we are a part.

In the next chapter, “The Transcendent Self,” some case studies of individuals whose lives conform to the evolution of complexity [end of p. xvii] are presented. These are people who enjoy everything they do, who keep learning and improving their skills, and who are so committed to goals beyond themselves that the fear of death has little hold on their minds. Their example suggests what it might mean to live by an evolutionary faith.

Chapter Nine, ‘The Flow of History,” argues that flow not only helps the individual self to evolve, but it also provides the energy and direction for some of the most important transformations of technology and culture. Cars and computers, scientific knowledge and religious systems, seem to have been created more out of a joyous desire to find new challenges and to create order in consciousness than from necessity or a calculation of profit. Based on these reflections, a view of a “good” society that makes flow and complexity possible is proposed.

The last chapter, “A Fellowship of the Future,” outlines some practical suggestions about what it might mean to apply the evolutionary faith. If it is true that at this point in history the emergence of complexity is the best “story” we can tell about the past and the future, and if it is true that without it our half-formed self runs the risk of destroying the planet and our budding consciousness along with it, then how can we help to realize the potential inherent in the cosmos? When the self consciously accepts its role in the process of evolution, life acquires a transcendent meaning. Whatever happens to our individual existences, we will become at one with the power that is the universe.’

(Csikszentmihalyi 1993, pp. xvii-xviii  – bold emphasis mine)

In other words: Evolution is important – hmm-kayyy?

Both Biology and Culture evolve. Try and stop 'em.

Both Biology and Culture evolve. Try and stop ’em.

Csikszentmihalyi is also clearly big on systems theory, as he states:

`There is no place left on earth where one can plan one’s destiny without taking into account what happens in the rest of the world.’

(Csikszentmihalyi 1993, p. 7)

Also Csikszentmihalyi makes clear that `determinism’ in evolution is a mistaken assumption, (although it doesn’t seem that way to many people)…

`Current understanding of causality suggests that events are determined by random chance’s interaction with immutable natural laws.

A butterfly flapping its wings over an orchid along the shores of the Amazon River can set in motion a chain of minute atmospheric perturbations that might result in a hurricane’s destroying hundreds of condos in Florida. How hurricanes are formed can be explained in terms of atmospheric pressure and temperature differentials; but the flight of the butterfly—and the hundred other causes that dampen or amplify the effects of the initial movement of its wings—may forever remain in the unpredictable realm of random chance.’

(Csikszentmihalyi 1993, p. 13 – bold emphasis mine)

I sometimes feel like, I need to explain (over, and over, and over) why consilience (and evolutionary approach) isn’t `reductionist’. So, here is Csikszentmihalyi (1993) doing a fantastic job of it:

`One can accept the axiom of causality without becoming reductionistic.

Of the many causes that shaped St. Francis’s actions, a primary one was the belief that his actions mattered, and that he had a responsibility to change the world around him. This belief, in itself, is a “cause.”

The idea of free will is a self-fulfilling prophecy; those who abide by it are liberated from the absolute determinism of external forces.

Chance and necessity are sole rulers of beings who are incapable of reflection.

But evolution has introduced a buffer between determining forces and human action. Like a clutch in an engine, consciousness enables those who use it to disengage themselves occasionally from the pressure of relentless drives so as to make their own decisions.

The achievement of self-reflective consciousness, which humans alone seem to have achieved on this planet, is by no means an unmixed blessing. It accounts not only for the self-denying courage of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but also for the “unnatural” cravings of the Marquis de Sade or the insatiable ambition of Stalin. Consciousness, this third determinant of our behavior, can lead either to safety or to destruction.’

(Csikszentmihalyi 1993, pp. 14-5  – bold emphasis mine)

It helps to realise, Human Nature is a bell-curve. There is an `average’ (or `species-typical’ universal `norms’), and, there are also `outliers’ on each side:

Human nature - Gaussian `normal' distribution = bio-psycho-socio-cultural "norms"

Human nature – a Gaussian `normal’ distribution = bio-psycho-socio-cultural “norms”

The image above is mine, but here is what (Csikszentmihalyi 1993) says:

`Ironically, but not unexpectedly, it is usually those with unrealistically high expectations who are shocked by the perversity of human behavior. A rosy-colored picture of human nature cannot stand up to scrutiny for long. Those who expect priests to be consistently saintly, soldiers brave, mothers always self-sacrificing, and so on, are due for some serious disappointment. To them the entire history of the human race will seem to have been a huge mistake, or as Macbeth said so well, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Whereas if one starts from the assumption that humans are basically weak and disoriented creatures thrown by chance into a leading role at the center of the planetary stage, without a script and without rehearsal, then the picture of what we have accomplished is not so bleak. Paraphrasing what the trainer said about his talking dog, the point is not that we sing well, but that we sing at all.’

(Csikszentmihalyi 1993, p. 16 – bold emphasis mine)

In short, I think everyone needs to read this book. i.e. The Evolving Self (Csikszentmihalyi 1993) !

Here is another inspiring excerpt:

`Rather than claiming Godlike qualities, we might consider instead that 94 percent of our genetic material overlaps with the chimpanzees, and then wonder how some of us have ever built cathedrals, or computers, or spaceships. Then the fact that there are even a few individuals who try to help others will come as a marvelous surprise. If you expect a full glass, a glass with water up to the middle will seem half empty; but if you don’t expect any water at all, the same glass will seem half full.

You and I are part of the process of evolution.

We are bundles of energy programmed to pursue selfish ends, not for our own sake, but to preserve and replicate the information encoded in our genes. Attila may have believed that he was “the Scourge of God” as he burned and killed his way through Europe, and the Spaniards were half convinced that they were saving the souls of the Indians they were exterminating, but basically they were driven by the same impulses that send birds migrating or lemmings scurrying toward the sea.

Looking back now we are horrified at what our forefathers have accomplished, and we conclude that humans are inherently evil. But we have been no better than we should be, and probably no worse.’

(Csikszentmihalyi 1993, pp. 17-8 – bold emphasis mine)

In short, humans are animals. We are pretty highly-evolved, compared to most other animals, but: animals. This is why the bio-cultural evolutionary systems perspective is adopted here.

And – here is a final key excerpt:

`THE EMERGENCE OF THE SELF – The process we have come to call evolution exists because nothing ever stays the same.

There are only two choices available to both living and nonliving things: either let entropy get the upper hand, or try to beat the system. Evolution is the second of these two alternatives.

With time every form, every structure, tends to decay as its components return to randomness. The cells of the body break up, organs deteriorate, appliances wear out and rust away, lofty mountain chains turn to sand, great civilizations collapse and are forgotten, and even stars die when their energy becomes exhausted. A car will work for a few years, but after that keeping it running takes too much energy to make it worthwhile. When you first buy a house you think you now own a permanent shelter, but if you don’t fix the roof, tuck-point the walls, and paint the woodwork often enough the house will start falling apart.

The reason for this process of disintegration is entropy, the supreme law of the universe.

But entropy is not the only law operating in the world. There are also processes that move in the opposite direction: creation and growth are just as much part of the story as decay and death. Beautifully ordered crystals take shape, new life-forms develop, increasingly improbable methods of exploiting energy emerge. Whenever order in a system increases instead of breaking down we may say that negentropy is at work.

Every system, whether a rock or an animal, tends above all else to keep itself in an ordered state. In the case of living things, most of what we call “life” consists of efforts to ensure self-preservation and self-replication. A whale will try to remain a whale as long as it can, and before it’s too late will try to reproduce as many faithful copies of itself as possible. In order to achieve its end, the whale will have to keep on frustrating entropy by extracting oxygen from the air and calories from plankton, and by protecting its calves from harm and predators.

For negentropy to operate, an organism—an individual body, or a family, or a social system—must always be at work repairing and [end of p. 20] protecting itself, becoming more efficient at transforming energy for its own purposes. The high points of human history are those discoveries that have made it easier to protect ourselves from the onslaught of entropy. The discovery of fire is justly famous. One of our distant ancestors had the brilliant idea of harnessing combustion to reverse – even if temporarily and locally – the numbing effects of cold, one of entropy’s favorite manifestations.

The development of ever more efficient, more improbable systems is what we call evolution. Evolution is forced on us by the fact that systems fall apart with time unless they become more efficient. We can’t stop and remain in the same place; even to remain still we must advance.

Competition is the thread that runs through evolution. Life-forms displace one another on the stage of history, depending on their success in taking energy from the environment and transforming it for their own purposes. But often species survive because they have found ways to improve their chances of survival through cooperation. Paradoxically, cooperation can be a very effective competitive tool. However, until humans entered the scene, competition and cooperation have been entirely blind and unintentional.

Another way to view evolution is to see it not as the selective survival of life-forms such as dinosaurs or elephants, but of information. From this perspective, what counts is not the external, material shape of the organism, but the instructions it bears. Biological organisms carry extremely detailed scripts coded chemically in their genes, and it is the survival of these instructions that evolution is really all about. Elephants are only a by-product of the genetic information contained in elephant chromosomes. Theoretically one could build elephants provided one had the blueprint of their genes. But without their genetic instructions, elephants would disappear in a single generation from the face of the earth.

Most people have accepted the notion of biological evolution. But genetic information is not the only kind that strives to survive. There are other patterns of information that compete with one another to maintain their shape and transmit themselves through time. For instance, languages are engaged in competition, as are religions, scientific theories, lifestyles, technologies, and even the elements of that realm of consciousness we have come to regard as the “self.”

Inside each person there is a wonderful capacity to reflect on the information that the various sense organs register, and to direct and control these experiences. We take this ability so much for granted that we seldom wonder about what it is, and yet, as far as we know, it is a recent accomplishment of evolution that only the human brain has achieved. If we ever think about it, we give it such names as awareness, consciousness, self, or soul. Without it, we could only obey instructions programmed in the nervous system by our genes. But having a self-reflective consciousness allows us to write our own programs for action, and make decisions for which no genetic instructions existed before.

The picture of the self we usually have is that of a homunculus, a tiny person sitting somewhere inside the brain who monitors what comes through the eyes, the ears, and the other senses, evaluates this information, and then pulls some levers that make us act in certain ways. We think of this miniature being as someone very sensitive and intelligent, the master of the machinery of the body. Those who conceive of it as the “soul” believe that it is the breath of God that transformed our common clay into a mortal envelope for the divine spark.

Contemporary neuroscience has a more prosaic view of what the self is and how it evolved. The brain does not seem to have a separate material structure or neurological function that accounts for the phenomenon of “self’ or of “consciousness.”

The capacity for reflection emerged in response to the brain’s millions of neuronal bundles, each evolved to perform a limited task, such as seeing color, keeping the body in balance, or detecting certain sounds. As the specialized and disconnected information provided by these neurons bounced around inside the brain, it eventually reached a level of complexity that made it necessary to have an internal traffic cop to direct and prioritize the flow of perceptions and sensations. At some point in the distant past humans succeeded in developing such a mechanism in the form of a consciousness.

But the image of a traffic cop is also misleading, in that it again suggests a homunculus, a perfect little manikin—or womanikin—in charge inside the brain. Instead, consciousness is more like a magnetic field, an aura, or a harmonic tone resulting from the myriad separate sensations collecting in the brain.

Once self-reflective consciousness developed, however, the way the brain functions seems to have made an incredible quantum jump. It no longer experienced only separate needs, drives, sensations, and ideas competing for “air time’, in awareness, to be admitted there strictly in terms of priorities established by means of inherited chemical instructions.

Instead it also experienced the totality of these impulses as forming a distinct self, capable of taking charge of the domain of consciousness, and deciding which feelings or ideas should take precedence over the rest. Having had this experience of something inside us directing consciousness we gave it a name – the self – and took its reality for granted. And the self became an increasingly important part of human beings.

With time this internally created self appeared as real to us as the outside world glimpsed through the senses. Like air, it is always there; like the body, it has its limits. It is something that can get hurt, but it can also soar; it grows, and its powers slowly expand.

Although every human brain is able to generate self-reflective consciousness, not everyone seems to use it equally. Some individuals follow the instructions of their genetic blueprint or the dictates of society almost exclusively, with little or no input from consciousness. At the other end of the spectrum are individuals who develop autonomous selves with goals that override external instructions, and live almost exclusively by self-generated rules. Most of us operate somewhere between these two extremes.

But once there is a self—even if it is little used—it begins to make its claims like any other organism. It wants to keep its shape, to reproduce itself somehow even after the body that carries it dies. The self, like other living beings, will use energy from its environment to stop entropy from destroying it. An animal without a conscious self only needs to reproduce the information in its genes. But a person with a self will want to keep and spread the information in his or her consciousness as well. A self identified with material possessions will drive its owner to accumulate more and more property, regardless of consequences for anyone else.

The self of Stalin, built around the need for power, did not rest until everyone who might challenge his absolute rule was dead. If the self takes its form from a belief, the survival of that belief will mean more than even the survival of the body—the Christian martyrs felt more threatened by the consequences of compromising their faith than by lions.

It is for this reason that the fate of humanity in the next millennium depends so closely on the kind of selves we will succeed in creating. Evolution is by no means guaranteed. We have a chance of being part of it only as long as we understand our place in that gigantic field of force we call nature. Neither excessive humility nor truculent bombast will serve us well in the future. If the selves of our children and their children become too timid, too conservative and retiring, and try to stop change by retreating into a safe cocoon, eventually they will be overcome by more vital life-forms. On the other hand if we just forge ahead blindly, taking what we can from one another and from the world around us, there is not going to be much left to enjoy on the planet.’

(Csikszentmihalyi 1993, pp. 20-4 – bold emphasis mine)

 In short, this is an utterly fantastic book – and everyone should buy and read it.

The Evolving Self (Csikszentmihalyi 1993)

After reading it, people who currently don’t – will probably then, understand, why: Evolution is important.

Also, this may shock you. But – the domain of Evolutionary (and Cognitive) Psychology thinks we have a set of Evolved Psychological Mechanisms.

Evolved Psychological Mechanisms - (Buss 2012, p.49)

Evolved Psychological Mechanisms – (Buss 2012, p.49)

And – I think this is true.

Systems execute algorithms, like the one above.




(Sexual Selection)


This means given agency and structure, we have choices, (which gives the illusion of free will).

– It could be said that: Interesting stories, (like, interesting video games) are about agents (e.g. characters, or game-avatars) making interesting choices.

Though, I suggest, given the Anna Karenina principle, that’s not all you need, for an interesting story.

You probably also need: an interesting character.

And if it’s a movie: interesting scenery (i.e. visuals) probably also can’t hurt.

Also, interesting music probably wouldn’t hurt, either.

But – what one audience member finds `interesting’ may well be different, for another.

Yet, it would seem that human nature (see: Evolutionary Psychology) is a bell-curve.

As – some movies are judged more interesting than others – by a consensus in the field.

i.e. See: the systems model of creativity, which is essentially the same thing as (Popper’s and DT Campbell’s) Evolutionary Epistemology.

But either way – it all comes back to Evolution, and that all comes back to Systems Theory.

See this chapter:

StoryAlity #132The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture (and narreme, or unit of story)

Creativity. It's not what you think!

Creativity: Evolution is important… hmm-kay?

– Comments always welcome.


JT Velikovsky

High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher

The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky

JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/



Csikszentmihalyi, M 1993, The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium, 1st edn, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY.

Csikszentmihalyi, M 2014, ‘The Systems Model of Creativity and Its Applications’, in DK Simonton (ed.), The Wiley Handbook of Genius, John Wiley & Sons Ltd., Chichester, West Sussex.

Csikszentmihalyi, M 1990, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1st edn, Harper & Row, New York.

Kaufman, JC & Beghetto, RA 2009, ‘Beyond big and little: The Four C Model of Creativity’, Review of General Psychology, vol. 13, pp. 1-12.

Kaufman, JC & Beghetto, RA 2013, ‘Do people recognize the four Cs? Examining layperson conceptions of creativity’, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 229–36.

Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). `The Holon/Parton Theory of the Unit of Culture (or the Meme, and Narreme): In Science, Media, Entertainment and the Arts.’ In A. Connor & S. Marks (Eds.), Creative Technologies for Multidisciplinary Applications. New York: IGI Global.

8 thoughts on “StoryAlity#70D – The Evolving Self (Csikszentmihalyi 1993)

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