Stupid Ideas

Mark Pagel thinks(1) that culture might be the most important event in the history of life. The implications he draws are not what you would probably expect.

With the arrival of humans 200,000 years ago, the old evolution based on gene mutation and selection that had ruled for 3.8 billion years had a new competitor: evolution of ideas. Ideas arise and jump from mind to mind. With them, populations of humans could adapt at the level of ideas and ideas could accumulate. Cultural complexity emerged and allowed humans to change orders and orders of magnitude faster than genetic evolution.

Social learning means that most of us can make use of what other people do, and we do not have to innovate ourselves. Why wouldn’t we want to innovate on our own? Because innovation is difficult: It takes time and energy, and most of the things we try, fail.

How many of us have had an idea that would have changed humanity? And I think most of us would say, well, that sets the bar rather high. I haven’t had an idea that would change humanity. So let’s lower the bar a little bit and say, how many of us have had an idea that maybe just influenced others around us, something that others would want to copy? And I think even then, very few of us can say there have been very many things we’ve invented that others would want to copy.

Social evolution may have sculpted us to be copiers instead of creators and innovators, because the social learning process allows us to do so. Do we need more innovators in a larger social group? We probably don’t need as many as we need in a band. Evolutionary history might have selected for less and less and less innovation in individuals, because a little bit of innovation goes a long way. We can copy the best innovations, and all of us benefit from those.

A tiny number of ideas can go a long way, as we’ve seen. And the Internet makes that more and more likely. What’s happening is that we might, in fact, be at a time in our history where we’re being domesticated by these great big societal things, such as Facebook and the Internet. We’re being domesticated by them, because fewer and fewer and fewer of us have to be innovators to get by. And so, in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, at no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators. Because innovation is extraordinarily hard. My worry is that we could be moving in that direction, towards becoming more and more sort of docile copiers.

Where do ideas come from? What is the “sacred” nature of the creative process? Maybe our own creative process rests on a generative mechanism that isn’t very much better than random itself. And this really gives us a different view of ourselves as intelligent organisms. Random might be the best strategy.

The discreet charm of stupidity, again


(1) Infinite Stupidity, An Edge Conversation with Mark Pagel; 2011

Featured Image: Diesel Marketing Campaign “Be Stupid


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