Friday, November 7, 2014

Cumulative cultural evolution: Group think

We think of innovation this way: a lone genius applies massive computational power to a problem, and a flash of insight brings about a world-changing breakthrough. But that’s a myth. Most innovation is mundane, the product of lots of copying and a little bit of creativity.

The history of technology shows that advances happen largely through tinkering, when somebody recreates a good thing with a minor upgrade that makes it slightly better. These humble improvements accrue over generations, so that the Bronze Age straight pin becomes a toga fastener becomes a safety pin. Money begins as seashells, evolves into metal coins, diversifies as paper, and eventually becomes virtual as bitcoins and abstruse financial derivatives. In this way, technologies arise that no one person could possibly invent on his own. When Isaac Newton talked about standing on the shoulders of giants, he should have said that we are dwarves, standing atop a vast heap of dwarves.

Researchers dub this iterative process ‘cumulative cultural evolution’: just as organisms evolve via repeated small changes in genes that provide a survival advantage, each human generation makes small modifications to the technology and traditions it inherits.

1 comment:

  1. I wouldn't exactly call it a myth - I would just call it exceedingly rare. If I hadn't seen it for myself I wouldn't argue.