Infinite Stupidity. Social evolution may have sculpted us not to be innovators and creators as much as to be copiers
A review of some big events
"Obviously one of the big events in our history was the origin of our planet, about 4.5 billion years ago. And what’s fascinating is that about 3.8 billion years ago, only about seven or eight hundred million years after the origin of our planet, life arose. That life was simple replicators, things that could make copies of themselves. And we think that life was a little bit like the bacteria we see on earth today. It would be the ancestors of the bacteria we see on earth today.
That life ruled the world for 2 billion years, and then about 1.5 billion years ago, a new kind of life emerged. These were the eukaryotic cells. They were a little bit different kind of cell from bacteria. And actually the kind of cells we are made of. And again, these organisms that were eukaryotes were single-celled, so even 1.5 billion years ago, we still just had single-celled organisms on earth. But it was a new kind of life.
It was another 500 million years before we had anything like a multicellular organism, and it was another 500 million years after that before we had anything really very interesting. So, about 500 million years ago, the plants and the animals started to evolve. And I think everybody would agree that this was a major event in the history of the world, because, for the first time, we had complex organisms.
After about 500 million years ago, things like the plants evolved, the fish evolved, lizards and snakes, dinosaurs, birds, and eventually mammals. And then it was really just six or seven million years ago, within the mammals, that the lineage that we now call the hominins arose. And they would be direct descendants of us. And then, within that lineage that arose about six or seven million years ago, it was only about 200,000 years ago that humans finally evolved.
Idea of idea evolution
And so, this is really just 99.99 percent of the way through the history of this planet, humans finally arose. But in that 0.01 percent of life on earth, we’ve utterly changed the planet. And the reason is that, with the arrival of humans 200,000 years ago, a new kind of evolution was created. The old genetical evolution that had ruled for 3.8 billion years now had a competitor, and that new kind of evolution was ideas.
It was a true form of evolution, because now ideas could arise, and they could jump from mind to mind, without genes having to change. So, populations of humans could adapt at the level of ideas. Ideas could accumulate. We call this cumulative cultural adaptation. And so, cultural complexity could emerge and arise orders and orders of magnitude faster than genetic evolution.
Now, I think most of us take that utterly for granted, but it has completely rewritten the way life evolves on this planet because, with the arrival of our species, everything changed. Now, a single species, using its idea evolution, that could proceed apace independently of genes, was able to adapt to nearly every environment on earth, and spread around the world where no other species had done that. All other species are limited to places on earth that their genes adapt them to. But we were able to adapt at the level of our cultures to every place on earth. (…)
If we go back in our lineage 2 million years or so, there was a species known as Homo erectus. Homo erectus is an upright ape that lived on the African savannah. It could make tools, but they were very limited tools, and those tools, the archaeological record tells us, didn’t change for about 1.5 million years. That is, until about the time they went extinct. That is, they made the same tools over and over and over again, without any real changes to them.
If we move forward in time a little bit, it’s not even clear that our very close cousins that we know are related to us 99.5 or 99.6 percent in the sequences of their genes, the Neanderthals, it’s not even clear that they had what we call idea evolution. Sure enough, their tools that they made were more complex than our tools. But the 300,000 or so years that they spent in Europe, their toolkit barely changed. So there’s very little evolution going on.
So there’s something really very special about this new species, humans, that arose and invented this new kind of evolution, based on ideas. And so it’s useful for us to ask, what is it about humans that distinguishes them? It must have been a tiny genetic difference between us and the Neanderthals because, as I said, we’re so closely related to them genetically, a tiny genetic difference that had a vast cultural potential.
That difference is something that anthropologists and archaeologists call social learning. It’s a very difficult concept to define, but when we talk about it, all of us humans know what it means. And it seems to be the case that only humans have the capacity to learn complex new or novel behaviors, simply by watching and imitating others. And there seems to be a second component to it, which is that we seem to be able to get inside the minds of other people who are doing things in front of us, and understand why it is they’re doing those things. These two things together, we call social learning.
Many people respond that, oh, of course the other animals can do social learning, because we know that the chimpanzees can imitate each other, and we see all sorts of learning in animals like dolphins and the other monkeys, and so on. But the key point about social learning is that this minor difference between us and the other species forms an unbridgeable gap between us and them. Because, whereas all of the other animals can pick up the odd behavior by having their attention called to something, only humans seem to be able to select, among a range of alternatives, the best one, and then to build on that alternative, and to adapt it, and to improve upon it. And so, our cultures cumulatively adapt, whereas all other animals seem to do the same thing over and over and over again.
Even though other animals can learn, and they can even learn in social situations, only humans seem to be able to put these things together and do real social learning. And that has led to this idea evolution. What’s a tiny difference between us genetically has opened up an unbridgeable gap, because only humans have been able to achieve this cumulative cultural adaptation. (…)
I’m interested in this because I think this capacity for social learning, which we associate with our intelligence, has actually sculpted us in ways that we would have never anticipated. And I want to talk about two of those ways that I think it has sculpted us. One of the ways has to do with our creativity, and the other has to do with the nature of our intelligence as social animals.
One of the first things to be aware of when talking about social learning is that it plays the same role within our societies, acting on ideas, as natural selection plays within populations of genes. Natural selection is a way of sorting among a range of genetic alternatives, and finding the best one. Social learning is a way of sifting among a range of alternative options or ideas, and choosing the best one of those. And so, we see a direct comparison between social learning driving idea evolution, by selecting the best ideas —we copy people that we think are successful, we copy good ideas, and we try to improve upon them — and natural selection, driving genetic evolution within societies, or within populations.
I think this analogy needs to be taken very seriously, because just as natural selection has acted on genetic populations, and sculpted them, we’ll see how social learning has acted on human populations and sculpted them.
What do I mean by “sculpted them”? Well, I mean that it’s changed the way we are. And here’s one reason why. If we think that humans have evolved as social learners, we might be surprised to find out that being social learners has made us less intelligent than we might like to think we are. And here’s the reason why.
If I’m living in a population of people, and I can observe those people, and see what they’re doing, seeing what innovations they’re coming up with, I can choose among the best of those ideas, without having to go through the process of innovation myself. So, for example, if I’m trying to make a better spear, I really have no idea how to make that better spear. But if I notice that somebody else in my society has made a very good spear, I can simply copy him without having to understand why.
What this means is that social learning may have set up a situation in humans where, over the last 200,000 years or so, we have been selected to be very, very good at copying other people, rather than innovating on our own. We like to think we’re a highly inventive, innovative species. But social learning means that most of us can make use of what other people do, and not have to invest the time and energy in innovation ourselves.
Now, why wouldn’t we want to do that? Why wouldn’t we want to innovate on our own? Well, innovation is difficult. It takes time. It takes energy. Most of the things we try to do, we get wrong. And so, if we can survey, if we can sift among a range of alternatives of people in our population, and choose the best one that’s going at any particular moment, we don’t have to pay the costs of innovation, the time and energy ourselves. And so, we may have had strong selection in our past to be followers, to be copiers, rather than innovators.
This gives us a whole new slant on what it means to be human, and I think, in many ways, it might fit with some things that we realize are true about ourselves when we really look inside ourselves. We can all think of things that have made a difference in the history of life. The first hand axe, the first spear, the first bow and arrow, and so on. And we can ask ourselves, 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.
This says to us that social evolution may have sculpted us not to be innovators and creators as much as to be copiers, because this extremely efficient process that social learning allows us to do, of sifting among a range of alternatives, means that most of us can get by drawing on the inventions of others.
The formation of social groups
Now, why do I talk about this? It sounds like it could be a somewhat dry subject, that maybe most of us are copiers or followers rather than innovators. And what we want to do is imagine that our history over the last 200,000 years has been a history of slowly and slowly and slowly living in larger and larger and larger groups.
Early on in our history, it’s thought that most of us lived in bands of maybe five to 25 people, and that bands formed bands of bands that we might call tribes. And maybe tribes were 150 people or so on. And then tribes gave way to chiefdoms that might have been thousands of people. And chiefdoms eventually gave way to nation-states that might have been tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people. And so, our evolutionary history has been one of living in larger and larger and larger social groups.
What I want to suggest is that that evolutionary history will have selected for less and less and less innovation in individuals, because a little bit of innovation goes a long way. If we imagine that there’s some small probability that someone is a creator or an innovator, and the rest of us are followers, we can see that one or two people in a band is enough for the rest of us to copy, and so we can get on fine. And, because social learning is so efficient and so rapid, we don’t need all to be innovators. We can copy the best innovations, and all of us benefit from those.
But now let’s move to a slightly larger social group. Do we need more innovators in a larger social group? Well, no. The answer is, we probably don’t. We probably don’t need as many as we need in a band. Because in a small band, we need a few innovators to get by. We have to have enough new ideas coming along. But in a larger group, a small number of people will do. We don’t have to scale it up. We don’t have to have 50 innovators where we had five in the band, if we move up to a tribe. We can still get by with those three or four or five innovators, because all of us in that larger social group can take advantage of their innovations.
Language is the way we exchange ideas
And here we can see a very prominent role for language. Language is the way we exchange ideas. And our eyes allow us to see innovations and language allows us to exchange ideas. And language can operate in a larger society, just as efficiently as it can operate in a small society. It can jump across that society in an instant.
You can see where I’m going. As our societies get larger and larger, there’s no need, in fact, there’s even less of a need for any one of us to be an innovator, whereas there is a great advantage for most of us to be copiers, or followers. And so, a real worry is that our capacity for social learning, which is responsible for all of our cumulative cultural adaptation, all of the things we see around us in our everyday lives, has actually promoted a species that isn’t so good at innovation. It allows us to reflect on ourselves a little bit and say, maybe we’re not as creative and as imaginative and as innovative as we thought we were, but extraordinarily good at copying and following.
If we apply this to our everyday lives and we ask ourselves, do we know the answers to the most important questions in our lives? Should you buy a particular house? What mortgage product should you have? Should you buy a particular car? Who should you marry? What sort of job should you take? What kind of activities should you do? What kind of holidays should you take? We don’t know the answers to most of those things. And if we really were the deeply intelligent and imaginative and innovative species that we thought we were, we might know the answers to those things.
And if we ask ourselves how it is we come across the answers, or acquire the answers to many of those questions, most of us realize that we do what everybody else is doing. This herd instinct, I think, might be an extremely fundamental part of our psychology that was perhaps an unexpected and unintended, you might say, byproduct of our capacity for social learning, that we’re very, very good at being followers rather than leaders. A small number of leaders or innovators or creative people is enough for our societies to get by.
Now, the reason this might be interesting is that, as the world becomes more and more connected, as the Internet connects us and wires us all up, we can see that the long-term consequences of this is that humanity is moving in a direction where we need fewer and fewer and fewer innovative people, because now an innovation that you have somewhere on one corner of the earth can instantly travel to another corner of the earth, in a way that it would have never been possible to do 10 years ago, 50 years ago, 500 years ago, and so on. And so, we might see that there has been this tendency for our psychology and our humanity to be less and less innovative, at a time when, in fact, we may need to be more and more innovative, if we’re going to be able to survive the vast numbers of people on this earth.
That’s one consequence of social learning, that it has sculpted us to be very shrewd and intelligent at copying, but perhaps less shrewd at innovation and creativity than we’d like to think. Few of us are as creative as we’d like to think we are. I think that’s been one perhaps unexpected consequence of social learning.
Another side of social learning I’ve been thinking about - it’s a bit abstract, but I think it’s a fascinating one -goes back again to this analogy between natural selection, acting on genetic variation, and social learning, acting on variation in ideas. And any evolutionary process like that has to have both a sorting mechanism, natural selection, and what you might call a generative mechanism, a mechanism that can create variety.
We all know what that mechanism is in genes. We call it mutation, and we know that from parents to offspring, genes can change, genes can mutate. And that creates the variety that natural selection acts on. And one of the most remarkable stories of nature is that natural selection, acting on this mindlessly-generated genetic variation, is able to find the best solution among many, and successively add those solutions, one on top of the other. And through this extraordinarily simple and mindless process, create things of unimaginable complexity. Things like our cells, eyes and brains and hearts, and livers, and so on. Things of unimaginable complexity, that we don’t even understand and none of us could design. But they were designed by natural selection.
Where do ideas come from?
Now let’s take this analogy of a mindless process and take - there’s a parallel between social learning driving evolution at the idea level and natural selection driving evolution at the genetic level - and ask what it means for the generative mechanism in our brains.
Well, where do ideas come from? For social learning to be a sorting process that has varieties to act on, we have to have a variety of ideas. And where do those new ideas come from?
The idea that I’ve been thinking about, that I think is worth contemplating about our own minds is what is the generative mechanism? If we do have any creativity at all and we are innovative in some ways, what’s the nature of that generative mechanism for creating new ideas?
This is a question that’s been asked for decades. What is the nature of the creative process? Where do ideas come from? And let’s go back to genetic evolution and remember that, there, the generative mechanism is random mutation.
Now, what do we think the generative mechanism is for idea evolution? Do we think it’s random mutation of some sort, of ideas? Well, all of us think that it’s better than that. All of us think that somehow we can come up with good ideas in our minds. And whereas natural selection has to act on random variation, social learning must be acting on directed variation. We know what direction we’re going.
But, we can go back to our earlier discussion of social learning, and ask the question, well, if you were designing a new hand axe, or a new spear, or a new bow and a new arrow, would you really know how to make a spear fly better? Would you really know how to make a bow a better bow? Would you really know how to shape an arrowhead so that it penetrated its prey better? And I think most of us realize that we probably don’t know the answers to those questions. And that suggests to us that maybe our own creative process rests on a generative mechanism that isn’t very much better than random itself.
And I want to go further, and suggest that our mechanism for generating ideas maybe couldn’t even be much better than random itself. And this really gives us a different view of ourselves as intelligent organisms. Rather than thinking that we know the answers to everything, could it be the case that the mechanism that our brain uses for coming up with new ideas is a little bit like the mechanism that our genes use for coming up with new genetic variance, which is to randomly mutate ideas that we have, or to randomly mutate genes that we have.
Now, it sounds incredible. It sounds insane. It sounds mad. Because we think of ourselves as so intelligent. But when we really ask ourselves about the nature of any evolutionary process, we have to ask ourselves whether it could be any better than random, because in fact, random might be the best strategy.
Genes could never possibly know how to mutate themselves, because they could never anticipate the direction the world was going. No gene knows that we’re having global warming at the moment. No gene knew 200,000 years ago that humans were going to evolve culture. Well, the best strategy for any exploratory mechanism, when we don’t know the nature of the processes we’re exploring, is to throw out random attempts at understanding that field or that space we’re trying to explore.
And I want to suggest that the creative process inside our brains, which relies on social learning, that creative process itself never could have possibly anticipated where we were going as human beings. It couldn’t have anticipated 200,000 years ago that, you know, a mere 200,000 years later, we’d have space shuttles and iPods and microwave ovens.
What I want to suggest is that any process of evolution that relies on exploring an unknown space, such as genes or such as our neurons exploring the unknown space in our brains, and trying to create connections in our brains, and such as our brain’s trying to come up with new ideas that explore the space of alternatives that will lead us to what we call creativity in our social world, might be very close to random.
We know they’re random in the genetic case. We think they’re random in the case of neurons exploring connections in our brain. And I want to suggest that our own creative process might be pretty close to random itself. And that our brains might be whirring around at a subconscious level, creating ideas over and over and over again, and part of our subconscious mind is testing those ideas. And the ones that leak into our consciousness might feel like they’re well-formed, but they might have sorted through literally a random array of ideas before they got to our consciousness.
Karl Popper famously said the way we differ from other animals is that our hypotheses die in our stead; rather than going out and actually having to try out things, and maybe dying as a result, we can test out ideas in our minds. But what I want to suggest is that the generative process itself might be pretty close to random.
Putting these two things together has lots of implications for where we’re going as societies. As I say, as our societies get bigger, and rely more and more on the Internet, fewer and fewer of us have to be very good at these creative and imaginative processes. And so, humanity might be moving towards becoming more docile, more oriented towards following, copying others, prone to fads, prone to going down blind alleys, because part of our evolutionary history that we could have never anticipated was leading us towards making use of the small number of other innovations that people come up with, rather than having to produce them ourselves.
The interesting thing with Facebook is that, with 500 to 800 million of us connected around the world, it sort of devalues information and devalues knowledge. And this isn’t the comment of some reactionary who doesn’t like Facebook, but it’s rather the comment of someone who realizes that knowledge and new ideas are extraordinarily hard to come by. And as we’re more and more connected to each other, there’s more and more to copy. We realize the value in copying, and so that’s what we do.
And we seek out that information in cheaper and cheaper ways. We go up on Google, we go up on Facebook, see who’s doing what to whom. We go up on Google and find out the answers to things. And what that’s telling us is that knowledge and new ideas are cheap. And it’s playing into a set of predispositions that we have been selected to have anyway, to be copiers and to be followers. But at no time in history has it been easier to do that than now. And Facebook is encouraging that.
And then, as corporations grow … and we can see corporations as sort of microcosms of societies … as corporations grow and acquire the ability to acquire other corporations, a similar thing is happening, is that, rather than corporations wanting to spend the time and the energy to create new ideas, they want to simply acquire other companies, so that they can have their new ideas. And that just tells us again how precious these ideas are, and the lengths to which people will go to acquire those ideas.
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.
But, these ideas, I think, are received with incredulity, because humans like to think of themselves as highly shrewd and intelligent and innovative people. But I think what we have to realize is that it’s even possible that, as I say, the generative mechanisms we have for coming up with new ideas are no better than random.
And a really fascinating idea itself is to consider that even the great people in history whom we associate with great ideas might be no more than we expect by chance. I’ll explain that. Einstein was once asked about his intelligence and he said, “I’m no more intelligent than the next guy. I’m just more curious.” Now, we can grant Einstein that little indulgence, because we think he was a pretty clever guy.
What does curiosity mean?
But let’s take him at his word and say, what does curiosity mean? Well, maybe curiosity means trying out all sorts of ideas in your mind. Maybe curiosity is a passion for trying out ideas. Maybe Einstein’s ideas were just as random as everybody else’s, but he kept persisting at them.
And if we say that everybody has some tiny probability of being the next Einstein, and we look at a billion people, there will be somebody who just by chance is the next Einstein. And so, we might even wonder if the people in our history and in our lives that we say are the great innovators really are more innovative, or are just lucky.
Now, the evolutionary argument is that our populations have always supported a small number of truly innovative people, and they’re somehow different from the rest of us. But it might even be the case that that small number of innovators just got lucky. And this is something that I think very few people will accept. They’ll receive it with incredulity. But I like to think of it as what I call social learning and, maybe, the possibility that we are infinitely stupid.”
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