Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Infinite copying and random creation

Mark Pagel has an interesting discussion (link at quote) about just how innovative are we really. His argument is that we are extremely good copiers, but not particularly innovative. And that as our numbers increase along with our communication abilities, that what evolution we go through (genetic or cultural) will tend to decrease our individual and group innovation.

His point is that at the group level, we may no longer be very good at innovating our way out of difficulties. I mean if the typical family vacation is either Disney World, or (less money) Myrtle Beach and not a whole lot else, just how creative are we? (Mea Culpa: I have family in Myrtle Beach so it is a default location, but we are not the only ones who visit there).  How often do we go off on truly creative vacations?

I am going to further prove his point by cutting and pasting portions of the piece below.  I could also cut and paste from Taleb, who also discusses somewhat similar points.

Mark Pagel,, 15 December 2011 (Hat tip: NC)

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.

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 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.

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.
Note that Pinker’s recent book (here, and here2) discussing our declining violence very much fits within his theory. For myself, I think that like other one-answer fits all theories, it greatly overstates its case. It does not explain very well the small knots of creativity that seem to grow in little clusters in time and place.

But I think it is very much point on with regards to patting ourselves on the back for our cleverness. Although copying is its own form of cleverness, but it is not very likely to get us out of the various predicaments that come with having 7 billion people on the planet.

The other point that I like, is that it highlights how our big leaps often come from a very small unanticipated discovery or idea. To some degree, I think that there is a fractal quality to the phenomena: it has a similar pattern throughout the various levels of organization to which we belong. One person comes up with the great idea at work of church and everyone runs with it. One medical researcher discovers a fungus that eats up bacteria, and everyone runs with it.  In the case of medicine, we discussed the random nature of many of its discoveries.

To the extent that a group is able to innovate, I don’t think it is exactly random (the innovations may be random, but the adoption is not). I think it is clear that some organizations are more adaptive than others. Because of the consensus issue, one would suspect that organizations with more stakeholders (democracies, theocracies) would be less innovative (for good and bad) than organizations where only a few people have to make up their mind. Obviously groups that have a surplus in which can experiment, will be a little bolder than groups that do not.

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