Friday, January 13, 2012

Copiers: 100,000 – Innovators: 1

In a transcript of a talk by Mark Pagel at Edge (, Pagel discuses his views of evolutionary biology as it pertains to creativity. His thesis, as I understand it, is that throughout our history we have only required a few creative people to move us forward. What he sees as more important to our development has been the efforts based on social learning of the copiers or followers; those who recognize the innovations and move them on into society. He goes further and states that even the efforts of those we have identified as innovative “just got lucky.” (Pagel states: “... the generative mechanisms we have for coming up with new ideas are no better than random.”) He is very aware that his ideas are not likely to be well received.

But they got me thinking, and I believe Mark Pagel is right on target. He is saying that social learning, copying the very good spear of my neighbor rather than trying to invent my own spear, has had a more profound influence on moving us forward than that of the original innovator. This has meant that natural selection for good copying by a large number of us wins over a large number being good at innovation. Pagel sums this up as “... we may have had strong selection in our past to be followers, to be copiers, rather than innovators.”

He goes on to imply that as we have grown in numbers and in the size of our groupings, from bands of 25, tribes of 150, and on up to nation-states, we have needed proportionately fewer innovators. Innovation goes farther and faster with better copiers and followers.

Pagel then goes in to his ideas about how we innovate, or generate ideas. His conclusion is, “And I want to go further, and suggest that our mechanism for generating ideas maybe couldn't even be much better than random itself.” (I don't want to dwell on this aspect of his thesis; I will let you go to the link and read this for your self.)

So, what does this mean for me and you?

For my part, I'm feeling better about not having been nominated for a Nobel award. My goal has always been to see how ideas fit together; starting with an idea that I usually find is not entirely original, as I read more in a wider range of areas that add to my idea – comparing it to those of others, and so on and so on. These notions of Pagel make this effort more worthwhile that I had thought. In fact, it means my efforts are integral to our evolution. (If I eventually find a way to share them and move them out into the world; like in a Blog.)

Those of us looking around for the next Big Thing and trying to see how it fits into our life or business are doing the real heavy lifting for our society. Sure we need some people engaged in basic research, but if these ideas are not put into use or circulation by the rest of us, they never become innovations that make any difference.

So, when you spot someone trying really hard to come up with the next Big Thing, thank them for their small part in the larger scheme of things and tell them you will take it from there.

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