Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Imitation Nation

The Edge features a half hour talk by Mark Pagel that I found very thought stimulating. Pagel is an evolutionary biologist, and his talk is provocatively titled “Infinite Stupidity.” The title primarily describes itself though and doesn’t have much to do with Pagel’s argument, which is a speculation about the origin and evolution of ideas.

Pagel starts with the analogy that ideas evolve similarly to genes, in that they reproduce and are selected for performance. Only good ideas continue to reproduce, which is however a tautology if you define a good idea by its ability to spread, and questionable otherwise. I am not particularly fond of the comparison to natural selection that he uses. The evolution of organisms and ideas are both examples for adaptive systems, and the reference to natural selection imo sets an unnecessary anchor.

In any case, this idea reproduction works well among humans because we are very good at social learning, that is learning by imitating each other. The ability of humans to copy behavior sets us apart from all other species on the planet. Sure, some other mammals are able to learn new tricks when offered rewards, but these abilities and the animals’ understanding of purpose are very limited. Humans have very little hardwired knowledge, which has the advantage that we adapt very well to new circumstances, but has the disadvantage that it takes a long time for human infants to have learned enough to be able to survive independently.

Hang on, Lara is trying to eat my post-its.

During the evolution of mankind, our ability to communicate ideas has steadily improved. Beginning with the evolution of language, over the written word, print, telegraph, phone and to the internet, we have improved on our connectivity. Since we are so good at copying others, this means, so argues Pagel, that we need fewer and fewer people to produce ideas. Innovation takes time and energy, and if we can shortcut this investment by relying on somebody else’s knowledge, we can avoid this cost.

Pagel is speaking here not primarily about innovation in the sense of technological development. He refers to things like, say, building a house. If you want to build a house, you don’t invent architecture from scratch. You ask somebody who knows, or you read a book, or, most likely, you hire somebody to do it for you. Either way, you’re copying other people’s innovations rather than innovating yourself, and in terms of time- and energy-investment that’s arguably the smart thing to do.

A consequence of our high skills in social learning combined with increasing connectivity is thus that we have become good copiers and less good inventors, which is unfortunate since we need innovators to come up with smart solutions to our problems. Or so are Pagels concerns. He says
“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.”

I don’t know what he means with “tendency for our psychology.” It could mean two things. Either the (conjectured) decline in innovation is hardwired, ie it’s a genetic change. Or, it’s a reversible adaption to changing circumstances. Given the short time that has passed since the invention of print, it is most likely a social or cultural change he is referring to. But if that is so, then I have to conclude that Pagel’s perception of “a need to be more and more innovative” is apparently not reflected in our environment, at which point we’re left with opinions about societal investments in research and development, rather than facts. This is not to say that I disagree with Pagel, just that I don’t really know what insight to gain here.

So let me get to the next point he’s making, which I actually found more interesting, that is the question where ideas originate. Pagel says that ideas are probably randomly produced in our brains, like genetic mutations are randomly produced. This hypothesis doesn’t seem to be based on any actual study for all I can tell, it’s mostly an argument from plausibility.

That ideas might be random produced in our brains doesn’t mean though that we try them all. No, luckily our brains are large enough to virtually explore consequences of an idea before actually acting on it. And in that process, we discard most of the nonsensical random ideas, possibly already unconsciously. I am not sure how well this idea of Pagel fits with current research, but it makes a certain sense to me.

However, I think Pagel omitted to point out that a random generation of ideas cannot mean random from scratch, but random over a pool of already existing material. That is to say, you can only generate ideas on the information that your brain contains. Which brings me back to the need of education, and investment into research and development.

Pagel's argument is interesting, but it lacks substance. Maybe it is worth checking out his book, Wired for Culture, which might offer more support for his idea.


  1. "tendency for our psychology and our humanity to be less and less innovative." Extramural knowledge is actively excluded from grant funding and Korporate Kulture for claimed lack of focus. An economist embracing chemistry should apply for chemistry funding - to be rejected for being economics. Management obsesses on what is measurable instead of promoting what is important. Purity of essence obtains the end of the world or a cream pie fight, your choice.

    Harvard Business Review 61(4) 24 (1983): "subsequent performance analyses indicate that the R&D function is more vigorous and more sharply focused." HBR 61(6) 195 (1983) rebuttal: "That statement should have read 'subsequent income statements indicate that the R&D program is more successful and productive.' Detroit eliminated 95% of its lockwasher inventory by substituting a drop of Loctite, not by inventing more lockwashers." Western civilization is now perfectly configured at all levels to accomplish nothing new.

  2. Such view on knowledge and its growth, and of inner workings of mind and creativity was presented many years ago in Popper's evolutionary epistemology and his theory of mind developed in cooperation with Eccles.

  3. While it seems Pagel is focused on scientific and technological ideas, this general concept can definitely be extended to art and music! In fact, you might be able to build an even better case for this effect in those areas. (A huge and instantly accessible catalog of influences to pick and choose from leads to fewer innovators.)

  4. Hi Bee,

    It seems to me that all Pagel has done is to have moved the proverbial army of typing monkeys with the goal to writing Shakespeare from their hypothetical room to a place in one’s mind. That is it’s always been my feeling that if this space is to be limited to that found under ones skull it’s not been demonstrated to being enough to account for at least some results. As for the role of ideas in respect to genetics, I’ve long wondered why it appears intelligence hasn’t evolved to have our minds equipped with built in virus checking software, to be able to distinguish maliciously harmful ones, such as those which are represented by actions manifest out of irrational fear and hate. This is not to suggest Pagel is wrong in his thoughts here, more to just to ask how the general level of human intelligence ranks respective to actual genetically driven potential .



  5. Hi Phil,

    The reference to the typing monkeys is very to the point indeed, the only difference being that the keys might not be single letters and themselves change over time and from one generation to the next.

    I would argue that we do have a virus checking software build in, though it is far from perfect, and it needs to be trained like everything else. The problem is, as Dawkins pointed out in his book too, that some "ideas" short-circuit the virus-checking software by making its disablement part of the idea. That is to say, some "ideas" require the imitation of stupidity. Then it all depends basically on what one encounters first, the proper activation of the garbage filter, or the stupid idea. Best,


  6. Hi Bee,

    In one sense I do agree with Pagel, as to acknowledge recognizing that the majority of people demonstrate to be primarily route learners, with conceptual learners definitely in the minority. Yet I think he wrongly ignores to undermine the universality of curiosity inherent within our species as it has us to even seek answers to questions that one could say have little implication respective to our survival. I do however agree that having ready answers might tend to make many lazy, yet it doesn’t account for what has some to question even seemingly good ones or to think some might be improved; for after all this is what lies at the virtual heart of all good science and I would argue good philosophy as well. That is doubt is indeed an essential tool of science and yet it shouldn’t by any stretch of the imagination be mistaken as its prime motivator or its objective.

    As for the virus checking software, perhaps your right to insist that we have it already, yet I’m wondering what’s taking it so long to progress past the beta version;-)



  7. Hi Bee,

    does Pagel means, that ideas spread out like genes inside society or spread out from one specific human ?

    Best, Kay

  8. I mean, single persons like Einstein discover new things by using old theories. So does he mean this comes out of society and how is that related to the copy process of genes.

    Best Kay

  9. There is a lot of talk among evolutionary biologists that the Cambrian explosion of speciation was driven by improved, more reliable methods of copying genes that actually allowed natural selection to work. It's an interesting theory, and there is some evidence based on the ages of various genetic manipulation proteins as measured by their genetic drift. So, don't sell more and better copying short as a source of creative change.

    Of course, this explanation seems to miss the point of natural selection in that there is no teleology. One blogger offered a good analogy comparing the Aeneid to Mexican soap operas. In Mexican soap operas, stuff happens and people do things, often without rhyme or reason. In the Aeneid, Aeneas doesn't scratch his nose save as part of his scheme to found ancient Rome.

    I tend to be suspicious of analogies to evolutionary biology, just as I am leery of analogies to quantum physics. There are some powerful ideas there, but it's easy to lose track of them.

  10. Hi Kay,

    I think he means that the single person does for the generation of an idea what constitutes the random mutation of a gene, and that ideas, if they are successful "mutations", spread inside the society. That spread is greatly dependent on the connectivity in the society, and the better it works, the fewer people who successfully "mutate" existing knowledge are necessary. Best,


  11. Hi Phil,

    "I’m wondering what’s taking it so long to progress past the beta version;-)"

    I think the issue is that we're too slow with adapting to an environment that is changing through our own hands at a rapid rate. The faster the change we induce, the larger the mismatch between our cognitive abilities and the environment we're faced with. That, I believe, is a big, big problem creating what Homer-Dixon called the "ingenuity gap." Best,



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