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.