The Secret to Innovation Is Our Collective Brain

Inventions don’t depend on inventors

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By Connair Russell and Michael Muthukrishna

It was 1858 and he had just begun his voyage around the Malay Archipelago. He now lay in bed, alternating between cold fits and hot fever in the stifling heat. In the calm between these bouts, he recollected Rev. Malthus’ essays on population growth and the factors that kept population size under control. He realized that the process would, in his words, “necessarily improve the race”, because in every generation, “the fittest would survive”—a sudden flash of singular genius. Except that it wasn’t singular genius. Having read the work of thinkers like Thomas Malthus and Robert Chambers, and having travelled to isolated island archipelagos, Alfred Russel Wallace had travelled the same road and arrived at the same conclusion as his fellow countryman, whose name would become synonymous with evolution—Charles Darwin.

As Michael Muthukrishna and Joseph Henrich point out in their recent paper, “Innovation in the Collective Brain”, Darwin and Wallace’s co-discovery of evolution by natural selection is not an isolated case of simultaneous invention[1]. Other notable examples include the discovery of oxygen by Joseph Priestley and Carl Wilhelm Scheele; the Hall–Héroult process for cheap extraction of aluminium by Charles Martin Hall and Paul Héroult[2]; and “the calculus” by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz[3]. Muthukrishna and Henrich argue that the glut of inventions simultaneously discovered betray the true process that underlies invention.

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Innovations don’t require singular genius or Carlyle’s “Great Man”; instead both innovations and innovators are a product of the real Secret of Our Success—our social learning psychology, shaped by evolution to hone in on and learn from individuals with more knowledge, greater skill, and more success. When this selective learning plays out in our societies and social networks, these networks act as “collective brains”.

Innovations occur when previously isolated ideas meet. From the innovator’s perspective, it’s an independent discovery, but from the perspective of the collective brain, it is an inevitable consequence of spreading ideas that converge across an entire social system—a veritable “marketplace of ideas”. The upshot to the collective brain perspective is that increasing innovation means focusing not on individual talent, but rather on societal factors. The paper identifies three key factors driving the rate of innovation: sociality, transmission fidelity, and cultural variance.

Sociality refers to the degree to which society facilitates connections between people. Larger, more interconnected societies will have higher sociality, resulting in everyone being exposed to more people and more ideas. Higher transmission fidelity means more information is transmitted when people learn from each other.

Transmission fidelity is about the replication of knowledge through formal and informal learning. In WEIRD societies—those that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic—a primary form of transmission is formal schooling. Unsurprisingly, more educated populations have higher innovation rates and these rates should continue to rise with educational improvements—education now requires little more than a computer and an internet connection.

Finally, cultural variance refers to the variety of ideas that are created and tested. Although most new ideas are less than brilliant—your next start up is probably going to fail—society benefits from the rare game-changing unicorns. Muthukrishna and Henrich argue that weaker patent laws facilitate more recombination, as do stronger social safety nets, which give more “wantrepeneurs” the security to become entrepreneurs.

The authors go on to argue that the historic rise in IQ test scores—cognitive ability itself—is a product of the collective brain. Almost all WEIRD children go through a peculiar WEIRD institution—compulsory formal schooling. Through formal schooling, we deliver a package of accumulated knowledge—math, science, the grammar of communication—but we also improve our children’s memories, teach them to reason with abstract concepts, offer them rewards for deferring their gratification, and train their self-control as they suffer through sitting quietly in classrooms and standing neatly in lines. We’re spending more of our lives in formal education, formal education is marching across the globe, and the factors that affect innovation are improving the process of education itself. Once considered advanced knowledge, computer programming is now taught to elementary school children.

From blue collar to white collar jobs, from the media we consume to expectations for self-presentation, the processes of cultural evolution are making society more complex. The modern educational institution emerged as a response to the Industrial Revolution; we are currently going through the Information Revolution—a revolution of at least equal importance. All the while, the collective brain is making each of us smarter.

It is intuitive to attribute great innovations to great innovators. Indeed, this tendency may itself be a consequence of our cultural psychology, evolved to seek out who to learn from, even if those role models are now long gone. The work of Muthukrishna, Henrich, and their colleagues demonstrates that underneath any innovation, be it a steam engine or a mathematical equation, lies a package of psychology that allowed our species to acquire a second, independently evolving line of inherited information—culture.

And just as natural selection has produced complex designs without a designer, so too have individuals connected in collective brains, selectively transmitting ideas and learning information, produced complex inventions without the need for an inventor. Innovations, in other words, don’t require a specific innovator any more than your thoughts require a particular neuron.

Henrich, J. (2015). The secret of our success: How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton University Press.

Muthukrishna, M., & Henrich, J. (2016). Innovation in the collective brain. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 371.

Wallace, A. R. (1905). My life: A record of events and opinions. Vol 1. London: Chapman and Hall.

[1] Wikipedia offers one compilation.

[2] Prior to their simultaneous discovery of the process, aluminium was one of the most expensive metals—more expensive than silver. The discovery was not in want of an incentive!

[3] In the case of calculus, we tend to remember Newton’s name, but rely on Liebniz’s notation.

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