Fri, Apr 01, 2016 - Page 9 News List

Rate of innovation dependent on social, collective brainpower

By Joseph Henrich

Imagine a game of survival that pits a troop of capuchin monkeys against you and your work colleagues. Both teams would be parachuted into a remote African forest, without any equipment: no matches, knives, shoes, fish hooks, clothes, antibiotics, pots, ropes or weapons. After one year, the team with the most surviving members would be declared the victor. Which team would you bet on?

You might assume that the humans, given our superior intelligence, are the team to beat. However, do you or your colleagues know how to make bows and arrows, nets, water containers and shelters? Do you know which plants are toxic? Can you start a fire without matches? Can you make fish hooks or natural glues? Do you know how to protect yourself from big cats and snakes at night? The answer to most, if not all, of these questions is probably “No,” meaning that your team would likely lose to a bunch of monkeys — probably pretty badly.

This raises an obvious question. If we cannot survive as hunter-gatherers in Africa, the continent where our species evolved, how did humans achieve such immense success relative to other animals and spread to nearly all of the earth’s major ecosystems?

Here is a key piece of the answer: We are a cultural species. Our unique psychological capacities allow us to learn from one another over generations, facilitating a cumulative cultural evolutionary process that produces increasingly complex and sophisticated technologies, languages, bodies of knowledge, conceptual toolkits and adaptive heuristics. The power of this process arises not from raw individual intelligence, but from the reinterpretation of the serendipitous insights and mistakes that our intelligence produces.

This means that the rate of innovation will depend, at least in part, on the size and interconnectedness of the pool of minds contributing to the cultural evolutionary process. All other things being equal, larger and more socially interconnected groups would produce a greater number of fancier tools, technologies and techniques, even if their individual members are less inventive than those comprising a smaller, more isolated group.

This finding is supported by both tightly controlled laboratory experiments and historical case studies. About 10,000 years ago, for example, rising oceans transformed Tasmania from an Australian peninsula into an island. On the mainland, technological progress continued unimpeded, but in Tasmania, groups of hunter-gatherers began to lose or failed to develop a wide range of useful technologies: bone tools, fitted cold-weather clothing, spear-throwers and durable boats. When the Dutch arrived in the 17th century, Tasmanians had the simplest technology ever encountered by European explorers.

To understand humans’ social nature, it is crucial to understand how culture has driven our genetic evolution in ways that shape not only our physiology and anatomy, but also our social psychology, motivations, inclinations and perceptions. From this long process, in which surviving and thriving meant acquiring and adhering to the local social rules, we emerged as potent social learners.

The foundation of our ability to form cooperative communities, organizations and societies arises not from innate cooperative tendencies, but from the specifics of the social norms that we learn, internalize and enforce on others. While our innate motivations do play a role, they are harnessed, extended and suppressed by social norms, which form the institutional skeleton that allows our innate inclinations to operate.

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