Extraordinarily good at copying and following
January 8, 2012 9:08 AM   Subscribe

Infinite Stupidity Now, it sounds incredible. It sounds insane. It sounds mad. Because we think of ourselves as so intelligent. But when we really ask ourselves about the nature of any evolutionary process, we have to ask ourselves whether [our mechanism for generating ideas] could be any better than random, because in fact, random might be the best strategy. Mark Pagel previously, edge.org previously
posted by victors (33 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
we have to ask ourselves whether [our mechanism for generating ideas] could be any better than random, because in fact, random might be the best strategy.

My take on this:

1) Pickle boat sunshine exito, lasting danger knucklehead twiddle.
23) Carlos naughty ratchet pop-tart, same ausgezeichnet rapture cradle.
6) This another junebug raven, carry riptide africa dingleberry.
posted by nathancaswell at 9:23 AM on January 8, 2012 [12 favorites]

Pagel's argument about social learning and the role of innovation in today's society is pretty compelling. I feel a little stupider, a little more pessimistic, and a little less enthused about evolutionary psychology. Oh well. The Colorado sunlight on the snow-covered branches looks beautiful this morning.
posted by kozad at 9:25 AM on January 8, 2012

nathancaswell, I don't know how you hacked my email but that's my social foodie startup idea down to the letter!!!
posted by Foci for Analysis at 9:28 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

1) His first point is that as we form larger societies, there is less innovators because there is less need for them. Is this true or just idle speculation? If it is true, wouldn't that mean that innovation has been slowing down over the past hundred or so years since the Industrial Revolution concentrated people in cities? It seems to me that the opposite has been true.

2) His second point is that innovators are just talented people who got lucky. But this isn't a new idea. It was one espoused famously by Edison: "I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration."
posted by vacapinta at 9:31 AM on January 8, 2012

that's my social foodie startup idea

I'd like the pickle pop-tart with the dingleberries on the side please.
posted by nathancaswell at 9:45 AM on January 8, 2012

I don't get it.
posted by jonmc at 9:47 AM on January 8, 2012

I never get it.
posted by victors at 9:48 AM on January 8, 2012

Sorry to hear that.
posted by jonmc at 9:50 AM on January 8, 2012

A professor I had in college explaind this as the "new trick" theory. Someone, through whatever means, invents a new trick that helps them excel at their endeavors. This in turn helps them mate. Humans around them copy this trick.

I think the important thing is, helps them excel at their endeavors. I have no idea how to improve a spear because I've never held a spear. I can't imagine a spear that would be any better than any other spear for actual hunting.My position is that ideas that change humanity arise not through random casting about but through directed iterative differences. Someone who hunts with a spear every day could, based on their knowledge of spear hunting, offer slight improvement that might make a big impact, namely life or death. He could introduce a slight change based on his past experience with hunting, not by randomly adding or removing bits but based on what improvement had helped in the past.

A slight change that helped him survive, while others perished mould insure that he reproduced.

What kind of pressure could exist that favors many imitators over many creators? The ability to copy a new trick confers at least some of the benefits of creating your own new trick. The effect is multiplied since entire groups of people can copy a trick. It is simply the path of least resistance.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:51 AM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

In order for randomness to be of any use it has to be within the right range, with the right distribution and median and so forth, and perhaps you want it to conform to a particular curve. To set those parameters you need some other technique that is probably not random at all.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:51 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

This cbc ideas program called "The Idea of Genius" goes well with these links (which are fascinating).

Sometimes an idea must have many iterations before it finds a form that fits the particular niche that the idea (or organism) finds itself in. Ideas, and their revolution/evolution are tugged, stitched and sewn from the threads of ideas past.
The tracing of ideas is a guessing game. We can't tell who first had an idea; we can only tell who first had it influentially, who formulated it in some form, poem or equation or picture, that others could stumble upon with the shock of recognition. The radical ideas that have been changing our attitudes towards our habitat have been around forever.
There were many, many failed attempts before and in-between the "punctuation" points that are listed. The description of evolution given relates to "punctuated equilibrium", which is largely recognized as an incomplete view of evolutionary history (but I do think his point stands without the relation to "proper" evolutionary history)... memes/ideas are not the same as genetic/life evolution.

It isn't like the engine of evolution was just sitting around cold in between "Life Arises", "Eukaryotes Arise", and "Mammals Arise", and "Hominids Arise". Millions, possibly billions of "takes" happened... countless iterations of the same forms, some existing to this day, some gone forever, and some preserved as fragmentary fossil evidence. I like this article, and links, and recommend reading, but I do feel like we (The Evolutionary We) need the copy-cats... as they die, they don't (all) die before ever reproducing, thus they spread genes (or memes, or whatever else we are calling 'evolving idea forms' these days) that "sorta" work... it is the failures, the cheap copies, the experimental freaks... that provide the difference on which evolutionary forces thrive.

Ideas can be "had" before they are implemented. And when ideas are implemented, they can be evolved forms of formerly extirpated, isolated, or even extinct ideas (here is a primary zone where memes differ from genes [extinct memes can be altered and resurrected, so far, genes are not like this]).
posted by infinite intimation at 9:53 AM on January 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

Thaler's research into neural networks and randomizing them found that, basically, you need a very narrow range of "random" to get useful creativity and problem solving. Below that range, you just stay stuck in the rut. Above it, you get garbage. Hit the sweet spot and you're winning.

I think that people innovate and improve things around them every day, but that it's mostly a personal effort that we never see. Someone optimizing their desktop layout or refining the way their drawer is organized might not be as earth shattering as the invention of the printing press, but it's the same kind of spirit involved. Not every improvement to the world has to be amazing; a lot of it is just practical energy or time saving efforts that no one but the user notices.
posted by dethb0y at 10:19 AM on January 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think it's still up for question whether or not being able to generate lots of new things quickly is good for long-term survival.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:43 AM on January 8, 2012

To me, randomness is what's going on inside the brain anyway, when we make new ideas. Thoughts are just randomly connecting with other thoughts, making and breaking connections - all we do with our "genius" is to recognize which connections are useless and which are worth further enhancement.
posted by scrowdid at 10:47 AM on January 8, 2012

When you say "things" you're thinking physical things, but if you come up with a lot of ideas, even if most of them are garbage, and you're ruthless about holding those ideas up to your existing knowledge and rejecting them if, and only if, they fail to line up, you don't have to screw around with creating a lot of dysfunctional prototypes, doing a lot of pointless experiments, etc.

Or you can come up with an easy answer that you like and keep applying it again and again and again, whether it really fits your data or not. In a large corporation where deadlines trump understanding, that can quickly become your cultural norm. (Don't ask me how I know this.)
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:07 AM on January 8, 2012

Edison could've been more honest.

1% Inspiration
33% Perspiration
33% It's WHO you know
33% Dumb luck
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:17 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

WHO you know is also dumb luck.
posted by victors at 11:27 AM on January 8, 2012

WHO you know is also dumb luck.

no, it's not. all the successful people I know figured out who they needed to meet, then met them.
posted by nathancaswell at 11:34 AM on January 8, 2012

Why do you think Mark Zuckerberg went to Harvard?
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:49 AM on January 8, 2012

To a guy with a hammer everything is a nail.
posted by Brent Parker at 11:55 AM on January 8, 2012

no, it's not. all the successful people I know figured out who they needed to meet, then met them.

Ha! You'll forgive me if I don't extrapolate from all the people you know to all people ever.

Speaking ONLY for myself, a decidedly not-very-ambitious yet moderately successful type: Who I've needed to meet, in terms having real influence over my success, were put in front of me purely by chance and luck of the entitlement draw.

Meanwhile: I took Pagel, to mean the mechanism of thought is exactly as random any other evolutionary change between growths. It seem to make sense that an evolutionary biologist would try to explain creativity using the tools he knows.
posted by victors at 11:57 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

You'll forgive me if I don't extrapolate from all the people you know to all people ever.

Likewise. You qualified your position with "Speaking ONLY for myself" now, but not in your initial comment.
posted by nathancaswell at 12:07 PM on January 8, 2012

Who you know is both random and steered, and the direction in which you steer is strongly influenced by the random and chosen people you already know. At a minimum, you are randomly seeded with your family, and your childhood cohort, as were they themselves.

Interesting article but I think there is a wider point to it (and I am talking speculatively here, iI have no evidence for this and haven't even come up with a testing mechanism). Perhaps humans, like all other social animals, have castes. In our case the caste process is weakly genetically linked, which is why it is so hard to notice: the child of, say, the innovator type has only a slightly greater chance of being an innovator type, than the child of the leader type. There may be dozens or hundreds of castes in the Human Hive, some more edge-case useful than others.

Some of the obvious consequences: everyone, above a certain minimum functionality, has some purpose in life. That purpose is not going to necessarily be obvious, though, and any given individual may cast about looking for decades (likely in misery) and may never find it at all. Secondly, it implies some semi-intelligence behind it all: however that "intelligence" need not be benign or even sentient and could be no more or less than the aggregate human mind; an emergent, or caused, god, rather than a causal god. (CF works of Neale Donald Walsch)

This is a strong trope in philosophy, psychology and fiction and examples abound for it: Jungian archetypes, the Sorting Hat, character classes, sitcom casting, guidance counsellors' career charts, personality profiling, etc. Perhaps it is so banally self-evident as to be tautological with something I call "the game of same and different"; our oppositional drives to distinguish and conform.

So if humans have emergent, non-obvious castes, what would this imply? Speaking as a member of the Investigator caste, whose social role is to notice interesting things, describe them, categorize them, and submit them to the tribe for discussion, I would say that it initially implies that members of different castes need, once their speciality is evident, to be supported and educated in appropriate ways. Educating every single one of us to be good little compliant Hufflepuffs stifles the Ravenclaws, turns the Slitherins to bullying and unproductive status-jockeying, and bores the Gryffindors to tears. And yet we need the Hufflepuffs, the S'es in DISC, the phlegmatics; in our society, we need about three quarters of humanity to be them. Ravenclaws argue, Slytherins intrigue, and Gryffindors fight; without poor little Hufflepuffs beavering away, nothing would be done.

One of the implications of Roger Hamilton's Wealth Dynamics, a caste-ing system I find quite interesting, is that a fully mature organization--he applies his to business, however the insight applies to all human organizations--has a place and role for all of the castes. Creator thinks up ideas (and is not responsible for implementation, that would drive us mad); Mechanic refines them and makes them practical and implementable, Star recruits and inspires people, Supporter keeps them happy, Dealmaker negotiates, etc etc.

Similar things are true of Myers-Briggs and DISC; organizations, eventually, need a variety of people. An accounting practice needs a lot of C-types, however to grow beyond the small firm, it will need D's to drive it, I's to promote it, and S's to do the filing.

Another important insight here is that you can potentially change caste. It's not like astrology, and it's extremely important to de-emphasise genetic inheritance in this: you have the seeds of Scorpio and Taurus in you, and by dint of effort you can grow one and neglect another, should you need or want to. You may labour much of your life under the illusion that you are one thing, and the price of that is depression (perhaps mis-caste-ing is a leading cause of this?), and once you discover that you are another, your life may change remarkably for the better.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 1:22 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Brains don't produce ideas any more randomly than bone marrow produces white blood cells randomly. The brain is a machine for generating ideas.
posted by empath at 1:31 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, copyright legislation is apparently fighting against billions of years of evolution. They might as well outlaw gravity.
posted by empath at 1:33 PM on January 8, 2012

I have thought along these lines for a long time, and have become convinced that it's true. What is evolution, after all, but randomness written large? The catch is, the more random your process, the more trials you have to have before you get something useful out of it that can be detected by your selection function. But in that case, the more profound the possible output.

Brains don't produce ideas any more randomly than bone marrow produces white blood cells randomly. The brain is a machine for generating ideas.

But brains can take advantage of outside random processes like rolling dice, or apply two unrelated patterns to each other to produce something that approximates randomness (which I think is what happens when you ask someone to pick a number out of thin air).
posted by JHarris at 1:38 PM on January 8, 2012

I don't have much cellular biology to base this on, but it seems to me that the production of white blood cells, much like radioactive decay and half-lives, would be a large number of individually random events. Where and when a new cell is produced would be effectively unpredictable, wouldn't it, even if the overall rate and quantities are known?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:05 PM on January 8, 2012

They can't outlaw gravity, empath, they can only outlaw the practice of considering it in our plans. ;)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:06 PM on January 8, 2012

I disagree with first part of Pagel's argument. Innovation and innovators are merely constructs that are a posteriori. What makes one idea innovative and another merely a failed copy is context, not the idea itself, and we won't know this until much later.

I do think he's right about the randomness though. Just look up how many inventions were accidental. That list alone is pretty compelling evidence.

Actually, I suspect that if you were to be able to accurately record the entire process it wouldn't be random. However due to its very complexity, that seems a pretty impossible task and so to us mere mortals it is a randomn process.
posted by herda05 at 6:41 PM on January 8, 2012

I used to do some minor work with evolutionary computation algorithms, including things like artificial life simulations and genetic algorithms. Like he talks about here, there are three main processes at work in evolution: selection, recombination/reproduction and mutation. Most evolutionary combination methods somehow tweak these three processes, either their representation or the amount that they're applied.

The field of evolutionary computation is wonderful because you can run so many generations so quickly, and really see the results of your experiments. And one of the most amazing things you find working in them is the importance of mutation. It seems counter-intuitive, that a genetic accident, normally damaging to an individual could be good, but in terms of population genetics or groups, it's dramatically increases the rate of improvement.

And going back down to the social learning aspects of this, there is a relevant place on the Internet where the virtual act of information mutation is occurring. It's not all perfect copies of information. Some of you might where I'm going with this. That place where seemingly pointless chaos is being wreaked is 4chan and /b/.

I've written about it before, but I don't think it's a coincidence 4chan gave rise to both Anonymous and a large portion of our social language in the form of memes. moot, the founder of 4chan, has talked about it before, at TED and other places (the article about him in MIT Technology Review provides a more eloquent description of his philosophy). By providing a safe space for anonymity online, he allows people to make mistakes, a form of social mutation. As moot says, "People deserve a place to be wrong", which could wonderfully be interpreted in multiple ways.

So the missing component here is anonymity, and how it provides a space or mutation in the social learning world.
posted by formless at 7:57 PM on January 8, 2012

But brains can take advantage of outside random processes like rolling dice, or apply two unrelated patterns to each other to produce something that approximates randomness (which I think is what happens when you ask someone to pick a number out of thin air).

Yeah, that was the kind of randomness I was referring to. Sure people can utilize randomness, but original ideas are, in general, the result of applied thinking, they don't just bubble up like bad gas. There's perhaps a bit of luck involved, but creative people are creative because they've decided to be creative, and they've learned to be creative.
posted by empath at 10:02 PM on January 8, 2012

If this discussion interests you, the work of Scott Page is worth a perusal; particularly "The difference: how the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies".

a lot of it is just practical energy or time saving efforts that no one but the user notices.
Until someone formulates it into an easily duplicable model, or packages it for easy shipping and transport, or automates it... the ones to condense a message into a talking point rule debate, the right evocation of an idea, properly evinced, and it explodes, the book is moderately successful, then the movie is announced, and it explodes into all corners of the talkosphere (hunger games, harry potter, the twilight). Like teachers are force-multipliers of ideas, so too are the communications empires. I think of sites like "lifehacker", and that is exactly this, taking these small, personal struggles with efficiency, or efficacy... and composing them in a way that speaks to a frustration with status quo, and no tool to create change, society is beautiful for sharing these tools and methods (his example of early-people using "the same tools" for "a long time" comes across as a "rut"... but they were good tools for the struggles of the time. For me a pen, that is the same as everyone else's pen is great. But as a left-handed person, using most pens sucks, and I end up looking like a "body-writing", pen-skill deficient unprofessional slob. Sometimes even the "proliferation of the idea that something is difficult for someone else, which is simple and not even a second thought for another person. 25 years ago, people were far less aware of how simple things like "ramps" at entrances to buildings in addition to steps could make all the difference in the world to a person who uses a wheelchair.

Today there are few who can claim to be "unaware" that people have differing needs (the value of ramps, designated parking are not widely debated topics today, they were, not so long ago, simple awareness breeds community cohesion, bringing more ideas into our spheres can be empirically shown to enrich us all, perhaps counter-intuitivly, to a greater degree than a hegemonic attempt at "uniform perfection"), and when those relatively technologically easy needs are met, society can begin to include a far broader range of voices, benefitting communally from a far greater set of ideas, a broader spectrum from which to draw innovations, in politics, in technique, in culture, in public cohesion and publicly civic minded sentiment. With small scale societal alterations in norms, society may be enriched, and integrate an ever greater knowledge base, from which to seek wisdom.

Part of the problem for the "innovation minded" is that the circumstances which promote such a space to value and appreciate free-people with ideas taking a chance on an experiment, maybe to fail, but possibly to win, reinvest and expand a market even more, furthering trade, interchange (which I think of as a cultural artifact, as opposed to a "biological reality" (well, other than in the sense that anything pertaining to life is de-facto a biological reality [various people have sociological models that go with that idea others are expressing, for example, Deirdre McCloskey, as opposed to something innate, or "human-natural" - here is a podcast that is worth listening to if you are interested in the ideas brought up above. I think she may be minimizing Ottoman interactions, interchanges and other connections between east and west (to be fair, those sources have, until recently, rarely been translated into English). She uses phrases like "wealth makers", but this, as far as I can tell, bears no relation to modern Republican talking points, and should be separated.
Deirdre McCloskey is a contrarian among economists. She believes that ideas really matter, not just money and material reality. Wealth doesn't grow from economic factors alone. People's values and opinions, especially those of the industrious middle class, are more important.
She's also the author of Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World, the second in a massive four-volume series.

Volume one is called The Bourgeois Virtues.

The wealth makers
I would wager that a good number of the occupying protestors on the streets today would not see much virtue in the bourgeoisie, which, in Marxist terms, describes those who own the "means of production."

Over the years, the term bourgeois has grown into an almost universal put-down.

Though McCloskey is using it as the French originally did, to refer to "free citizens," those who are part of the merchant class, artisans and professionals, the educated, the well-paid wage holders — pretty much everybody who sees themselves as what we would today call the middle class.

What's more, she sees it as her mission to restore some lustre to that particular grouping.

McCloskey thinks economists have not paid enough attention to the remarkable occurrence in the Netherlands, Northern Europe and Britain at around 1800, a period that still largely defines how we live today.

Back then (the date is only approximate) there was a sea change in how people looked at those who innovated and created wealth.

The 'bourgeois deal'
In her books, McCloskey argues that it wasn't property rights, or rule of law, or imperialism, or a dozen other factors that led to all this wealth creation and feathered the nest of the bourgeoisie.

Occupy Toronto protestors gather at Dundas Square on Monday, Oct. 17, 2011.
"What changed was sociology and politics, the dignity and the liberty for the middle class — the bourgeoisie," she says.

"The world signed on to what I call 'The Bourgeois Deal' — you let me innovate, and don't steal from me after it succeeds, and in the long run I'll make you rich. And that's what happened."

With this bourgeois deal, the industrialists and the innovators were bathed in a warm glow of affirmation and prestige. The change was not so much in the material foundations of society as in its sense of itself, its imagination.

The problem alluded to by other commenters, is that innovations, at their inception, are useful only to a select few, and the ultimate importance of a "new tool", or "new idea" is transient, until it isn't. Take questions asking "is left-handedness at all a handicap in the reality currently existing... across most of the top professional fields (short answer, yes and no). The number of people impacted is not a majority... so "innovation" will only "directly" ease the lives a minority... then one should ask, what might be the side-effects, would more crafts-people mean more, better, and cheaper goods for all, not just those effected by the initial innovation of a "left-handed x".
Most industrial tools are made for the right-handed, thus forcing the sinister handed to work with his less proficient right hand or adopt work and postural patterns that the machines or tools do not readily accommodate. In Dallas there is a gigantic and deservedly famous hardware store whose owner recently told me that the only left-handed tool that he stocks is a tin snip for sheet metal workers.
Many power tools, in their usual configurations, provide for free use of the right hand to manipulate materials, while restricting movements and utility of the left hand, as can be seen in lathes, band saws, and some milling machines. Thus, to function in the right-handed world, the left-hander must either work with his nondominant and less proficient right hand or must adopt body postures and manipulation patterns that are at variance with the design of the machines. Such activities place the sinistral at a higher risk of suffering an accidental injury.

Obviously the author is aware of the differences between P.E, and Dynamic gradualism... didn't mean to act like he "doesn't understand Deep Time" (my earlier comment was "the more we share...the more we could know", rather then a "well, actually"), just that in crafting a gloss on deep time, and comparing that to the short (time biased) mechanisms of Memetic Evolution, as part of his essay was, it can give an impression of a punctuated equilibrium (Evolutionary Theory of Ideas is a territory that is often walked around, by many fields (computational bio/evodevo/sociology/psychology/cognitive bio/neurobio/cognitive linguistics/neuro-chem but terminology, and "methods" seem fairly haphazard, uncoordinated, a field of fields, the overlap, and differences between the "life-histories" of ideas, and the life-histories of biological entities cause confusion and create less clarity, rather than more perhaps. A common set of terminologies would be useful in the burgeoning field of Idea Evolution.
posted by infinite intimation at 11:11 PM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's not like astrology

It sounds exactly like astrology.
posted by phrontist at 3:22 AM on January 9, 2012

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