Copying Old Ideas Is More Essential to Innovation than Creative Genius

While our culture praises innovation and invention, we owe our greatest successes—including those of the innovator and inventor—to imitation and outright copying.

While our culture praises innovation and invention, we owe our greatest successes—including those of the innovator and inventor—to imitation and outright copying. According to scientists who study human behavior against the behavior of other primates, our ability to copy each other makes us more unique that our attempts at innovation.


When it comes to using tools for innovative purposes, for example, chimps actually out perform human children. But when it comes to imitating the behavior of the adults who use the tools, humans do far better, even though that can mean copying inefficient or "incorrect" tool use.

In other words, ideas are cheap, and it's more important for a culture to pass on collective knowledge than re-invent the wheel at every opportunity. We should modify our romantic notions of genius accordingly, argue anthropologist Robert Boyd and biologist Peter Richardson. "When lots of imitation is mixed with a little bit of individual learning, populations can adapt in ways that outreach the abilities of any individual genius," they write in their book Not By Genes Alone.

Perhaps this is why universities remain the bedrock of innovation in America, says Hungarian entrepreneur Krisztina Holy in her Big Think interview, while colleges are also tasked with passing on knowledge from one generation to the next:

Read more at Aeon

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Related Articles
Playlists
Keep reading Show less

Five foods that increase your psychological well-being

These five main food groups are important for your brain's health and likely to boost the production of feel-good chemicals.

Mind & Brain

We all know eating “healthy” food is good for our physical health and can decrease our risk of developing diabetes, cancer, obesity and heart disease. What is not as well known is that eating healthy food is also good for our mental health and can decrease our risk of depression and anxiety.

Keep reading Show less

For the 99%, the lines are getting blurry

Infographics show the classes and anxieties in the supposedly classless U.S. economy.

What is the middle class now, anyway? (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs

For those of us who follow politics, we’re used to commentators referring to the President’s low approval rating as a surprise given the U.S.'s “booming” economy. This seeming disconnect, however, should really prompt us to reconsider the measurements by which we assess the health of an economy. With a robust U.S. stock market and GDP and low unemployment figures, it’s easy to see why some think all is well. But looking at real U.S. wages, which have remained stagnant—and have, thus, in effect gone down given rising costs from inflation—a very different picture emerges. For the 1%, the economy is booming. For the rest of us, it’s hard to even know where we stand. A recent study by Porch (a home-improvement company) of blue-collar vs. white-collar workers shows how traditional categories are becoming less distinct—the study references "new-collar" workers, who require technical certifications but not college degrees. And a set of recent infographics from CreditLoan capturing the thoughts of America’s middle class as defined by the Pew Research Center shows how confused we are.

Keep reading Show less