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

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