The origins of extraordinary ideas
Context is paramount in how new ideas come about. There is a popular narrative of the individual genius who, alone, discovers or invents something new and then passes their knowledge onto the masses. This is sometimes called a ‘He-paradigm’ understanding of innovation, as opposed to a ‘We-paradigm’ understanding that sees innovations as a result of a combination of the individual, converging ideas, social context and relationships.
This lone inventor narrative is not accurate. It’s a common misconception and here’s why.
Muthukrishna and Henrich, write about the ‘collective brain’ and how new ideas come about. The collective brain, they suggest, is a way of understanding how innovations gradually develop and evolve within societies or networks.
Within a given network, people collaborate, communicate, share ideas and arrive at ideas they would otherwise not have been able to.
Consider some of the world’s most revolutionary discoveries and inventions — the theory of evolution by natural selection, oxygen, calculus and the light bulb — there is debate surrounding the ‘inventor’ of all of these because they were all popularized by multiple people at similar times.
For example, evolutionary theory by both Darwin and Wallace, oxygen by Scheele, Priestley and Lavoisier, calculus by Newton and Liebniz, and, although Edison and Swan are popularly credited with inventing the lightbulb, there were at least 22 other inventors before their commercial success.
My personal favourite, and final, example of this is that the world’s leading tech giants, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Tim Berners-Lee were all born in the same year — 1955.
Whilst this might seem coincidental and shocking, it actually isn’t.
It’s a result of what Muthukrishna and Henrich call the ‘cultural recombination’ and ‘incremental improvement’ of ideas.
People immersed in the same network are likely to arrive upon the same ideas, and, within the collective brain, these ideas will sooner converge and blossom in this environment.
Innovations often are either the result of different ideas being recombined in new ways to produce new things, or are improved versions of already existing things. Both of these rely on collaboration and sharing of ideas.
So, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Tim Berners-Lee all enjoyed their individual interest in software engineering in a larger environment — in the great computer revolution — and with similar influences, experiences and triggers, this environment allowed their interests to accelerate and scale into the world’s most important companies and technologies.