Marian L Tupy

Wiki Contributions


AMA: Gale Pooley & Marian Tupy, Authors of "Superabundance"

Dear J,

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Is Innovation in Human Nature?

In Superabundance, we try to explain the issue. Please let me know if you disagree: 


In fact, most people don’t invent or innovate anything. In their 2018 paper “Did Humans Evolve to Innovate with a Social Rather Than Technical Orientation?,” University of Queensland psychologists William von Hippel and Thomas Suddendorf noted a British study showing that only 6 percent of people reported modifying or innovating a product in the past three years. The share of innovators was even lower in other countries (e.g., 5.4 percent in Finland, 5.2 percent in the United States, and 3.7 percent in Japan). 

Those low numbers may seem strange, given that human achievement is largely measured by technological advancement. But, as we explained in Chapter 7, human evolution is defined by social, rather than technical, innovation. Figuring out how to throw a stone is a technical problem, but using stones to ward off predators requires a social solution (i.e., coordinated bombardment). Homo erectus invented tools that were superior to those produced by its ancestors, but the division of labor, which improved the manufacture of those tools and enabled our ancestors to hunt large animals, was entirely social. Finally, fire increased our capacity to extract calories from food, but without using the former for social gatherings, we would never have developed the rich and diverse cultures that made it possible to accumulate knowledge. Technology makes our lives easier, but the success of our species is contingent on our ability to cooperate and organize as a society.

Moreover, since the evolutionary fitness of individual humans is based primarily on their ability to cooperate, most people choose a social solution over a technical one when confronted with a problem. If you need to put sunscreen on your back, it’s easier to ask your friend to rub it in for you than to MacGyver your own lotion-rubbing apparatus. The only reason not to ask for help would be that you didn’t have any friends around or—and this is crucial—that you had a unique personality characteristic that made asking for help unappealing.

Less social individuals appear to be more likely to invent a technical solution rather than a social one, which makes intuitive sense. People who would prefer to solve a problem by themselves would be more likely to invent something. Besides intuition, lots of data suggest a negative correlation between sociality and technical innovation. “Engineers and physical scientists show higher levels of autistic traits (one of which is diminished social orientation) than people in the humanities and social sciences,” von Hippel and Suddendorf noted. “Unsurprisingly, engineers and physical scientists are also more likely than people in the humanities and social sciences to hold patents and are also more likely to innovate products for their own use. As a notable example, Silicon Valley is a hotbed of technical innovation and also features an unusual concentration of people on the autism spectrum.”