The Evolution of Innovation

How did we evolve to become innovative creatures? Why do humans, more than any other species, invest in exploring novelty although there is no guaranteed reward or otherwise ensured positive outcome.

A week ago I met Zurich professor for Anthropology Carel van Schaik who has looked into the processes that led to the emergence of culture by means of innovation. Both in an older publication (van Schaik, 2007) as well as in a more recent tv interview he is especially focusing on the social aspects of innovation and proposes a close connection between social learning and innovation.

Currently Carel is working on a new explanation for the existing gap of cumulative culture between humans and great apes. In his approach he is focusing on social organization rather than cognitive or demographic factors, which is consistent with the assumption that encephalization is associated with sociality. However, the whole story does not seem to be as simple as that given the critical analysis of Finarelli and Flynn on brain-size and sociality in Carnivora. Another factor seems to be relevant, enabling the “ratcheting of technology” and the development of cumulative culture: social learning, meaning the systematic cooperation, teaching and trading of technology based on shared representational standards (e.g. symbols, language etc.).

I am generally sharing these basic assumptions up to the point that I also believe that cooperativeness (empathy) is probably the most important catalyst of the evolution of innovation within humans. However, I tend to disagree with the general idea of “technological ratcheting” understood as the simple adding of a new (or newly used) technique to an existing one. This idea of a continuing linear progress of our technological skills to me does not seem to reflect adequately the complexity of the creative (re-)construction of our social reality, especially as seen in cases of disruptive innovation: it is not the increase in complexity that is per se associated with innovation – it is the achievement of a (socially) more adequate form of life.

But what means “adequate” and when/why do individuals invest in improving our general form of life? The Scientific American article “Cities: Engines of Innovation” seems to support much of the above mentioned regarding sociality as potential driver of innovation but adds an important aspect: The “fast-forward” effect of positive feedback loops of information. Over and above the general ability to learn, bigger agglomerations of humans offer more chance for cooperative contact than areas of lower population density. We can see this effect both on a global level, where more than half of the world’s population lives in cities since 2008, as well as on the city-level, where fast-growing cities like Hong Kong or Bangalore are making huge innovation leaps. Therefore, the United Nations Population Fund correctly states that “cities offer a more favourable setting for the resolution of social and environmental problems than rural areas.” Taken together, these settings can be identified using an evolutionary framework based on the above mentioned ideas of Carel van Schaik:

Take N as the number of people in a population, P as the probability of them having contact with each other (which of course includes also contact via electronic information techniques), C as the degree of cooperativeness between them, and I as their intelligent capacity for creative recombination and multiply all of these with each other…


 N x P x C x I = E


and you get: E – the energy level of the respective sociality (which may be approximately measured using the respective gross national product or another economic index).

My assumption would be that our technical abilities do have actually increased our chances for idea interchange, learning and innovation, but factual closeness like in face to face interaction still bears the most essential requirements for real innovation as it correlates with trust and cooperation. This is why people still prefer big cities over small and calm rural dwellings: Trust as established by face to face interaction (still) cannot be fully technically rebuilt.


van Schaik, C.P. 2007. Culture in primates and other animals. In: Dunbar, R.I.M. & Barret, L. (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Oxford (UK), Oxford University Press.

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One Response to “The Evolution of Innovation”
  1. Thank you Thomas for pointing to deep knowledge about what we might call the ancient technologies of the face, the mouth, the voice, the hands.

    Our wonderous modern technologies (such as the system I’m typing into right now) will find their fulfillment in this kind of knowledge.

    As Thomas writes:

    “Trust as established by face to face interaction (still) cannot be fully technically rebuilt.”

    One of my guiding lights in this area is the American Theorist Murray Bowen, who grounded his theory in evolution.

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