From hunter-gatherer to cutter-paster

Edge is running a fascinating interview with the evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel, who puts the development of human culture into a cosmic perspective. He draws a parallel between the replication of successful innovations in a society and the replication of successful genes in an environment: “Natural selection is a way of sorting among a range of genetic alternatives, and finding the best one. Social learning is a way of sifting among a range of alternative options or ideas, and choosing the best one of those.”

Pagel argues that our evolution as “social learners” has likely had the effect, as it’s played out through hundreds of millennia, of encouraging the development of copying skills, perhaps over the development of originality. “We like to think we’re a highly inventive, innovative species,” he explains. “But social learning means that most of us can make use of what other people do, and not have to invest the time and energy in innovation ourselves … And so, we may have had strong selection in our past to be followers, to be copiers, rather than innovators.”

What that also means is that as the scope of our potential copying broadens, through advances in communication and networking, we have ever less incentive to be creative. We become ever more adept at cutting and pasting. The internet and social networking, observes Pagel, may mark the culmination of this long evolutionary trend:

As our societies get bigger, and rely more and more on the Internet, fewer and fewer of us have to be very good at these creative and imaginative processes. And so, humanity might be moving towards becoming more docile, more oriented towards following, copying others, prone to fads, prone to going down blind alleys, because part of our evolutionary history that we could have never anticipated was leading us towards making use of the small number of other innovations that people come up with, rather than having to produce them ourselves.

The interesting thing with Facebook is that, with 500 to 800 million of us connected around the world, it sort of devalues information and devalues knowledge. And this isn’t the comment of some reactionary who doesn’t like Facebook, but it’s rather the comment of someone who realizes that knowledge and new ideas are extraordinarily hard to come by. And as we’re more and more connected to each other, there’s more and more to copy. We realize the value in copying, and so that’s what we do.

And we seek out that information in cheaper and cheaper ways. We go up on Google, we go up on Facebook, see who’s doing what to whom. We go up on Google and find out the answers to things. And what that’s telling us is that knowledge and new ideas are cheap. And it’s playing into a set of predispositions that we have been selected to have anyway, to be copiers and to be followers. But at no time in history has it been easier to do that than now. …

What’s happening is that we might, in fact, be at a time in our history where we’re being domesticated by these great big societal things, such as Facebook and the Internet. We’re being domesticated by them, because fewer and fewer and fewer of us have to be innovators to get by. And so, in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, at no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators. Because innovation is extraordinarily hard. My worry is that we could be moving in that direction, towards becoming more and more sort of docile copiers.

This gives a whole new twist to Mark Zuckerberg’s promotion of “frictionless sharing.”

UPDATE: David Brin is dubious.

7 thoughts on “From hunter-gatherer to cutter-paster

  1. Seth Finkelstein

    I think any downturn in innovation is far more likely to be caused by the gutting of public education and support for higher education in the name of market ideology and austerity economics, than That Darn Internet.

    The above post is the sort of notorious storytelling that gives evolutionary biology a bad name, as pseudo-scientific justification for reactionary ramblings.

  2. Nick Carr

    Fair point, Seth, though obviously he’s talking about changes on a vastly different time scale than you are. I don’t think he’d argue that there are any policy implications to be taken from his speculations.

    My own question, from a societal standpoint, is: if (a) the population of humans has grown enormously and (b) the ability to share good ideas has increased dramatically, then does it really matter if the percentage of humans capable of thinking creatively declines?

  3. Orionwl

    Very interesting read. Though even before the Internet, consumerism made it easier and easier to just copy (buy) mass-produced stuff instead of building and innovating. The individual is domesticated to “TV-cattle”.

    However, I wonder how open-source and maker culture comes into this? This seems to be completely ignored in the article.

    Sharing combined with adapting, tinkering, and innovation. New ideas form and quickly spread and are improved. After all, lower-friction sharing makes it easier to work together. To “join minds” and do things with teams spread around the world, people who otherwise would never have found each other due to distance.

    So, all in all, maybe the Internet has improved things instead of made them worse. If used in the right way, it allows to go back to a more robust and less centralized society without giving up the advantages of modern technology.


    Fascinating interview. I suspect though that most innovation in society relies on the spreading of ideas through interaction and a rather small amount is conducted by isolated individuals. That suggests that innovation increases with interaction up to a certain point, after which we may reach a situation of diminishing returns, the copying culture. Have we reached that point now? We certainly have a lot of copying and pasting, more than ever, but there’s still a heck of a lot of innovation going on.

  5. Seth Finkelstein

    Regarding “… does it really matter if the percentage of humans capable of thinking creatively declines”, in a nutshell, that’s the argument of one “globalization” faction of the ultra-rich – that society can be maintained with a very small proportion of creative thinkers, available much more cheaply from developing countries, thus they contend that decimating public support for education won’t wreck society.

    So it comes down to what you mean by “really matter” – can the same be done with less? Well, that seems a pretty standard result of technological progress. Is it good that there’s less devoted to this? That’s a political, values choice. This is basically the literal Luddite argument – who benefits from technological gains? Do the workers get higher wages, or better working conditions, while owners make the same profit, or do workers get cut while owners make more profit?

    Making it about That Darn Internet is “safe”, since the acceptable pundit response is hand-wringing, especially if done as soulless machines robbing us of the essence of humanity. Getting into Occupy Wall Street territory is much more problematic.

  6. Adam Graber

    This post reminds me of James Gleick’s chapter on memes in The Information. It follows a chapter on genetics, using it as a analogy for the way memes spread.

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