I recently finished Wired for Culture by Mark Pagel. My official review of the book is in Politics and the Life Sciences, so I’m not going to go into a lot about the book right now. But there is something Pagel points out that I think is very important, and which I have been thinking about a great deal since I read it.
Pagel observes that (despite pop psychological narratives to the contrary), the vast majority of people are neither creative nor inventive. Rather, the vast, vast majority of people are ultrasocial — they copy what others do exactly as those others do them. This is known as social learning, and it is what allows human beings to live in such huge groups. In fact, if most people were creative or inventive, that would undermine ultrasociality (237).
Yet, it seems obvious that humans are inventive and creative. Look at all the technology we have around us. Look at all of the art and scientific discoveries.
Yes, and look at all the outrage over the latest discoveries. Look at all the outrage over the latest styles in the arts. Look at all the complaints about technology. Most people are reluctant adopters of anything new, and are in many ways Luddites at heart.
Thus, we see the same patterns for science, the arts, and technology. We have the inventor/discoverer. Then we have the early adopters. Then, when enough people adopt it, we have everyone else adopt it — once they see that it is good, they copy it.
The great innovations are rare. More common are social learning plus mutations, resulting in slow cultural evolution.And truly revolutionary innovations are extremely rare — and often result in the creator/inventor becoming social outcasts for their trouble. More strategic innovators will tinker on the edges of what we have so that others will accept the new things more easily. Poetic innovations go farther with more people if you introduce them in the context of poetic forms people like and know.
Humans are, overall, very good copiers, but very bad innovators (340). He observes that in game theory models, systems with many innovators tend to do far worse than those with many copiers. The systems that survive best are those in which almost all of the agents copy and there are only one or two innovators. The copiers all free ride off of the innovators, but if that did not happen, there would not be the kinds of complex societies we find in the world. To have spontaneous orders, you need mostly copiers, with few innovators disrupting the system.
I have primarily discussed artists, scientists, and inventors as innovators disrupting things, but there is another kind who also arises: political leaders. Political leaders emerge precisely because most people are strong social learners and, therefore, followers (362). As a result,
the cooperative enterprise of society is always finely balanced between the benefits that derive from cooperation on the one hand and the benefits that derive from trying to subvert the system toward your own gain without being caught or overpowered (363)
as all rulers in fact try to do. The difference between scientists, artists, and innovators and politicians is that the latter use their tendency to innovate to try to subvert the system and make it work toward their own advantage, while the former are not working so strategically, and are primarily interested in their narrow interests.
Coincidentally, there are two groups of people widely recognized as being unaffected by social pressures.
There are poor social learners, like those with autism — whose poor social learning may allow them to be more innovative, since they don’t feel the need to adapt to what everyone else is doing. Such people also happen to be rather focused on narrow interests. If this sounds like most scientists, artists, and innovators, it may not be entirely a coincidence.
Then there are the sociopaths, who are good social learners and highly strategic, like the vast majority of people, but who do not have a conscience. They work to subvert the system toward their own gain without being caught or overpowered. We see this in the cheaters of society, those who try to scam people, those who try to get power over others. Governments are full of these people. We elect them all the time.
People from either group lead the world. The rest of the world copies them and their innovations. In the case of the cultural innovators, the result is ever-more wealth for everyone. In the case of the sociopaths in government, the result is ever-more power for themselves.