Ideas and Evolution

Steven Johnson’s brief lecture about where good ideas come from indicates that it is less the process of deep contemplative thought and moreso social connectivity that triggers innovation. It seems apparent that intellectual development relies on the collision of existing, likely dormant ideas and opinions that join to create new forms and concepts. The process of genetic mutation in natural selection appears to have some corollary principles with the modular nature of collaborative innovation.

Pre-existing individual ideas, fermenting in embryo for years, can resist even the most fervent attempts at extraction and application, until perhaps a primer consisting of compatible conceptual principles appears, causing them to bloom. Similarly, mutations forming in organisms that don’t produce detrimental effects to the functioning of the species, can lie silent for years until either environmental change or combining evolutionary mutations cause it to come to the fore. Researchers of genetic abnormalities in fruit flies found that:

…the gene Neprilysin-1 present in the optical neurons of the fruit fly species Drosophilia santomea emerged in that location about 400,000 years ago — a blip in evolutionary terms — in the last common ancestor the fly shared with its relative D. yakuba.

The mutation began with a transcriptional enhancer for the gene, which caused Neprilysin-1 to show up in different neurons than usual. From there, the development of D. santomea’s distinguishing neurons plays out, as four mutations in subsequent generations intensify the errant enhancer’s impact until Neprilysin-1’s presence in optical neurons become an exclusive feature of D. santomea.

It doesn’t appear to be coincidence that the processes by which new concepts are formed across individuals bear an uncanny resemblance to the process of genetic mutation. It becomes easy to see human society as synapses in a giant modular thinking machine, bumping against one another and building upon incomplete or unvoiced ideas in an exponentially expanding fashion.

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