Beyond Borders: On the Nature of Invention

Santa Fe Institute
Nov 13, 2018 · 3 min read

by David Krakauer, President of the Santa Fe Institute

David Krakauer, President of the Santa Fe Institute

Consider the following conundrum: the more important an invention, the more anonymous are the inventors. We cannot name the inventor of language, numbers, classical architecture, logic, Chess, Go, the clock, or the wheel. One possibility is that useful objects outlive biographical influence. And it is to be expected that provenance is lost. Another more likely possibility is that most truly great ideas are collective and accretive, and the reason we cannot name an inventor is because we should be naming an invention’s history.

While this reality seems at odds with much of our education and heroic cultural values, it is perfectly aligned with evolution. Any trait of significant adaptive value in a contemporary species is the agglomerate outcome of a sequence of additions and deletions contributed over the course of many generations. And while there might be a first time a given component appeared, in the initial state it was, more likely than not, underwhelming.

Consider the eye. Who or what invented it and who or what perfected it? Current evidence suggests that the master control genes regulating the appearance of photoreceptors connected to simple nervous systems are almost as primitive as multicellularity itself. The subsequent diversification of eyes — to include lenses, irises, cornea, etc. — took place over hundreds of millions of years in a variety of different lineages in many distinct environments. Nevertheless, we can still take a mouse gene and express it on a fly antenna and create a truly monstrous organ of sight that exists outside of the chronological order of things.

Notwithstanding the dominant contributions of both organic and cultural evolution to invention, we still find time, and seem to have a need, to single out an Edison, or a Curie, or a Darwin. It is more appealing to account for inventions in terms of purposeful genius than opportunistic increments. After all, we can point to Einstein’s “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” (1905) and his “The Field Equations of Gravitation” (1915) as examples of apparent discontinuities with prior thought and art.

This is the essential tension of invention that exists between individual and collective creativity — one expressed in terms of the unique circumstances and abilities of an individual, and the other through the “genius of a culture.” The Greeks might have invented democracy, but after all it was Homer who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey — wait a minute — who or what was Homer?

What makes this debate so stimulating is that to understand invention we need to inquire both into the integrative and exploratory properties of individual cognition, and those same traits in a society and even in a biological lineage. This suggests that a theory of creativity might in fact exist at multiple scales, exhibiting self-similar properties that span genetics and civilization. Rather conveniently, this kind of exploration of conformability across scales, is what we do at SFI.

And this is what we shall be exploring at our Annual Applied Complexity Network and Board of Trustees Symposium: The Emerging Frontiers of Invention — with scholars of invention and innovation, inventors, and investors, asking how we should understand the process of invention, and how we might, as a culture, increase it.

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The Santa Fe Institute is an independent research center exploring the frontiers of complex systems science.