There is no Such Thing as Invention

Ideas are Discovered not Created

David Galbraith
I. M. H. O.
6 min readJun 7, 2013


Calculus was invented twice, Natural Selection discovered twice and the telephone was patented twice.

There’s a pattern of simultaneous invention throughout history that’s either an unbelievable co-incidence or evidence that something different from what we usually think of as inspiration is going on.

The joint discoverers of Wallacism

I believe that difference is that invention is an illusion based upon our instinct for a people centric view of the world and that all inventions are actually discoveries. When the environment changes to make these discoveries possible, there is a likelihood that anyone of suitable knowledge and intelligence will find them and this explains why invention often happens more than once in the same place or at the same time.

The biologist, Stuart Kauffman, calls this the adjacent possible, the new things that can happen in an environment at each step. He believes that biological systems evolve to maximise the adjacent possible.

In terms of ideas, the adjacent possible can be illustrated with an extreme example, could a caveman have come up with quantum theory? A suitably intelligent caveman could certainly have had the IQ required, but to get there he would also have had to have independently discovered the entire foundations of modern physics, something so unlikely as to be, for all practical purposes, impossible. Quantum theory was not in the adjacent possible of cavemen.

This person was so unlikely to have formulated quantum theory, that we could say it was impossible.

The same people centric view of the world that makes us believe in invention was turned around by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene to illustrate the myth of evolutionary purpose. Dawkins said that if you looked for purpose in the natural world then all of the the diversity of animals and what they are able to do based on their physical attributes, their phenotype, was to enable their genes to be reproduced.

Rather than DNA serving to create living things, living things served to replicate DNA. If we embodied genes with purpose, they were selfish. Phenotypes are a product of the adjacent possible, in terms of environmental fitness and genetic possibility, genes just needed to discover the adaptations.

The Selfish Gene reversed the organism centric view of diversity.

Like our tendency to imbue purpose in people rather than genes, we think people invent things because its a good story, it allows us to create heros and dramaticise human endeavor.

When you consider invention more generally, invention with no pupose per se, creativity, the art that exists for art’s sake, this type of invention is also an illusion.

My personal experience of this was moving from a science background to a subject that supposedly straddles both science and art: architecture.

In terms of what is taught at architecture school, architecture is mostly an art, you don’t employ a surgeon to do a heart transplant in an interesting and unusual way, but you specifically engage an architect to design a building like that.

I remember the very instant that I learned to be creative, to ‘invent’ things, to do things in an interesting and unusual way, and it happened by accident, literally.

I created mess around myself, the kind of chaos that would be very dangerous in an operating theater but which is synonymous with artists’ studios, and in that mess I edited the accidents. By increasing the amount of mess I had freed things up and increased the possibilities, I had maximised the adjacent possible and was able to create the appearance of inventing new things by editing the mistakes which appeared novel and interesting.

Francis Bacon’s studio did not look like a clinical laboratory.

If you really think about it, there is no other way. Whether this mess is internal in our brains, or external in our environment, we can only select things that are possible, invention is merely when the possible is new. Real invention, out of nowhere, not selecting from the possible, is impossible, by definition.

Even when the role of the environment in invention is obvious, when it isn’t two people in different places in the world that invent the same thing at the same time, but when a tiny group of people in the same place produce the bulk of the innovation in a particular field over the course of time, we still think it’s about the people and that they are unique or special.

From A Great Day in Harlem, which featured many of the most famous Jazz musicians in one photograph or the group portrait at the 1927 Solvay conference, which showed nearly all of the most famous 20th Century physicists in one place, groups of pioneers invariably know each other.

What an amazing co-incidence all these iconic physicists in one place.
And all the Jazz greats knew each other too.

The same is true in technology, even from its inception. Alan Turing and Claude Shannon shared the same cafeteria (even if they were not allowed to talk about their secret work), and Silicon Valley pioneers comprise a relatively small group of people who quite often, personally knew each other before they were successful. This is neither incredible co-incidence nor voodoo attraction between geniuses but a product of special environments.

We like to think special places are to do with people but you could probably swap out the individuals for different ones of equal intelligence at the Solvay Conference or in Silicon Valley, and there would be a different Heisenberg and a different Zuckerberg.

Reyner Banham saw architecture’s purpose as to temper the environment protecting from the extremes of the elements, a Goldilocks place which is neither too hot in summer or too cold in winter, not too connected to people as to have no privacy or too isolated as to be lonely.

Silicon Valley is like a good piece of architecture, it’s a well tempered environment.

Inventive places are not necessary geared just around once force, but are more likely governed by Banham’s tempering ones. Silicon Valley is not just about mess and innovation, but innovation balanced with execution, it’s a well tempered environment for building innovative technology companies.

The myth of Silicon Valley is that it arose from the West Coast counter-culture, but that only forms part of the truth, most of Silicon Valley’s original companies occupied the land and infrastructure that was constructed for the military. Militaristic structure and San Francisco beatnicks created balancing forces which created a well tempered environment of organized hippies. Burning Man, a Nevada city the size of early Rennaisance Rome, that unlike Rome is just about built in a day, embodies some of the characteristics that formed part of the original spirit of the Bay Area in architectural form.

Burning Man: Rome built in a few days by organized hippies.

To foster innovation we need to do a little less hero worship and create these ecosystems that maximise the adjacent possible, with the right balance between structure & execution and freedom & mess.

There is no such thing as invention, just environments where people can make discoveries.