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In the human factors business, we are always up against leading-edge technology. This naturally makes us think about where technology comes from. Knowing where technology comes from might provide insights into how to improve it in the future. One answer, that might be obvious, is that people are smart and creative, and invent lots of things, and that is where technology comes from.

However, some so-called cultural transmission theorists provide a different sort of explanation, one that is so counterintuitive, yet so explanatory, as to be worth dwelling on, even if it is not the final answer. In a nutshell, their suggestion is that technology emerges through an evolutionary process, and that the resulting designs, just like in biological evolution, are brilliantly genius, but they need no brilliantly genius intelligence to create them.

Below, I will provide some brief background on how biological evolution works to produce designs without creativity, with an eye towards setting up analogies that will then explain how technology can in principle evolve without creativity. And then, I will disagree with some of the cultural transmission theorists and say that creativity is necessary after all to explain contemporary technology.

Biological Evolution

First, an introduction. What is the best known method for producing the most insanely great functional designs? Biological evolution by natural selection. Evolution has produced all sorts of designs that even people can’t, for example, organs. People have managed to produce a handful of ‘artificial organs’ that suffer from all sorts of problems, whereas Evolution produced every organ in every person and animal in the first place. At Core Human Factors, Inc., while we have worked on user interfaces for an artificial pancreas, none of us would want to swap our own pancreases for one of those, today in 2014.

Evolution has produced fully autonomous, self-refueling drones (insects; birds). Evolution has produced human brains, if that is something you are impressed by; though people have produced Siri and Watson, which are pretty cool, admittedly. Evolution is not the only designer, but it is an outstandingly outstanding designer – but, it takes time (numerous generations) and resources (the zillions of life forms that were ‘selected against.’) Evolution famously does not jump to the right answer, it works by providing a wide range of answers, and good designs naturally – inevitably – persist and replicate. No intention necessary, no intelligence necessary, no creativity necessary.

“Intelligent design” is the antithesis of evolution by natural selection. Whatever you believe about metaphysics and the history of our universe, the mechanism of evolution — even if it is a mechanism invented by a creator-being — is the only mechanism anyone has ever thought of that is capable of producing the functional design complexities that we find in Life.

Evolution requires

  • Variation (lots of different designs for or versions of a thing)
  • Selection (a process that promotes some designs over others)
  • Replication (a process that produces many additional variable versions of those preferred designs)
  • Time

With these above ingredients in a Recipe – capital R because it is a very special recipe – and, without any intelligence required – we end up with a world full of good, complex, functional, beautiful, efficient, barely-understandable designs.

Cultural Adaptations / Memes

Some theorists (see who Gil-White and Henrich cite and are cited by to get into this web of theorists) have proposed that if those same ingredients that make up the Recipe were present in another system, then that other system would also, inevitably, produce good, complex, functional, beautiful, efficient, barely-understandable designs.

Is there any place else besides biology where these ingredients exist, where there are lots of versions of a thing, a process that promotes some versions over others, a process that produces many additional variable versions of those preferred designs, and time?

The suggestion is that the Recipe exists within human culture, in which we know that people imitate each other’s behavior, and also build artifacts. Let us ask about each ingredient.

  • Variation (Are there are lots of ways of doing or making things)
  • Selection (Are there processes that promote some of these ways over others, or are all ways of doing things equal?)
  • Replication (Is there a process that produces many additional variable versions of that preferred way of doing things?)
  • Time (Has there been time?)

If the answer to each of the above is “yes,” then we inevitably ought to end up with a cultural world full of good, complex, functional, beautiful, efficient, barely-understandable artifacts. And, that seems to be just what we have, in modern human technology. But, there wasn’t anything about any sort of special human creativity in the above recipe. But special human creativity was not in the recipe for evolution, either. Let’s make sure the answer to each of the bullets is “yes” before we speculate if we need any sort of special human intelligence to explain the existence of modern human technology.

  • Are there are lots of ways of doing things? (variation)

Yes, there are lots of ways of doing things. Have you ever seen two people do anything exactly the same way as each other? Or make exactly the same thing as each other? Maybe yes, but you have to search for examples. For most things that come to mind, people do things slightly differently from each other.

  • Are there processes that promote some ways over others? (Are all ways of doing things equal?)

Yes, there are often better and worse ways of doing things, or better or worse artifacts. Some people are better at doing things than other people – contests are prevalent, and winners emerge, though the rules vary (sometimes faster is better [racing], sometimes slower is better maybe somewhere. Some artifacts break more easily than others, for example, and everyone is frustrated, and the broken one has ceased to exist.

  • Is there a process that produces many additional variable versions of that preferred way of doing things?

People imitate each other, but are more likely to imitate better ways of doing things. There are all sorts of ways to hone in on what the better ways are. Strangely, you don’t even have to know which of two ways of doing something is “better,” or why, and you can still selectively imitate better behaviors. If you just make copies of pottery that exists, you will be selectively coping at-least-somewhat-break-proof pottery. Similarly, just doing whatever old people have done is a great start – old people are full of behaviors that didn’t get them killed. Just copy the behaviors of people who get to be old, and you will be selectively copying, to some degree, life-saving behaviors.

Doing what people who are judged to be winners in contests is another good start. You don’t even have to know what it is that caused a person to live to be old or to win a contest – just imitate everything your “role models” do, everyone in life. A simple strategy of selectively attending to old people, people who win stuff, etc. will produce many additional versions of relatively better ways of doing things. You won’t know why or how you are doing well, and you don’t even need to know why you like to emulate winners.

And, there are surely additional ways than what is described in the previous paragraph in which preferred versions of behaviors and artifacts are more likely to end up copied/reproduced.

Note that, of course, no one copies behaviors or artifacts perfectly, so when there is an entire generation selectively imitating the behaviors of the previous generation’s winners, there is now a whole new crop of behaviors and people for the next generation to selectively imitate.

  • Has there been time?

Yes, people have been doing their thing for a long time — for longer than recorded history, at least.

And we had already said that if the answer to each of the above is “yes,” then we inevitably ought to end up with a behavioral world full of good, complex, functional, beautiful, efficient, barely-understandable artifacts. And this is what we have. To reiterate the title: Does modern human technology require more intelligence than animals have?

Why don’t chimpanzees have this world too? Because they don’t imitate as well, and they don’t selectively imitate really at all. The recipe, not special intelligence that chimpanzees don’t have, is what inevitably produces good, complex, functional, beautiful, efficient, barely-understandable artifacts. Anyplace the recipe exists, complex functional items can emerge, but the key elements need to be in place for evolution to be able to take off.

Following is some of the pushback my mind produces when exposed to the above argument for cultural evolution — and also some responses from the cultural transmission/prestige-bias argument. My side of the imaginary dialogue is in italics in first-level bullets.

  • But, surely, people are more intelligent than chimpanzees. What about creativity – symphonies, moments of insight, geniuses, inventors? What about language, philosophy, abstract reasoning? 
    • Various perspectives combine to address the questions your mind produces.
      • Let us consider creativity
        • Chimpanzees do creative things, too. It is not that there is no creativity or inventiveness behind human technology. A modest, chimpanzee-amount of creativity helps to increase variability in behaviors. Such inventions are put into the mix as behaviors and artifacts are then selected from for imitation.
        • However, transcendent human genius is not necessarily necessary, just chimpanzee-level creativity in the context of the recipe. There is an illusion of intelligent design in biological evolution, and so we can entertain the possibility that the seemingly qualitatively higher degree of creativity or intelligence apparently behind some human-produced designs is also illusory.
        • Perhaps some or all chimpanzees are transcendent creative geniuses too, but still limited to applying creativity and reason to their immediate environments rather than being able to apply creativity and reason during a process of copying each other’s behavior or artifacts. People pay attention to each other far more than chimpanzees do, and the domain of what other people are up do or thinking about is elaborated, but the creativity or reasoning process itself is not necessarily different.
  • So a symphony?
    • Beethoven did not invent the symphony. He had teachers, mentors. He did what they did, and added something. Perhaps what he added was transcendently genius, but
      • perhaps occasionally a chimpanzee, if there were millions of them, would also do something transcendently genius, in the domain of trees and leaves, and we might or might not never know permanent records not being there for it
      • this is not an argument for people being any different than chimpanzees … are you saying that only the handful of famous geniuses have a different cognitive ability than chimpanzees, and the rest of humanity does not, including you?
      • it is possible that geniuses, instead of possessing a special cognitive ability, instead were positioned uniquely well in the flow of human information to combine ideas that no one had combined before – but that anyone else could have too had they received the same inputs. And perhaps a chimpanzee could have too, if only they first would pay attention their entire lives to selectively copying quality models, in order to then take that next, unprecedented step. You will continually reinvent the wheel, rather than create something new, if you do not pay attention to other individuals’ wheel building methods.
    • Now let’s move back to  language
      • Small, isolated groups of natives on tropical islands have language. These native groups do not have anything like modern technology. Whatever cognition underlies language does not inherently confer the ability to build barely-understandable artifacts (modern technology).
      • European explorers who would get stranded in the wilderness would be unable to find or prepare food, and many died. This was around natives who had seemingly simpler vocabularies and no written language. Sophistical language does not in itself confer the ability to use complex technological methods. You need the recipe, including time (multiple generations, copying previous successes).
      • If you hear that a third party did X, you can choose to do X even though you did not see it happen. If chimps could talk, but still not copy behaviors, they would not achieve the production of barely-understandable artifacts.
      • Language, and especially written language, which not all people have, increases the variability and number of behaviors to select to imitate. In the context of the recipe, language speeds the ability of the recipe to produce functional artifacts by providing additional options to select among for copying.
  • I am still unconvinced for the following reason. I will grant that the Recipe can help produce increasing complex and better technology. I will even grant that the Recipe explains wide swaths of human behavior and artifacts, such as explaining the spread of ideas and behaviors from “famous” or prestigious people and the accumulation of better ideas over generations.
  • However, I think the question still remains if people engage in creativity in ways differently than chimpanzees. If creativity served to increase the pace of technological development by even 1% — even if you conceive of this only as adding variability into the Recipe — and if we diverged from chimpanzees 5 million years ago, then without creativity we would currently have the technology of 50,000 BCE, the stone age. And without the explosion of the human population, we might never had had the variability we needed in behaviors to propel technology into the truly modern era.
  • And, if special human creativity is real, it may well increase the pace of technological development by more than 1 %. So, I’ll say that the Recipe can produce hominids with stone age technology, and can produce, say, complex food processing methods such that the people using them don’t know why or how they work … but, something else is still necessary to produce laptops. Without that extra variability given by creativity, the Recipe will never produce laptops.
    • Okay, so what is your evidence that people do creativity in a way that chimpanzees do not?
  • Glad you asked. Let’s leave the bullets to explore this.

Domain-general representational play

I will stake my argument on pillow igloos. My almost-3-year-old daughter asked to build, and then started to build, pillow igloos. She only knew about pillows and about igloos through culture, so one might say that she “just put them together,” a simple creative step. However, this step, so seemingly simple, is one of those things that people just can’t find a way to program computers to do it. It was not two random ideas, juxtaposed; it was two ideas that, when juxtaposed, resulted in a new, fun, and useful structure. How she discarded the other infinite number of possible juxtapositions in favor of this one is a computationally complex step that I have never seen anyone propose a way for computers to do, and that I have never seen anyone demonstrate that young chimpanzees naturally and easily do.

Copying an existing structure into a new material is a common step in art and in invention. Is building a pillow igloo or drawing a figure in the mud an example of some sort of complex representational cognition; is it art, or invention, or pretend play? Whatever the category, this form of pretend play/art/invention is not an especially great example of social copying. One could build a tree out of mud, or build a bird out of feces — chimpanzees see birds and manipulate feces, but they do not, to our knowledge, spend much if any time creating representations of one from the other. This form of invention is not, on the face of it, dependent on social imitation, and yet chimpanzees do not seem to partake.

From my point of view, creativity of this type is rampant in art, science, and invention, and hours and days and years can be spent by a person brainstorming about “what can I make out of this?” Playing with internal representational models in this way, experimenting in the real world and iterating back with brainstorming, sounds like a productive process for innovation, and the process is dependent on a non-inherently-social- or -imitative form of representational cognition that other primates do not seem to indulge in, as far as we know.

The Recipe for modern technology that cultural transmission theorists provide is fuller and, I think, more realistic, if human creativity is taken to add its due of variability to the set of options to choose among.

People are not just chimpanzees who pay attention to each other and selectively imitate each other. We also are chimpanzees who continually improve on each other’s behaviors and artifacts in a playful and experimental manner — who are continually creative, somehow mostly avoiding an infinite sea of bad ideas and instead  “jumping” creatively to good new ideas. Of course, all while we  jump on pillow igloos.