Human innovation more trial-and-error than 'lightbulb' moments

September 16, 2015
Human innovation more trial-and-error than 'lightbulb' moments

Humans are not as good as coming up with sudden 'game-changing' new ideas as was previously thought, a new University of Reading study suggests.

Instead, human innovation comes more from steady improvements through trial and error, found researchers, who made the findings after studying the speed at which Bantu-speaking farmers in Africa migrated across the continent 5,000 years ago.

The researchers used information on current communities and a sophisticated language family tree to discover that the Bantu 'stuck to what they knew', following savannah environments familiar to them and largely avoiding the alien Congo rainforest.

Surprisingly, when they did move into the rainforest, rates of migration were slowed by as much as 300 years. This reflects the time it took them to develop new technologies and knowledge to master their new environment.

The research suggests that innovation is harder for humans than previously thought. It also reinforces current thinking (link) which suggests innovation has less to do with 'thinking hard until the right solution comes to mind', but rather the slow accumulation of knowledge and technology passed down through generations.

Mark Pagel, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Reading, led the study.

He said: "Sweeping out of West Central Africa more than 5,000 years ago the Bantu migration was one of the most influential cultural events of its kind. Disease, changes in climate and an increase in population meant it spread over a vast geographical area, eventually moving all the way down to the southern tip of the African continent.

"But despite being modern humans with the intelligence and skills to adapt, the Bantu seemed to choose routes that kept them in familiar environments. Exploring exactly how this happened provides crucial evidence of how humans go about developing ideas and new technologies."

Professor Pagel and his team reconstructed the probable migration routes of over 400 Bantu-language groups. It showed that far from engaging in random walks, the Bantu followed savannah corridors for ease of movement and relocation.

Professor Pagel continued: "Crucially, our findings fit with archaeological evidence. The research demonstrates that despite humans having an unmatched cultural potential for innovation, we perhaps underestimate how difficult developing life-changing new technologies actually is.

"From Watt's steam engine design to Edison's lightbulb, history is replete with the 'genius' inventor. But those amazing feats were not developed in a 'Eureka moment'. Watt's engine was more a redesign more than an invention. Edison's notebook reveals that he tried thousands of filament materials before alighting by chance on his favoured material.

"Very little has changed. Even today, science and business rely on groups pooling their knowledge and skills, and even then many groups cannot compete. Innovation is hard even for the most intelligent species on Earth."

Explore further: Genes shed light on pygmy history

More information: "Bantu expansion shows that habitat alters the route and pace of human dispersals." PNAS 2015 ; published ahead of print September 14, 2015, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1503793112

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16 comments

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TogetherinParis
1 / 5 (1) Sep 16, 2015
Hi, I'm a genius, perhaps the greatest in history. I found the cause and cure for more than 22 diseases and conditions: criminal behavior, borderline personality disorder, delinquency, feelings of jihad, ADHD, Conduct Disorder, OCD, Onychophagnia, heroin addiction, cocaine addiction, oxycodone addiction, sexual perversions like pedophilia, homosexuality, nymphomania, satyriasis, also PTSD, suicidal ideation and behavior, and still more.
Nik_2213
5 / 5 (2) Sep 16, 2015
When you have a near-subsistence economy, there's scant margin for experimentation. You cannot afford to fail. You go with what you know, unless you have no choice, or you get lucky and have a local surplus...

Without 'disposable income', progress is bound to be very slow, very wary...
docile
Sep 17, 2015
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docile
Sep 17, 2015
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docile
Sep 17, 2015
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antialias_physorg
3.7 / 5 (6) Sep 17, 2015
Instead, human innovation comes more from steady improvements through trial and error
...
. Edison's notebook reveals that he tried thousands of filament materials before alighting by chance on his favoured material.

90% prespiration, 10% innovation.
If you don't do the footslogging work you're not going to find the game-changing idea. The uneducated, intuitive armchair-genius is a myth.
docile
Sep 17, 2015
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docile
Sep 17, 2015
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antialias_physorg
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 17, 2015
Yes, for researchers it's advantageous to pretend neverending research

No. It's like this: smart ideas are complex (the easy ones have been taken thousands of years ago). Complex ideas (even some that sound after-the-fact as clear as anything - like Maxwell's equations or Relativity) are things where the devil is in the details.
And you never get at a brilliant idea by glossing over the details through sheer ignorance.

Another thing you continually ignore: Research isn't a well paid job the world over (notice the complete lack of rich scientists?). Researchers are smart people that could easily get a well paid (but boring) job elsewhere. "Keeping your job" is therefore not a motivation for doing research on any level.

And even if it would turn out, that such an "intuitive genius" is actually highly skilled and educated

The skilled/educated ones have, for some bizarre reason, no problem whatsoever in demonstrating their work. Go figure.
docile
Sep 17, 2015
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docile
Sep 17, 2015
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docile
Sep 17, 2015
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docile
Sep 17, 2015
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Myno
not rated yet Sep 17, 2015
Tribal cultures are inefficient at utilizing innovation. Western civilization has made such strides largely because it offers group benefits without the attendant costs of tribalism.
baudrunner
1 / 5 (1) Sep 18, 2015
A "Eureka" moment is the result of empirical study leading to insight. I study a lot, read a lot, and have eureka moments all the time. I just had one the other day. It took me literally a couple of minutes to come up with a node structure for creating a mirror in Blender 3D, using logical insight based on empirical knowledge. I had to make one myself because I couldn't find a good example online. Six nodes, that's all, including the output node, because I understand how light works, what anisotropy is, and how to factor values into the nodal system to come up with an object that exactly mimics a mirror. Harder than it sounds.
baudrunner
not rated yet Sep 18, 2015
Incidentally, did you know that 75% of the Ikea catalog is CG?

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