Forget the insight of a lone genius—innovation is an evolving process of trial and error

Forget the insight of a lone genius – innovation is an evolving process of trial and error
Out of all these ideas, will one rise to the top? Credit: KlingSup/Shutterstock.com

Scientific discovery is popularly believed to result from the sheer genius of intellectual stars such as Darwin and Einstein. Their work is often thought to reflect their unique contributions with little or no regard to their own prior experience or to the efforts of their lesser-known predecessors. Conventional wisdom also places great weight on insight, preconception and design in promoting breakthrough scientific achievements, as if ideas spontaneously pop into one's head – fully formed and functional.

There may be some limited truth to this view. However, as an experimental psychologist and a philosopher of science, we believe that it largely misrepresents the real nature of , as well as creativity and innovation in many other realms of human endeavor.

Setting aside the Darwins and Einsteins – whose monumental contributions are duly celebrated – we suggest that innovation is more a process of trial and error, where two steps forward may sometimes come with one step back, as well as one or more steps to the right or left. Instead of revolution, think evolution. This evolutionary view of human innovation undermines the notion of creative genius and recognizes the cumulative nature of scientific progress.

Wrong ideas on the path to right ones

In a recent book, one of us (ERS) discusses seven little-known scientists whose partly "wrong ideas" yielded major advances in the hands of others.

Consider one of those unheralded scientists: John Nicholson, a Cambridge University mathematical physicist working in the 1910s, when atomic theory was in an early stage of development. Nicholson postulated the existence of "proto-elements" in outer space. Using a fanciful atomic theory, Nicholson estimated the relative weights of his atoms of coronium, nebulium, proto-fluorine and so on. By combining different numbers of these alleged proto-atoms, Nicholson could recover the weights of all the elements in the then-known periodic table. On a dramatically larger scale, Nicholson could also account for astrophysical details in the Milky Way's Orion Nebula.

These successes are all the more noteworthy given the fact that none of Nicholson's proto-elements actually exist.

Yet, amid his often wild speculations, Nicholson also proposed that a defining aspect of atoms – what physicists call the angular momentum of their electrons – can have only certain discrete values, or quanta. Niels Bohr, the father of modern atomic theory, jumped off from this interesting idea to conceive his now-famous model of the atom.

What are we to make of this history? The central idea of angular momentum quantization sprang directly from Nicholson's mostly off-target theorizing. One might simply conclude that science is a collective and cumulative enterprise. Ideas spread and some scientists are more adept than others at exploiting them. That may be true, but there may be a deeper insight to be gleaned.

Orderly march or random stroll?

We propose that science is constantly evolving, much as species of animals do. In biological systems, organisms may display new characteristics that result from random genetic mutations. In the same way, random mutations of ideas may help pave the way for advances in science. If mutations in either biology or science prove beneficial, then the animal or the scientific theory will continue to thrive and perhaps reproduce.

In this decidedly Darwinian scenario, there is no design, intelligent or otherwise. There is only random variation and selection, with biological or behavioral evolution unfolding in a trial-and-error fashion.

Support for this evolutionary view of behavioral innovation comes from many diverse realms of human endeavor, as one of us (EAW) has recently documented. Consider one striking example.

A particularly influential innovation can be spotted at the thoroughbred racetrack. It requires viewing horse and jockey from either the front or rear: the jockey's left stirrup is often placed as much as a foot lower than the right. This so-called "acey-deucey" stirrup placement is believed to confer important advantages on oval tracks, where in the U.S., only left turns are encountered in counterclockwise races. Although science has yet to prove its efficacy, acey-deucey placement may permit the horse and rider to "lean" into the turn and provide the pair with greater strength by harnessing the centripetal force of a tight turn.

A relatively unknown jockey named Jackie Westrope developed acey-deucey, although it was popularized by a far more famous rider, Eddie Arcaro. Had Westrope conducted methodical investigations or examined extensive film records in a shrewd plan to outrun his rivals? Had he foreseen the speed advantage that would be conferred by riding acey-deucey? No. He suffered a leg injury which left him unable to fully bend his left knee. It was a gimpy left leg that led to Westrope's off-kilter style – which just happened to coincide with enhanced left-hand turning performance. That's serendipity.

What was not serendipitous was the rapid and widespread adoption of riding acey-deucey by many of Westrope's competitors, a racing style which continues in today's thoroughbred racing.

Variation and selection, with no end in sight

Plenty of other examples show that, in many realms of human endeavor, fresh advances can arise from error, misadventure and serendipity. Examples such as the Fosbury Flop, Post-It Notes and the Heimlich Maneuver all give lie to the claim that ingenious, designing minds are responsible for human creativity and invention. Far more mundane and mechanical forces may be at work; forces that are fundamentally connected to the laws of physics, chemistry and biology.

The notions of insight, creativity and genius are often invoked, but they remain vague and of doubtful scientific utility, especially when one considers the diverse and enduring contributions of individuals such as Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Picasso and Tolstoy; Galileo, Newton, Kepler, Curie, Pasteur and Edison. These notions merely label rather than explain the evolution of human innovations. We need another approach, and there is a promising candidate.

The Law of Effect was discovered by psychologist Edward Thorndike 40 years after Charles Darwin published "The Origin of Species." This simple law holds that organisms tend to repeat successful behaviors and to refrain from performing unsuccessful ones. Just like the Law of Natural Selection, upon which evolution depends, the Law of Effect involves an entirely mechanical process of variation and selection; further, it too blindly proceeds with no end in sight.

Of course, the origin of novel ideas and behaviors demands much further study. In particular, the provenance of the raw material on which the law of effect operates is not as clearly known as that of the genetic mutations on which the law of natural selection operates. The generation of novel ideas and behaviors may not be entirely random, but constrained by prior successes and failures – of the current individual (such as Bohr) or of predecessors (such as Nicholson).

The time seems right for jettisoning the jejune notions of intelligent design and genius, and for scientifically exploring the true origins of creative behavior.


Explore further

The road not taken: Do stress-specific mutations lead down different evolutionary paths?

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Jun 23, 2017
For me having aphantasia has given me a unique outlook on the world and many of my ideas seem to be novel to those around me, yet obvious to me.

Jun 23, 2017
Applying the principles of Darwinistic evolution to innovation is in itself pseudoscience. Innov. requires goal oriented thinking. Maybe the foundation was there (preceding errors/partial solutions on which to build), but the person still needs the insight that putting two and two together is an innovation that solves a problem.

The evol. process does not have nor need that insight to function. Trial and error is not the only force at play nor dominant. You need intellect, intelligence, even culture (awareness of what your environment needs solved) and intuition to find out/investigate if a tentative idea/solution might have the potential to actually work. Unused they vanish.

The success of instit. science mainly is a success in raising money to file for patents. Innovative individuals usually do not have the financial clout. Also within instits. it are often lone geniuses who inflate their IP portfolio dis-proportionally.

Pseudoscience + bad metric. Not everything is Darwi

Jun 23, 2017
The "lone genius" these days are seen as cranks and heretics. One need not look any further than how Hannes Alfvén and Halton Arp were ignored and vilified for challenging the Church of the Mainstream Sciences.

Jun 23, 2017
Ignored? So there are no waves named after Alfven and astronomers don't use the naming schemed from Arp's catalog of peculiar galaxies?

Jun 23, 2017
Why am I not surprised by the disingenuous attempt to revise history by barakn.

Jun 24, 2017
Why am I not surprised by the disingenuous attempt to revise history by barakn.
I could take a stab at answering that question. I will leave it alone - and just say that
Alfvén earned a number of accolades, including the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1967), the Nobel Prize in physics (1970), the Gold Medal of the Franklin Institute (1971), and the Lomonosov Medal of the USSR Academy of Sciences (1971). In his name was created the Hannes Alfvén Medal. He also created the Alpha-Centauri medal, to be given to the first person who is able to prove whether the star Alpha Centauri is made of either normal matter or antimatter.

Jun 25, 2017
I will leave it alone - and just say that

Lest we not forget actual history;
"In the world of specialized science, Alfvén was an enigma. Regarded as a heretic by many physicists, Alfvén made contributions to physics that are today being applied in the development of particle beam accelerators, controlled thermonuclear fusion, hypersonic flight, rocket propulsion, and the braking of reentering space vehicles. At the same time, applications of his research in space science include explanations of the Van Allen radiation belt, the reduction of the earth's magnetic field during magnetic storms, the magnetosphere (a protective plasma envelope surrounding the earth), the formation of comet tails, the formation of the solar system, the dynamics of plasmas in our galaxy, and the fundamental nature of the universe itself."
An enigma, a heretic...
TBC...

Jun 25, 2017
"...Alfvén was the first to predict (in 1963) the large scale filamentary structure of the universe, a discovery that confounded astrophysicists in 1991 and added to the woes of Big Bang cosmology...."
They have since produced an ad hoc post-diction to solve said woe.
"In addition, Alfvén's contributions to astrophysics have been as important as his contributions to physics. His postulation in 1937 of a galactic magnetic field forms the basis today for one of the fastest growing areas of research in astrophysics - Cosmic Magnetism. In 1950, together with his colleague N. Herlofson, Alfvén was the first to identify nonthermal radiation from astronomical sources as synchrotron radiation,..."
Hmmm, first to predict galactic magnetic fields and identify astronomical synchrotron radiation, but most do not know this for some strange reason.
TBC

Jun 25, 2017
"...In spite of these fundamental contributions to physics and astrophysics, Alfvén, who retired his posts of professor of electrical engineering at the University of California at San Diego and professor of plasma physics at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm in 1991, was still viewed as a heretic by many in those very fields. Alfvén's theories in astrophysics and plasma physics have usually gained acceptance only two or three decades after their publication. Characteristically and also concomitant with his 80th birthday in 1988, Alfvén was awarded the most prestigious prize of the American Geophysical Union, the Bowie medal, for his work three decades earlier on comets and plasmas in the solar system. Disputed for 30 years, many of his theories about the solar system were only vindicated as late as the 1980's through measurements of cometary and planetary magnetospheres by artificial satellites and space probes..."
Awarded the prize 30-years after the fact. Hmmm..

Jun 25, 2017
Regarding the awards you mentioned;
"Although Alfvén received these singular honors from many parts of the world -and a rash of scientific journals scheduled special issues in honor of his 80th birthday- for much of his career Alfvén's ideas were dismissed or treated with condescension. He was often forced to publish his papers in obscure journals; and his work was continuously disputed for many years by the most renowned senior scientist in space physics, the British-American geophysicist Sydney Chapman. Even among physicists today there is little awareness of Alfvén's many contributions to fields of physics where his ideas are used without recognition of who conceived them."
Still to this day...

Jun 25, 2017
And Alfvén understood why he was ignored, theorists were intimidated and threatened by his brilliance;
"Scientists tend to resist interdisciplinary inquiries into their own territory. In many instances, such parochialism is founded on the fear that intrusion from other disciplines would compete unfairly for limited financial resources and thus diminish their own opportunity for research."
There are more examples of him "not being ignored" in biographies eritten by his colleagues;
http://plasmauniv...ven.html

http://science.sc...3958/604

https://www.googl...K35QlfgA

Jun 25, 2017
So really - what's your point cantdrive? Your poor hero Alfven never got the kudos he deserved from the other meanies in the sand box? Surely the point of doing science is to find new cool stuff. So what if the other kids don't give you accolades? On another thread - I think it is Backburner is arguing that there is no mechanism in science for the development of new ideas. It seems everyone is mad at the big bad science community - cuz they're not playing nice with the unrecognized geniuses. What's wrong with just shutting up - and enjoying science?

Jun 25, 2017
@greenonions1.
So really - what's your point cantdrive?...It seems everyone is mad at the big bad science community - cuz they're not playing nice with the unrecognized geniuses. What's wrong with just shutting up - and enjoying science?
Hi greenonions. You know (by our comments/agreements re Climate Change matters) that I am objective and fairminded observer/commenter, right? As such, I could not let your cheap shot at cantdrive stand unchallenged. What you tell @cantdrive is much the same thing the Catholic Inquisition told those who they burned as heretics. To paraphrase your last sentence:
What's wrong with just shutting up - and enjoying RELIGION?
See the flaw in your rationale against CORRECT challengers of status quo in SCIENCE, @greenonions?

Science is badly served by BIASED/FLAWED 'inquisitors' who merely want to censor challengers to INCORRECT status quo which defended through counterproductive CENSORSHIP or BIASED 'peer review'. See, mate? :)

Jun 25, 2017
See the flaw in your rationale against CORRECT challengers of status quo in SCIENCE,
No - I don't see that reality. No one is stopping you - or anyone else from challenging the 'status quo' (what ever that is). Everyone always brings up Galileo, or the inquisition - without recognizing that was the church against science. Science is not a religion. Challenge is part of the process. New ideas are great - as long as you can support them. So many people have their own pet conspiracy theory - about the big bad scientists who wont give them accolades. So what? If you like doing science - then do it. Why do you care if you get a prize?

Jun 25, 2017
@greenonions.
No one is stopping you - or anyone else from challenging....
Unconscionable attacks from entrenched bias/self-interest discourages new ideas/discussion because many fear consequences. That is the real problem, even now, as ADMITTED by many 'in the system'. There have been many PO articles/news items about this problem. Have you missed the point of the discussion?
Science is not a religion.
That's the very point many are trying to get across to those who treat 'science' and 'peer review' system as their own 'religious right/belief' system rather than REAL OBJECTIVE science. Are you missing that point?
If you like doing science - then do it. Why do you care if you get a prize?
I do. I am. I don't. Which is why I don't 'publish-or-perish' crap like BBangers/Inflationists 'scientists' have, for DECADES! Penrose/Steinhardt finally blew the whistle on BB/Inflation 'crap' (and now, Bicep2/Ligo claims also 'iffy').

Objectivity/Fairness better. :)

Jun 25, 2017
because many fear consequences.
What consequences? If the science you are doing is sound - what do you have to fear? The people who keep whining - are the over unity people. Sorry - Steorn energy is a scam - and should be called a scam. But McCarthy is still at it. http://dispatches...-it-all/ we live in a free world - and you are free to make your case. There is no conspiracy.

yep
Jun 26, 2017
we live in a free world - and you are free to make your case. There is no conspiracy.


Ha, you obviously do not read about history!

Jun 26, 2017
So many people have their own pet conspiracy theory

Notice that it's always the "I coulda if I just wanna" faction. They never actually put anything down on paper. It's like people who say they could play NFL level football if they could just be bothered to get off the couch.

But no - they never put their ideas to an actual test (or, god forbid: peer review). It's pretty sad when you think about it: they willfully perpetuate this illusion for years on end - instead of putting in 2 weeks of work writing stuff down and have done with it.

And for what gain? Ridicule by everyone else? I can't really see what the point is.

Jun 26, 2017
yep
Ha, you obviously do not read about history!
Yes I do. Are you referring to Galileo? That was the church against science. What is stopping you from making your case today yep?

Jun 26, 2017
Galileo also had a wondrous gift for annoying people, especially his critics...

Jun 26, 2017
@greenonions1.
What consequences? If the science you are doing is sound - what do you have to fear?
Not me! Many 'physicists' IN THE SYSTEM complaining of 'consequences' situation. I've nothing to fear, for (as you know) I'm SCRUPULOUSLY INDEPENDENT objective researcher/scientist/commenter NOT reliant on, nor seeking, institutional/professional grants, accolades, prizes etc which drive too many 'mainstream scientists' to NOT follow strictly objective scientific method; as highlighted/demonstrated in Astro/Cosmo 'peer review' and 'acceptable pseudo-science' for DECADES (BB/Inflation; and more recently Bicep2/Ligo).
The people who keep whining - are the over unity people....
You mistake me for someone(s) else,mate! I'm NOT in ANY group of self-interested barrow-pushing types, be these EU, Over-Unity, BB/Inflation or Other 'barrow pushers'. I'm scrupulously INDEPENDENT and ONLY ever offer here known/novel/insightful OBJECTIVE/IMPARTIAL science/logics commentary. :)

Jun 26, 2017
@antialias.
Notice that it's always the "I coulda if I just wanna" faction.
It would help everyone if you/other would-be mainstream defenders got: your stories/cranks straight; your own objectivity, fairness ethics in order, and; your own knowledge base re actual science CORRECT, before projecting/attacking others while you set bad examples. Drop prejudices and insults and gratuitous 'gang base' attacks on tghose who are trying to help you become truly independent/objective scientists. Listen instead of tarring everyone you dislike with the same 'cranks/nutjob' brush. Be an example of 'objective scientist/science' and respect interlocutors even though you do not agree. Just rebut using actual supportable (not spuriously 'passed' flawed/wrong) science/logics. That's all it takes for impartial readers here to discern between conspiracy/troll posters and truly objective ideas/commentary posters. Be nice at all times; because you may (sometimes) be in the wrong. Yes? :)

Jun 27, 2017
Not me! Many 'physicists' IN THE SYSTEM complaining of 'consequences' situation.
But you offer no support for your assertion - or examples of what these 'consequences' might be. Do they fire you? Put you in jail? Beat you up? You offer nothing. My understanding of science (not myself - but I have a couple of friends who are in micro biology) - is that challenge is very welcomed - as long as you are willing to support your challenge with data. I know - theoretical physics is very different - due to being 'theoretical.' But my understanding is that even in that kind of field - there is plenty of room for dissent. But even then - you have to have some basis for what you propose.

Jun 27, 2017
challenge is very welcomed

Not just welcomned - it's essential. When papers are selected (e.g. for publication in a journal or for a conference) the ones that have nothing new don't make the cut. Being novel is a sine qua non.

But - and this is important - it has to be well presented with some solid work behind it (Either experiment or solid math)
Just saying "I have an idea, but have nothing to show for it - you guys work it out" isn't going to get you far. If your idea is great and you're really that kind of genius then you can work it out and put it in a proper form.

If you find you can't then you can be 100% sure that:
a) you're not that kind of genius
and
b) your idea is nowhere as great as you think it is

Jun 27, 2017
@greenonions.
Not me! Many 'physicists' IN THE SYSTEM complaining of 'consequences' situation.
But you offer no support for your assertion - or examples of what these 'consequences' might be. Do they fire you? Put you in jail? Beat you up? You offer nothing. My understanding of science (not myself - but I have a couple of friends who are in micro biology) - is that challenge is very welcomed - as long as you are willing to support your challenge with data. I know - theoretical physics is very different - due to being 'theoretical.' But my understanding is that even in that kind of field - there is plenty of room for dissent. But even then - you have to have some basis for what you propose.
Can it be you missed all those news items/articles, from many in the system, who admit it's dangerous to not pay lip service to 'party line' when writing theses, grant applications, submissions for publication in journals dominated by 'party line' peer reviewers, mate? :)

Jun 28, 2017
@anti.
Not just welcomed - it's essential. When papers are selected (e.g. for publication in a journal or for a conference) the ones that have nothing new don't make the cut. Being novel is a sine qua non. But - and this is important - it has to be well presented with some solid work behind it (Either experiment or solid math). Just saying "I have an idea, but have nothing to show for it - you guys work it out" isn't going to get you far. If your idea is great and you're really that kind of genius then you can work it out and put it in a proper form.
Not everyone with a new idea has the clout/inclination to play the game as delimited by those in control of said game. And Penrose/Steinhardt recently blew the whistle on all the Big Bang/Inflation 'papers' passed by 'peer review' which were basically NOT 'novel', let alone REAL science. And you gloss over the fact that science HISTORY is awash with YOUR type attacking/ignoring many CORRECT persons/ideas. Learned yet? :)

Jun 28, 2017
Not everyone with a new idea has the clout

What clout? You need neither financial means nor an institute affiliation to get your stuff published. You just need a computer and the ability to type words. If that's already too much bother, then ...meh.

If you don't have the inclination then what are you doing posting on science? Do something else. Otherwise you're just as pathetic as those armchair coaches yelling at the TV that they could do a better job at playing football than some athelete.

In the end: Put up or shut up. Currently you're just producing hot air.

Jun 28, 2017
@ Really-Skippy. How you are Cher? I am fine and dandy, thanks for asking.

I'm scrupulously INDEPENDENT and ONLY ever offer here known/novel/insightful OBJECTIVE/IMPARTIAL science/logics commentary.
Is that what you call what you do? Anybody else here ever call it that? And non Cher, Steinhardt-Skippy don't count, he's the one who said you was demented. If what you are doing is so good, maybe just one other person in the whole wide world would think it was good too.

Out of all the tens of thousands of couyons I seen you insightful/logic/science/commentary with all over the interweb the last 10 or 9 years, not one of them thought you were on to something.

Find just one I'll let you take that silly looking pointy cap off. And ask the nice physorg peoples to quit giving temporary time-outs like they been doing lately. You too demented to DO BETTER it seems. They starting to be mad with you Cher, and you know this is the only place you have left.

Jun 29, 2017
@antialias.
Not everyone with a new idea has the clout *to play the game as delimited by those in control of said game*
You need neither financial means nor an institute affiliation to get your stuff published.
I've BEEN publishing clues, insights and reminders for your benefit, anti....but its been like "Pearls before swine". And why leave out the bit in *asterisks*, antialias? STILL self-serving, biased etc in your 'science' discourse/practice? STILL haven't learned from your Bicep2 bias/denial/attack fiasco.
If you don't have the inclination then what are you doing posting on science?
Doing it PROPERLY, OBJECTIVELY...unlike you/other self-serving, publish-or perish etc 'types'.
Put up or shut up.
I HAVE been; but you/gang ignored/trolled etc, and so MISSED/DENIED IT ALL. And completing/publishing an EXHAUSTIVE ORIGINAL consistent reality-based physical ToE, and reality-based Math to model it, is HARD SCIENTIFIC WORK, not "hot air" like yours, anti. :)

Jun 29, 2017
@Uncle Ira.
I'm scrupulously INDEPENDENT and ONLY ever offer here known/novel/insightful OBJECTIVE/IMPARTIAL science/logics commentary.
Out of all the tens of thousands of couyons I seen you insightful/logic/science/commentary with all over the interweb the last 10 or 9 years, not one of them thought you were on to something. Find just one I'll let you take that silly looking pointy cap off. And ask the nice physorg peoples to quit giving temporary time-outs like they been doing lately. You too demented to DO BETTER it seems. They starting to be mad with you Cher, and you know this is the only place you have left.
That's very funny, even though you probably meant it seriously, hey Ira? A bot-voting ignoramus 'rewarding' biased/incorrect posters with your '5' "Karma Points" bot-votes, whilst downrating me who has been objective/correct all along, is now pretending he read/understood all my posts, and responses to same from UNbiased readers? Pitiable, Ira. :)

Jun 29, 2017
PS @ Uncle Ira.
And ask the nice physorg peoples to quit giving temporary time-outs like they been doing lately.
Is that where you and Captain Stumpy got to since mid-June, Ira? PO gave you a 'temporary holiday' because of your poisonous trolling and bot-voting trying to sabotage otherwise free and fair PO science discussion on the science/logics issues rather than the person? Try to learn some honesty/objectivity, guys, and maybe PO won't need to give you any more 'holidays', hey? Good luck and good thinking to you! :)

Jun 29, 2017
PS @ Uncle Ira.
And ask the nice physorg peoples to quit giving temporary time-outs like they been doing lately.


You like the silly looking pointy cap? Fine by me Cher, it's yours. Your call on that. Also on the time-outs too, but you might have to wait a day or so for the next one to kick in. That's about my pay-grade.

Laissez les bons temps rouler Skippy. (In case you don't understand coonass, that means: How you like me now Cher?)


Jun 29, 2017
@Uncle Ira.
And ask the nice physorg peoples to quit giving temporary time-outs like they been doing lately.
Is that where you and Captain Stumpy got to since mid-June, Ira? PO gave you a 'temporary holiday' because of your poisonous trolling and bot-voting trying to sabotage otherwise free and fair PO science discussion on the science/logics issues rather than the person? Try to learn some honesty/objectivity, guys, and maybe PO won't need to give you any more 'holidays', hey? Good luck and good thinking to you! :)
You like the silly looking pointy cap? Fine by me Cher, it's yours. Your call on that. Also on the time-outs too, but you might have to wait a day or so for the next one to kick in. That's about my pay-grade.
Now what are you driveling about, Ira? Are you mad because PO gave you guys a 'little holiday' for your poisonous trolling/bot-voting? Take it like men instead of driveling/bot-voting again; and next time, try to learn your lesson, Ira. :)

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