The Cultural Niche: Innovation is Not (Mostly) About the Mind
University of California, Davis
May 25, 2011
Gruter Institute Squaw Valley Conference – Innovation and Economic Growth, 2011
Many scholars attribute human innovativeness mainly to human cognition or intelligence. This argument is advanced, for example, by the evolutionary psychologists Tooby, Cosmides, and Pinker under the term "the cognitive niche." However, most significant human innovations are far more complex than even the smartest individual person could invent on their own. Our Stone Age ancestors developed complex artifacts such as the Eskimo kayak and used these tools and the associated knowledge to settle most of the earth using a dazzling diversity of subsistence systems. Today we make even more complex artifacts, such as computers and airliners. Both the ancient and modern artifacts are the products of cumulative cultural evolution. Individual humans certainly innovate. But to evolve complex artifacts we have to use our powerful abilities to imitate and teach to acquire the artifacts of past generations. Then we add the innovations we discover and pass the improved artifacts on to the next generation. Complex technologies evolve over many iterations of this imitate-innovate-transmit cycle. Humans are the only species that can acquire complex ideas and techniques by teaching and imitation and it is this complex of traits that is largely responsible for our innovativeness. As a practical matter, modern high rates of innovation depend upon an elaborately institutionalized mechanisms for reinforcing the basic cumulative cultural evolution mechanism.
working papers series
Date posted: May 25, 2011
© 2013 Social Science Electronic Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
This page was processed by apollo3 in 0.297 seconds