Allen Lane, £17.99, 326pp. £16.19 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030; Oxford, £18.99, 370pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Where Good Ideas Come From, By Steven Johnson
Sudden Genius?, By Andrew Robinson

What do coral reefs, Italian Renaissance city states and Twitter have in common? Steven Johnson's achievement in Where Good Ideas Come From is to establish such connections entirely convincingly. The book is subtitled "a natural history of innovation", and delivers precisely this, shedding equal light on evolution in the natural world and in human culture and technology.

It used to be said that to talk of technology and culture "evolving" was the loosest kind of metaphor, since the processes have nothing in common. But Johnson shows that human and natural innovation are both heavily dependent on context. The computer could not come into being before the invention of tiny, multiple transistors; Charles Babbage tried over 100 years too soon and failed for that reason; the evolution of cellular life required the prior existence of a chemical self-replicating molecule, and so on. Both processes refashion old parts into new wholes: the art of bricolage.

The parallels Johnson explores between evolution in technology and in the natural world help to explain one of the most persistent problems in evolution by natural selection: that of intermediate forms. If dinosaurs evolved wings and became birds, what drove this forward when the wing was at first tiny and useless? The answer had been staring us in the face and was formally proposed by Stephen Jay Gould and Elizabeth Vrba in 1982: the early "wings" weren't being used as wings at all. When we sleep with eiderdown pillows and duvets, we are using feathers in their original guise: for heat insulation.

Johnson's prime example of a similar technological process is Gutenberg's invention of book printing using moveable type. This breakthrough, which unleashed an acceleration of knowledge and progress, pressed into service the screw devices long used for extracting grape juice for the wine trade.

This process of adapting a structure to a new function was given the name "exaptation" by Gould. It is now a very hot concept in biology because, thanks to the complete genetic sequencing of a fast-growing number of creatures we can now see how genes as well as bodily organs are put to new uses. The genomes of all creatures – plant and animal – have multiple copies of many genes. Some are identical but others have mutated and have been co-opted for a quite different function.

The key to both natural and technological evolution is bricolage; recycling spare parts; taking an object from one context and placing it in another. And the most fertile environments are those that create a platform for innovation, allowing the greatest number of spare part add-ons. This is what unites the coral reef, the Italian city states and Twitter: all are fertile environments that have enabled a myriad innovations.

Johnson shows how cooperation in nature is just as important as competition. That is the secret of the coral reef. Everything is recycled in a limited space on a matrix of calcium carbonate built up by the coral – the ultimate example of bootstrapping. He gives another example of how a key species can create an environment in which many others can thrive. Beavers cut down trees, allowing woodpeckers to nest in them (they cannot penetrate live trees); the woodpeckers usually vacate the nest after one season and songbirds take them over. When a songbird moves into a tree, she "doesn't carry the cost of drilling and felling". That knowledge "was openly supplied by other species in the chain. She just needs to know how to tweet". In the same way, Twitter exploits the pre-existing infrastructure of the web.

Johnson even manages some original literary criticism. "Genius requires genres," he declares. Just as there could be no Twitter without the web, James Joyce, Proust and Virginia Woolf required a long tradition of the conventional novel before they could break with it. While it is hard not to notice individual works of genius, it is extremely difficult to attribute the invention of genres. His example is the crime novel, with Dickens, Poe and Wilkie Collins the prime suspects, and he equates the genre in art with his platforms for technological and natural innovation – a highly fruitful notion.

There have been many studies of creativity since it came into vogue in the 1960s. The focus is usually on one of three facets: the enabling environment (Johnson), the process of invention (Koestler's Act of Creation; De Bono's lateral thinking), or the psychology of individual genius, as in Anthony Storr's The Dynamics of Creation or Andrew Robinson's Sudden Genius?.

Koestler was on to something when he made a troika of creativity by recognising humour alongside scientific discovery and artistic originality. The joke is surely the atom of creativity: the smallest individual unit of indisputably original creation.

Punning can be seen as bricolage on a purely verbal plane (or, as in cartoons, a verbal/visual fusion), bringing oddly assorted parts together to make a striking new whole. Koestler called this "bisociation" and the idea is still valid. Watson's DNA breakthrough consisted in playing with a four-piece cardboard minimal jigsaw as a proxy for the four bases of DNA: a laboured pun, but it unlocked the secret of the molecule's crystal structure.

Robinson doggedly follows ten geniuses for clues to their originality. Unfortunately, by its nature, individual genius is hard to contain within any generalisation. Time and again, he concludes with disclaimers such as "no specific configuration of traits... underlie exceptional creativity"; or that "the working of unconscious processing in exceptional creativity is still, fundamentally, an enigma".

Despite the frustrations of seeking the causes of exceptional creativity, Sudden Genius? has virtues that make it a useful complement to Where Good Ideas Come From. Robinson's ten subjects display his impressive intellectual range. He is equally at home with scientists and artists and, besides the obvious Einstein, Leonardo, Darwin, Mozart and Wren, includes Satyajit Ray, Cartier-Bresson and Champollion, the decipherer of the Rosetta Stone.

Each genius is given a chapter of more or less standard biography, but his thematic sections are more interesting. Most telling is a postscript in which he writes that "talent appears to be on the increase, genius on the wane". It is hard to disagree.

The world now, both in art and science, is intensely professionalised and commercialised, whereas there is usually an element of self-taught amateurism in the figures we recognise as geniuses. Of the ten, Robinson writes, "none of them can be said to have embraced school education".

The geniuses have generally been self-starting, life-long students, at work almost every waking minute. Almost invariably, they have spent 10 years in mastering their subject before their first significant work. In a famous recent study of creativity, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell made much of Richard Sennett's equation in The Craftsman: that genius requires 10,000 hours of training.

He explicitly recognised that this is equivalent to around 10 years, so here at least is some agreement on this most elusive of subjects. As the literary critic Harold Bloom summed up in his own study, Genius: "All genius, in my judgement is idiosyncratic and grandly arbitrary, and ultimately stands alone". Except that Steven Johnson would retort that it also stands on the foundations of those platforms for innovation.

Peter Forbes's 'Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and camouflage' is published by Yale

Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal