Where Good Ideas Come From, By Steven Johnson<br />Sudden Genius?, By Andrew Robinson

Tom Wilkinson
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:41

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

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments