By Kevin Meyer
There was a very interesting article in the Wall Street Journal a couple days ago chronicling human development and especially the rapid evolution of the past few thousand years. What prompted the acceleration?
Human evolution presents a puzzle. Nothing seems to explain the sudden
takeoff of the last 45,000 years—the conversion of just another rare
predatory ape into a planet dominator with rapidly progressing
technologies. Once "progress" started to produce new tools, different
ways of life and burgeoning populations, it accelerated all over the
world, culminating in agriculture, cities, literacy and all the rest.
Yet all the ingredients of human success—tool making, big brains,
culture, fire, even language—seem to have been in place half a million
years before and nothing happened. Tools were made to the same
monotonous design for hundreds of thousands of years and the ecological
impact of people was minimal. Then suddenly—bang!—culture exploded,
starting in Africa. Why then, why there?
Coincidentally yesterday I somehow got sucked into a History Channel series called Ancient Aliens which proposes several potential answers: aliens helping us develop so we could be temporary slaves, an ancient civilization that destroyed itself, visitors from our own future, inbreeding with aliens. Lots to think about and some rather interesting evidence that even I as a one-time alien nerd hadn't heard about.
But let's get back to this world, and the interesting hypothesis of the WSJ article.
The answer lies in a new idea, borrowed from economics, known as
collective intelligence: the notion that what determines the
inventiveness and rate of cultural change of a population is the amount
of interaction between individuals. Even as it explains very old
patterns in prehistory, this idea holds out hope that the human race
will prosper mightily in the years ahead—because ideas are having sex
with each other as never before.
The article goes on to describe this idea in considerable detail, but what struck me was the correlation and application to organizations. Once again we have demonstrable proof in the power of people as knowledge assets as opposed to a cost.
The sophistication of the modern world lies not in individual
intelligence or imagination. It is a collective enterprise.
Nobody—literally nobody—knows how to make the pencil on my desk (as the
economist Leonard Read once pointed out), let alone the computer on
which I am writing. The knowledge of how to design, mine, fell, extract,
synthesize, combine, manufacture and market these things is fragmented
among thousands, sometimes millions of heads. Once human progress
started, it was no longer limited by the size of human brains.
Intelligence became collective and cumulative.
So that begs a question I've asked our community before: what is the advantage of the "lights out factory?" What happens when we "lower our costs" (really?) by removing all of the brains? What happens to the collective intellect and creativity needed to improve? How exactly do you improve if you focus purely on the cost of the hands without taking into account the value and asset of the brain?
The notion that exchange stimulated innovation by bringing together
different ideas has a close parallel in biological evolution. The
Darwinian process by which creatures change depends crucially on sexual
reproduction, which brings together mutations from different lineages.
Trade is to culture as sex is to biology. Exchange
makes cultural change collective and cumulative. It becomes possible to
draw upon inventions made throughout society, not just in your
neighborhood. The rate of cultural and economic progress depends on the
rate at which ideas are having sex.
There's a cheery modern lesson in this theory about ancient events.
Given that progress is inexorable, cumulative and collective if human
beings exchange and specialize, then globalization and the Internet are
bound to ensure furious economic progress in the coming century—despite
the usual setbacks from recessions, wars, spendthrift governments and
natural disasters. The process of
cumulative innovation that has doubled life span, cut child mortality by
three-quarters and multiplied per capita income ninefold—world-wide—in
little more than a century is driven by ideas having sex.
And there's your argument for diversity in the workplace, and in life. Now go back to leading your organizations by focusing on the power of your people's ideas and exhorting them to have sex. Their ideas that is.