Johnnie continues to look at how innovation happens and gently nudges necessity in a couple of quotes.
Johnnie Moore's Weblog: Innovation, disruption, control etc
Bob Geldof made a similar point at a NESTA bash a few months back, where he said innovation happens naturally in response to strong need, linking Ireland's dire poverty to its subsequent reputation for innovation.In The Future Eaters, however, Tim Flannery finds the delta of that proposition.
"When the first reports of the Tasmanian Aborigines reached Europe they created intense interest. Europeans thought that their simple tool kit and lifestyle meant that they were a very primitive people. For a very long time after, it was widely believed that these apparently truly primitive people had survived in their remote corner of the world because they had not had to compete with more advanced races.
"The French savants of the Baudin Expedition, who observed the Tasmanians in 1802, were amazed that even though the Tasmanians lived in an often bitterly cold climate, they lacked clothing. Extraordinarily, they also lacked the ability to make fire. Mannalargenna, one of the last of the Tasmanian Aborigines to live a traditional life, told of what would happen if a group's fire was extinguished. He said that people had no alternative but to eat raw meat while they walked in search of another tribe. Significantly, one of the universal laws among the Tasmanians was that fire must be given whenever requested, even if the asker was a traditional enemy who would be fought after the gift had been given.
"The French were also struck by the fact that the Tasmanians did not eat fish, even though they were abundant in Tasmania's coastal waters. Francois Peron records that when members of the Baudin Expedition offered some fish which they had caught, the Tasmanians expressed amazement and horror. This was not an isolated instance, for earlier, in 1777, members of Cook's third expedition recorded that Tasmanians reacted with horror or ran away when fish were offered to them.
"There are some other quite extraordinary features of Tasmanian culture. The Tasmanians, for example, had no hafted implements (such as axes), no implements made of bone, no boomerangs or spear throwers, no dingos and no microlithic stone tools. Indeed, their entire tool kit seems to have consisted of about two dozen kinds of objects."
"It is easy to see how the limited material culture of the Tasmanians could seduce the savants of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries into classifying the Tasmanians as the world's most primitive people. Not surprisingly, the anatomists of the day had an almost insatiable demand for corpses. Through dissection, they hoped to find additional evidence supporting the idea that the Tasmanians were primitive; maybe even a kind of living, missing link. Needless to say, these anatomical studies yielded no such evidence."
"Until very recently, many people found no reason to doubt the conclusions of nineteenth century science concerning the Tasmanians. But detailed archeological research, much undertaken only in the last few decades, has now shown conclusively that there was nothing primitive about the Tasmanians at all. They were, instead, a highly specialized offshoot of the Australian Aborigines, whose culture evolved under the extraordinary constraints that 10,000 years of solitude would place on any small band of humans.
"The most striking evidence concerning the evolution of the culture of the Tasmanians has come from the study of campsites occupied over the last 7,000 years. Deposits that date to 7,000 years ago or more are full of bone tools, including awls, reamers and needles. There seems to be little doubt that these implements were used for sewing, probably to make skin cloaks similar to those used by the Aborigines of southern Australia right up until the nineteenth century.
"The variety of bone tools found in Tasmanian middens dwindles with time, until eventually, about 3,500 years ago, the last of them disappear from the archaeological record. This suggests that stitched clothing was lost from the material culture of the Tasmanians at about this time.
"Interestingly, the older archaeological sites show that fish--although despised as a food in historic times--once formed an important part of the Tasmanians' diet. Evidence from some sites suggests that fish made up about 10 percent of their diet in the past. . . . Then suddenly, about 3,500 years ago, the remains of fish cease to appear in refuse dumps."
"The most plausible explanation [for the simplification of the material culture of the Tasmanians] seems to lie in the unique isolation and small population size of the Tasmanians. The theory goes something like this. A small group of people are less likely to come up with technological innovations than a larger group. If the group is completely isolated, then new ideas cannot reach it. Because of this, innovation in material culture is slowed. Because the population is small, activities and knowledge may be lost simple through the early death of skilled people before they can pass their skills to the next generation.
"Losses such as that of clothing and the ability to make fire may have resulted from rare, early deaths occurring over a long period of time. The 5,000 Tasmanians lived scattered in small groups. It may be that only one or two people in any one group had all the skills necessary to make bone needles and prepare skins. Over 12,000 years there is a high chance that the few such specialists in any one area would, at some stage, die before they could pass their skills on. Repeated chance events like this might have led to the loss of many skills that require specialized knowledge.
"If the population is small enough, there may be strong evolutionary pressure to dispense with high-risk activities. This is because risks that are acceptable for larger populations can threaten the very survival of smaller ones. The loss of fish from the Tasmanian diet may be an example of a high-risk activity that is strongly selected against and thus lost, in small populations."
"Eating fish can be a risky business, because occasionally a dinoflagellate bloom known as a 'red tide' can lead to mass poisonings. The simultaneous death of hundreds of people in a large human population is a great personal tragedy, but it poses no threat to the survival of that society because the statistical chance of losing all members of one age group or sex is tiny. Such a poisoning in a small population, however, can be a disaster for the entire group. This is because, through chance, it may kill a significant proportion of the women of child-bearing age, or all of the older and more knowledgeable individuals. In order to avoid such catastrophic events, extreme conservatism may be selected for in small societies. This is because in evolutionary terms it may be better to forego the benefit gained from eating such 'dangerous' food as fish, rather than risk an extremely rare but catastrophic poisoning event."
Innovation has a high risk of failure, failure is only acceptable when there is a comfortable distance between that failure and death by starvation. In other words, comfort and wealth are (up to a point) necessary to enable innovation. If I am confident in being able to eat tomorrow, and for the foreseeable future, and to deal with most minor medical issues that might arise, I will be prepared to try new foods, new crops, new recipes and to accept their failures as a learning.
If I live on the edge of survival, I will be MUCH less likely to try new things.
That will be compounded in a culture where personal, individual survival is the highest good. In those cultures where personal sacrifice may be occasionally necessary to ensure the survival of the community (and in some cases like Inuit and Australian Aboriginals or Tikopians where recognition of the end of your value to the community leads to your own death) more experimentation may be possible.
As a slave-owning culture we have been isolated from those kinds of necessities and very possibly lost our ability to recover them in time, but the payoff has been the freedom to innovate.
That our innovations are now choking us speaks volumes for the care we have taken to weed out those innovations that promote selection for failure.
BTW, I'm not being rhetorical about the slave-owning, I keep 60 horses under the bonnet of my car, dishwashing and clothes-washing slaves in my kitchen and laundry, carpentry slaves in my basement, food preservation slaves as well. Not to mention all the food growing, processing and haulage slaves that bring me goodies from round the world.
And what do I do with all this wealth and comfort? Build better iPods so I can listen to music or demand to watch movies on my mobile.