Innovation requires inventions, and inventions begin with ideas. Though artificial intelligence may, at some point in the future, supplement or complement human ideas, at present only humans are capable of producing new ideas. Or, as the George Mason University economist Don Boudreaux noted in a 2018 article, “There Are No Natural Resources,” “the human mind is the ultimate resource because it, and only it, creates all of the other economically valuable inputs that we call ‘resources.’” That said, ideas are a bit of a mystery. They don’t show up in magnetic-resonance imaging or in people’s DNA. We don’t know who will have them or when they will appear. To quote from Matt Ridley’s 2020 book How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom:
Unlike most team sports innovation is not usually a choreographed, planned or managed thing. It cannot be easily predicted, as many a red-faced forecaster has discovered. It runs mostly on trial and error, the human version of natural selection. And it usually stumbles on great breakthroughs when looking for something else: it is heavily serendipitous.
In fact, most people don’t invent anything. In his 2018 book The Social Leap: The New Evolutionary Science of Who We Are, Where We Come From, and What Makes Us Happy, the University of Queensland psychologist William von Hippel noted a U.K. study showing that that only 6 percent of people reported modifying a product or innovating in the last three years. The share of innovators was even lower in other countries (5.2 percent in the United States, 5.4 percent in Finland, and 3.7 percent in Japan). It may seem strange that in a species that has thrived through technology, only a small portion of the population invents anything at all.
But while human achievement is largely measured by technological advancement, it’s important to remember that our evolution was defined by social innovation. Figuring out how to throw a stone was a technical problem, but using stones to ward off predators required a social solution — coordinated bombardment. Homo erectus invented tools that were superior to those produced by previous hominids. But the division of labor, which improved the manufacture of those tools and enabled our ancestors to hunt large animals, was entirely social. Finally, fire increased our capacity to extract calories from food, but without using the former for social gatherings, we would never have developed the rich and diverse cultures that made it possible to accumulate knowledge. Technology makes our lives easier, but the success of our species is contingent on our ability to cooperate and organize as a society.
Moreover, since the evolutionary fitness of individual humans is primarily based on their ability to cooperate, most people, when confronted with a problem, choose a social solution over a technical one. If you need to put sunscreen on your back, it’s easier to ask your friend to rub it in for you than to MacGyver your own lotion-rubbing apparatus. The only reason not to ask for help would be that you didn’t have any friends around or (and this is crucial) that you had a unique personality characteristic that made asking for help unappealing.
Less social individuals appear to be more likely to invent a technical solution rather than a social one. That makes intuitive sense. People who would prefer to solve a problem by themselves would be more likely to invent something. Besides intuition, there are a lot of data that suggest a negative correlation between sociality and technical innovation. “Engineers and physical scientists show higher levels of autistic traits (one of which is diminished social orientation) than people in the humanities and social sciences,” von Hippel noted. “Unsurprisingly, engineers and physical scientists are also more likely than people in the humanities and social sciences to hold patents and are also more likely to innovate products for their own use. As a notable example, Silicon Valley is a hotbed of technical innovation and also features an unusual concentration of people on the autism spectrum.”
The pattern extends to sex differences as well. Why? On average, women are more social than men. In terms of work preferences, for example, the former are more interested in working with other people, while the latter are more interested in working with things, such as tools and computers. Moreover, men are four to ten times as likely to fall along the autism spectrum as women are. Perhaps not surprisingly, a study by the U.K. Intellectual Property Office found that women “account for just under 13 percent of patent applications globally.” This discrepancy cannot be fully explained by past discrimination — the share of patents held by female engineers, a Europe-wide study found, is one quarter of the share of female engineers in the labor force. In other words, technical innovation seems to be disproportionately a domain of somewhat autistic males.
Autism, noted the American psychologist Robert Plomin in his 2018 book Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, is not a distinct disease. Rather, it is a long spectrum of abnormality related to social, emotional, and communication skills. Individuals suffering from autism, as noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, may
not point at objects to show interest, not look at objects when another person points at them, have trouble relating to others or not have an interest in other people at all, avoid eye contact and want to be alone, have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings, . . . appear to be unaware when people talk to them (but respond to other sounds), be very interested in people (but not know how to talk, play, or relate to them), repeat or echo words or phrases said to them (or repeat words or phrases in place of normal language), have trouble expressing their needs using typical words or motions, . . . repeat actions over and over again, . . . etc.
Furthermore, autistic individuals tend to exhibit a particular combination of the “big five” personality traits. According to a 2014 study, Personality and Self-Insight in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder, they tend to be “more neurotic and less extroverted, agreeable, conscientious, and open to experience.” Disagreeability, in particular, appears to be a psychological trait that’s conducive to invention and innovation. Disagreeable people, noted the writer Malcolm Gladwell, typically do not require the approval of others. “If you don’t care one iota what your peers think of you, you are essentially a sociopath,” Gladwell told a New York City audience in 2018. “But it is also a precondition for doing things that are extraordinary.”
The Northwestern University economic historian Joel Mokyr noted in his 1990 book The Lever of Riches, a study of innovation from classical antiquity through the industrial revolution, that “technological creativity, like all creativity, is an act of rebellion.” Inventors and innovators, in other words, must be allowed to do things that others disapprove of without being subjected to social opprobrium. That is crucial. Society and natural selection favor agreeability and social innovation. Inventors and innovators, in contrast, are disagreeable and favor technical innovations. If social pressure, including norms, mores, and speech codes, prevents autistic and disagreeable people from flourishing, society will tend toward technological stagnation. Conversely, a society that tolerates disagreeability (as well as neuroticism and introversion) will enhance its potential for technological innovation.
Free, which is to say open and inclusive, societies have had a relatively good record of accommodating disagreeable people. But will that continue? There are plenty of dark clouds on the horizon. Our society appears to be growing less tolerant of eccentricity, which could have profound consequences for the future of invention and innovation. For what it is worth, I think that it would be a great mistake to purge academia and the private sector of individuals with quirky be-havioral patterns or peculiar views on hot-button social issues such as race, feminism, or homosexuality. Humanity should not have to forgo a cure for cancer or a new source of plentiful and reliable energy because the researchers involved are, in some ways, objectionable. Put differently, we should not sacrifice progress on the altar of niceness.
Finally, note that both autism and personality traits seem to be highly heritable. In other words, many of the people who are likely to become technological inventors and innovators (i.e., the people who are most likely to come up with ideas leading to technological invention and innovation) seem to be born that way. That would help explain why society can never know where inventive and innovative ideas will come from and why it is so difficult for today’s governments to design programs aimed at stimulating them. In fact, historically speaking, governments have not been much involved in the promotion of invention and innovation.
If anything, governments have actively discouraged invention and innovation in the past. Three Roman writers — Pliny the Elder, Petronius, and Dio Cassius — recorded similar anecdotes about a man who invented an unbreakable glass bowl and brought it to Emperor Tiberius in the hope of receiving a reward. Tiberius asked the inventor whether he had told anyone else about his invention. When the inventor said he had not, the emperor had him put to death, lest the unbreakable glass made precious metals (from which cups and bowls were made) valueless. Conversely, Emperor Vespasian gave a large reward to a man who had invented a machine capable of carrying heavy columns, but he feared that the machine would worsen Roman unemployment, so he declined to make use of it.
The historical record is replete with similar stories. Montesquieu criticized “mills for taking work away from agricultural workers,” wrote Fernand Braudel in his 1979 book Civilization and Capitalism. In 1754, the French ambassador to Holland asked for “a good mechanic who can steal the secret of the different mills and machines in Amsterdam that avoid the expenditure of the labor of many men,” Braudel noted, adding: “But was it desirable to reduce this expenditure? The mechanic was not sent.” And so on, ad infinitum.
In contrast to the ancient world, today’s governments understand the vital importance of innovation. Alas, they are not very good at promoting it. In 2003, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development published a paper called “Sources of Economic Growth in OECD Countries,” which reviewed the drivers of economic growth between 1971 and 1998. The study found “no clear-cut relationship between public R&D activities and growth” and diplomatically suggested that “long-term sustainable economic growth has many sources and cannot be fully steered by policy-makers.” It is not impossible, Ridley wrote in How Innovation Works,
that governments can aim for, create and perfect an innovation of huge significance. . . . Nuclear weapons might be one example, moon shots another, though hardly ones with any consumer value, and both in practice used a lot of private-sector contractors. It is just that it does not happen very often, and that far more often inventions and discoveries emerge by serendipity and the exchange of ideas, and are pushed, pulled, moulded, transformed and brought to life by people acting as individuals, firms, markets and, yes, sometimes public servants.
It may be unsettling to realize that invention and innovation, to a large degree, depend on chance — a genetic mutation during meiosis. But that observation only reinforces the connection between population growth and higher standards of living. Genetic combinations leading to new inventions and innovations are much more likely to emerge in a population of, say, the 7.8 billion people who are alive today than they were in the population of 300 million who were alive at the time of Christ or Caesar Augustus.
And so, to maximize invention and innovation, we must not only reject the tightening restrictions on the behavior and speech of eccentric individuals; we must also combat the growing anti-natalist movement, which wants to restrict birth rates and sees the fecundity of our species primarily as a threat to the planet. But that’s a topic for another day.
This article originally appeared in National Review Online.