Monday, January 5, 2015

Those Crazy Innovators

I recently wrote about the fact that most people are copiers rather than innovators. This is of course hardly a condemnation of the vast majority of humanity, given that being strong social learners is what allows for our high levels of cooperation that make complex society possible at all.

But the fact remains that if everyone were strong social learners and, therefore, copiers of others, there wouldn't be much social evolution at all. The occasional mistake will sneak in, and people will of course copy those mistakes that work out best, but such a system would be a relatively slow process.

Enter the innovators. You don't want too many innovators, because such a society won't hold together too well. You want fewer innovations of things that work well, and if you have a lot of innovators, you are likely to get people innovating away what works.

It is perhaps not surprising that when humans evolved ultrasociality -- meaning we started undergoing far more group selection -- a balance was struck between copiers and innovators. Copiers dominate by far, but there are just enough innovators around to innovate.

But who are the innovators?

In my last posting I mentioned that people with autism and sociopaths are good contenders for this role. To that one should add schizophrenics and bipolars, among others we label as "mentally ill." Many artists, for example, are known to be at least slightly bipolar. The Nobel Prize winning game theorist John Nash was, famously, schizophrenic. Many cultural creatives are known to be autistic. More, autistic people tend to be more analytical than strategic (sociopaths, on the other hand, are far more strategic and, thus, more like neurotypicals in their thinking; they only lack a conscience, which can free them up to do quite a number of anti-social things).

Historically, human societies have needed a combination of less social individuals. Those individuals were needed for cultural creativity, technological innovation, and quite often ruthlessness in war. The latter is where the sociopaths come in.

A group with sociopaths is likely to have someone who is willing to kill and otherwise exploit others to get what he wants; such a person might be a good leader in a war, especially given their strong strategic abilities. As we move more and more toward a global civil society, we are finding we need our sociopaths less and less. But that doesn't mean we have gotten rid of them over time. Sociopaths, with their charm and strategic thinking, often end up in government or as CEOs -- when they don't end up in prison (and sometimes that is their path to prison). Places of power are highly attractive to sociopaths, and their charm and strategic thinking make them attractive to neurotypicals, who typically swarm in the direction of the person most determined to go in a particular direction. And sociopaths are quite determined people. Thus we should not be surprised if the highest concentrations of sociopaths are in government. In fact, sociopaths make bad CEOs, because they tend to run far less productive companies (due to their arrogance and tendency to try to subvert the system to their advantage, traits which are rewarded in government), so there are fewer sociopathic CEOs (as a percentage) than elected officials.

At the other end are the autistics -- creative, analytical types who are more interested in their obsessions than in other people. Your nerds and geeks, technological innovators and socially awkward artists. They don't seek to rule anyone. They just want to be left alone to do their work. But of course, their work, being creative and innovative, tends to be socially disruptive, so they are further treated as social outcasts by neurotypicals (and their tendency to be socially awkward anyway doesn't help). Only if they create something that is adopted by the early adopters -- that group of people who are adventurous enough to try things out, but not creative enough to innovate -- can they become "accepted" into polite society. And then, not really. Nobody is dying to hang out with Bill Gates; nobody was dying to hang out with Steve Jobs. But most people deep down never fully trusted them. Their products made our lives better, but they did so only by disrupting our lives. And disrupting others' lives is anti-social behavior (no matter how good the outcome).

And then there are the outliers labeled as "mentally ill." This can often include people with autism, who are more prone than the regular population to being bipolar or schizophrenic. It is perhaps not surprising that such people tend to be cultural innovators more than technological innovators. Artists and religious innovators are well represented here. A few of the greatest scientists as well. They see the world in unusual ways, making them mad to the general populace. Once upon a time, hearing voices was proof positive that one had a strong connection to God or the gods (or to demons); now it is proof positive you have schizophrenia. We are too rational for such religious innovations, and so we tend to hospitalize such people. Unless they can prove their worth in the arts or sciences. John Nash could hear voices all he wanted, so long as he controlled himself and produced game theory.

What percentage of the population are we looking at here? It is estimated that, worldwide, about 1% of the population are sociopaths (2% in the U.S., whose history of open borders attracted the more adventurous, a group with includes a large number of sociopaths). The percentage of people with autism is closing in on about 2% of the population. The mentally ill might be another 1-2%. We can cut this in half by removing the extreme outliers -- the sociopaths in prison, the autistics and mentally ill so severe they cannot contribute their creativity and innovations to society. Thus, our 4-6% outliers becomes about 2-3% innovators in any given society/culture. This is probably about the maximum number of innovators a society can have and still hold together. And we must keep in mind that much of that innovation is killed off by the sociopaths in government, whose policies are very often anti-innovation. Thus, we probably see innovation at about 1% of the population. Given that fact, it is quite impressive what human beings have accomplished in only a few tens of thousands of years.

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