TEDGlobal2010 is in full swing and the first talk available for viewing by those of us not lucky enough to be there live is by renowned author Matt Ridley. Ridley’s talk is titled “When Ideas Have Sex”, and the gist of it is that knowledge is advanced by the recombination or mutation of ideas. This is a uniquely human process and can be related to the seemingly natural inclination we have towards creating divisions of labor and exchange. (Full video below.)
I’ve written about this topic previously, and Ridley’s perspective lies fairly close to my own. We tend to think of ideas as 1) creations of single, brilliant individuals, and 2) unique in history, rather than derivative. Narratives of great discoveries suggest that ideas are created de novo from individual minds. However, if we take the time to deeply explore many of the greatest breakthroughs in science, art, etc, we find that the greatest ideas are the result of communities of thinkers and their combination, in unique and creative ways, of pre-existing ideas. To use Ridley’s metaphor, communities take existing ideas and breed them. That reproduction results in mutations and recombinations, which create a new species of idea that is superior to existing populations of ideas that we all then benefit from. Knowledge creation has an evolutionary and communal character to it.
It further reinforces the importance of creating conditions that facilitate the intellectual transmission of diverse ideas and perspectives (what I’ve called “social bumping“). This can include helping people build diverse social networks, promoting the co-mingling of various subject-matter experts, and encouraging people to share their ideas and perspectives when they might otherwise feel as though it wasn’t their place to speak up. As Ridley says during his talk, “We all know little bits, but none of us knows the whole.” Given that is the case, we would be wise to design an environment that maximizes the mating of diverse ideas.