Alex Bentley is Chair of Anthropology at University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His new book with michael O'brien is: The Acceleration of Cultural Change: From ancestors to algorithms (MIT PRess, 2017)

Invention, Innovation and Heroes

(with Mike O'Brien)

There was electricity in the air this past summer. Among the trending news for July, Volvo announced an all-electric (or hybrid) car fleet by 2019, China built a 100MW solar-power array shaped like a panda bear, and Tesla built the world’s largest lithium-ion battery in South Australia to address their power-outage problem.

Dramatically, Tesla finished within owner Elon Musk’s promised 100-day deadline, and the project may spark the innovation of similar facilities around the world. Much of the news focused on Musk himself. When he personally guaranteed the project on Twitter, supporters replied with generous pledges in hopes that he could “change the game forever.”

This narrative tradition — heroic individuals who work to improve the human condition — is as old as the Odyssey. We attribute great changes to well-resourced individuals: Zhang Yin and global recycling. Howard Hughes and air travel.  JFK and the moon landing. Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo (maybe).

Hero narratives, however, often conflate invention, innovation, and the networks of knowledge transmission. The achievement in South Australia, for example, involved hundreds of engineers, workers, planners, financers, the Tesla company, and the government of South Australia, not to mention centuries of science of electricity (in which Nikola Tesla was just one character).

In our new book with MIT Press, The Acceleration of Cultural Change: From Ancestors to Algorithms, we describe how, for millennia, sociocultural complexity increased as people inherited traditional knowledge within kin-based local communities. In these settings, where knowledge was shared within populations and across generations, sociotechnological complexity tended to scale with population size. This implies two ways to reverse this “progress”: either reduce the population size or reduce the clarity of the cultural-transmission process.

In the prehistoric past, reduced population sizes sometimes reduced the collective knowledge of populations. Consider, for example, recent archeological research from Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island, where evidence from isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in amino acids isolated from the collagen protein of ancient human bones reveals that around AD 1400, before European contact, the prehistoric islanders got a third of their diet and half their protein from marine sources. The isotope results from Rapa Nui also showed that they fertilized the poor volcanic soils of the island to grow their crops.

Seems sensible, right? On one of the most remote islands on earth, you’d probably want to eat seafood. As we discuss in our book, however, earlier Polynesian colonists farther west had agricultural diets — chickens, pigs, taro, yams — which they inherited from their origins in Island Southeast Asia. So it is, in fact, news that the colonists of Rapa Nui not only boosted their diets with seafood but developed “extensive knowledge” of their terrestrial environment to create a sustainable food supply.

Undoubtedly, the population on Rapa Nui had begun to decline before Europeans arrived in 1722, but it was not a result of overpopulation and resource exhaustion — a view made popular by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Rather, it was in large part a result of decline in birth rate and other demographic factors over a long period of time.

While Rapa Nui can be read as a heartening story of human resilience and cultural adaptability, there is another lesson to learn: adaptation in small networks of cultural transmission can take a long time. In a year when Wonder Woman has a box office running over 800 million dollars, we may want to reflect on the popular culture of hero worship. Elon Musk is an extraordinary story and a hero to some. No person is an island, however, and if we look to heroes to solve problems, we may be isolating them as such in terms of our knowledge network. Prehistoric Rapa Nui didn’t have the population size we have, but their cultural transmission made sure that their collective knowledge became more adaptive over time.  

A little bot goes a long way: randomness and collective coordination