Tag Archives: innovation

National Academy of Engineering

Cultural Evolution and the Paradox of Diversity

Summary from Twitter thread:

As an engineering grad, I’m delighted to contribute to the latest National Academy of Engineering Bridge issue on “The Paradox of Diversity” https://nae.edu/244742/Cultural-Evolution-and-the-Paradox-of-Diversity

It’s short, but here’s a quick trailer.

Cultural evolution and the paradox of diversity

Diversity is a double edged sword. Governments and organizations often push for greater diversity and tolerance for diversity, because the human tendency is toward squashing difference and selecting others like ourselves. But diversity can both help and harm innovation.

On the one hand, there’s intellectual arbitrage: discoveries and technologies situated in one discipline that draw on a key insight from another. Here diversity is a fuel for the engine of innovation.

On the other hand, diversity is, by definition, divisive. Without a common understanding, common goals, and common language, the flow of ideas in social networks is stymied, preventing recombination and reducing innovation. How do we reap the benefits without paying the costs?

Consider the challenge of collaborations between scientists and humanities scholars (or even between scientists in different disciplines). The key is to find common ground through strategies such as optimal assimilation, translators and bridges, or division into subgroups.

Resolving the tension between diversity and selection is at the core of a successful innovation strategy. And there are many possible solutions.

Some dimensions of diversity matter more than others—without a common language, communication is difficult. On the other hand, food preferences create little more than an easily solved coordination challenge for lunch.

But between these are many dimensions where optimal assimilation may be desirable and traits can be optimized, such as psychological safety so people feel free to share unorthodox ideas.

Other strategies include interdisciplinary translators. In my role at the Database of Religious History (DRH)—a large science and humanities collaboration—we have benefited from a few scholars trained in both to bridge the gap.

Innovation can also be divided into independent groups, coordinating within the group but competing against others trying different strategies (e.g. competition between firms).

Check out the full issue here: https://www.nae.edu/244665/Winter-Issue-of-The-Bridge-on-Complex-Unifiable-Systems

Cultural Transmission and Social Norms Workshop” at the School of Economics, The University of East Anglia, UK.

I was invited to present my work on innovation and cultural evolution at the “Cultural Transmission and Social Norms Workshop” hosted by the School of Economics at The University of East Anglia, UK. I presented “Innovation in the Collective Brain: The Transmission and Evolution of Norms and Culture”, beginning with an introduction to cultural evolution for the audience of primarily economists. I then discussed innovation as a product of our “collective brains“.

This research is summarized in this news post and in the original paper.

Muthukrishna, M. & Henrich, J. (2016). Innovation in the Collective Brain. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 371(1690).  [Telegraph] [Scientific American] [Video] [Evonomics] [LSE Business Review] [Summary Post] [Download] [Data]

Project Zero – Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA

I spent the last week back at Harvard University discussing research on cultural evolution and innovation with the Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA), part of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The LILA group include people from industry and the military. Every year the group invites two academics to discuss their research and how it might be applied to problems faced by members of the group. This year, Mary Ann Glynn and I were invited. It was an intellectually enriching opportunity to apply my work to current challenges in corporations and other organizations.

The ideas presented in my two talks were beautifully captured in the graphics below:

The Science of Cultural Evolution: What Makes Humans So Different

02_michaelmuthukrishna_ltrSources of Innovation: The Secret of Human Success


Culture Conference in Birmingham, UK

I spent the last couple of days at a small conference on cumulative culture organized by Claudio Tennie and his two PhD students Elisa Bandini and Eva Reindl. The theme was “When and How does Cumulative Culture Emerge”. It was an excellent meeting – large enough to have a diversity of views, small enough to have interesting conversations with almost all participants.

I presented my recent paper with Joe Henrich on “Innovation in the Collective Brain“.

Other speakers and attendees included:

Carel van Schaik (University of Zurich)
Christine Caldwell (University of Stirling)
Pete Richerson (UC Davis)
Helena Miton (Central European University)
Rachel Kendal (Durham University)
Olivier Morin (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History)
Mathieu Charbonneau (Central European University)
Andrew Buskell (London School of Economics)
Alex Mesoudi (University of Exeter)
Rachel Harrison (University of St Andrews)
Takao Sasaki (Oxford)
Celia Heyes (Oxford)
Elena Miu (University of St Andrews)
Julie Coultas (University of Sussex)
Keith Jensen (University of Manchester)
Thibaud Gruber (University of Geneva)


Innovation in the Collective Brain

Last week, my paper with Joe Henrich on “Innovation in the Collective Brain” was published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological SciencesI explain some of the key points in the video below:

To very briefly summarize, innovation is often assumed to be an individual endeavor driven by geniuses and then passed on to the masses. Consider Thomas Edison and the lightbulb or Gutenberg and the printing press. We argue that rather than a result of far-sighted geniuses, innovations are an emergent property of our species’ cultural learning abilities, applied within our societies and social networks. Our societies and social networks act as collective brains.

Innovations, large or small, do not require heroic geniuses any more than your thoughts hinge on a particular neuron.

The paper outlines how many human brains, which evolved primarily for the acquisition of culture, together beget a collective brain. Within these collective brains, the three main sources of innovation are:

  1. serendipity
  2. recombination, and
  3. incremental improvement.

We argue that rates of innovation are heavily influenced by:

  1. sociality
  2. transmission fidelity, and
  3. cultural variance.

We discuss some of the forces that affect these factors. These factors can also shape each other. For example, we provide preliminary evidence that transmission efficiency is affected by sociality—languages with more speakers are more efficient.


We argue that collective brains can make each of their constituent cultural brains more innovative. This perspective sheds light on traits, such as IQ, that have been implicated in innovation. A collective brain perspective can help us understand otherwise puzzling findings in the IQ literature, including group differences, heritability differences, and the dramatic increase in IQ test scores over time.

Selected Media Coverage

The Telegraph

Scientific American