Source | https://hbr.org : By Alison Beard
Why don’t cows choreograph dances? Why don’t alligators invent speedboats?” These are questions that Anthony Brandt, a composer, and David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, ask—and immediately answer—in the first chapter of their new book, The Runaway Species. Animals can’t match human ingenuity, they explain, because of “an evolutionary tweak in the algorithms running [our] brains.” We’re different because we see the world not just as it is but as it could be. We think What if? and can therefore create our own futures. And what an existence we’ve fashioned so far: language and accounting, the wheel and the plow, vaccines and medicines, cinema and skyscrapers, satellites and smartphones.
Of course, even ideas conceived and developed by the world’s best minds rarely lead to meaningful progress on that level. So which inventions have had the most impact—and why? What can they teach us about game-changing innovation? And how will science and technology revolutionize our lives next?
The rest of The Runaway Species sheds light on these issues—as do three other recent releases: Simply Electrifying, a thorough history of electricity by the industry veteran Craig R. Roach; Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy, a collection of short essays on subjects from plastic to property registers, by the economist and Financial Times columnist Tim Harford; and Soonish, an in-depth, occasionally humorous look at 10 emerging fields of research (think asteroid mining, programmable matter, and brain-computer interfaces), by the bioscientist Kelly Weinersmith and her cartoonist husband, Zach.
Wisely, none of the authors really attempt to answer the first question: Which inventions do or will matter most? Whether the light bulb and the steam engine trump space travel and Google search is something for philosophers to debate. It’s more useful to explore why some ideas transformed business, culture, and society while others didn’t.
Skimming all four books might lead you to believe that top-tier invention begins and ends with individual genius: Brandt and Eagleman often reference Picasso; Roach’s chapter titles include “Benjamin Franklin’s Kite,” “Samuel Morse’s Telegraph,” and “Thomas Edison’s Light”; Harford tends to focus on the people behind his economy-shaping ideas; the Weinersmiths interviewed an array of “scientific oddballs.”
But a closer read reveals an emphasis on collaboration and cross-pollination: between experts in different disciplines, researchers and technologists, entrepreneurs and financiers, private and public sectors. “Creativity is an inherently social act,” Brandt and Eagleman contend. Just as great art comes from “bending, breaking and blending” previous work, “groundbreaking technologies…result from inventors ‘riffing on the best ideas of their heroes.’” (This argument is bolstered by delightful visuals.)