Original thinking


Original thinking is much admired. The Fields medal is awarded to those who have moved mathematics forward in ways which almost no-one else on the planet will ever understand. We have Nobel prizes for things as diverse as physics and peace, economics and literature. There are many other awards available, immortalising the names of their philanthropic benefactors, which reward those who have done things differently, who have excelled in their field. Those awarding the prizes are looking for that spark of genius which enables us as humans to move in a different direction.

Now, obviously, I’m not going to criticise the idea of new directions. They are needed from time to time. Neither will I criticise the progress of science, even though it is often two-edged. The invention of dynamite was not something by which Alfred Nobel wished to be remembered. But I would like to propose that unoriginal thinking also has and should have a major place in our lives and that the magic supposedly underlying original thinking is a little exaggerated.

Comparisons are actually very useful to us and, fortunately, most events in our lives are not entirely new. If we had constantly to confront completely new sets of circumstances, our lives would slow down. We would have to engage in a more difficult process of assessment than where the circumstances can be compared to previous events. Having a reference point makes it easier to arrive at a judgement: we can look to past experience. And fortunately what we encounter mostly has precedents, even if the relationship is not 100%.

Indeed how we live our lives is largely a result of how others live their lives. We didn’t come into the world making decisions from first principles about everything. We inherit a style of living. We look at how others respond to life’s events, perhaps modifying things a little to suit our circumstances and character and then acting accordingly. Of course there must have been a first time for everything, but once that first time has happened, then the knowledge has in principle been available to be transmitted to others. Popper’s 3rd world.

And it is now becoming clear that this applies not only to we humans, but to other animals. Some groups of chimpanzees use a rock in order to break open a delicious nut, whereas others groups do not, even when given a rock and a selection of nuts. So how did any of them come by a skill, one worthy of the Chimp Nobel prize for physics? The suggestion is that there was a particular chimp who just happened to hit the nut with a rock and then saw (and tasted) the effect. Wanting to continue to benefit from that new skill, he or she then wittingly or unwittingly, by example, passed on the knowledge to the others in his particular group.

Such passing on of information happens in other species, but mainly those which live in groups.  As humans, we have taken this much further and benefit from living in a society in which we have an educational system and easy access to so much information. We have complex speech which enables us the more easily to pass on information both orally and in written form. Our parents continue to look after us and pass on what they perceive to be their wisdom for many more years than in other species. Which means that we rarely have to come up with a truly original response when we need to solve a problem.

Because we can learn from others, knowledge is able to spread at an enormous rate. Exponentially. But that spread seems also to catalyse new ideas. It is something for which we seem to have good evidence – as witness the progress made over the last few hundred years in science and engineering. This though is generally regarded as requiring what we think of as ‘originality’ in our thought - the sudden bolt of lightening out of nowhere, bringing with it new understanding. But I wonder if this is not a rather superficial view.

I’ve just been watching David Attenborough’s Green Planet. He was telling us about the ability of plants to survive and thrive against all the odds. There is a cactus which grows to weigh several tonnes and to 5 to 6 metres in height. It is only found on a small very rocky island off the coast of Mexico. It has thrived because it has struck up a symbiotic relationship with a bird called the Booby, one close
ly related to the Gannet. The cactus by reason of it massive size provides shade for the nesting birds and their offspring. The birds provide the cactus with ‘food’, the guano, a sought after fertilizer, but which is normally too strong for plants to use directly. The cactus, however, has changed its metabolism so that it can benefit directly from this source of nourishment. The change is found nowhere-else. It is definitely ‘original’. I don’t think, however that the Cactus had a sudden insight into how it might benefit from its unusual situation. There were simply mutations in the DNA of a particular seed. Which meant that a cactus and its descendants grew in the right place at the right time. The same can apply to human discoveries and so neither do I think that originality of thought in humans is quite as original or inexplicable as we might think.

Darwin is credited as the author of the theory of evolution. He published first, but there were other gentleman biologists who had arrived at similar conclusions from similar studies of flora and fauna in their own remarkable voyages around the world. That these voyages revealed so many variations on an underlying theme in the plant and animal world seemed to these explorers inexorably to point in the direction of natural selection as the mechanism for the development of new species

And then we can look at one of the greatest of supposedly original thinkers, Isaac Newton. There was in fact at the time quite a lot of argument amongst natural scientists as to who had first thought of various aspects of our physical laws, those which we now describe, simplistically, as Newton’s laws of motion. There had long been discussion in many countries as to how best to describe the way that the physical world worked, what laws applied. Experiments - ‘shall we see what happens if...” - had been conducted since at least the time of Galileo to seek an answer. This was against a backdrop of a general refusal to continue to accept as definitive the statements of the ancient Greeks or theologians about how the world worked. In 1676, in an uncharacteristic attempt at modesty, Newton himself wrote to his main rival Robert Hooke:
"What Descartes did was a good step. You have added much in several ways, and especially in taking the colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."
Newton with his unusual mind brought together, codified, what was already there but spread out in embryonic form in his writings and the writings of so many others.

It seems to me that what we describe as originality is actually the connection of existing pieces of information which, looked at by a person with the appropriate mental tools, can lead to a revised appreciation of how things work or can be made to work. It is to be encouraged, but originality isn’t really original in the sense of being completely new. It comes from a set of circumstance which may well be unusual – particularly if, for example, a brain like Newton’s is involved - but in principle explicable. The available information is re-ordered, put together in a different way to show a different pattern.

And this shouldn’t be a surprise to us. Our brains are physical objects and so subject to the same process of cause and effect as everything else in the world. Now, personally, I find it disappointing that my essays are in fact just the synthesis of information I have picked up during my life, or even just this week, looked at through the prism of my particular mind. They are not after all the inexplicable blinding flashes of inspiration which I would prefer to think they represent. And neither can I claim to have stood on the shoulders of giants. I get vertigo.

31 January 2022

Paul Buckingham

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