The history of Earth is a rocky and lifeless story. The first signs of life emerged about a billion years after our planet’s creation. They weren’t much either; mostly single-celled organisms that resembled today’s bacteria. Land animals emerged out of the oceans as recent as 500 million years ago, and the genus homo came onto the scene a mere 2.5 million years ago. Complex life on Earth is the new kid on the block; natural selection spent most of its time keeping species the same, not changing them.
We humans are a different story. 200,000 years ago a few tens of thousands of us dotted the African plains. But then something happened. We spread across the globe creating cities and villages along the way. Language evolved, and with it culture and societies. We began living longer and healthier and our population skyrocketed as a result.
What’s peculiar about the rise of humans is that biologically speaking, nothing changed; the same genes that constituted our hunter-gatherer ancestors constitute us. But somewhere along the line a small change led to profound differences in our behavior within a short period of time. Whereas homo erectus and the Neanderthals spent hundreds of thousands of years making the same tools over and over again, we were able to understand and organize the world better.
Whatever the genetic change was, we eventually gained the ability to learn from others. This was hugely important. Anthropologists call this cultural or social learning, and it not only describes our tendency to copy and imitate by watching others, it highlights our unique ability to realize the best from a number of alternatives and attempt to improve on it. Many animals can learn, but only humans can learn and improve. As evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel explains, “even if there were a chimpanzee-Einstein, its ideas would almost certainly die with it, because others would be no more likely to copy it than a chimpanzee-dunce.”
What’s more is our ability to put ourselves inside the minds of others – what philosophers term a theory of mind. It helps us assign reason, purpose and intentionality to objects and people, which moreover allows us to understand things as being part of a bigger picture. Without a theory of mind we would probably still be using the same tools as we did 200,000 years ago.
In addition, theory of mind gives rise to emotions like empathy and sympathy, which give us the capacity to cooperate with people and groups outside of our kin. Virtually all members of the subfamily homininae (beside bonobos) including chimps, gorillas and orangutans do not exhibit this type of behavior. To borrow a thought experiment from the anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, imagine if you were on a 747 filled with chimps and a baby started to cry. In Hrdy’s words: “any one of us would be lucky to disembark with all their fingers and toes still attached, with the baby still breathing and unmaimed.” Recent psychological research is confirming that our species ability to cooperate is partially innate. As bleak as our current headlines are, it appears we humans are wired with at least a minimal ability to get along with each other and have a sense of justice. We’re not perfect, but no chimp would donate to charity and certainly not group of chimps could set up a charity.
This is important for many reasons. The most obvious is that economics is impossible without the means to cooperate with strangers. This is why, according to Matt Ridley, one of the key developments in our species history took place when we “started to do something to and with each other that in effect began to build a collective intelligence… [we] started, for the very first time, to exchange things between unrelated, unmarried individuals; to share, swap, barter and trade.” The effect of trade was specialization, which gave rise to innovation, which in turn improved technologies and so on and so on. Well before Smith hypothesized the invisible hand and Ricardo thought about how England and Portugal could efficiently trade wine we had already begun to understand that communities were better off when their members honed their skills, pursued their self-interest and traded with other communities.
This is a simplified and incomplete story but you get the idea: humans flourished because they were able to learn from and cooperate with each other. It’s unclear what happened biologically, but the consequences were obviously vast.
What’s interesting is that the same cognitive mechanisms that allowed our species to prosper in the African savannah are the same cognitive mechanisms that are responsible for globalization in the 21st century. However, in place of face-to-face interactions is communication over the web.
In a 2010 Ted lecture Chris Anderson addressed this point by exploring how web video powers global innovation. He explained the following:
A while after Ted Talks started taking off we noticed that speakers were starting to spend a lot more time in preparation… [the previous speakers raised] the bar for the next generation of speakers… it’s not as if [speakers] ended their talks saying ‘step your game up,’ but they might as well have… you have these cycles of improvement apparently driven by people watching web videos.
Anderson terms this phenomenon “crowd accelerated innovation,” and uses it to explain not just how Ted Talks are improving in quality, but how everything is. He is making the same general point as Pagel and Ridley: humans learn and innovate by watching and stealing ideas from others. But what’s unique about Anderson’s point is that it’s describing how the Internet is facilitating this ability. And the exciting part is that people will learn and imitate even faster with YouTube, Wikipedia, Google Books and many more online services that focus on the distribution of content. As Anderson says, “this is the technology that is going to allow the rest of the world’s talents to be shared digitally, thereby launching a whole new cycle of… innovation.”
Whereas a famine could have easily wiped out the only community that knew how to harvest a certain crop, build a certain type of boat or make a certain type of tool – what anthropologist call random drift – the Internet not only ensues our collective knowledge, it makes it widely accessible, something the printing press wasn’t able to achieve to the same degree. This is why I’m optimistic about the future: the Internet will only accelerate our ability and desire to improve upon the ideas of others.
Ted lectures over the years give us plenty of concrete examples to be hopeful about: Hans Rosling illustrated the global rise in GDP and decrease in poverty over the last several decades; Steven Pinker demonstrated the drastic decline in violence; Ridley and Pagel spoke about the benefits of cultural and economic cooperation; and most recently, Peter Diamondis argued that we will be able to solve a lot of the problems that darken our vision of the future. And because all this research is coming to us via the web the next round of ideas will be even better. More importantly, it will inspire a generation of young Internet users who are looking to change the world for the better.