Dr. Fred Bortz

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

by Steven Johnson

(Riverhead, October 2010, $26.95, 336 pages)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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To 27-year-old Charles Darwin, the Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean 600 miles west of Sumatra were a paradox. The group of 27 coral islets forming two atolls was home to a paltry array of flora and fauna. Yet the waters around them were teeming with species.

Why is nature so uncreative on the atoll yet so innovative in the sea immediately surrounding it, he wondered. Steven Johnson describes the event in the vivid present tense:

"Darwin is on the precipice, standing on an underwater peak ascending over an unfathomable sea. He is on the edge of an idea about the forces that built that peak, an idea that will prove to be the first great scientific insight of his career. And he has just begun exploring another hunch, still hazy and unformed, that will eventually lead to the intellectual summit of the nineteenth century."

This moment in Darwin's life is a brilliant choice for the opening of Johnson's new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. The book is a voyage of discovery through the history of human innovation, transporting readers from the Renaissance to the worldwide web and beyond. Especially enlightening is Johnson's frequent juxtaposition of natural and human creativity--biological and technological evolution.

This is a book that will stick with its readers. Just as data, samples, and notebooks from Darwin's stint as naturalist on the Beagle provided intellectual grist for many years after his return, this book's readers are likely to find its greatest value in discoveries that arise after months or years of applying Johnson's insights to their own experiences.

Innovation, he notes, arises from simple processes, beginning with exploration of "the adjacent possible." Neither species nor ideas develop from huge leaps. Rather, their evolution consists of exploring adjacent rooms in a mansion whose extent is unknown. Only after a sometimes aimless trip through several doors does life or technology produce an innovation.

The rise of a novel species or idea requires a conducive environment. In biology, that usually means a liquid to carry the molecules and structures of life from one place to another. The gaseous state is not dense enough for new combinations to form frequently, and too chaotic for them to last long enough when they do materialize. Solids are too rigid for the necessary rearrangements to occur in the first place. In the realm of ideas, that means a "liquid network" is ideal.

Other simple ingredients of discovery include slow hunches. They lead to innovation when they collide with other slow hunches or new data, often abetted by serendipity or error.

Another generator of new ideas and species is a process called "exaptation" (a linguistic and functional relative of adaptation) in which ideas or anatomical structures that developed for a particular use turn out to have other unanticipated capabilities. Johnson points out that the best ideas (and successful new species) frequently arise by exaptation of leftover parts of others.

Because these processes occur more frequently in dense environments, cities and platforms like the worldwide web lead not only to new ideas but also more rapid innovation and evolution.

The book culminates in Johnson's own analysis of innovation. Reviewers with a strong ideological bent (toward either left or right) are likely to take issue with his conclusions about the value of market-based economies, intellectual property restrictions vs. open-source technologies, and individual vs. collaborative models of innovation.

But few will dispute that the book is thought-provoking in the best possible way. Publishing it was surely a good idea that will lead to many more.

Physicist Fred Bortz's most recent book for young readers, Seven Wonders of Space Technology, is full of out-of-this-world ideas.