Evolution and Innovation


Apparently I published this before I meant too. Anyway, today in Techdirt, they published a discussion on copying, innovation and evolution. Basically, a biologist argued that we are evolutionarily predisposed to copy and use group learning to develop new tools. What this means is that instead of going out and developing something out of the blue we first have to see what someone else has done and then we copy whatever they did, then in a parasitic way, make marginal improvements on the original. We’re nothing but freeloading copiers that make things a little better.

Techdirt completely disagreed with this point of view. They argued that simply copying something or a part of something doesn’t mean you’re freeloading. You can add a great deal to something to the point that whatever you copied simply becomes a part of a larger whole.

Anyone should know from my writing that I support Techdirt’s perspective. This comes from several several different arguments. The first is from the evolution of technology. If you ignore some of the human motivation behind the changing technology itself and focus on the selection process, you can see that technology changes through incremental adjustments. These changes are selected by the market or in primitive societies by the end result of an improvement. Spears that last longer, less energy expended on making new spears, spears that can be thrown farther, less danger from the animal being killed, or sharper shovels, less energy spent gathering food – more food. This selection process is a very natural process. Additionally, there would be some specialization of skills even at this point in our history. Some people would have been better at making spears and in a collaborative environment, because there were no patents and sharing was for the best of everyone, many people could experiment with new spear designs. This innovation while based on copying is a very real form of innovation that likely lead to gradual improvement over a great deal of time.

The second argument that supports innovation after copying is the argument of Cesar Hidalgo, which argues that looking at what countries are currently producing you can see a relationship with their innovative ability. By looking to see what technologies they import and export you’re able to see how well they have developed scientifically and in the manufacturing world. For example you can expect to see more advanced products come out of a country if they got into producing fertilizer very early in modern times. This typically leads to a general chemical industry which can lead to pharmaceuticals and semiconductors. Why? Well developing a strong base in chemistry with fertilizers can be expanded into drugs and as a base for semiconductors.

How do new countries move into these fields? Essentially, they have a knowledge transfer from a country that is already doing it. This can be done in two ways, one is the easy way: have a multinational company set up a manufacturing then R&D facility in your country. This allows a direct flow of knowledge on how to manufacture the material, which increases the rate of copying. Would allow the country to be a fast follower but will still require significant time for them to eventually innovate on that technology. Having an R&D facility would increase this rate, because local scientists would have already been trained on how to innovate in that field. They would have already been doing research in that industry and would more easily be able to innovate if a spin-off was created (or if the state nationalized that part of the multinational). The second manner is much slower: repatriating of knowledge workers. This is essentially what has happened in Taiwan and India. Educated Indians or Taiwanese returned from the US and created spin-offs and became professors at the local universities. This isn’t always successful.

Saudi Arabia is trying to develop a third way, which is having some success. They are recruiting experts from around the world to develop their own universities and companies. This is having mixed results and education and industry needs to pay attention to these attempts to see how well it plays out in the long run.


Copying is extremely important in education and is required to develop new industries in a country. Technology evolves through copying previous technology, recombining with new learning from other fields and from experimentation within the current field. Without copying there cannot be innovation. The more people participating in an economy where innovation through copying is rewarded, the greater our culture and the greater or technological evolution will be. Biology needs to take a lesson from Evolutionary economics.

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