Fostering inventiveness is critical for society

Human success depends on our ability to co-operate and organise while technology makes life easier

Innovation is clearly of critical importance for progress. It depends on invention, which in turn depends on ideas. Only a tiny minority of people produce ideas and follow through to inventions. How this minority is to be fostered and promoted is the subject of an interesting article by Marian Tupy in National Review, November 16th, 2020.

The importance of inventions is readily appreciated when one considers lists of the top 10 inventions since the Middle Ages. Daniel Stone, for example, proposed the following list in National Geographic (June 2017): printing press, light bulb, airplane, personal computer, vaccines, automobile, clock, telephone, refrigeration, camera. Just imagine what our world would look like today without these inventions.

Although human achievement is now measured largely in terms of technological advancement, Tupy points out that societal improvement over the ages depended on the evolution of social innovation, for example, the division of labour that enabled the fabrication and improvement of tools and the co-operation necessary to successfully hunt large animals.

Human success depends on our ability to co-operate and organise while technology, on the other hand, makes life easier.


Because natural selection has shaped us to co-operate with others, when we confront problems most of us tend to choose social solutions rather than technical solutions, for example, your car is off the road for repair so you ask your neighbour for a lift to work in his/her car rather than cycling 15km to the office.

On the other hand, you will opt to cycle if you have a personality trait that makes it particularly difficult for you to ask others for help. Interestingly, people who prefer to solve problems by themselves are more likely to invent things.

Impaired social interaction

Autism is a neural developmental disorder characterised by impaired social interaction and communication and by restricted and repetitive behaviours. Autism is one of several conditions classified as “autism spectrum disorders” (ASD), including Asperger Syndrome, a high-performance variety of autism.

Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues at Cambridge University presented evidence that socially-awkward individuals with an ASD tend to have unusually intense focus, gravitating toward interests governed by rules, for example, logic or mathematics.

They love taking things apart, studying the components and systematically putting them together in a new way and are drawn to fields like science, engineering or mathematics.

Engineers and physical scientists have higher levels of autistic traits than people in the humanities, and are much more likely to hold patents. Silicon Valley in California and Eindhoven in the Netherlands, foci of technical innovation, also have unusual concentrations of people on the autism spectrum.

Also, some think that famous scientists Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla and politician and mathematician Éamon de Valera had mild Asperger Syndrome.

In his latest book The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention (Allen Lane 2020), Simon Baron-Cohen argues cogently that autistic people, through their inventiveness, played a key role in human progress over the past 70,000 years. He also points out that these abilities exact a great cost on autistic people in terms of social and often medical challenges.

Technologically stagnant

It follows therefore that, if societies are not to become technologically stagnant, autistic people must be valued, supported and cherished. Tupy points out that free societies have been good at this but are now becoming less tolerant, for example, insisting on rigid politically-correct codes of speech and behaviour.

Tupy quotes Matt Ridley from his 2020 book How Innovation Works: "Innovation is not usually choreographed, planned or managed. It cannot easily be predicted . . . It runs mostly on trial and error . . . and it usually stumbles on great breakthroughs when looking for something else. It is heavily serendipitous."

It is therefore very difficult for governments to design programmes to stimulate innovation. However, we can be reasonably sure that the greater the population numbers the more likely that innovators/inventors will arise.

One disadvantage of declining population in the West is declining numbers of inventors. Governments could help here by incentivising moderately increased birth-rates in addition to encouraging the talents of our less socially adept people.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC