During my doctoral coursework, I learned from several truly outstanding (and world famous) professors: Sam Huntington (who would become my dissertation advisor), Seymour Martin Lipset, Louis Hartz, Harvey Mansfield, and Judith Sklar. However, the professor who made the most profound (long-term) impact on me was Daniel Bell. Not because he was a great lecturer (that was Hartz), nor an unusual “mensch” (that was Lipset). What made Bell stand apart was his unbelievable multi-disciplinarity – the man was a polymath.
We’ve all met people who know a lot about a lot. However, what turns such knowledge into something special are the connections made between seemingly non-related fields of endeavor, and the novel insights such associations can engender. Prof. Bell connected the humanities and physical science in ways that were truly thought-provoking – and wildly unexpected – and he was a social science scholar! The clearest example of this, his seminal book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), the first time anyone clearly analyzed (and foresaw) what eventually came to be called “The Information Age”. And then he followed that with his no-less-prescient The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976) – a perspicacious (non-Marxian) prediction of the inherent weaknesses within the capitalist value system, or if you will: the psychological underpinning of the 2008 Great Recession.
For the past several millenia, political philosophers, sociology scholars, psychology analysts, ethicists, theologians – just about anyone who deals with the study of humanity – have argued about the foundational question: are humans, at base, individualists or social animals? To put it another way, are we basically people who cherish freedom above all else but need and use social contact with others for self-interested, functional reasons – or, do we first look for psychological comfort in the presence of others and self-identify first and foremost through a group identity, occasionally withdrawing into ourselves for some privacy and freedom from constraints?
There are two general approaches to answering such a question. The first approach: there isn’t a definitive answer, but rather it’s a matter of degree depending on the culture and society in which one is educated and lives. Some societies prioritize the individual (America), others place greater value on the group (most Far Eastern nations). The second approach: human nature is the same everywhere, so that whereas every person has a bit of one or the other (individuality vs sociability), ultimately, we will scientifically discover which of the these two constitute the bedrock of humanity.
Growing up in the U.S. and notwithstanding my strongly Jewish education, I started out not only believing in the second approach but I was convinced that we already had the answer: the individual über alles. After all, hadn’t the individualist ethos turned the U.S. into the greatest power on earth – not only militarily but also culturally, intellectually, scientifically, etc?
But the more I studied and researched politics & society – especially other cultures, historical periods, and social-behavioral patterns – the more I moved into the first camp: human behavior and thought was contextual, situational, and relative to its time. Sure, America the Great was highly individualistic (as perhaps was Greece to a more limited extent) – but the Chinese and also the Mongol Empires were “Great” in their time as well, yet far more group-oriented than individualistic.
So I taught for a few decades (perhaps even pontificating at times). However, as I gradually moved in mid-career from researching politics to studying communications and especially new media – and from there broadening my horizons into technology and science writ large – I have changed my opinion once again. I am convinced that the second approach is correct – a core kernel to human psychology and behavior does exist – but this time it falls on the side of sociality. The reason? Connections. (I am happy that you stuck with me to this point, probably asking yourself: what does all this have to do with the chapter title?)
Let’s start with one of the keywords in the field of sociology as well as new media: networks. It is a banal truism to state that babies need parents and other caretakers to learn and grow up; it is less banal (although to me quite obvious) to state that throughout our entire life we continue to “grow”/change (not to mention survive) by developing and nurturing relationships with other people. Indeed, among other facts that science has uncovered are these two: babies who have little physical or social contact tend to get far sicker and have greater infant mortality than others who are properly nourished socially (even controlling for similar nutrition); the number one “killer” of older people (i.e. dying before their cohort’s life expectancy) is……LONELINESS!!
We are “social” animals by nature. However, society can involve competition or cooperation. Darwin believed that competition was the driving force behind evolution; we now know that cooperation was (and continues to be) at least as important. Indeed, that is what human speech is all about – enabling us to communicate and thus cooperate far more than any animal is capable of. You don’t need speech to kill; you do need it to help others.
It took hundreds of thousands of years for hominids (our ancient fore-species) to slowly evolve into homo sapiens (thinking Man), but once we developed speech about 100,000 years ago evolution started speeding up, increasingly so. In less than 50,000 years we had developed “culture” (burial sites, cave art), and within another 40,000 years we reached “civilization” – leaving the small, extended family as our main social unit, and developing the village, town, city, city-state, and finally empire – with all their attendant revolutionary inventions and ideas as a result of so many more people coming into contact one with the other.
This is the picture regarding intelligence and creativity, on both the macro level (human race) and meso (individuals). It explains why we have far more inventions in the contemporary age than in the past; indeed, also why almost all truly creative work (artistic, scientific, technological etc) occurs in cities and not in rural areas. The one-word answer: “connections”. Just as we moved millenia ago from extended family (50 people) to city (thousands), in the contemporary age there are far more people in the world (close to 8 billion) than in the past (in 1800 there were only one billion people on Earth). To this we also have to add that the means of communication between these social units are far greater and more efficient. The result: collective “social intelligence” has skyrocketed.
I mentioned above that “individuals” = “meso” (intermediate) level. What, then, is the “micro” plane? Our brain! Once again, we find here the same story. It isn’t the 100 billion neuron (brain cells) that render us intelligent, but rather the fact that each neuron is connected to thousands (!) of other neurons, i.e. we have trillions of connections in one brain!! (Neurobiology studies also show that people with a faster “connection time” between brain cells also happen to be more intelligent; the micro equivalent of the macro-world’s modern media and hyper-fast means of communication.)
That’s “intelligence”. What about “creativity”? (The two are not synonymous; above approximately 120 IQ, there is no correlation between the two. In short, you have to be mildly intelligent in order to be creative, but certainly do not have to be an intellectual genius.) Here too we find that one of the main bases of creativity is the ability to bring together very different types of ideas or concepts into creating a new whole – sort of 1 + 4 + 3 = 13. In other words, the act of creation is a function of making something from many prior somethings; only God can perform Creatio ex Nihilo: creation from nothing.
Which is why I laugh (to myself) and groan (out loud) when my students state: who needs to know all this stuff when we have Wikipedia or Google? My reply: “If you need to know some specific facts, then Wikipedia is great; but if you want to create something new, then those facts have to be already in your head and not simply out there for retrieval, because you won’t even realize that these specific facts constitute the building blocks of the new ideational house that you want to build.”
In most cases, such facts are not from the same field but rather quite distant from each other – it’s the very “incongruity” of these facts that makes their “miscegenation” so productive! One example: George Lucas (of Star Wars directorial fame) received the National Medal of Technology in 2004 and the National Medal of Arts in 2012. One would be hard put to come up with two disciplines – technology and arts – more distant from each other, at least on the face of it. But that’s precisely what made him so “creative”.
Indeed, this explains why most “Eureka” moments occur when we’re not trying to solve a problem / come up with a novel solution. At rest (napping, showering, daydreaming, etc) our brain is furiously making connections between all sorts of disparate “factoids” stored in our memory – the vast majority of such connections being useless and thus immediately discarded by our brain. But once in a while the brain manages to come up with a “worthwhile” connection between ideas, however “distant” from each other – and voila! we have the creative solution.
Interestingly, this does not happen with the same frequency when we are actively trying to solve the problem, because our conscious mind is not aware of the myriad “factoids” stored in our brain. As strange as it might sound, our brain does a better job of problem-solving (connections production) when we are not directing it – similar to a decentralized corporation whose workers come up with more and better solutions through unfettered, horizontal contact between themselves than if upper management directed them how to act and think about the issue. Corporate management would do well to take lessons from neurobiology.
The bottom line of all this is not that we are all ants in a gigantic colony (although they too are an excellent example of the connectivity phenomenon: each ant by himself is as dumb as they get; but put them together, connecting through chemical pheromones, and “miraculously” one gets a highly intelligent animal “society”). Humans are individuals and have specific – and occasionally idiosyncratic – wishes, thoughts and behavior patterns. But in some parts of the world we have taken this concept to its illogical extreme: the individual uber alles. Rather, it’s our connection to others that enables us to truly express our full humanity – and it’s our ability to connect seemingly unrelated ideas and concepts that is the fount of our intelligence and creativity.