“No one is smart enough to figure out anything worthwhile from scratch,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker argues in the book that one reason why humans in Western European Nations became less violent during the Enlightenment was because humans started writing, sharing information at greater speeds, and recombining important and interesting ideas in new ways. A greater sharing and combination of ideas spread anti-torture and anti-violence messages. The human ability to take existing ideas and build on them is what fueled this process, and it is interesting to think about on its own.
Pinker writes, “the human mind is adept at packaging a complicated idea into a chunk, combining it with other ideas into a more complex assembly, packaging that assembly into a still bigger contrivance, combining it with still other ideas, and so on.” This process occurred in Western European Nations with great thinkers sharing ideas, writing about the ideas of others, and taking one idea from one context and applying it within another context in a new permutation. Through this process people became more democratic, reconsidered the role of the state, and reduced the role of violence in organized society.
We see these same processes take place all the time. We may be worried about being original today, but the truth is that almost all of our ideas and thoughts come from another context. What is original is how we take the various ideas and thoughts that we interact with and repackage them. I can think about Pinker’s thoughts of idea sharing and combine them with ideas of marriage and family policies from Joseph Henrich to reconsider the ways that changing marriage and family policies expanded social circles and fueled the sharing of ideas in the Enlightenment. None of these pieces may be new and original on their own, but I can take them in chunks and plug pieces of ideas into different situations and settings. This idea plugging creates novelty and new thoughts and ideas. We don’t figure it all out from scratch, we take existing building blocks and pieces and work them together in new ways.