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Brian D. Cohen

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The Creative Value of Stupidity

Posted: 02/ 6/2012 4:47 pm

The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits. - Albert Einstein

If there's an original thought out there, I sure could use it now... - Bob Dylan

Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel concluded that we humans just might be infinitely stupid. That might explain what's special, even most hopeful about us.

According to theory, a driving force behind evolutionary change is genetic mutation, random changes in genetic codes that alter biological structures and processes, some, but very few, to the selective benefit of the species. Most genetic aberrations are dead-ends, killing their host, but wait long enough and sometimes one will pay off in a big way.

Evolutionary processes take place very slowly; culture evolves much more rapidly. Culture --innovative ideas that are adopted and stick around -- plays something of the same role played by evolutionary biology; creating defenses, contrivances, and systems to keep traditional threats (saber-toothed tigers, etc.) at bay and passing on these mechanisms for survival.

But according to Dr. Pagel, we've reached the point where culture selects for less innovation. It's more efficient to borrow someone else's thinking, and near impossible to think of great things on your own. Thinking is hard work, and not many of us are good at it.

Where can the ordinary unoriginal person find the creative capacity to bring new ideas to our culture? Stupidity. It's our version of mutation, in our denatured, devolved state; generating and sifting among alternative bad options and landing on one that just might work out. Mutation is to Biology as stupidity is to culture. Random and inefficient, generally unintentional, sometimes fatal, but something might come of it, if only because it's not the same old same old.

Stupidity is infinite. There are limitless possibilities for getting something wrong, and very few for getting it right. From the sheer multiplicity of mistakes, bad ideas and wrong turns, something of unexpected value might result, something heretofore unknown and unthought of. Stupidity is extraordinarily inefficient and wasteful, but it isn't about getting things done. It's about exploring the unknown, plumbing a limitless array of possibilities, diving in the pool of untested opportunity. Stupidity belongs to something much larger than itself.

Culture is predominantly and of necessity imitative and repetitive. Look at the cut and paste mashup borrowing, sampling, replicating, recycling, and reoffering of much contemporary art -- no real risk, despite appearances. It's there for the taking and rehashing. True stupidity is something original, something special. Something you haven't seen before. Something that can't be taught or learned. Something truly new; we know it when we see it.

"The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it immensely. All art is useless," Oscar Wilde reminds us. Art is useless, and practically minded people claim that expending great resources and effort in the service of something useless is stupidity. Take the Eiffel Tower. The great arbiters of French Culture of the time called for protesting "with all our might, with all our outrage, in the name of slighted French taste, in the name of threatened French art and history, against the erection, in the heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower."

What folly this thing is, they must have thought. This ridiculous, sublime achievement, this jewel in Paris' crown.

Pure genius.