We're Smart Because We're Social

"No man is an island," said the great poet John Donne. What he didn't say, however, is that if any man were an island, that would be one dull, dumb place. New research indicates that human culture and innovation depend on social networks, something that explains a lot about human history, as well as today's workplace.

A paper published in Science proposes a new model for why people took tens of thousands of years to develop real culture - meaning everything from the Shakespearean language to emoticons, from Mozart to American Idol - long after they had the genetic and mental capacity to do so. In a nutshell, the idea is that there needs to be a critical mass of people before human beings become very interesting.

"The researchers ran computer simulations of different population densities, grouping humans into subpopulations that migrated," reports LiveScience. "The model revealed that at a certain subpopulation density there was an accumulation of ideas and skills. To figure out whether this phenomenon of skill-sharing was real, the team used genetic data to estimate population sizes in different regions at different times. Sure enough, when the critical population density was reached or there was a certain degree of migration between subgroups there was also archaeological evidence of modern human behavior."

This just sounds right, and it solves the longstanding mystery of why the human race didn't accomplish much (by modern standards) for much of its existence. People need to bounce ideas off one another to create new things, and they need to work together to build interesting stuff. What's more, they need to share ideas among different groups, cross-fertilizing memes so new ideas can arise and existing ideas don't die out with their originators.

So, where does that leave us today? Same place, of course, but with new social networking technologies to make the process even more efficient. We don't have to travel long distances to share new ideas. We don't even have to leave our homes (or our offices) to bounce new ideas around.

This is, in essence, an argument for professional networks. It also makes me feel better about my own firm, a place that prides itself on being "the world's largest vendor-free network" of corporations focused on improving workforce performance and productivity. After all, networking is how we learn to be better. It is, in many ways, what transformed us from Homo sapiens into human beings.