At a AAAS meeting back in the 70s, I remember hearing Stephen Jay Gould outline the then new theory of punctuated equilibrium. In addition to the long periods of statis in the evolution of a species, Gould also demonstrated his belief that evolution was like a many sided polygon wheel—it doesn’t roll forward smoothly but happens in discrete chunks.

This idea was very provocative to me, and I have never forgotten the image he drew on the wall. Movement and change have their own constraints. It was actually comforting at some level to think about progress happening like this, one face of the polygon at at time.

Steven Johnson, author of a number of books and most recently Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, has a similar view. “Adjacent possible” is a phrase first used by biologist Stuart Kauffman and makes the claim that only certain next steps are feasible at any given time be it science, technology culture or politics. “The history of cultural progress,” Johnson writes, “is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.”

Johnson’s approach offers another explanation for why discoveries often happen simultaneously, like sun spots being seen for the first time in 1611 by four different scientists in four different countries, or the identification of the DNA double helix. It isn’t just “zeitgeist” but the adjacent possible happening everywhere. Good ideas says Johnson are “are built out of a collection of existing parts.”

From a review in the Guardian by Oliver Burkeman:

What all this means, in practical terms, is that the best way to encourage (or to have) new ideas isn’t to fetishise the “spark of genius”, to retreat to a mountain cabin in order to “be creative”, or to blabber interminably about “blue-sky”, “out-of-the-box” thinking. Rather, it’s to expand the range of your possible next moves – the perimeter of your potential – by exposing yourself to as much serendipity, as much argument and conversation, as many rival and related ideas as possible; to borrow, to repurpose, to recombine. This is one way of explaining the creativity generated by cities, by Europe’s 17th-century coffee-houses, and by the internet. Good ideas happen in networks; in one rather brain-bending sense, you could even say that “good ideas are networks”. Or as Johnson also puts it: “Chance favours the connected mind.”