"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Human beings are curious.  While some will stop at investigating the noise in the alley, many more will wonder where words come from, why we age, and why is the sky blue. In an interesting article today in BBC News http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20120618-why-are-we-so-curious, the author talks about the evolutionary roots of curiosity, and why it is one of our most characteristic and valuable traits:

We humans have a deeply curious nature, and more often than not it is about the minor tittle-tattle in our lives. Our curiosity has us doing utterly unproductive things like reading news about people we will never meet, learning topics we will never have use for, or exploring places we will never come back to. We just love to know the answers to things, even if there's no obvious benefit.

“I wonder what would happen if…..” has lead to many scientific discoveries, new approaches to art and literature.  Curiosity leads to innovation, and new ideas are always born from people who say “I wonder…”; and yet so much curiosity is idle, and far from any notion of survival-seeking behavior:

From the perspective of evolution this appears to be something of a mystery. We associate evolution with ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ traits that support the essentials of day-to-day survival and reproduction. So why did we evolve to waste so much time? Shouldn't evolution have selected for a species which was – you know – a bit more focussed?

Drawing from recent scientific research, the author concludes that curiosity is a genetic human trait:

The roots of our peculiar curiosity can be linked to a trait of the human species call neoteny. This is a term from evolutionary theory that means the "retention of juvenile characteristics". It means that as a species we are more child-like than other mammals. Being relatively hairless is one physical example. A large brain relative to body size is another. Our lifelong curiosity and playfulness is a behavioral characteristic of neoteny.

Neoteny is a short-cut taken by evolution – a route that brings about a whole bundle of changes in one go, rather than selecting for them one by one. Evolution, by making us a more juvenile species, has made us weaker than our primate cousins, but it has also given us our child's curiosity, our capacity to learn and our deep sense of attachment to each other.

This is a fascinating finding on many levels.  First, the idea that there are such things as short-cuts in evolution; that the process has bundled traits, some useful, others not, but all which characterize us a human.  Second, the idea that the bundle can be characterized as ‘juvenile’ – we as adults have retained the very traits which describe infants and children; and third, that curiosity, perhaps the one trait which most enables us to progress as a race and to develop all the potential that has evolved over 10,000 years, evolved not separately, but together with other similar juvenile traits.  

The fact that we have evolved with an advanced intelligence (separate from the juvenile bundle); that human childhood lasts so long (our juvenile period represents a greater proportion of our lives than any animal); and that we have been programmed with an inborn trait of curiosity makes us ultimately successful survivors, builders, and innovators.  This juvenile bundle, when combined with other individual human traits, produces the perfect evolutionary storm.

And of course the lifelong capacity to learn is the reason why neoteny has worked so well for our species. Our extended childhood means we can absorb so much more from our environment, including our shared culture. Even in adulthood we can pick up new ways of doing things and new ways of thinking, allowing us to adapt to new circumstances.

The implication for the evolution of our own brain is clear. Curiosity is nature's built-in exploration bonus. We're evolved to leave the beaten track, to try things out, to get distracted and generally look like we're wasting time. Maybe we are wasting time today, but the learning algorithms in our brain know that something we learnt by chance today will come in useful tomorrow.

While most of us are content to be curious about what knocked over the trash cans in the alley, few of us really ‘leave the beaten track’.  Although we are genetically equipped to explore broadly and deeply, we do not.  Only a few of us are curious enough to explore remote origins or words, behavior, and social patterns – and thus better understand history; and fewer still act on the ‘I wonder what would happen if….” next step which leads to innovation and significant change.  It is at this point that our conservative, self-preserving traits come into conflict with our outward-looking, curious ones.  If a man is poor, working to make ends meet, tired after a long day at the mill, hectored by his wife and pestered by his children, he has no time for and no interest in exploring anything beyond restoring order, peace and quiet.

As importantly we create bulwarks against the intrusion of a modern society which we4 perceive as complex, hard to understand, threatening, and hard to negotiate.  We take refuge in those institutions which offer simple solutions, paint life in gentle and comforting watercolors, and above all never, ever, require us to ask questions.  Our curiosity is put on hold in religious and secular fundamentalism.  The Bible has all the answers, say the preachers.  Illegal immigration, government-assisted health care, social welfare programs are a priori wrong, say politicians no less evangelical, simplistic, and directive than their religious brothers. 

For the time being, then, productive curiosity is for the well-off and very intelligent who have the ability, the time, and the resources to ask relevant and irrelevant questions.  The ‘leisure class’ can afford to ‘learn by chance today what will come in useful tomorrow’.

This is not enough in a society which values individual enterprise, innovation, and creativity.  While economic well-being is the key to most secondary human enterprise (like innovation and creativity), and will ultimately be the way to unlocking curiosity and many other aspects of our vast human potential, there are other ways to short-cut the process.  Like many other inborn traits, curiosity needs to be nurtured.  Children need to be rewarded for thinking outside-the-box, risk-taking and adventurous thinking need to become societal values even before economic growth has touched all. 

In the world of artificial intelligence, computer scientists have explored how behavior evolves when guided by different learning algorithms. An important result is that even the best learning algorithms fall down if they are not encouraged to explore a little. Without a little something to distract them from what they should be doing, these algorithms get stuck in a rut, relying on the same responses time and time again.

Computer scientists have learnt to adjust how these algorithms rate different possible actions with an 'exploration bonus' – that is, a reward just for trying something new. Weighted like this, the algorithms then occasionally leave the beaten track to explore. These exploratory actions cost them some opportunities, but leave them better off in the long run because they've gain knowledge about what they might do, even if it didn't benefit them immediately.

Funny that we humans should have to learn lessons from artificial intelligence, but that is the loop of today.  Let us develop a new learning algorithm which will free curiosity from its conservative masters.  In other words, let’s redress the imbalance between nature and nurture.

Evolution made us the ultimate learning machines, and the ultimate learning machines need a healthy dash of curiosity to help us take full advantage of this learning capacity.

Or, as Kurt Vonnegut said, "We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you any different."

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