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The role of error in innovation

The British economist William Stanley Jevons in 1874:

It would be an error to suppose that the great discoverer seizes at once upon the truth, or has any unerring method of divining it. In all probability the errors of the great mind exceed in number those of the less vigorous one. Fertility of imagination and abundance of guesses at truth are among the first requisites of discovery; but the erroneous guesses must be many times as numerous as those that prove well founded. The weakest analogies, the most whimsical notions, the most apparently absurd theories, may pass through the teeming brain, and no record remain of more than the hundredth part.

From Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation:

“The errors of the great mind exceed in number those of the less vigorous one.” This is not merely statistics. It is not that the pioneering thinkers are simply more productive than less “vigorous” ones, generating more ideas overall, both good and bad. Some historical studies of patent records have in fact shown that overall productivity correlates with radial breakthroughs in science and technology, that sheer quantity ultimately leads to quality. But Jevons is making a more subtle case for the role of error in innovation, because error is not simply a phrase you have to suffer through on the way to genius. Error often creates a path that leads you out of your comfortable assumptions.

Thomas Khun makes a similar argument for the role of error in Scientific advancement.

And, of course, without error evolution would stagnate. We’d be nothing more than a perfect copy, incapable of adaptation. Luckily, however, DNA—whether in the code itself or in copying mistakes—is susceptible to error so we are always testing new combinations out. “Most of the time,” Johnson writes, “these errors lead to disastrous outcomes, or have no effect whatsoever. But every now and then, a mutation opens up a new wing of the adjacent possible. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s not enough to say “to err is human.” Error is what made humans possible in the first place.”

Still curious? Susan Rosenbery found that “stress” dramatically increases the mutation rates of bacteria.