Monday, September 1, 2014


161. Play, invention and evolution

In a recent issue of the Dutch magazine ‘De Groene Amsterdammer’[1], the following question was raised. Play is observed universally among people and animals, especially when young. Evolutionary logic tells us that traits can have survived only if they were expedient to survival and reproduction. But play appears to be pointless, rollicking around. Much energy is spent on it, and how could that be afforded if it did not contribute to survival and/or reproduction? Apparently, counter to evolutionary logic, some things, such as play, can have value for themselves. 

Play as a value in itself reminds me of existentialist philosophers such as Nietzsche, with his Will to Power, or Heidegger, with his Being in the World. I my philosophical view I would associate play with the will to creation, which I consider to be a basic drive, as discussed earlier in this blog. Playing seems close to the experimentation that leads to creation.

But whatever intrinsic value play may have, value for itself, not as an instrument for survival, the question still remains how it could have survived in evolution.

One answer could be that play also has a socializing function, to find out what one can afford to do to other people, which helps survival.

Apart from that, here I propose that an inherent drive to play, as a joy for itself, can be conducive to survival.

In fact, that is what I have argued with my ‘theory of invention’, set out in a book in 2000[2], and in item 31 of this blog. There, I argue that invention arises from experimentation with existing competence (knowledge, skill) in novel contexts, which generates failure, a resulting incentive to adapt, as well as material and directions for experimental change, arising from the novel context.

Soon after I published the book I received a response from a psychologist (in New Zealand), saying that what I described is known a ‘principle of overconfidence’ that children display in play: disingenuous, fearless, sometimes reckless expansion into novel contexts of what they can do, think or say.

Entrepreneurs appear to have kept that instinct alive in spite of regimentation in education and employment. Perhaps that is why often entrepreneurs are dropouts, to escape from such regimentation. Innovation requires room and an impulse to play. One of the fundamental problems of much innovation policy is that it does not leave enough room for play.

So, my argument is that while apparently wasteful, an autonomous drive of playful experimentation is conducive to invention, has contributed to survival, and as a result has become embedded as an instinct in the genome.

Intrinsic joy of play and survival in evolution can go together, and perhaps must go together

[1] Of 7th august 2014.
[2] Bart Nooteboom, 2000, Learning and innovation in organizations and economies, Oxford University Press.