debbie millman

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Great Leap Forward

At the end of last year, Steve Jones, head of the department of genetics and evolution at London’s University College announced that the forces driving evolution—including natural selection and genetic mutation—no longer play an important role in our lives. He further stated that should man survive a million years from now, they would resemble us: modern-day humans. "We now know so much about the process of evolution that we can make some predictions about what might happen in the future," Jones said in his lecture, and explained how “Evolution is driven by natural selection and mutation. Genetic mutations create traits which, if helpful, give individuals a competitive edge over rivals.”

Jones' contends, “that in our modern world of central heating and plenty of food, mutations are far less likely to give children any advantage. A baby born today can expect to live a long and healthy life, which in turn works against the evolutionary tool of natural selection.” Mutations occur when cells divide. But every time a cell divides, there is actually a chance of an error—a mutation. Ironically, it is those errors—or mutation mistakes—that are the foundation of all of evolution.

Mutations appear to be spontaneous in most instances. Sometimes they are beneficial, like inheriting an ability to run or fly faster, and many times they are harmful, like the pre-disposition for hemophilia or some types of cancer. But everything around us is impacted by this strange and persistent transformative power.

Including behavior. There are two popular theories about the evolution of behavior; one is rather logical, and is favored by continuity theorists. The theory suggests that the behavior of modern man is simply the result of the aggregation of knowledge, skills and culture over hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution. The other, far more mysterious theory contends that the seeds of our modern behavior occurred as a single, sudden event some 50,000 years ago and came about as a result of a major genetic mutation or as a result of a biological reorganization of the brain. Some scientists refer to this phenomenon as “the big brain bang” but the more politically correct term is also far more magical: it is considered the Great Leap Forward.

This Great Leap Forward is responsible for most of our modern abilities: language, art, music, cooking, self-decoration, and even telling jokes. This era also ushered in religious practices, honoring and burying the dead, and playing games. They are fundamentally considered cultural universals.

Given the state of our society today, I find it unthinkable to conceive of mankind permanently stuck in this groove of ghastly behavior filled with violence and cruelty, torture and evil. Whenever I have fantasized about the faraway future, I always assumed that we would become a smarter species, less petty and narrow-minded. We would attain greater spiritual awareness and a much higher consciousness.

So I am hopeful that the third ingredient important to evolution will intervene. This third factor is randomness. Chance, in the form of mutations, provides genetic variation. So there is always the chance that despite central heating and plenty of food, a random variation will insure that one million years from now we are, if nothing more, a kinder and more considerate species.

When thinking about evolution and behavioral modernity and all of their inherent implications, I can’t help but wonder how these scientific theories relate to art and design. Sure, it is easy to view both as narratives of random possibilities, with each new innovation a search for new standards. But how do advances in art and design occur? Is each era in art and design, or music and literature, built on top of one another? Is it a matter of linear influence? I can logically see the links from Impressionism to Expressionism and Fauvism to Cubism and Dadaism to Pop. But is it necessary to be aware of these styles in order to discover another? Malcolm Gladwell, in his provocative new book, Outliers, suggests that the innovation uncovered by artists like the Beatles or innovators like Bill Gates also came about through hours and hours of practice and often 10 years of hard work. But luck, or being at the right place at the right time, were factors as well. But if natural selection and progress are based on random mutations, then is it possible that massive breakthroughs in the way we think and perceive and create are also accidental? Are they merely evidence of another Great Leap Forward?

Whether great art of any kind is built on the shoulders of those who came before by influence or evolution is unclear to me. Somehow it feels more sacred and magical. And yet, when in the presence of greatness, there almost seems to be inevitability or a sense of destiny about it. I recently heard had a discussion with a childhood friend about a mutual acquaintance who became particularly successful. We realized that we always expected that level of success from our old friend; that somehow, she always seemed destined for greatness.

Where does great innovation come from? Could the answer be as simple as a random act of intellectual mutation? Is it from a deep knowledge of what has come before with the acumen to see exactly what should come next? Or is it something innate that is destined to happen? Maybe it is a combination of all three. In some ways, I hope so. I have found that my destiny is usually found on the road I take to avoid it. Perhaps next time I travel there, I will be lucky enough to stumble upon something I have never seen before.


Blogger Mary Campbell said...

Innovation starts with knowledge of self and an unbending focus on living a life that is authentic to that self. That is where courage to take risks, to fail, to pursue crazy dreams, to follow a dangerous path comes from. Truly innovative people are never following someone else, they are leading and it seems that they are rarely using a map.

1/20/2009 08:53:00 PM  

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Location: new york city, United States

Debbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for nearly 15 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of global brands for Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Colgate, Nestle and Hasbro. Prior to Sterling, she was a Senior Vice President at Interbrand and a Marketing Director at Frankfurt Balkind. Debbie is President of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at and Brand New and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and it is now featured on In addition to “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design,” (HOW Books, 2009, she is the author of "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, 2007) and “The Essential Principles of Graphic Design” (Rotovision, 2008).

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