Are Good Ideas Invented or Discovered?

In my last year of law school, in the fall of 2007, I told my then-girlfriend (now wife) about an idea I had for a novel. The story would be set on an island in the Pacific. The people of this island believed theirs was the only land in a world of water, and so their leaders forbade them to sail any of their small fishing craft beyond the island’s reef.

The story would center around a boy and a girl. The boy was the son of his people’s chief. The girl was his friend, and just before her death she would reveal to him a long-held secret depicted in drawings on the walls of a cave: that there were many islands across the sea, and his own people had come from them generations ago.

When the girl died under mysterious circumstances, the boy would take a boat and attempt to find his own answers about the world, his people, and why they rejected the outside world in the first place. But on the first island, he finally managed to crash into, hungry and haggard, he would find no easy answers, only captivity at the hands of other people equally distrustful as his own.

That’s as far as I got before other things — a new job, marriage, kids, new friends, and new interests — induced me to put the novel on the shelf.

If you have kids, you might recognize elements of the story that was kicking around my head. Substitute a girl for the boy, the girl’s grandmother for the boy’s friend, and some magical creatures for the inhabitants of the other island, and you basically have the plot of Moana, a feature-length animated film by Disney that came out in 2016.

Around the time of Moana’s release, I was listening to NPR while driving home from the grocery store, and I heard an interview that stopped me in my tracks. An author was talking about her latest book, but at one point in the conversation, she mentioned how she had outlined another novel before abandoning it.

And even though she told no one about it, just a year or two later another author came out with a book that tracked her story idea almost perfectly. Speaking to the NPR interviewer, she wondered aloud how much our ideas really are our own, and not simply floating around in the collective unconscious, waiting to be found.

What are the odds?

Now, of course, the book that was published wasn’t one hundred percent the same story as the one envisioned by the novelist. Just like Moana wasn’t exactly the story I was trying to tell.

In the story as I had it mapped out in my mind, the boy would discover that the people of this new island were distantly related to his own. In fact there was a whole archipelago, of which his island was only the last to be settled by a people who had set out on their own journey of discovery long ago. The boy’s task would now be to return to his home island and remind his people of their heritage as explorers.

My story was about deconstructing and naturalizing our myths, tracing the genealogy of our ideas by tracing the genealogy of our ancestors. (Ultimately, I would complete this project in nonfiction form)

That’s why it never would have occurred to me to enlist supernatural characters like Maui, Te Fiti, the Kakamora, etc. As I explained in a previous article, it was my study of comparative mythology that ultimately led me to see the Bible as mere allegory, rather than history. I wanted to tell a story about that process of disenchantment, and singing demigods obviously would have defeated the purpose.

But still, the fact that Moana’s creators and I hit upon such similar vehicles to tell our stories does make you wonder: why that story, and why now?

Both are instances of what Joseph Campbell would call The Hero’s Journey, and what Christopher Booker calls The Quest. These are stories of self-discovery, memoirs told in allegorical form. Every generation will have such stories because every generation has to make sense of the world for itself.

Sometimes these stories are literal accounts, as in memoirs and autobiographies. But as I’ve argued before, analogy is the essence of creativity. By relating our own journeys of self-discovery to literal journeys, especially when these are structured along the lines of well-known myths and legends, we provide our audience with a cultural touchstone while also setting them up to be (hopefully) pleasantly surprised by our novel take on it.

One of Moana’s creators had been steeped in Polynesian mythology prior to pitching the idea for Moana in 2011. I had never studied those myths, but I had read deeply in Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology in middle school, and had even won an award for my score on the National Mythology Exam. While distinct traditions, every mythology shares certain commonalities.

Still, why did I settle on Polynesia as the setting for my story? Looking back on it, I think the choice of setting wasn’t as random, and therefore the similarity with Moana was not so coincidental, as it might seem at first glance.

I was trying to tell a story about how I had felt isolated as a teenager and young adult, questioning the religious beliefs of my family and my community. The island symbolizes that isolation. The ban on travel off the island symbolizes the enforcement of religious (and political) orthodoxy in the small community where I felt trapped.

But the existence of other ideas, seemingly distinct but part of a larger whole the history of which could be explained as a natural phenomenon, obviously suggested the idea of an archipelago. Where might I set a story if I needed a tropical island that was part of a larger chain, each large enough to support a decent-sized community but also remote enough not to have contact with the wider world?

Again, the hundreds of islands in Polynesia seemed an obvious choice.

When you think of it like that, the similarity between Moana and my story idea doesn’t seem so mystical after all. Like a gray elephant in Denmark, maybe my mind and the minds of Moana’s creators were both led to the same basic idea by a kind of statistical inevitability.

The ultimate chicken and egg problem

These thoughts lead me to other, more interesting ones.

In his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, philosopher Daniel Dennett asks us to imagine a future in which we can preserve ourselves cryogenically. To be sure that our bodies remain safe until the technology to thaw us out is developed, we need to make sure our cryogenic containers can withstand whatever future events might knock them offline.

We need to make sure they can avoid natural disasters, for example, and find new energy sources in case old ones run out. So we make them mobile. And we need to make sure they can successfully compete over those energy sources with other cryogenic containers, so we build into them certain features — physiological and psychological— designed to aid their survival.

Well, you can see where Dennett is going with this. Our bodies, our selves, are like those cryogenic containers, and their precious cargo is our genes.

But at the same time, we are much more than this. The biochemistry of our DNA represents one very concrete end of a spectrum. But on the other end is a very abstract realm of ideas. Our physical selves occupy a kind of nexus or node between them. Our genes need us to propagate, but so do our ideas. What if we have as little choice in being vessels for the latter as we do the former?

At the end of the day, we are made of matter, with a biological and cultural inheritance that is bound to frame how we understand the world and communicate that understanding to others. And our attempts at communication could only be successful by leveraging that shared inheritance in order to spread our ideas.

Or rather, our ideas can only spread by leveraging the biology and history of the creatures in whom they must travel. One such idea is The Quest or The Hero’s Journey, and there are only so many ways to embody it. In a world of eight billion people, I would be more surprised if someone hadn’t hit upon a story idea so similar to my own.

Still, that analysis may be too simplistic. Rather than seeing us as hapless ships buffeted by waves of genetics from below, and winds of ideas from above, I tend to think of us as occupying an important transitional space between different forms of emergent causality.

I agree with Terrence Deacon that “when new forms of dynamical organization show up in the world, there are new causal consequences.” As we progress from the concrete to the abstract, dynamic systems seem to afford more possibilities for creativity.

Therefore for me, the really interesting question isn’t whether we are the unwitting carriers of “mind viruses,” as some have styled them. No, the really interesting question is to what extent our evolution as a species is something that is not only pushed along by material necessity but also pulled along by the power of ideas.

Because if it is, then the extra play in the joints at the abstract end means that we can choose to unfurl our sails to catch different winds. Freedom of thought and speech, and the ability to turn the fruits of free debate into policy, is the only way we can overcome the inertia of the concrete forces impinging on us.

If, as I believe, good ideas aren’t just discovered, but re-discovered and re-purposed, and therefore re-invented in the process, then we must realize the only difference between us and animals blindly controlled by their genes, is the freedom to take part in that process.

Ironically enough, I think that was the moral of my own Quest story all along.

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