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An Artistic Design for Progress: Moving Forward with a Leap and a Tweak

Sep 07, 2021 05:00PM ● By DR. RANDALL NIEHOFF

Science and art share a common mandate—to find surprise in the ordinary by seeing it from an unexpected point of view. —Howard Bloom 

The truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is.  —Nadine Gordimer 


Difficult problems are a given in ordinary human life. Where do the extraordinarily good ideas for new solutions come from? Although scholars admit there is remarkably little data on this issue, biologists Elena Miu and Luke Rendell at the University of St. Andrews in the UK argue that “cultural evolution” is one of the answers. Human beings willing to search gradually accumulate the concepts and methods of resolving thorny issues by balancing innovation (thinking outside the box, or leaping) and imitation (adapting the workable ideas of our ancestors, or tweaking).   

In two studies of a vast computer coding competition (reported in the journals Nature Communications in 2018 and Science Advances in 2020), more than 45,000 entries offered ways to produce code that was simpler and more effective. The contestants fell into three groups: (1) mavericks, who like a lone genius tried something completely new (leapers); (2) copiers, who imitated successful solutions with small changes (tweakers); and (3) pragmatists, who deftly switched back and forth between imitating and innovating. Overall, leaps were much less likely to work than tweaks, but when they did they led to better solutions and whole new sets of ideas.  

What can these studies teach us about solving actual societal problems? That we need a combination of the occasional singular genius and the more plentiful steady, diligent tinkerers. Put metaphorically, we need both the daring leaps of the dancer/gymnast and the quiet, careful tweaks of the editor/mechanic.  

In the face of challenging troubles, too often we belittle the leaper’s appetite for truth—expressed in the derisive quip, “When one door closes and another opens, you are probably in prison.” Instead, we should affirm author Cynthia Ozick’s observation: “To imagine the unimaginable is the highest use of the imagination.” 

Confronted with the long, hard work of creating a strategy and tactics for positive change, the tweaker can be discouraged (witness the snide comment, “It’s the start of a brand new day and I’m off like a herd of turtles”). We ought to acknowledge the insight of filmmaker Federico Fellini: “The visionary is the only true realist.” 

Since summer 2020, those of us who live on Florida’s Gulf Coast have been made keenly aware of the “leap” of inspirational vision embedded in our country’s founding documents: The affirmation that all men [human beings] are created equal; the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that these rights do not come from government but that it is government’s job to protect and preserve them in order to form a more perfect union as time goes by.  

We have observed in other places some of the ugly demonstrations of rioting, looting and violence that have spun off of peaceful protests. The anger fueling such uncivilized behavior is evidence of blindness toward progress made thus far and impatience for a path of gradual improvement. Such revolutionary fervor is dangerous when adherence to a radical left or right ideology seems to promise a quick, sweeping solution.  

Fortunately, we have not experienced such petulant disruptions here but have encouraged, organized and shared in peaceful gatherings and many community meetings to plan ways to tweak the American visionary ideals.   

The black civil reformer W.E.B. Du Bois wisely advised: “If this unusual and dangerous development is to progress amid peace and order, mutual respect and growing intelligence, it will call for social surgery at once the delicatest and nicest in modern history.”  

Mark Twain, with artistic bluntness, summed it up:  “Progressive improvement beats delayed perfection.” 

Ran Niehoff has been inspired by tangible signs of hope living on the Gulf Coast since 1991.