Oct 25, 2023

Airplanes, Shipping Containers & the Collective Brain - In the Field with Michael Muthukrishna (video)

Learn what the transformative impact of the shipping container and the Wright Brothers' invention can tell us about innovation.

By Templeton Staff

"What will humanity achieve in the 21st century and beyond? That depends on what we do and what we choose today," says author, multidisciplinary researcher, and Associate Professor of Economic Psychology, Dr. Michael Muthukrishna.

Michael Muthukrishna's book A Theory of Everyone: The New Science of Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going, draws on research from across the sciences, humanities, and the emerging field of cultural evolution. In tandem with the book, a supplemental video series titled "In the field with Michael Muthukrishna," was produced. Made possible with funding from Templeton World Charity Foundation and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), the series features clips of the author discussing book-related topics at various global locations. This post highlights the first installments. Follow the series here.

Shipping Containers and Human Flourishing

In the book, Muthukrishna puts forth the idea that energy, the innovations that lead to more efficient use of energy, humankind's capacity to cooperate for mutual benefit in the quest for greater energy, and the forces of evolution that shape all three are what drives progress. In the above video, shot in Vancouver, BC, Canada, he highlights the transformative impact of the shipping container as a prime example of innovation. Before this innovation, pioneered by Malcom McLean, an American truck driver turned entrepreneur, shipping was slow, inefficient, and expensive, with goods often sitting on docks for weeks. McLean's idea of loading just the trailers onto ships, making them more movable with cranes, and standardizing the shipping container revolutionized global trade and transportation. This led to a significant boost in global manufacturing, lower prices for consumers worldwide, and the economic growth of countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, and later, China and others. Watch the video and read the book to learn more about how this innovation followed the same pattern as of collective brain thinking as many other significant human advances.

The Wright Brothers and Human Flourishing

In 1903, two bicycle mechanics in North Carolina, Wilbur and Orville Wright, achieved the first flight with their invention, the Wright Flyer. The Wright Brothers' accomplishment symbolizes the incredible progress made since the Industrial Revolution with innovations in wealth, energy, population, human rights, and social development, far surpassing earlier historical events. The Wright Brothers were not working in isolation — they drew upon a collective knowledge base comprising other people's designs, discoveries, and insights. Their background as bicycle mechanics shaped their unconventional approach to aviation, and they believed that the key to flight lay in balance, much like the principle of riding a bike. Their serendipitous discovery came when experimenting with an inner bicycle tube, leading to the creation of a flexible wing resembling a bird's wing, embodying the "seven secrets of innovation" Muthukrishna details in the book.

Watch more installments from the video series

Introduction:  A Theory of Everyone

Episodes 1 & 2: Airplanes, Shipping Containers & the Collective Brain

Episode 3: Estonia & Rethinking Education for a Smarter Future

Episode 4: Contrasting Cultural Strategies for Success

Episode 5: Perspectives Beyond WEIRD & the Origins of Behavioral Economics

Michael Muthukrishna is Associate Professor of Economic Psychology in the Department of Psychological and Behavioral Science and Affiliate in Developmental Economics and Data Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).