Some 100.000 to 30.000 years ago humans already dominated most of Europe and the Near East. These people gathered roots and fruits and excelled at hunting large animals.
The ruler of the realm was a cousin of ours: Homo Neanderthalensis. These other humans were very much like us. In many ways Neanderthal-man bested you and me; they had stronger muscles and bigger brains than we do. They were robustly built; a perfect fit for the harsh conditions of the northern hemisphere.
This side-branch of the human family tree successfully colonized and occupied territory roughly the size of the Roman empire – and held on to it for over 70.000 years. Yet, eventually Homo Neandethalensis would be completely wiped off the face of this planet.
We arrived. And what do humans do when we meet other humans? We either kill them or try to have sex with them. Genetic evidence seems to suggest that too little of the latter took place to influence our modern gene-pool. Within the span of only few short millennia the Neanderthals had been exterminated or pushed into ever shrinking pockets of refuge until not a single one of them survived.
What distinction between them and us let to their extinction and our ascend to supremacy? At face value this shouldn’t even have happened. The Neanderthal was stronger, sturdier and possibly even smarter than any invading Cro-Magnon. The tools and weapons they used were nearly identical.
Neanderthals had one big problem however; the were conservatives. They couldn’t or wouldn’t share new ideas.
We know this by looking at Neanderthal art. It’s there. But it’s few and far between; they are all one-offs. Modern humans on the other hand repeated the creation of sculptures, paintings and beads over and over again in a recognisable style. New ideas would spread from generation to generation, from tribe to tribe adding to the collective knowledge of modern Humans. Trade took these ideas all over the continent: hence we can see new ideas spread, evolve and improve.
When a Neanderthal Einstein or Edison died his ideas pretty much died with him.
When a cro-Magnon inventor died his ideas would live one for thousands of years.
The Neanderthal’s inability to share new ideas ultimately lead to his demise. I think it’s not much different with companies or countries. The lesson we can draw is a simple one.
Regimes and management teams who are unable or unwilling to trade ideas and knowledge freely will join the Neanderthal in extinction, no matter how smart or strong or well fit to their environment they think they are.
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Mark Pagel at TED on How Language Transformed Humanity