Why are we curious?

Another great ramble from the always-fascinating Venkatesh Rao entitled "The Dead-Curious Cat and the Joyless Immortal," considers several explanations for our species' curiosity, and asks whether our weird, ubiquitous artificial life-forms (corporations) share this trait, and why:

Alone among the curious animals (though this seems like a conceit that more research might invalidate), we seem to be curious about clearly useless things. Or at least, things that have no obvious and immediate use. Humans seem to frequently poke at things that yield returns, if at all, only generations later. And often in ways unsuspected by those who do the poking.

We stare at the stars, we peer through microscopes, we climb mountains and we dive to the ocean floor.

This behavior, so natural to humans, is incomprehensible to human organizations. So things like space programs or other pure curiosity driven efforts have to be justified by politicians on the basis of “will improve life here on earth through the discovery of new materials and advances in medicine.” This is probably the mother of all idiotic fictions. Fortunately, we don’t seem to require our institutional fictions to be credible. Merely sufficient to stop conversations we don’t want to have.

There is an interesting symmetry here. Organizations naturally try to avoid pain — the pain of business model obsolescence or national decline for instance – through institutionalized “curiosity.” They find joy-seeking unnatural and in need of justification (hence the paradoxical notions of “efficient” innovation with high “yield” or “impact” and the relentless war on waste).

This has even been turned into a depressingly banal formula for innovation: what pain are you seeking to relieve?

For humans the reverse is true. Curiosity driven by pain-aversion is unnatural, but curiosity driven by joy-seeking is natural and requires no further explanation. Efficiency is the last thing on our minds when we are being curious. The concept does not even apply: efficiency pre-supposes a goal. Waste is pain in the efficient pursuit of goals.

The Dead-Curious Cat and the Joyless Immortal



  1. I just hate when the whole post depends from a premise that I don’t accept. I wonder why that is?

  2. There’s a theory espoused by one of the characters in Larry Niven’s “Ringworld” universe that relates curiosity to the sort of creature you’ve evolved from.  The carnivores go exploring for more things to eat and the herbivores investigate their surroundings to look out for carnivores and other bad things.  Both very goal oriented in the way that organisational behaviour is described above.  However the weirdo omnivore humans just randomly poke at things for fun.

  3. If we take evo-psych at face value and assume DNA acts with the unfeeling calculus of a virus, and exists only for its own replication, then what would ever make its vectors think twice about eating/sleeping/fucking, not necessarily in that order?

    Here’s a fun little screwball answer I like: masturbation vis-a-vis opposable thumbs.  

    If, at the end of the day, I’m only on this earth as a wingman for my genes, I contain some serious design flaws. Sure, sex is unspeakably, primally pleasurable, probably so that I’ll take a hint. But if there’s any overlap whatsoever between sexual maturity and sexual (and possibly holistic) self-actualization (masturbation) – that is, if sex isn’t the meaning of life (even if it is) – then who could blame us for looking elsewhere for answers?

    A horse can’t express its glans very effectively without a second horse. Hominids – and some apes – placed out of that life pursuit. It’s a correspondence course. Online study. I’m not trying to be ribald for its own sake. Riddle me masturbation.  

    1. Now that is a riddle I already have a theory about. It deals mainly with how evolution favours those species who reproduce, but don’t drive themselves crazy trying to mate all the time when the urge to mate isn’t good for sustaining the species. It results in a series of hacks.

      Hack #1: species have mating schedules. It works well for fish like trout, birds and others. They are programmed to mate when the time and place are right, but it requires hardwiring parts of the nervous system, and that means code has to be in the eggs.

      Hack #2: species have an “in heat” mode. This grants more flexibility, as the species can mate when the conditions permit. Males are now keyed to be sexually active when the female is available. The downside is that the male now only cares about females when he can fuck. The rest of the time he’s off doing his own thing.

      Hack#3: species has no “in heat” mode any more, so that the male hangs around in the hopes of getting a chance to fuck. This hack keeps him close enough to help with raising the offspring. The downside now is that the guy won’t stop bugging her about getting a chance to fuck.

      Hack #4: masturbation! A pressure valve release for the guys when there is no chance to fuck. Not as good but better than nothing. Species can better control its population, at least in theory.

  4. So people explore because we are curious…alright.
    Businesses aren’t curious because, well perhaps because it usually isn’t in the best interest of the company for making a profit?  Sure if your company is dealing with deep see diving or mountain climbing then you are going to be exploring those areas, but +95% of people don’t work for companies like that.

    Now a case can certainly be made about society not placing more emphasis on exploration/curiosity for the sake of enriching everyone’s lives, but I wouldn’t exactly expect a business to take on that responsibility (not unless there was a profit to be made).

    1. Well, true enough as long as we define “profit” as “extremely short-term, very narrowly defined gain with no clues as to even our medium term chances of survival”.  This is why almost all businesses vanish without a trace eventually.

      If you don’t have some sort of pure research or other “look up from the grindstone” department then you’re not here for a long time; just a good time.  The archetypal example is IBM, which has huge pure research facilities and requires staff to spend about 1/4 of their time in classes.  These are not luxuries that IBM can afford because they are big; they are why IBM is big and is pretty much the oldest computer company around.

      Or consider the difference between the film companies Kodak and Fujitsu.  The latter was curious about computers and other things digital: hence realising that they spelt the doom of the chemical camera.  So they branched out into other high-tech films that mess with light, cosmetics, and still make buckets of money.  Kodak, on the other hand, was not so curious and is therefore bankrupt.

      You don’t have to be high-tech for this to be true.  It applies equally to fruit and vegetable stands and long-haul trucking.

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