Cross-Pollinating Ideas via the Internet

I was just leaving a comment on Richard Nikoley’s latest blog post, Vitamin K1 vs. Vitamin K2 concerning Natto, a fermented soy food from Japan that contains a huge amount Vitamin K2. I was specifically pointing out that fish gonads, which are considered to have a high K2 concentration, something I had learned over at Stephan Guyenet’s Whole Health Source: Seafood and K2, are absolutely dwarfed by the K2 concentration in natto^. I had first learned about natto and the importance of fermented foods via Seth Roberts’ blog (See his Fermented Food Category). Put differently, my comment took data from three different sources and presented it in a coordinated, collaborative manner.

Though this might not be the best term for it, I call these occurrences examples of the “cross-pollination” of ideas. It’s a collaborative, unpredictable, uncoordinated, complex effort whereby ideas and information gleaned from disparate sources are examined in relation to one another. It is knowing the trees and seeing the forest. The goal is to create more useful ideas and better information, and then spread this new knowledge far and wide. And do it over and over again. If this reminds you at all of evolutionary processes, not only are you catching my drift, you’re cross-pollinating.

Idea cross-pollination is amplified by the Internet. Historically, a powerful idea or discovery could languish in obscurity, the pet project of an experimenter who works in the silo of his own research. This was the case with Isaac Newton who had discovered/created calculus decades before it was made public.

Compare how calculus languished to the ideas contained within Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories, a book written by a non-specialist (Taubes is a writer, not a scientist) that looks at an enormous amount of nutrition-related research, sees common threads across the data, and presents it all in once place, calling into question the mainstream nutrition mantra that low-fat is healthy, fat will kill you, and people are obese because they eat too much. GCBC was created by having the power to examine the research of a number of disparate specialists and see the big picture.

A book like GCBC is made possible by the Internet because it becomes much less likely that ideas remain within the dusty silos of specialists. The Internet takes curiosity, search, and a great deal of disparate computing power*, and uses them to spread ideas much, much faster. Non-specialists(like Taubes or me) then have the pleasure of making fortuitous discoveries of connections across specialties.

Of course, the means by which cross-pollination is accomplished are unpredictable: we can’t plan a course to find them. All we can do is cast a wide net, examine a lot of ideas, follow our curiosity, and let our organic pattern recognition software do it’s thing. This is very much a “learn by doing, then by thinking” concept. If we dabble in this gamble enough, every once in awhile, we will hit the idea jackpot.

Mind, the idea of idea cross-pollination isn’t really an external process across disparate people, at all. To the extent that we learn ideas, we store copies** of them in our brains, forever taking the ideas with us (A reason legal boundaries around mental concepts is fundamentally absurd). Indeed, it seems that the majority of my intellectual growth has been predicated on being able to cross-pollinate within these internalized knowledge stores. I am always trying to reconcile previously learned ideas with new ones. In this way my organic human network, a human brain, is mimicked by the inorganic mesh of networks we call the Internet.

In sum, cross-pollination of ideas has always been occurring — it is a human specialty, warts and all. Thanks to the Internet, it’s happening more, and we’re getting an explosion of ideas/concepts/knowledge as a result.

^ It seems that Natto is an obscure bastion of nutrition, which may be due to the fact that it (apparently) doesn’t taste the greatest. I’ve yet to get my hands on any as it is exceedingly hard to find. Rest assured, I will be eating some just as soon as I get a chance to check out the only Japanese grocery store in Atlanta.

* As in, human minds that work to understand and pull together the data they discover.

** Albeit imperfect, frequently mutated copies, but this, again, can make for fortuitous idea creation, and as far as I can tell, acts as a positive, dynamic force.

4 Responses to “Cross-Pollinating Ideas via the Internet”

  1. Jessica June 13, 2009 at 8:44 am #

    I’ve tried natto. It’s vile.

    Imagine rotten beans and snot, seasoned with spices and onions to “disguise” the taste. This is natto.

    I think I gained props from the chef who gave it to me, just for trying it, and he didn’t fault me for asking him to take it away, quickly. He even warned me.

    And the aftertaste doesn’t easily dissipate.

    *Shudder*

    Nice post, though. The internet and the human mind are truly marvels worth celebrating. In spite of natto. 😉

  2. Aaron Blaisdell June 25, 2009 at 4:17 pm #

    I like natto, but then I like blue cheese, too, with which it shares many characteristics. It took a lot longer, but I’ve also acquired a taste (though not really a fondness) for durien (the king of fruits, from southeast Asia).

    Great post! I agree that the internet, especially the proliferation of blogs and open-access science journals has vastly sped up the cross-pollination of ideas (a phrase I’ve been using for a few years now myself).

  3. Justin June 25, 2009 at 4:25 pm #

    @Aaron,

    Thanks for the props — “cross-pollination of ideas” just has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Even if in a nerdy sort of way!

    I’ve just gotten into blue cheese and I ate about six servings worth of natto (before running out), which was enough to overcome the aversion to the gluey-ness of the food. I ate it mostly plain, but I imagine it could be mixed with other foods for interesting combinations.

    Never heard of durien! Where might I find it? Whole Foods or a farmer’s market?

  4. Aaron Blaisdell June 25, 2009 at 7:58 pm #

    As with other Asian fermented tofus, natto is meant to be eaten as a condiment along with a regular meal. This is what we do regularly at home (with Chinese fermented tofu which is similar to natto).

    Durien is a fruit, and in Southern California it is sold at Chinese grocery stores, such as 99 Ranch. I’m not sure where (or if) you could get it in Georgia. Look up Durien in wikipedia and you’ll learn all about it. It is the stinkiest food I’ve ever smelled, let alone tried!

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