Freedom to innovate as a human right: The Lost First Page - Science as Social Enterprise

Freedom to innovate as a human right: The Lost First Page

It seems there has been a great, but hitherto unmentioned bureaucratic stuff up. The first page of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was lost at some point by a harried office worker, perhaps stuck in a printer, and so neglected; or missed in a mass photocopying and stapling exercise. But never included in the versions we see. So our Declarations of Human Rights and their pursuant discussions now seem to start breathlessly with the second page – hastily renumbered of course – but still talking about what we ought to do. Perhaps there was a cover-up, perhaps not

I sensed that there was something fundamental missing. What is it about ‘human rights’ that is uniquely ‘human’, which would constitute such a critical feature of being ‘human’ that it should be articulated as a right, and which informs and grounds all discourse?

Of course it must be right there on the Lost First Page.

Jane Goodall drew my attention to it, as did Charles Darwin, perhaps without meaning to, and posthumously of course.

When in October of 1960, Jane Goodall made the shattering observation in the dry streambeds of Gombe that David Greybeard had been seen tearing leaves off of a tree branch, and using the trimmed stick to fish out and eat termites, it neatly framed the core issue of human existence. Her keen eyes and iconic method created a furor precisely because her description of David – a chimpanzee – designing, making and using tools to solve his problem – was precisely the capability that had been jealously but inchoately guarded as that one, uniquely human characteristic.

And indeed if exceptions can prove a rule, it still is that most telling capacity. Homo sapiens is blithely and banally called ‘the tool user’ in so many text books that we have forgotten how critically important this is. Not to be a tool user only, but to be a designer, builder and user of tools.  Recent DNA evidence may even indicate that this is not an exception but a species descriptor after all!

It’s right there on the Lost First Page.

The fundamental human right from which all others flow, is the right to be human – To Innovate. For indeed the designing, building and using of tools really is the very heart of innovation.

We really must look with great care and scrutiny at any societal interventions that curtail or constrain this right – indeed this human imperative. And while we often focus on the social aspects of this innovation capacity, this human right – for instance in rights to the ‘tools’ of governance, speech, assembly – we curiously have left the technological and material innovation to the vicissitudes of markets and forces with no oversight.

Of course this doesn’t mean every chimpanzee and every human is equally good at innovation or that they all even chose to innovate. But as social beings, they do chose who or what entity will innovate on their behalf. And the emotional resonance of this granting of proxy is almost as fundamental as the actual innovation itself. In many ways this may well be the biological logic that is the core of social grouping – the proxy innovators, or what I later call a ‘representational technocracy’.

Biological Innovation

What I term ‘Biological Innovation’ is the oldest and most fundamental form of human innovation – involving as it does the getting of food, the striving for health, the making of homes and the building of communities.

Biological innovation has been informed and guided for thousands of years by keen observation and the accumulation and sharing of generations of empirical knowledge.

But the explosion of possibility that began when, post-Enlightenment, the unprecedented power of science became focused on food, agriculture, health, medicine and environment seemed to dwarf all previous attainments. And indeed in the last hundred years, with the advent of genetics, the pace has been gathering.

But thirty years ago, it became breathtaking; we found the gear-shift. We may just have lost our grip on the steering wheel.

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