I think there’s a reasonable (although imperfect) analogy between how ideas spread and how beneficial mutations spread. During my PhD defense, I was grilled about how beneficial mutations occur and spread, and I had trouble remembering Haldane’s formula for the probability that a new beneficial mutation escapes stochastic loss and fixes in a population (the answer is 2s for diploids, where (1+s) is the fitness of the mutant relative to the rest of the population). I went back to my copy of Gillespie’s “Population Genetics: A primer” to find a derivation of this formula. In short, Gillespie takes Kimura’s general formula for the probability of fixation of a beneficial mutation and plugs in the frequency of a new mutant to get 2s.
The implication is that a new mutant with a 1% fitness advantage goes extinct 98% of the time, purely by chance! The intuition is that a new mutation only exists in one individual, and so the probability that it goes extinct in the next generation (or the third or fourth generation) is high. A beneficial mutation might have to occur again and again before establishing in the population.
If you have an idea, the probability that you forget it is pretty high. Of course most ideas are pretty bad so that’s probably a good thing. Enough people have to be aware of an idea for it to spread effectively. But before that critical threshold is hit, an idea might be lost simply because people forget about the idea before they have a chance to tell others. The analogy with beneficial mutations is that ideas can occur independently to different people, and ideas might have to re-occur multiple times before their worth is recognized.
Creativity often involves having lots of ideas, and picking rubies from the rubbish. But there’s a social dimension to creativity. Most ideas get shot down by other people (usually a good thing). There’s also a social dimension to good ideas in that the narrative that we grow up with about visionaries who have ideas before others usually isn’t true. It’s probably more about people who are the first to take advantage of the opportunities that rare good ideas provide. Narratives about priority and invention are important in terms of getting fame and money: people try to shape the history of thought after the fact to benefit themselves (Newton versus Liebniz with the invention of calculus, the billion-dollar patent fight over CRISPR biotechnology). But I think the truth is probably closer to a model where good ideas are thought and forgotten repeatedly, until they reach a critical threshold of people after which the idea spreads deterministically across the research community or society at large. I think that’s why people often independently have the same good ideas at the same time in history. People are thinking about the same kinds of issues, and the idea has probably been passed along in some shape at a very low frequency until enough people realize that a breakthrough is imminent. At that point, it’s about who is able to take advantage of the new idea, since by that point the idea itself has been thought, forgotten about, and re-thought several times. There are probably cases where a single person has truly had a idea that no one else has ever had before. But at this point in time, with 7 billion people on the planet, and extremely rapid communication systems, I doubt that happens very often anymore.
My analogy is imperfect. Many beliefs and attitudes spread rapidly or survive tenaciously while being obviously wrong or harmful (conspiracy theories, anti-vaccination, racism, sexism, Marxist views of human nature, tax cuts for the wealthy). Richard Dawkin coined the word “meme” to describe how ideas spread and mutate across minds and information networks. Beneficial mutations spread because they allow populations to adapt to their surroundings. In contrast, much of our zeitgeist of memes, buzzwords, and fashions might have no ‘benefit’ at all. For an idea, ‘fitness’ is simply how effectively it spreads, for what ever reason that may be.