Abstract

We argue that technology changes over time by an evolutionary process that is similar in important respects to biological evolution. The process is adaptive in the sense that technologies are selected because of their specific adaptive value and not at random, but this adaptive evolutionary process differs from the Darwinian process of random variation followed by natural selection. We find evidence for the adaptive evolution of technology in the US patent record, specifically, the public bibliographic information of all utility patents issued in the United States from 1976 through 2010. Patents record certain innovations in the evolution of technology. The 1976–2010 patent record is huge, containing almost four million patents. We use a patent's incoming citations to measure its impact on subsequent patented innovations. Weighting innovative impact by the dissimilarity between parent and child technologies reveals that many of the most fecund inventions are door-opening technologies that spawn innovations in widely diverse categories.

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Author notes

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Contact author. E-mail: mab@reed.edu

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Center for Advanced Computation, Reed College, Portland, Oregon 97202, USA.

ProtoLife Inc., San Francisco, California.