Many scholars have conceptualized the process of innovation through the evolution of ideas and technologies. For example Basalla (1989) who gives an account of technological evolution, identifies technological artifacts as the unit of evolution (e.g. tools). In studies of creativity, Simonton (1999) conceptualises the process through the mechanisms of variation and selective retention. In the 1999 special issue of Psychological Inquiry criticisms of this view are voiced by a number of authors. In other studies which seek to classify technological diversity, researchers have identified characters or attributes such as the standardization of parts, quality circles, flexible multi-functional workforce, preventive maintenance and job enrichment (McCarthy et al. 2000; McKelvey 1982). However what remains unclear in these evolutionary classifications, is the relationship between this variety of characters and attributes and the notion of the replicator and interactor. Indeed McCarthy (2005) calls for an approach which can explain how organizational diversity comes about. Whilst these classifications of diversity can shed light on the connections between organizations and the development of technologies, a clear distinction between replicators and interactors, and operationalization of these concepts at multiple-levels can help to fill in the gaps in the co-evolutionary story and specifically address McCarthy’s call. Addressing these issues some have introduced the replicator-interactor duality to separate the informational content of the evolving technology, from its outward expression. In terms of the latter, some have conceptualized the interactor as an artifactual expression. So Jablonka (2000) argues that whilst it might be easier to analyze the evolution of the phenotypic expression of technologies through artifacts, a true understanding of the detailed mechanisms of selection can only be gained through an analysis of the psychological and social context of the diffusion of innovations themselves (Fleck 2000; Jablonka 2000). Murmann (2003) distinguishes between the notion of the replicator as represented by ideas and knowledge, and the manifestation of that knowledge in physical artifacts. Mokyr (2000) on the other hand puts forward the organization as the interactor corresponding to technological techniques. Thus by understanding the interrelationship between technological knowledge (replicators) and the manifestation of that knowledge through technological artifacts (interactors) more detail can be shed on the process of innovation.
Other researchers have put forward a behavioral or narrative-based interpretation of the interactor. Weeks and Galunic (2003) argue that the expression of ideas-as-replicator includes not only technological artifacts but behavior and language. Indeed as early as 1975, Cloak differentiated between the concept of the i-culture which represents cultural instructions individuals carry in their heads, and the m-culture which includes features of an individual’s behavior, technology and social organization. Drawing on this a number of researchers identify the meme as the replicator (Blackmore 1999; Dawkins 1976; Dennett 1995) in socio-cultural evolution, with the interactor being the ‘outward and visible’ manifestations of the meme in the outside world through words, music, visual images, gestures and skills (Dawkins 1982), or the behaviors (Blackmore 1999; Dennett 1995). More recently Distin (2011) and Mesoudi (2011) put forward a rich multi-level narrative in which discrete components of cultural knowledge evolve through their outward manifestation in behaviors. Taking a narrative turn (Price 2012) ideas ‘coded’ and retained as a mental representation (i.e. replicator) are expressed to ‘others’ through narratives (i.e. interactor) (Dobson et al., 2013).
In sum evolutionary research in innovation has taken two broad approaches when identifying the unit of evolution. In the first approach, the interactor is seen as the artefactual representation of the replicator. In the second the replicator interacts through manifest behaviors and narratives. The distinction between these two positions is an important one, and one that has parallels in other domains of study as noted below. In the former, the process of selection is seen to occur through the ‘external selection’ of ideas through artifacts. In the latter selection is a dynamic process occurring through the behaviors and narratives of individuals and groups.