Here’s how I describe it in the book:
“Step 1: First, we ask the individual at the back of the line to tap the person directly in front of them on the shoulder. The latter turns around and watches the simple gesture made by the initiator…
Step 2: Now it’s the turn of the second player to tap the person in front of them on the shoulder and repeat the show (or what they thought was the show_.
Step 3: Now the third player gets to tap the person in front of them and show them what they’ve just seen from the second player (the one behind). Players one and two watch.
Step 4: By this time, it’s quite clear…that the gesture(s) going along the line is changing and evolving…”
Some people observing will immediately leap to point out the “mistakes” – the points at which the fidelity of the copying falls away.
I prefer simply to point to the fact that variations are appearing: that by copying loosely, a group of people can create new things without really intending to do so.
This is the key to understanding how copying can create novelty – through error.
Error and evolution
To evolutionary scientists, this is no surprise: we amateurs may grab onto the idea of “selection” (successful adaptation to the changing environment) as the key to evolution, but it’s the ability of a population to create variation/mutation that lies behind selection.
Darwin’s famous finches exhibit the power of adaptation and selection but they are able to do so because of the error created by copying genetic material overtime.
Love the error
So if you want to make something new, you could strain and strain; you could pray to your muse; you could go get blind drunk and f***ed up so that you “break through” to the new and the original.
Or, you could try creating some error by indulging yourself in some good old fashioned copying.
At each copy, the Spanish master creates error by removing detail. As the copies proceed, the image becomes simpler and simpler, transforming it from naturalistic to highly stylised figure.
So whether you add (unintentionally) or subtract (deliberately), copying can make something new – if you do it right.