Saturday 13 February 2010

Evolution is everywhere

I'm quickly coming to the realisation that darwins description of evolution does not just apply to the natural world of eco systems but to the man made world too. So much so that it turns out I've written that evolution is among us before.

Energy flow

Every aspect of human life seems to reflect and embody evolution. I see this in financial systems where cash flow, particularly cash burn, determines survival in the same way energy flow and energy burn determine survival in nature. The point being that entities that burn cash faster than they generate it or bring it in, die. Surviving is about stopping this process and good healthy companies are judged by how well they manage their cash burn.

In nature the same applies. Healthy animals are those which manage their energy burn efficiently. It's likely the biggest reason that crocodiles thrived in both the dinosaur age and ours. They burn energy so efficiently they need to feed just a few times a year. Correspondingly they haven't had to evolve a great deal over the years. Implying the pressures on them to adapt aren't as great as on other species. Probably because they're exceptionally efficient with energy.

So I notice the same in man made life, for example the capitalist system functions well because it encourages the struggles of nature that lead to evolution and by encouraging evolution it encourages competition. Competition forces those involved to adapt quickly and figure out how to survive as the ecosystem adjusts and food chains form. Larger companies consume (merge or buy) smaller ones, parasitic and symbiotic relationships form. Some companies act like carnivores because every market has a company which lives off the wealth (fat) of the companies it consumes. The smaller scale still reflects nature if you accept that large organisms like mammals function like companies or corporations then their employees can be compared to the individual cells that make up the organism. Some cells act like accountants which is why every company needs an accountant and every accountant needs a paycheck. The paycheck for the accountant is much like the nutrient flow each cell receives.

In systems that are evolving you generally find that each new generation becomes faster or better adapted than the previous. That is how Giraffes evolved long necks, Cheetahs got so fast and Elephants got so tall though in truth, getting bigger, stronger and faster is one set of options. Getting smaller for example can be an advantage if you can squeeze through holes a predator cannot. Modern Humans are not escaping evolutionary pressures because modern tools and methods require that each human generation must produce more in their work to receive the same pay as the previous. This is becoming more so with each generation.


The by products of these evolutionary leaps forward also create new food chains and feedback loops. Much as bacteria that lived off the initial gases in primitive earth. Their by products of carbon dioxide (C02) and oxygen (O2) created the atmosphere we know today. New organisms developed to live off these gases as a food chain and eventually lead to the vast and varied ecosystems we know today.

If you consider that human products such as culture, knowledge and economies are in themselves viable ecosystems evolving at pace. Then history shows us that as humans advance in culture, knowledge and capability we're creating greater and greater variety and flexibility. You see there are more financial products and solutions than ever, more technological solutions than ever and everything is becoming cheaper to achieve. The cash burn involved in creating complex solutions is so much less than it used to be because efficient and flexible solutions have evolved and found their niche.

Economies of scale

Evolution requires maintaining pressure for economies of scale. This pressure encourages organisms to develop symbiotic relationships with other entities to form a larger organism that fits the current ecosystem and targets a niche not already exploited.

Phew that was a mouthful but that's how companies of the 21st century are adapting. Many are taking the best solutions and combining them in different ways to attract customers by doing something faster, better and cheaper than others. Which is a classic case of evolution.

The old tools (organisms) have been subsumed into the new and the longer they survive together they more closely intertwined they may become. This is exactly how humans appear to have evolved, from single bacteria several billion years ago, to, essentially each human consisting of hundreds of billions of bacteria working together in a complex matrix. Joined together, in the whole, in symbiotic relationships formed over millions of years that balance each other to maintain the whole. The result being an overall solution capable of great flexibilty. With each individual bacteria (cell) benefiting from being part of the whole. Each specialist cell provides something the organism needs and overall the whole is so much greater than the sum of the parts.

Hardware and software

This is just how hardware and software is evolving. What used to be light emitting diodes (LEDs) that had a specific purpose on a circuit board to ensure electricity only flowed one way. Have now evolved into, and out competed, light bulbs where there is a need for a lightbulb with very low energy demands and high reliability. So LEDs have evolved because they found a niche and out-competed lightbulbs. They have done this so well in fact that they're now in many of the best torches and used in every light that tells you whether a device is on or not.

Most software is based on a set of libraries or applications that used to survive on their own. Time has passed and with it expectations have risen leading to competition. What was plenty then is only sufficient now. The market (ecosystem and food chain) has settled on it's preferred options in each solution chain and the other companies and their solutions have since died a natural death. Their components have been dissolved back into the ether. The basic elements are now working in other software and being given a new lease of life reflecting natures cycles of life, death and rebirth.

Engineering evolution

I'm fascinated by this topic because evolution is age old and it seems that everything man made is simply an extension of this age old principle. I could go on further. However I can also see that this realisation can help us in other ways. The difference between nature and ecosystems that we are part of and those we have made. Is that we understand so much more about those we have made specifically because we've made them.

We know

  • how, when and why the financial systems evolved, 
  • how markets have come about. 
  • Why economic policies have been put in place. 
If these solutions reflect nature then it seems logical to use reverse engineering principles to understand the nature we don't know so much about by using that which we do. Kind of like engineering evolution.

My fascination in life generally centres around the amazing technology that all humans have, just because they're human. That is their minds, bodies and souls. We generally overlook the fact that we are still far more technologically advanced than anything we, as a species ,have ever created. Yet it amazes me how little most of us really know about ourselves. How little we know how to get the best out of who we are and what our genes give us. We're all in a constant battle to survive. We're still subject to these forces of evolution imposed on us and also by us and this struggle so often distracts us.

What I see is that any tool is really only the sum of the craftsmans skill to use that tool and his inherent talents. Talents being natural features such as number and length of limbs, skills being learned techniques such as running, jumping and dealing with pressure.

I meet so many people who are absolute experts in the tools they use for work and pleasure. I'm always aware just how capable these people are when they put their mind to achieving an end with their favourite tool. How much time and effort they will happily spend in achieving their desires with that tool. Whether it's a computer game, writing a book or amazing software. When people really set their hearts and minds to these ends they invariably achieve them.

I then wonder what would happen if we began putting our minds to really understanding how we work in mind, body and soul. That's my passion. My path is about finding out how we work and using that knowledge to evolve my skills and the way I live my life. To use my gifts with skill and achieve so much more as a result.

I started this path years ago with a passion for sports and sports science. Mainly because sport is about competition and thus evolution. True enough, over time all sports have evolved and been subject to natural phenomena. The floods of cash in the premier league and many other sports have changed these ecosystems just like earthquakes, eruptions and floods changed natural worlds.

Other sports and the species of sports people involved have suffered because they can't compete in the new food chain. This is forcing innovation to survive and brought about innovations like 20 20 cricket and lottery funding among other things.

Evolving code

What is really exciting me now in my journey exploring evolution is the realisation as a software developer that the invention and success of binary code running in all computers everywhere could give us fundamental knowledge of our own binary code, DNA. This means that DNA is binary and works like software. As a coder I learn the patterns that get the best out of binary, though I've never worked on binary itself, I work several layers above but I create objects, manipulate them, Save them to databases and write functions optimised to be run a thousand times while efficiently using all the resources available.

You will notice how this sounds a lot like the way DNA works. Here is the same chain of events but explained the biological, DNA world. DNA codes for proteins which become enzymes. Each enzyme has a specific signature and function. It's designed as a function to be run millions of times using the least amount of energy and resources possible. Evolution has just been helping us write a very efficient and flexible genetic code.

Ultimately, just like human software, nature gives us a system, through DNA and genetics, to share code with others and copy from theirs.

The process of horizontal gene transfer is becoming more widely understood and describes a process whereby we could actually evolve without sex. My understanding of this process began when I asked can viruses do good? The idea that viruses are all bad makes no evolutionary sense both in genetics and in software. Why would we be so easy to infect if we didn't also gain important abilities that help us compete. It's far more logical that we have only studied those viruses that cause us harm while possibly ignoring those that do us good. For much the same reasons that newspapers only report the negative. We survive because we worry and our worry helps us focus. We compete better because we address what's holding us back and disease is obviously holding us all back.

That's the age we're in right now. One where disease and poverty are being conquered to the point that many but not all live without major experience of poverty or disease though bothare still rife and a major concern. My firm belief is that our in depth understanding of all the technology (hardware, software, policy, infrastructure , organisation etc) can and should be used to understand ourselves more than we currently do. I find most people know more about everything around them than they do about their selves. They can predict the results of football games and fix their broken computer. All because they spend so much time and effort on both. Yet they can't predict the diseases they'll suffer from and prevent them or fix a broken lifestyle.

A virtual world

The solution I would love to see evolve is a suite of tools that describe basic life processes through application programming interfaces (APIs) and software. They allow us to learn about ourselves using virtual organisms. Learning how to get the best nutrition by say watching the nutrient levels of a virtual apple as it grows on the tree, is picked, sent to market, brought home and stored, prepared, eaten, and finally digested. The question being, how much of each nutrient actually ends up in our bodies and benefits us. Is there plenty to go round? Or is there only just enough for our body to survive. Providing this as a virtual model where all possibilities could be explored would be a wonderfull learning tool to help you understand how and why you should eat to be strong. It puts us in control of ourselves through greater knowledge.

The first generations of modelling tools such as this should give way to tools which model more complex systems by combining the models that have gone before. The speed of current development and amount of knowledge already available should ensure we step through these generations very quickly.

Ultimately I find a huge symmetry in our man made evolution and our natural evolution. The understanding of one greatly enhances the understanding of the other. The more we learn about what we produce and how we produce it by being entertained, producing things and getting involved. The more reference points we have to understand ourselves and explore models about ourselves. The more we understand ourselves the more we perfect and lead the lives and lifestyles that fit the individuals that we are. In the end we find our place and learn to enjoy it and thrive.

That's quite a dream I know. But I'm inspired because I can see the current path from A to B which means I can see it working and being worthwhile. My only consideration  is how quickly we will get there.

I see that software and hardware developers are best placed to understand the workings of humans because software developers work on code. This code makes use of the machine code provided by the operating system (OS) and also becomes part of the code of the individual computer. Much like each biological process can ultimately be traced back to it's DNA code that triggers and facilitates it. So software developers may have the keys to truly understanding our genetic code. I think genetics and software development are already starting to talk to each other in this regard.

Code lifecyles

I explained a theory I have on the influence of genetics and lifestyle on ageing. To bring this idea back to software I'd say that we slow down and have more issues as we age in much the same way that any windows based pc gets slower over time and use. Mainly due to its internal registry becoming cluttered through use. I've seen windows systems that never had a virus and always ran quickly because the owner knew how to take care of a windows based operating system. He rarely even had to reboot it. Yet most pcs run slower and slower every day because the owners have neither the knowledge nor the inclination to maintain them well and interestingly our bodies work the same way. With the right knowledge and lifestyle we can let our bodies fix the normal day to day damage. Without it we just build up problems until they're just too difficult to fix.

To make this clearer watch any premiership (That is English football but the sport doesn't matter the pressure does so Baseball and American Football have the same effect) manager before they take a job, just after they're fired and then a year or so when they've had time to recover The first is how young they are. The second is how they've aged ten years. Then when they've left the post and recovered they look much younger again. This shows a cycle I see regularly. The pressures of life can take their toll. Western life often ignores the processes of recovery and proper maintenance. The difference between a computer and a human body and mind is that you can get a new computer or you can reinstall the software every year. You can not do either with a human, so the only option we have is to become masters of our own bodies.

The artificial life community are already building models of living organisms. They haven't focused specifically on humans yet but my hope is that soon it will be possible to do so. Hardware developers are also well placed to understand the physical aspects of the products of genetic code because they understand how complex infrastructures are built and optimised. Biomechanics and other areas are also bridging the gap between man and nature and this understanding is now showing great potential to help humans do more with less in all sports.

Education: evolving the mind

Maybe the final piece of the puzzle is in our minds because The way we think often determines what we achieve. Sport reflects life in that we compete in sport in much the same way we compete in life. Football managers are only as good as their last few games, so they can win world cups or champions leagues but a poor run of losses can quickly see them sacked.

Our lives are all headed toward more openness and less privacy both professionally and personally. Sport is where everything is open already. Where stakes are always on the line. It's why we should see sports science as a study of human excellence under pressure. I also wonder where we'd be if all knowledge and skills were easier to share? what if we viewed education as lessons in overcoming challenges.

Business would realise real competitive advantage by embracing the lessons of sport science early. Using biomechanics to educate workers on how to lift heavy items without developing debilitating back problems. Back pain is the leading cause of days off sick and sports science is best placed to explain why.

Interviews are pressure situations where you're expected to perform, just like exams. Sport is built around pressure. Those who thrive on pressure do well. Sports science teaches us so many ways not just to survive in tight situations but actually thrive.

This current economic downturn is terrible for those seeking security but wonderful for those whose mentality thrives on uncertainty. The best in sport can thrive whatever the situation. If they want to win, they do. Sports science studies this. Why aren't we putting this knowledge to use in rebuilding our economy?

Sports science is important because it covers all aspects of being human. From physics and chemistry to biology, psychology and sociology. History too. My degree also covers business and I saw the symmetry all the time. The uptake and provision of sports science has increased exponentially in the last few years. Hopefully that means there are rising numbers of people with the knowledge of how their body works and this will start raising the standards and expectations for everyone. As a base of knowledge increases it then becomes possible to discuss more advanced concepts and make more use of the knowledge we all have.

The point being that many of the illnesses we suffer from still such as heart attacks and cancer seem to be encouraged by our lack of understanding of our basic make up. Essentially they seem preventable but highly common. We just need to maintain our strengths to live long and prosper. You can then see why tools and processes to make learning these easier, moe intuitive and fun are key to stopping them.

I also see that concepts that can be reduced to equations often receive a lot of weight and respect. So I made a very small effort at summarising darwins concept of evolution using Einsteins equation for relativity, Evolution of knowledge as e = mc2. It's a simplistic approach but it's intended to make you think and encourage debate.

Adding it all up

In summary I started this article with the idea that evolution is everywhere so I hope I've showed just that. Personally I find that everywhere I look I see the influence of evolution. I've then gone on to postulate that we're evolving as a species in a way that only humans can, through culture and social systems and man made technology.

I suggested that we now have the knowledge and tools to understand ourselves fully, simply because we've built our technology and systems from the ground up. Human products seem similar in so many ways to the organisms that nature produces. So the principles of re engineering seem perfect for the study and learning of who we are and how we work.

I've then looked at a lot of the ways we're already doing this and suggested we build more games, models and simulations that enable us to learn interactively using our senses and learning potential more fully than previous teaching methodologies have allowed.

I mention horizontal evolution in this post. I'm excited because I'm hearing more and more about it. I've just heard in Horizontal and vertical: the evolution of evolution that horizontal evolution may, as I've felt for a long time, have more of an impact than vertical evolution. Primarily because it allows an organism to adjust to its environment during its lifetime. This follows Darwins ultimate principle that it is those most able to change that ultimately survive.

Evolution is everywhere because you can see this happening in all industries and walks of life. Companies copy from one another either openly through opensource projects or other approaches or privately by hiring staff from key competitors and such. Either way we can see life evolving around us for the same reasons and using the same principles as we've first identified in biology.

The evolution of law and civil liberties. From Magna Carta to American Constitution 

Signing of the Magna Carta stands as a powerful act putting into law changes affecting the civil rights and liberties of common men.

The Great Charter agreed to by King John was part of a movement in both England and Western Europe to restrict the powers of the monarch and assert the rights of the politically influential, i.e. the nobles. The Magna Carta laid the foundation for government based on the rule of law in Great Britain 
Magna Carta: Cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution

Centuries later the American Constitution is heavily influenced by the work of the Magna Carta

Magna Carta exercised a strong influence both on the United States Constitution and on the constitutions of the various states. However, its influence was shaped by what eighteenth-century Americans believed Magna Carta to signify. Magna Carta was widely held to be the people’s reassertion of rights against an oppressive ruler, a legacy that captured American distrust of concentrated political power 
Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor

In fact it is always surprising to learn just how much ancient changes affect and benefit us today both for good and bad. Another example is that the european union use Metric weights and measures primarily due to Napoleans rise in power in Europe during the nineteenth century. Two centuries later and even the UK is largely metric though we measure distance mainly in miles while the United states still use imperial metrics and suffer with the complexity that non metric systems require.

Further Reading

Liked this post. You might like these related articles


anthonyforth said...

This is interesting, passionate and very eloquently argued. It left me thinking 'yes but...'.

I am not convinced totally that human affairs, in modern times, can be seen as a pure expression of Darwinism.

I look at the bank bail out as a very good example of the way that vested interests maintain there position of wealth and power with a few visible, but low impact sacrifices. If we had followed Darwinist principles we'd have allowed these institutions to crash and burn, taken the pain and seen a stronger model emerge.

Instead we opted for other strategies. We did not trust those principles. Time we will tell if we have made the same mistake on this occasion that we made with some heavy industries 40 years ago.

In so many ways modern human society has built moral and practical constructs to keep the extremes of Darwinism in check and maintain the stability and order.

The law and the welfare system protects me from violence, protects my property, my health and my resources. Our moral codes frequently favour the vulnerable, the disabled, the young and the old. It reduces the possibility that I will fall victim to any extremes of natural selection. At the same time, the wealthier I become, the more I am required to contribute to my society.

If we really accepted Darwinism, surely we would pull down a lot of these constructs to allow the powerful benefits and violence of natural selection.

In truth we crave a sense of security that pure natural selection doesn't bring and we instinctively gravitate towards some moral order. More than this, it works in terms of human development. The countries of the 20th century that have struck the balance of order, regulated economic competition, welfare and democracy have been the wealthiest and the best able to provide for their people.

Colin said...

First of all. Thanks Anthony for your great points. the point of my article was to discuss evolution and see whether it can be applied to things other than nature.

You make some good points. In a world where we seem so risk averse, how can you argue that evolution is happening.

My main answer is that evolution has and always will take a long time. it's taken well over a billion years for humans to evolve. So judging financial evolution from just 20 or 100 years maybe too short a time frame. If you consider 10,000 years of human trade. I think you'll agree that there's been a lot of evolution and we're constantly moving forward. The pace is accelerating.

The law and welfare state is similar. It was totally different just 1000 years ago.

In terms of our preference for security I'd argue this is no different in any social species. gazelles are not known to attack the jackals that hunt them. They don't gang up on the jackals and kick them off their land. Instead they just run out of fear. They follow the herd where ever it goes. Mainly because it's safer to stay in the herd and they're scared of the their attackers. That's all I see happening around us.

However we are all competing as separate nation states. As different generations. Our social structures make us all different. These differences create competition. The competition for resources, power and whatever else we want is creating evolution. It's pushing our relentless push for change.

So maybe the same banks will be in existence in 20 years time. But will you be doing business with them in the same way. Will you still have the same relationship with them. Will you even bank in this country? That we can't predict. If evolution weren't happening then surely we'd be able to predict it accurately.

Thanks for your comments Anthony. it was nice to be able to consider the concept of evolution in the contexts you put forward.