Archive for October, 2009

Mutations of evolution

150 years after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the theory of evolution has proven such a fruitful concept that the terms ‘evolution’ and ‘Darwinian’ have become commonplace. Today it’s simply a model for explaining change, and judging from its many different mutations, it’s tempting to suggest some kind of evolution of the theory itself.

Darwin’s theory of evolution assumed that certain heritable traits, namely those that make the survival and successful reproduction of an organism easier, become more common in a population over the generations. It was this mechanism, Darwin referred to as natural selection, and which he described elaborately.

Back in school I used to learn about Darwinian evolution as something which has sort of warped itself to different developing needs, without conscious intervention, and that evolution certainly wasn’t the same as progress – which was what the followers of Herbert Spencer thought. But it seems to me that it’s the Spencerian, or ‘Socialdarwinian’, form of evolution (“survival of the fittest”) most people today think of when they hear the word. A couple of examples from the last few months; you have the evolution of:
  • Architectural Ideas – According to Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, some architectural ideas prove more sustainable than others. Why? Because people select the best ideas. (Here, by the way, you’ll also find the interesting contrast: evolution vs. revolution, which is also a theme here and here)
  • Blogging – Om Malik says blogs need to evolve and be more social. Why? Otherwise they will not survive the competition with social networking services like Facebook and Twitter.
This was evolution as progress. But then there’s Niall Ferguson. His take on the evolution of financial theory is more refined, and this clip is definitely worth watching. Worth a read, on the other hand, is his book The Ascent of Money. Here he offers six features shared by the financial world and evolutionary systems. I quote:
  1. ‘Genes’, in the sense that certain business practices perform the same role as genes in biology, allowing information to be stored in the ‘organizational memory’ and passed on from individual to individual or from firm to firm when a new firm is created.
  2. The potential for spontaneous mutation, usually referred to in the economic world as innovation and primarily, though by no means always, technical.
  3. Competition between individuals within a species for resources, with the outcomes in terms of longevity and proliferation determining which business practices persist.
  4. A mechanism for natural selection through the market allocation of capital and human resources and possibility of death in cases of under-performance, i.e. ‘differential survival’.
  5. Scope for speciation, sustaining biodiversity through the creation of wholly new species of financial institutions.
  6. Scope for extinction, with species dying out altogether.
Language can also be seen as an evolutionary system. No matter how much people intervene and try to restrict it, it still evolves in mysterious ways. I wonder what evolutionary features one could find there? En bien! Vive le sport!

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