Evolution Preserves the Status Quo
I have yet to read Gould, but I have been introduced to some of his arguments through Gabriel11 Patterns of Software; Gabriel; Oxford University Press; 1996. Maybe this is common knowledge, but learning what evolution really does surprised me.
Why does this matter? Because in some ways it’s a decent model of capitalism, the system in which we do product development.
I have been taught that evolution consists of two parts:
- Random mutations, that cause changes good and bad; and
- Natural selection, that selects for the good changes.
This way, I have been taught, evolution allows individuals to make leaps of improvements over their neighbours, becoming more fit and thus surviving longer. Here’s what really happens:
- Random mutations cause mostly bad changes; and
- Natural selection works to reject these bad changes.
In other words, the point of natural selection is to act as a preservative around important functions of the organism.22 Sure, some degree of improvement happens the way I used to think; some random mutations are actually good. But these are usually smaller, incremental improvements. Here’s the trick: changes to inconsequential functions aren’t obviously bad, so they might survive. The largest number of mutations happen in functions with low utility.33 And indeed, biologists measure the utility of a function by its rate of mutation. Inconsequential functions can still change quite a bit, because natural selection does not guard them as jelously.
Big leaps happen through environmental change. When the environment changes, what used to be an inconsequential function can suddenly turn out to be really important. Once that happens, natural selection kicks in to preserve and emphasise that function.
Exploring the impacts of these ideas on product development might be a separate article. A quick observation is that new ideas might be a very difficult type of innovation (remember: most random mutations are bad).
Instead, we can look for instances where people have taken an old, unimportant idea and realised that it could be adapted to become very useful given recent environmental changes – maybe that’s where we find most successful innovations.