Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

82. Types of Evolution

Note: This post is the eighty-second in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

I'm in the middle of reading 'On the Origin of Species' by Charles Darwin. I wouldn't say it has a whole lot of relevance to this series (so far, anyway) but it does have me thinking about evolution and natural selection.

When I hear the word 'evolution,' the first sense of the word, or mechanism by which evolution can occur that comes to my mind is the one described by Darwin. There is a competitive environment in which 'success' means having more offspring that survive to have offspring of their own, and there is some sort of process of mutation that allows new variations to get tried out and to become more plentiful over time as they are 'successful' and have many offspring.

This process is most famous in the natural world, but the same phenomenon is at work in computer algorithms that generate successful automated othello playing programs, to pick just one example. The programmers create a bunch of programs to play against each other and allow the strategy of the players to mutate in various ways. Programs that win are 'reproduced' more times into the next generation of programs in an iterative process and over millions of generations of mutations and 'natural' selection, very powerful othello playing programs are generated (there's a nice summary of the process here).

As opposed to dominating by having lots of children, another way that a successful strategy can come to dominate is by growing larger. This has limits in the diminishing returns natural world, but in the world of business, where offspring are rare, it is more common for the successful company to achieve dominance by growing very large and swallowing up other companies.

Another possibility for spreading success is imitation. Even if Wal-Mart never (yet) takes over 100% of all retailing, it's innovative inventory management approach (and harsh labour methods as well, sadly) could still come to achieve 100% domination in the market if all of Wal-Mart's competitors copy their strategies.

One area of intense controversy in the academic world is the question of whether:

A) 'the selfish gene' means that people wouldn't evolve to be altruistic because their altruistic behaviour would make them less likely to pass on their genes than someone who was more selfish,


B) because groups which are cooperative will succeed against those which operate on an everyman-for-himself principle, cooperative genes might be able to succeed over time, even if cooperators faced a potential disadvantage against those who were willing to be selfish within an otherwise cooperative group.

Given that nature offers plenty of example of species both cooperative and selfish and that mankind seems well capable of both selfishness and altruism, it seems likely that the tension between these two forces has resulted in a human ability to pursue both the selfish interest and the group interest, depending on the circumstances, perhaps along the lines of the model we studied a while back from Howard Margolis.

Maybe I'll return to this debate later on in the series, but for this week, the main takeaway is that evolution can take different forms and could be consistent with both cooperative and selfish behaviour, depending on the context.

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