Sunday, May 29, 2005

Evolution I and a Question about Iraq

The concepts of evolution – reproduction with variation, and natural selection over time – were pulled together to explain the biological world that we live in. Anyone who has thought about it, however, realizes that these concepts apply far beyond that world. Let’s take the corporate world. Companies are springing up all the time, usually by means of spontaneous generation. In the bio-sciences, the concept of spontaneous generation is today considered anathema and taken to be outside the scope of evolutionary orthodoxy, but take into account that new companies emulate companies that already exist, each one with a new spin, a small mutation. To that degree at least, companies have memetic forbears.

I guess the ideas of the entrepreneurs and the talents of their employees are analogous to the genetic inheritance. Sometimes the employees are literally stolen from a “contributing” parent company. Usually, the new companies also steal some of the customer base and financing sources, though not the actual physical assets. Resisting the analogy, the parent companies do not often contribute willingly. They try to protect sales contacts, employee knowledge, trade secrets, patents, copyrights, and other intellectual capital by numerous means.

You may be aware that the impact of natural economic selection on these new entities is severe. Few survive. Those that do usually persist for some years, at least until the owner dies, or they might get absorbed by or merged with another company. Sometimes a company does fantastically well, in which case new companies will spring up with variations of its ideas. Existing companies will also try to emulate its business model and raid its personnel. That’s kind of like the genetic sharing that bacteria seem to be fond of doing.

Certainly, this description does a better job of describing software startups than utilities or oil giants. Fields where companies simply merge or grow bigger are evolutionary deadends, AT&Ts that will dissolve when they are finally exposed once more to competition. Countries that encourage these kinds of giants are making a mistake. Look for mammals, not bacteria. Variation is key. Places and fields where the barriers to entry are low tend to evolve the fastest.

There is every reason to believe that each generation of companies absorbs many of the virtues of its forbears by this blind stochastic process, not just by the dynamic planning and thinking of its members. The collapse and disappearance of the many less fit companies produces an anti-probabilistic force for adaptation in those companies that remain, beyond what we know and possibly beyond what we can know. It would be impossible to recreate the corporate structure of the modern world from components. There is a retained organic wisdom to the way that it evolved.

Likewise, in military organizations we have greater or lesser degrees of evolutionary intensity. Sometimes an entire nation will be discontinued and something else start up in its place. In the US we have survived many threats. The accidents of history have left us standing as the preeminent force. Various sized units, as large as entire services have started, and mutated, and been discontinued. Emulation of other groups takes place all the time. Non-functional aspects have been extinguished by response to enemy action and by response to that ever-present natural selection force, a skeptical Congress. It is true that, even in wartime, too many obsolete luxuries and private empires are tolerated. It's hard to tell how much better we could have been doing over the years since we operate in a Lamarckian regime.

Nevertheless, it's safe to say that there is a lot going for us that remains implicit, undocumented, unobserved and even unobservable. There is the residue of two centuries of enlightened turmoil, inspired and generous cultivation and brutal confrontation with the tooth and claw of unforgiving reality. The same could be said for our republic and for the traditions of our government.

The question that naturally flows from this line of argument is, how are we going to give this as a gift to the emerging democracies of the world, particularly Afghanistan and Iraq. We have underestimated the difficulty of the task. Can we counter the centuries old process that created our adversaries as the wickedest creatures of a diabolical Ares? Can we benignly impose a new order, fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus?

Personally, I think we can because of who we are, but I would like the True Believers to understand what we are up against.

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