Natural Selection Isn’t Just for Biology

Happy Darwin Day!

Darwin’s birthday just slips up on you. He would have been 209 today — which is quite old — but by passing away he’s saved me the embarrassment of having forgotten to get him a gift. So, silver lining?

But he certainly gave science a gift when he published his ideas about Natural Selection. Here in the US, while as a culture we’ve struggled with whether or not to teach his ideas in schools, biologists have quietly continued using his ideas and they form the underpinning of most of our understanding of how all species are interrelated and come to develop over time.

In my (hahaha) “spare time” I’m working on a book about Innovation and one part of that deals with the way that Natural Selection relates to technology and invention. Within the discussion of Evolution*, there is a famous story about a watch. It was first presented by William Paley in 1802, many years before Darwin would publish On the Origin of Species in 1859.

In brief, Paley provides us with a thought experiment in which while walking along a heath a person finds a pocket watch. The watch must have been designed; it is far too complex to have just come into existence naturally. And if it can be safely intuited that anything so complex must have been designed, then one must deduce that such an intricate piece of work as man must have been crafted by an even cleverer designer.

The irony, to me, is that in the example of a pocket watch, Paley has fallen victim to what I’m calling The Invention Fallacy. The watch of his famous analogy is not the product of some clever lone designer, rather it reflects the accumulated trial and error and modifications of hundreds of years of collective human effort and discovery. The metallurgy, the mathematics, the physics, the precision tools, the lenses which allow the delicate craftsmanship, all the written and spoken training of the watchmakers produce this intricate product which appears to be a clever work of a single effort of design is actually the current tip of an ever-lengthening vector of Innovation. And even that is not quite right, for this vector is but one branch of a tree and the watch is just one fruit of this vast networked tree of cumulative human discovery.**

Those last paragraphs are lightly edited from my manuscript, but relevant to the topic of this essay. I hope to make a broader case for this in the final product but I would posit that while many have written on the parallels of Natural Selection on the process of Innovation and Invention that they are in fact the same. I’ll make a deeper case for this in book form someday but for now, I want to talk about the hidden power of Selectors in Innovation.

In its simplest form, evolution needs a few key elements. In biology you need a life form that can replicate (Replicators), the replication must allow for mutation which is not always fatal, and you need time. Added to those are selective pressures which come from outside. So over time as life reproduces there are copying mistakes (Mutations) which sometimes create new features that given the right environmental challenges (Selectors) may make them more likely to survive and successfully generate more copies carrying on these cumulative changes. Over time, this leads to vastly different outcomes depending on what the pressures were in a given population.

In technical innovation, one might imagine that the selectors would be things like “does it work?” And yes, that’s true. People generally don’t want to buy shoddy things that don’t work. That’s an obvious Selector. Competition is also an obvious Selector. But there are hidden Selectors that need recognition, and that’s what I want to talk about for this Darwin Day essay.

This is not an accurate depiction of Evolution. Their heads aren’t even connected to their bodies!

Relevant to a recent post, you can have knowledge of many principles of engineering but often it isn’t until you start making prototypes and testing that you really finds out what works. But before one even gets to the lab to create something, an idea usually spends a lot of time percolating in abstract thought within the minds of the inventors. There, in a swirling cauldron of consideration, many useless iterations are built and destroyed. And there is our first hidden Selector — the minds of the inventors.

The second hidden Selector can be found in abstract drawings, computer models or even in conversations. Friends, colleagues, or people you meet at bars can be a factor here. Our second hidden Selector is feedback from outside sources. This is usually modification at the abstract level. We are still using our first Selector but now we’re bringing in ideas from others and creating something much more collaborative than we usually remember once our invention actually exists. I personally believe the “lone inventor” is a myth because even the lone inventor necessarily relies on the accrued knowledge of previous inventors and thinkers even if they’ve only seen their finished products and not read or studied formally. Conscious or unconscious, collaboration is collaboration.

The third hidden Selector is financial. With few exceptions, most things that come to market need funding from outside investment. This necessarily includes taking feedback from investors on how to improve the product or make it fit the investor's sensibilities. Usually in “invention myths” these financial supports represent a necessary evil to our hero getting a product delivered to market. But the truth is, these investors typically have vast experience on what actually works which we’ll get to in our next Selector, but this one I’m going to call — the wisdom of investors. I’m being generous here. Sometimes investors are brutal and crush the art out of products or force out the innovators who began the concept. Regardless, investment is definitely a selective force.

Our final hidden Selector is the one people actually worry about the most and are the least able to predict successfully — the mind of the market. I don’t mean Wall Street. I’m talking about the people who will actually buy (or ignore) a product. Even “amazingly useful” products might not be able to reach a price point that makes them desirable, or the idea is so different that people don’t get it, or the user experience is too clumsy, or people don’t want to learn something new — the challenges can go on and on. Sometimes convergent technological innovations come to market and sometimes the better product doesn’t win. Beta-max vs VHS. Wax-cylinder recording vs Disk recording. DC vs AC current. These are often considered “format wars,” and coming up with a standard can mean the difference between a product winning in the market or being lost to the dustbin of history.

At the end of all that effort and selective pressure, riddle me this: Who invented it?

I’m not trying to dismiss the heroic work of invention, but I personally believe that if we better understand the way all of these Selectors work on our creative efforts it can lead to more successful outcomes as we learn to steer innovation in a holistic journey rather than just:

Idea > prototype > “a miracle occurs” > market $uccess ***

We should pay attention to the effects of Natural Selection in Innovation. They are literally a part of the processes, not just a metaphor. As in biology, we can usually only recognize their effects in the rear-view mirror, but perhaps being aware of their existence can help you seek them out and respond proactively.

Let’s review our hidden Selectors once more for good measure:

  1. Mind of the inventor
  2. Feedback of collaborators
  3. Wisdom of investors
  4. Mind of the market

There is a lot more to say about this topic but that’s enough for today. Happy Darwin Day! And so close to Valentine’s Day. Remember, you can’t spell evolve without l-o-v-e. ;)

Did I miss any Selectors you think I should have considered? Hey, I live by number two on my list.**** Let me know!

*Despite all the pop-culture discussions about whether or not to teach Evolution, the fact of Evolution was well understood as existing well before Charles Darwin. Darwin’s big idea was Natural Selection as an explanation of speciation. So if you want to put a feather in your pedant cap, keep that tidbit handy.

**If you’d like to learn more about the development of the pocket-watch, I heartily recommend Dava Sobel’s delightful book Longitude. To date it’s the most interesting book I’ve read about pocket watches.

***Credit to Sydney Harris.

****My wife assures me a corporate blog should refrain from number-two jokes.

Blake Smith

Blake Smith