Saturday, February 11, 2012

Evolution: Competition versus Tangled Banks and Coral Reefs

I'm discussing Steven Johnson's book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. He has an intriguing and persuasive point about evolution itself works. 

Johnson does not believe that competition in markets is the only way you get innovation. Nor is the lone inventor with a sudden spark of brilliance the main avenue to new ideas.  Instead, he advocates what he calls a 'fourth quandrant', namely collective, non-market innovation. 

It is not that there is anything wrong with the market, he says. Far from it.  But much of the most important innovation in recent years has come from sources which are not purely market-oriented, like research universities, government labs or nonprofits. 

It is a matter of completing, not just competing. 

Evolution is often mistakenly understood only as organisms in competition with other, he says. Instead, think of a coral reef. Above the waterline, reefs are barren deserts. Below, they are one of the richest ecosystems on the planet, in situations which might otherwise be barren. Why?

For one thing, organisms share resources, recycling them and reusing them. Take the artificial reefs created by dumping subway cars off the coast. It creates an emergent platform for all sorts of other growth. 

Platforms have a natural appetite for trash, waste, and abandoned goods. The sea bass and mussels making a home in a decommissioned A train, like the songbirds nesting in the abandoned homes of the pileated woodpeckers, mirror a pattern Jane Jacobs detected years ago in urban development: innovation thrives in discarded spaces. Emergent platforms derive much of their creativity from the inventive and economical reuse of existing resources, and, as any urbanite will tell you, the most expensive resource in a big city is real estate. 


Coral reefs are much the same.  

The zooxanthella and the coral are like two neighbors who miraculously turn out to have a pressing need for each other’s garbage, and thus meet every night to swap trash cans.  ... The entire coral reef ecosystem is characterized by similarly intricate and interdependent food webs, the full complexity of which scientists are only now beginning to map. 

Complex patterns of interdependence generate innovation and flourishing, even when there is not a market IPO in the future: 

..  these non-market, decentralized environments do not have immense paydays to motivate their participants. But their openness creates other, powerful opportunities for good ideas to flourish. All of the patterns of innovation we have observed in the previous chapters—liquid networks, slow hunches, serendipity, noise, exaptation, emergent platforms—do best in open environments where ideas flow in unregulated channels. In more controlled environments, where the natural movement of ideas is tightly restrained, they suffocate. 


The web is not just pure competition.  The cluster of ideas and exchange and social contact in Silicon Valley and elsewhere also matters. 

The Web is not simply an ecosystem; it is a specific type of ecosystem. It started as a desert, and it has been steadily transforming into a coral reef. 

So he says, the arguments over intellectual property are misguided. It is not a matter of simply defining property rights and competing, as many economists believe. It is also about sharing and interrelated cycles.

And Darwin himself recognized this. Symbiotic relationships matter as well as the survival of the fittest. Darwin's metaphor was the "tangled bank" - a complex hedgerow ecosystem. 

The popular caricature of Darwin’s theory emphasizes competitive struggle above everything else. Yet so many of the insights his theory made possible have revealed the collaborative and connective forces at work in the natural world. .. Even without the economic rewards of artificial scarcity, fourth-quadrant environments have played an immensely important role in the nurturing and circulation of good ideas—now more than ever. In Darwin’s language, the open connections of the tangled bank have been just as generative as the war of nature. ...  This is the ultimate explanation of Darwin’s Paradox: the reef has unlocked so many doors of the adjacent possible because of the way it shares. 

This is an important and persuasive point. For growth and wealth, we don't need simply market systems alone. That is part of it, for sure. But  we need reef-like cooperation and cycles and complexity. Perhaps we can even say a coral reef model  is more complex and successful than a money and exchange economy alone. 

And I love the reference to Jane Jacobs. It reminds me of her book The Nature of Economieswhich I have on my shelf and I will have to read again soon.

The economy evolves: but evolution is a more complex process than we generally understand.

I've been thinking of Douglass North's arguments about transitions in the economy again. The key transition to modernity was from personal to impersonal exchange , he says. Perhaps the next transition is to cyclical, interdependent systems. The metaphor changes from market to ecosystem, from depersonalized formal exchange to adaptation and niches and symbiosis.

Complex ecosystems bootstrap themselves up. We need new emergent platforms for cooperation and flourishing and growth. We need platforms that offer positive opportunities for growth and transformation as side-effects and unintended consequences. 

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