Changing USA: 3 big ideas from Darwin

Posted by on Feb 19, 2009 in Uncategorized | 7 Comments


Pic c/o flickr

HT Gareth & Neil via Twitter

Nice piece in the Atlantic by Richard Florida showing how the American economy is changing itself over time.

Brings to mind 3 of the big ideas that are embedded in Darwin's Origin (which I've been re-reading for an article I'm writing):

1. Change is largely a self- [strictly system-] generated phenomenon – it's the interaction of the agents involved that creates the change, not some big external ('exogenous') lever/levers. Bishop points out in the Big Sort, America is sorting itself out into homogenous but discrete groups of likeminded folks; here the point must surely be that innovation attracts innovation, patent-writers others of the same ilk. In this case, if we could unpick the data from the graphic file, I'd imagine it'd be characterised by a rich-get-richer distribution (not the only one but a common one, nonetheless)

2. Change is continuous: it's happening all the time – it's in the nature of things – even when things seem to be unchanging. In the long run, almost everything changes.

3. Change is non-directional: some of Darwin's contemporaries saw the process of evolution as being progressive, moving ever upward on some scale or other, to better things or greater enlightenment or whatever (e.g. Herbert Spencer who coined "survival of the fittest" and seems to be the real source of much of what we now know as Social Darwinism). Darwin doesn't seem to have thought this – he recognises that change just is.

If these things are true then how might that change what you do? What governments should do to address the patterns Florida describes? What – if anything – would you advise them to do? 


  1. Robert Poynton
    February 20, 2009

    “Survival of the fittest”, or “survival of the fit”?
    At a conference in Asilomar a few years back I heard ecologist Peter Warshall ( – I think – talk about the ambiguity of that phrase.
    You can take it two ways.
    The normal way is to use it as a kind of superlative. ‘The survival of the most fit’ is taken to mean or imply some kind of absolute standard of fitness with the ‘best’ winning out. Often this is used to justify a competitive or aggressive stance.
    However, as I recall, Warshall suggested that ecologists use the phrase in another sense, which is the survival of the organism most fit (i.e ‘fit-est’) to a particular niche. Which means there is no absolute or non-directional standard of fitness (and no implied judgement about which is ‘better’) just a particular fit at a particular moment with a particular context. For me the latter is much more interesting, much more powerful and rings much truer than the first.

  2. Mikeovswinton
    February 20, 2009

    Isn’t it Darwin’s ORIGIN, Mark?

  3. Mikeovswinton
    February 20, 2009

    That would be Darwin’s Origin, wouldn’t Mark?

  4. Hannes Couvreur
    February 25, 2009

    Hi Mark,
    I read somewhere that change is everydirectional in a sense that we all try to evolve in our own way which we suppose improves our chances to survive. All these movements occur similarily so tensions build up and concurrents occur as well as disappear. In this perspective, standstills are nothing more than the build up of tension or the postponed expression of a movement.
    How does what you write (or what Darwin writes) change what I do? It made me realize that all systems are relative. There is no such thing as an absolute truth as there is no such thing as an absolute system, meaning a system where all things hold true forever.
    A system is a concurrence of movements which can be rationally organised as such. Take a society for instance, a set of systems designed to offer as many chances to as many people as possible in order to allow them to develop themselves as much as they can. Now such a system can only work when its able to adapt itself to space and time. For instance: the needs of the population of New Yorkers (a huge generalization) in the 1900’s is different from the needs of NY’s today.
    A smart system is a system that understands that its survival – or the survival of the core values and ideology it represents – depends on its ability to incorporate change. Such a system is able to redesign its structures before tensions rise too high and schisms occur.
    The main thing I’ve came to realize is that there is a huge misunderstanding when it comes to the true benefit of a system. Systems seem to provide a sense of certainty and predictability and in many systems the generalisation of this sense of certainty and predictability must be preserved at all cost.
    Now here’s the rub. All life has to offer is probability because of the vast complex of similar movements that construct this reality. Every system striving to impose their certainty (and truths) upon reality or refusing to synchronize their internal reality with the external reality will cause tension to rise until the point where the system will be disrupted instead of evolve or transform or – even more gentle – grow.
    The only benefit a system can offer is a sense of certainty and a place and time where you can learn how to deal with probability in a non-harmful way. This sense of certainty can only be maintained when a system explores its boundaries and allows its structures to be questioned as such, when it regards tensions as worthy evolutions and avoids them from growing to a point where they become threats.
    In real life: managers who want to keep things as they are by micromanaging them only postpone the day when the company will fail. Managers who train their people how to take risks and recover from failure (whenever that happens) will find their team much more in control of reality than the former.

  5. Mark Earls
    February 26, 2009

    Absolutely spot on: there is no one correct answer to the “best?” question.
    As a result we’d do well to avoid assuming that popular or successful things are necessarily better in some general way than things that aren’t.

  6. Mark Earls
    February 26, 2009

    Yep, Origin. Corrected now. Thank, Mike. Good to hear from you!

  7. Tim Andren
    February 26, 2009

    Mark I couldn’t find a contact email address for you. Huge fan of your book.
    I wrote a blog post about social behavior:
    and one about the B-word:
    Keep up the great work.