The Darwinistic Approach (and why everything worthwhile boils down to Natural Selection)

In my youth, I was lucky enough to study science, specifically Genetics. My thesis was about the change in populations due to natural drift – assuming a small rate of random mutation and some selection pressure. Selection pressure is what we would probably describe as “something going wrong” but it can also be a simple filter. Using a Darwinistic approach allows us to evaluate and iterate on a problem. What we are trying to achieve is “whatever can happen, will happen”. That’s the basis of Evolution and has led to a dizzying array of biodiversity in the natural world.

Mathematician Augustus De Morgan wrote on June 23, 1866: “The first experiment already illustrates a truth of the theory, well confirmed by practice, what-ever can happen will happen if we make trials enough.” In later publications “whatever can happen will happen” occasionally is termed “Murphy’s law”, which raises the possibility — if something went wrong—that “Murphy” is simply “De Morgan” misremembered.

The thing to remember about Evolution (and by extension Darwinistic Natural Selection) is that the possibilities generated must come before the selection pressure or nothing survives the selection filter. If the organism doesn’t survive to reproduce, then the line ends. The bank of possibilities must be there already.

This translates into “innovation” easily. An organisation must populate itself with a wide heterogeneity of minds in order to generate the ideas (the fundament of innovation) with sufficient diversity that can survive the selection pressure filter. The ideas should not initially be fettered by the selection pressure criteria (otherwise every problem that looks like a nail results in a solution that resembles a hammer).

After the ideation is complete (though, in truth, ideation and iteration should never stop – just like cell mutation), the selection filter can be applied. Ideas which don’t at first make the grade should be subjected to further iteration before they can be discarded. Only this way can you have a truly Darwinistic natural selection.

Natural selection in this way resulted in modern humans – but also resulted in pilot whales, baboons, golden eagles and bumblebees. Each of them adapted to the niche they occupy. If you apply your selection pressure with the single-minded aim of producing something that looks like a human, you’ll miss out on the entirely practical solutions that resemble bees, monkeys, birds and dolphins. In business terms, this means discarding every solution that doesn’t resemble “we have always done it this way”. What happens to organisms that discard new things? They die out.

We are in an unprecedented era with worldwide biodiversity loss. Organisms are simply unable to adapt to the new way of the world quickly enough. Evolution is simply too slow. Unfortunately for us, we are part of that. Humans are tremendously adaptable – mostly due to our brains and the technologies we develop – but it would be arrogant to assume that we are not under selection pressure right now. Humans continue to evolve but, like our counterparts in nature, we will not evolve quickly enough and, due to the way natural selection works, many of us won’t make it. The Selection Pressures of a changing climate (whether you think it is man-made or not is somewhat irrelevant) are presenting new challenges that we need new ideas to resolve.

Our technology may save us, but we are only fielding ideas that look like old ideas, under the same selection pressures. Great ideas (the baboons, bumblebees, eagles and whales) are discarded because the selection criteria are not fit for purpose. The Legacy pressures from “we have always done it this way” obstruct the effective solutions by discarding innovative ideas.

for example

Statement: We need food to survive
Selection Pressure: Food is not distributed equally
Legacy Pressure: We must grow food for profit not to resolve hunger
Result: A lot of people starve to death but we generate some value for shareholders

Statement: We need food to survive
Selection Pressure: Food is not distributed equally
Legacy Pressure: Only solutions resembling beef steaks will be considered
Result: A lot of people starve to death, but some people get steak

As you can see, Legacy pressures are artificial selection pressures. They limit innovation, they hinder success. They leave us without workable solutions and instead present us with short term distractions that bring us no closer to the result we need (avoiding mass extinction).

We have the opportunity to generate all of the ideas we need before the real selection pressure starts. But we have to rid ourselves of Legacy pressures.

So, Green Software.

Her we are, mid-July in Malta and the temperature is soaring. 34º which ‘feels like’ 39º when you consider the humidity. All over the world weather is breaking new records and none of it in a good way. Record breaking soil temperatures. Record breaking sea temperatures.

My point for today was to highlight the state of green software.

Green Software is software specifically designed (or maybe excellently coded) to reduce resources or to have a positive impact on the environment. You won’t find very many so-called Web3 technologies in the list due, in part, to their huge energy requirements and many of them on Github will be unfinished, non-functional or perhaps one-offs far below what would be considered an MVP.

I am reminded of the Code 4 Good project back in Northern Ireland. I originally kicked it off as Code 4 Pizza. The idea that we would have a hackathon, provide pizza and drinks and focus on an area that really needed fixing for the good of society. Back in 2009, it was a pretty new idea and we managed to hack the local transport monopoly timetables into something usable. Later, I pitched the idea to the Building Change Trust and they ran a series of successful mini-projects where they’d match a programmer with a charity who had a need. Small bits of code to produce web apps and phone apps to make lives easier for charities.

This needs revived. To take on the challenge of fighting environmental collapse during a period when large corporations (fearful of boycotts from climate deniers) are pulling back on their public commitments – and if not held to account – will likely pull back on their real world commitments.

Some of this will be invisible software. Like software that helps a 3D printed solar panel frame orient itself towards the sun. Some of it will be very explicit, like reducing the energy footprint of major apps (Honestly, I’m looking at Firefox and Chrome here). As some of you may remember, I’ve been a fan of ultra-low-power-computing for years. The idea that my Phone has enough computing power for all of my needs has been demonstrated multiple times, the idea that my iPad (with a 20W power supply) was able to outpace the desktop PCs in Film School (with their 400W PSUs) is not lost on me. The concept that the Raspberry Pi, running on a tiny 5V 1A power supply could conceivably replace all of an individuals desktop computing needs is again not lost on me. On the Pi, desktop usage is a little sluggish, maybe not so much that a novice user would notice, but I notice.

But these pieces of hardware use less energy when working hard than a desktop PC uses when idle and I don’t know anyone who’s happy with their current energy bills.

We have the hardware to run highly optimised software – we just need to optimise the software.