Thursday, June 7, 2012

Anything that works is obsolete

Anything that works is obsolete
Daniel T. Blumstein

"There are no easy shortcuts to solving the problems of revolutionary war. In fact, I would like to close with one last thought, which applies, of course, to everything that is done in the armed forces, but particularly to revolutionary war: If it works, it is obsolete."

--Bernard Fall (French underground and then killed in Vietnam).

In nature we see arms races between predators and prey. Such arms races explain why there is always very strong selection on prey to evolve new defenses.  Evolutionary Biologist Geerat Vermeij has written extensively about the long evolutionary record of snails and other armored marine animals and their predators. The fossil record shows a ratcheting up of defenses over time until it becomes too expensive for those defenses to be maintained. The mammalian fossil record is also rich with examples of the length of legs (longer legged animals can run faster) of wolves and cheetah and their prey.

Richard Dawkins and John Krebs refer to the driver of this inevitable ratcheting up a notch of defenses as the ‘life-dinner principle’. They suggest that it’s better to lose a meal than your life (in terms of maximizing the number of offspring you leave behind). Thus, we see commonly see evolutionary arms races between predators and prey.

Such predator-prey dynamics are also seen on the battlefield. On the battlefield a particular offensive strategy provides a very strong selective pressure for a new defensive strategy and as soon as that has been created, then there are strong pressures to come up with a new offensive strategy that can get through existing defenses. A trip to a major European country’s war museum will provide ample evidence of the increase in armor as arrows and later bullets were invented. But this is still going on: think about the constant pressure for terrorists to develop weapons that can pass through existing screening technology and the great expenses associated with creating new screening technologies.

Yet all arms races face an inevitable outcome:  at some point it’s simply too expensive to maintain defenses. For example, there’s a limit on the weight of armor a knight and his horse could wear and carry. Some have suggested the end of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and NATO was precipitated by the unsustainable size of the former Soviet Unions’ defense budget.

While Bernard Fall was talking about true arms races, there are many situations outside war where there are arms races—situations where innovations by one player make the other player’s strategy/product/defense obsolete which in turn stimulate further innovations by the other player to get ahead. How far can we and should we go with this evolutionary arms race lesson? Is everything we see today obsolete?

Here’s a thought:  what if it’s not just about a game between two (or more players). What if, from society’s perspective, it’s a game against the environment?  A recent special feature in Nature highlights the widespread ecological problems 20 years after the Rio Earth Summit. Society is experiencing substantial losses of ecosystem services and biodiversity; and those that are not already felt, will be felt by many soon. How should we solve these problems? Should we view all current technology as obsolete? Will new technology be our savior?

Yes and no.

Yes, in that it’s apparent that to maintain anything like our current Western standards of living in a post-carbon world, we’ll need some new technology.  Thus, at this level, we really need a major re-think. New technology will be essential. 

Yes, in that the drivers of this new technology are often companies, who find themselves competing in the economic market. Companies find themselves locked in an arms race that may drive new innovations.

No, in that when we’re not dealing with a true arms race—a contest between two or more actors—it is possible to step back a notch and still do better. Evolution does not create the best conceivable outcomes. Rather, evolution creates the best possible outcomes given current constraints. The distinction between conceivable and possible is important.  Evolution, as Francios Jakob wrote, is a process of tinkering with what you have.

Thus, if we’re looking for evolutionary insights on solving some of today’s environmental problems, we should consider all possible options, including those that include going back to previously successful strategies. Save carbon, hang your clothes out to dry!

No comments:

Post a Comment