The Most Important Component of Evolution is Death

CS140, 01/20/2012
From a lecture by Professor John Ousterhout.

Today’s thought for the weekend is: the most important component of evolution is death.  So I want to address that first at a biological level and then let’s pop up and talk about it at a societal level, Silicon Valley, and computer software.  So, first, from an underlying biological standpoint, it’s sort of fundamental that for some reason it’s really hard for an existing organism to change in fundamental ways.  How many of you have been able to grow a third leg?  Most people can’t even change their mind let alone change something fundamental about themselves.

People try.  You make your hair look a different color, but it’s really the same color underneath.  In fact you have this whole thing called your autoimmune system whose goal is basically to prevent change.  You’ve got these white blood cells running around looking for anything that looks different or the slightest bit unfamiliar and as soon as they find it they kill it.  So it’s very hard for any organism to change itself, but when we make new organisms it’s actually fairly easy to make them different from the old ones.  So for example gene mutations seem to happen pretty commonly.  They can be good or bad, but they do change the system.  Or, with sexual reproduction, it’s even easier because you take genes from two parents and you mix and match them and who knows you’re going to end up with as a result.

So the bottom line is it’s a lot easier to build a new organism than it is to change an existing one.  And, in order for that to work, you have to get rid of all the existing ones.  So death is really fundamental.  If it wasn’t for death there’d be no way to bring in new organisms and create change.

I would argue this same concept applies at a societal level.  In fact, if you look at social structures, any structure that’s been around a really long time, it’s almost certainly out of date.  Because, they just can’t change.  Human organizations, companies, political systems, religions, they all have tremendous difficulty changing.

So, let me talk about companies in particular.  We’re hearing these days about various companies in trouble.  Is Yahoo going to make it?  And Kodak filing for Chapter 11.  People seem to think: those guys must have been bozos.  They blew it.  How could you fumble the internet when you’re Yahoo?

My opinion is this is just the circle of life.  That’s all.  That fundamentally companies can’t change.  You come in with a particular technology, something you do very well, but if the underlying technology changes, companies can’t adapt.  So they actually need to die.

I view this as a good thing.  This is the way we clear out the old and make room for the new.  And in Silicon Valley everyone kind of accepts that.  The death of a company is not a big deal.  In fact, what’s interesting is that the death of the company isn’t necessarily bad for the people at all.  They just go on to the next company.

And I was talking to a venture capitalist once and she told me she actually liked funding entrepreneurs who had been in failed startups because they were really hungry yet still had experience. People in successful startups weren’t as hungry and didn’t succeed as often when they got funded.  So death is actually a good thing in Silicon Valley.

Now let’s talk about computer software.  This is kind of ironic because software is a very malleable medium, very easy to change.  Much easier to change than most things.  And I actually consider that to be a problem because, in fact, people don’t have to throw it away and start again.

Software lives on and on and on.  You know we’re still working on versions of Windows 20 years old right now.  And as a result the software gets messier and kludgier and harder and harder to change.  And yet people keep struggling.  They won’t throw it away and start again.

And so what’s funny is that this incredibly malleable medium gets to a point where we can’t make fundamental changes in it because people aren’t willing to throw it away and start again.  I sometimes think the world would be a better place if somehow there could be a time limit on software where it expired.  You had to throw it away and start again.

So this is actually one of the things I like about California and Silicon Valley.  It’s that we have a culture where people like change and aren’t afraid of that.  And we’re not afraid of the death of an idea or a company because it means that something even new and better is coming along next.

So that’s my thought for the weekend…

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