Friday, February 3, 2012

A Godel, Popper, Kuhn moment for science

This is what I think is the most exciting paper I’ve read in the last decade, perhaps ever.
“No entailing laws, but enablement in the evolution of the biosphere”

Stuart Kauffman and co-authors have written a definite critique of, and propose the ‘end of a physics worldview’ for the sciences of complexity and living systems (including all social sciences and with critical relevance to economics, business planning and strategic planning). I believe this is a watershed paper – on the order to those developed by people such as Gödel, Popper, Kuhn… If there is any paper that is worth investing your neurons in – this is the paper.

This is a tough read, it took me several sittings over three days to get through it. But it has profoundly changed my thinking processes (OK most will wonder ‘what thinking processes!”) J

I’ll try to give a brief summary in my own word with apologies to the authors for what I get wrong. Kauffman et al make a compelling argument that evolution cannot be understood from a physics frame.

Physics and its mathematical tool set requires a ‘prestatable (event/phase) space and proceeds to use a calculus of trajectory (momentum, force, mass, etc.) to determine what will happen. In this way time (past – future) is revealed. The problem with evolution is that it is impossible to prestate the (event/phase) space. Some examples the authors use are built on the concept of ‘Darwinian pre-adaptations’. E.g it is impossible to prestate the potential use of the set of three jaw-bones as the mechanisms of the inner ear. Or to prestate all the uses of a screwdriver because it is impossible to know in advance all the possible ‘contexts of selection’ that could use an artifact like the screwdriver. All these unimaginable potential uses are what Kauffman has termed ‘adjacent possible’ no directly causally determined but ‘enabled’ by the existence of the screwdriver. The screwdriver is a ‘pre-adaptation’ of an function that can be unpredictably ‘exapted’ to another function.

Another example – evolution selects a fish to evolve a swim bladder. But if micro-organism inhabit the swim-bladder as a new ecological niche – evolution did not select the swim bladder for this purpose. What the selection of the swim bladder did was ‘enable’ a field of unpredictable ‘adjacent possibles’ – an unpredictable ‘field’ of potential exaptations.

My example would be how evolution could select for a sensorium capable of symbolic processing – but language is not selected for – by that I mean that while there are genetic causal linkages to language processing, there is no genetic link between such processing and the unpredictable (and infinite number) of languages that are enabled by the processing capability. Language arises at the level of social interaction with no direct causal relation to genes – there are no English, Mandarin, Hindu, Sanskrit, etc. genes.

All these examples (and all Darwinian pre-adaptations) are examples of ‘radical emergence’.

Physics/Mathematics provides a language structured by a logic of implication. It is extremely valuable and successful as a way to describe certain domains of reality. But the map is not the territory and the descriptive logic of implication leaves the actual logic of causality unrevealed, inaccessible. For Kauffman et al, evolution, the biosphere, complex systems require a different logical structure that accounts for radical emergence.

Why is this important for strategic planning? Because strategic planning and economics are totally imbued with a physics worldview (in particular neo-classical economics is built on and continues to use the mathematics and concepts of 19th century physics). And that means the logic inherent to strategic planning assumes a logic suitable to a calculus of trajectory. Kauffman et al point out that such a logic in very inadequate to understanding evolution, the biosphere and living systems.

Further to the point – in an environment of accelerating change built on competitive advantages of a capability to innovate – a calculus of trajectory misleads and misuses resources in two ways. Requires the increasing expenditure of resources to monitor and adjust the system to ‘stick to the plan’ and incurs increasing opportunity costs because of an inability (organizational arthritis) to seize opportunities.

Google’s shaping strategy is more of a philosophy “Disrupt ourselves, before we are disrupted” (paraphrasing Eric Schmidt). To thrive by innovation what is needed is less a strategic plan and more of a shaping strategy or philosophy that provides a common purpose. Thrive through innovation requires an operating philosophy open to and geared to seizing unpredicted opportunities as they arise – which also requires a capacity to proliferated experiment and rapid failure.

One could make similar arguments for Apple – who don’t ask what their customers want – rather they focus on imagining what will be ‘wantable’ but unimagined by their customers. This entails understanding what the evolving socio-technological combinations enable.

A counter example of a classic business strategy decision is Kodak who invented the digital camera and shelved its development because they did not want to disrupt the lucrative film business. Kodak has recently filed for bankruptcy protection.

Finally, Kauffman’s paper has inspired me (in a dream last night) to define foresight

“Foresight is not about predicting what will happen.
Foresight is about understanding evolving conditions in order to imagine what they can enable”


  1. Looks like an interesting read John. I agree that science in general and physics and math in particular are powerful but incomplete tools.

    For some reason reading your pose made me think of this quote from the Matrix. "Don't try and bend the spoon, rather understand that the spoon is not there..."

  2. Thanks Thom - Kauffman has really been a fantastic Aha - a true view of how much the 'box' has imbued our thinking. :)