What Evolution Teaches Us About How to Live Your Life.

Credit: https://pixabay.com/

“This goes to the core of making decisions under uncertainty. That’s what I want you to think [about]. And once you see it that way, the world is always going to look like options [in] everything.”[1] — Robert Merton, Nobel Laureate

I recently read an article on Farnam Street about a speech by Peter Kaufman. Kaufman is a successful businessman and devotee of the teachings of the legendary investor Charlie Munger. To summarize the speech, Kaufman offers 2 fundamental principles for how to live your life. To reach his conclusions, he followed Munger and first studied the principles of science — physics, chemistry, biology, etc. This first step struck a chord with me. I have been studying fundamental science seriously for the last ten years[2], although for forty years I always began the analysis of a new business idea by learning the underlying technology and science. How can you appreciate the technology if you cannot explain the innovation? Another benefit of studying science is that it almost naturally makes you a more multidisciplinary thinker, which both Kaufman and I recommend. Reading Kaufman, with so much thinking in common, prompts me to share my thoughts on the fundamental principles for how to live your life.

My two fundamental principles for how to live your life are derived from the study of evolution, although those who know me might say that it sounds more like complexity theory. Maybe that is a distinction with little merit. One of the founders of Santa Fe Institute, the first research center devoted to complexity, said “what cannot be explained by evolution can only be explained by culture”. If that is the case, which I think it is, then evolution is fundamental and culture is all derivative. EO Wilson, a famous Harvard biology professor, developed a school of thought called sociobiology. Sociobiology states that biology is the basis of all social behavior. In a 2007 article, “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology” Wilson explains “the explanatory scope of evolutionary science has expanded to explain everything associated with the words “human”, “culture” and “policy” in addition to the word “biology”. If we were trying to model a human system, I think this logic suggests we should start with a small number of rules or principles from evolution.

Now let’s compare a human system (a human) to a rock. Or to put it another way, what are the critical differences between us humans and rocks. What enabled us to get to where we are today? What are the differences? Both humans and rocks are made up of matter and have a defined boundary. Both can be changed by energy (the rock heats up). Both are a store of information, a pause in the inevitable uncertainty of entropy. After that, I might be challenged to find common fundamental characteristics or behaviors. A human is an open system that can accept inputs of energy, matter and information. Not too exciting until you realize that the human system can process or transform the inputs. In other words, the human can adapt to its environment from which the inputs come through the boundary. The point, fundamental to humans (and all living systems), is the ability to adapt an input from the environment and transform it for the purpose of survival. All living systems are designed to adapt and that is the first principle. Now let me explain what this ability to adapt means.

Life is uncertain and the ability to adapt is how we evolved to deal with it. In fact, evolution prepared us for the pervasive level of uncertainty Werner Heisenberg describes. Heisenberg showed with his Uncertainty Principle that there is a fundamental limit to the accuracy of all information. Herbert Simon was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for a similar concept, which he called “bounded rationality”. Simply put, Simon showed we can only optimize because we lack the complete information in order to maximize. In other words, determinism and causality are not inherently part of reality, despite what we were taught beginning in elementary school. Fortunately, evolution is closer to unbiased self-learning. Darwin describes evolution as “variation, selection, and replication” and it is in variation that we derive the powerful insight(s) about the human ability to adapt. In order to deal with variation, one must iterate (or die). One learns at a young age to take small steps forward rather than “run headlong into the abyss”. Through iteration we derive feedback and through feedback we learn. Through learning we reduce the uncertainty of life. This learning through iterative discovery is the basis for all innovation. Jean Piaget, the renowned child development psychologist, showed us that all children learn through the practice of a process — “passion — discovery — creativity — invention”. Innovation is just invention shared or as the economist would say — commercialized. This “sharing”, which gives purpose to creativity and transfers the tangible solutions of invention, is the next important principle. Man has evolved and survived because of the principle of collaboration, the sharing of the value created from innovation. James Currier at the venture capital firm nFx calls this collaboration “Tribal Network Effects” or “the first network effect” for humans.

I think two important points about collaboration are underdeveloped in research but critically important. First, collaboration requires trust, even if tentative, to begin an exchange of goods, weapons, daughters, information, … I believe that trust and collaboration are derived from genetic evolution and all other emotions are produced by cultural evolution. This view is gaining credibility amongst researchers from several disciplines.[3] Second, human collaboration disseminates information faster through cultural evolution than genetic evolution, which suggests that humans find collaboration enhances survivability.

What this short examination of evolution shows me is the importance to understand biology. My students make fun of me because I always use the Krebs Creativity Cycle (KCC) to explain a wide range of concepts about creativity, innovation and culture. One idea that came from my study of KCC is that the 19th century was shaped by chemistry, the 20th century by physics and the 21st by biology. The advances in computational biology, synthetic biology and genetics suggest I am probably correct. Not only will these tools improve human health, but they will vastly expand our knowledge of biology and evolution. As we learn more about biology and evolution, we will learn more fundamental principles about how we have adapted to survive. More fundamental principles may be the most important lessons to be derived from all the technology we see now used in the study of biology.

If these simple principles provide you no comfort for how to live in the fast-paced, high-tech 21st Century, I would remind you of the principles of complexity. As Eben Bayer, a professor at RPI, puts it, “When you link many predictable systems together, you get a complex system that is unpredictable.” As we continue to network and connect the world, we are fundamentally making it more unpredictable. If you want to be prepared for the Black Swans[4] that will be increasingly common, return to the fundamental principles time tested by evolution, study and learn them and live accordingly.

“Slime mold rules!!”

[1] https://evonomics.com/the-making-of-rethinking-the-theoretical-foundation-of-economics/

[2] Kaufman proposes a way to shorten the science study period in his speech.

[3] https://www.google.com/books/edition/Information_Consciousness_Reality/qOORDwAAQBAJ

[4] Naseem Taleb coined the term Black Swan to describe events with a low probability to occur but cataclysmic consequences.



Director StartUP FIU-commercializing research. Entrepreneurship Professor FIU, Ex IAP Instructor MIT. Ex CFO One Laptop per Child. Built billion dollar company

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Robert Hacker

Director StartUP FIU-commercializing research. Entrepreneurship Professor FIU, Ex IAP Instructor MIT. Ex CFO One Laptop per Child. Built billion dollar company