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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

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Science, Capitalism and Evolution

– By Byron Jennings, Theorist and Project Coordinator

In the June 2011 compilation of the top 500 fastest computers in the world, 91% run some version of the Linux/GNU operating system. This compares with 1.2% running MS Windows. A student, Linus Throvalds, and a rag-tag bunch of developers across the internet initially developed the kernel of the LINUX/GNU. It has since become a major industrial enterprise but still has developers spread across the internet. The development process for the kernel has been criticized, most notably by Microsoft, for its lack of road map or central planning.  Thorvalds considers this a feature, not a bug, and stated the point very clearly: “And don’t EVER make the mistake that you can design something better than what you get from ruthless massively parallel trial-and-error with a feedback cycle.” That’s giving your intelligence much too much credit. At 91% to 1.2%, he probably is onto something (not to mention the android/Linux cell phone market share – android: 36%, MS Windows Phone 7: 1% in mid 2011).

OK so what has that got to do with science, capitalism, or evolution? Quite a bit actually.  The thesis of this blog is that all three of these are successful due to the superiority of “ruthless massively parallel trial-and-error with a feedback cycle” to central planning.

We go back to Michael Polanyi. In a trip to the Soviet Union in 1936 he was told the distinction between pure and applied science was mistaken, and that in a socialist society all scientific research takes place in accordance with the needs of the latest Five Year Plan. Polanyi, in reaction, showed science behaves much like a free market in ideas with the corollary that central planning is as destructive in science as in the economy. A typical quote from Polanyi: “Any attempt at guiding scientific research towards a purpose other than its own is an attempt to deflect it from the advancement of science. (…) You can kill or mutilate the advance of science, you cannot shape it. For it can advance only by essentially unpredictable steps, pursuing problems of its own, and the practical benefits of these advances will be incidental and hence doubly unpredictable.” The essential point is “unpredictable.” In the long term, science is too unpredictable to control in any useful manner. We do not know in advance which line of inquiry will lead to breakthroughs or whether the breakthroughs will be for good or evil. If we knew, there would be no need for research.  The same reason holds for the failure of central planning in the economy: the problem is too complex and unpredictable. Central planning only works when the system under consideration is simple and predictable.

So what do we replace central planning with? Back to Thorvalds’ ruthless massively parallel trial-and-error with a feedback cycle. The massively parallel process permits many different approaches to be explored simultaneously and results are ,obtained in a timely manner. We do this in science by having different scientists work on different approaches to a given problem. The ruthlessness comes in rejecting or ignoring all the approaches that fail. Most of what is published in science is ignored and only a few papers have a big impact. I have seen the statement that, on average, a published paper is read only twice. This means most published papers are never read at all (perhaps not even by all the authors). There is no way to tell in advance which research will fall into the unread category. You try all approaches and see which ones work.

It is similar in a capitalist society. Companies try many different approaches. The ones that work make their owners rich, while the ones that fail go bankrupt. The examples are legendary: IBM moved with the times and, for a while, was almost synonymous with computers (hence the slogan; no one ever got fired for buying IBM). Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), once a computer heavy weight, faded into oblivion (CEO Ken Olsen: There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.)

The ruthlessness in capitalism comes in by allowing companies to fail. Capitalism breaks down when companies become too big to fail, or with monopolies and oligarchies. Companies that are too big to fail, monopolies, and oligarchies might as well be run by the government since they have lost the attribute (ruthless feedback) that makes the capitalist model work.

Evolution works on the same principle as the capitalist society. There is no central planning but a massively parallel system with a very ruthless feedback loop: adapt or die. It is ironic that the left attacks capitalism and supports evolution, while right attacks evolution and supports capitalism since both evolution and capitalism depend on one and the same principle: self organization through ruthless feedback.

For simple systems, central planning does work. Science or economies can be directed but only in the short term. Eventually the Soviet Union collapsed. So will science – if we regulate it too closely.

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