Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Arguments from Nature

#entarch @G_Doherty of @theopengroup (via @tetradian ) suggests that we can get advice from Mother Nature.

"In nature, complexity abounds; but nothing is ever more complex than it needs to be." EA - Being Fit is Overrated (13 December 2010)

This is circular: the only way we know what nature thinks to be necessary is by observing what exists in nature. (Is the camel necessary?) It is also misleading: nature sometimes takes a very long time to decide what kinds of complexity to keep. (Are humans necessary?)

Nature has two largely independent processes: one to produce variation (using mutation and sexual reproduction), and one to eliminate unfit variations (known as natural selection). What we observe at any timepoint in natural history is the emergent consequences of the interaction between these two processes. Over millions of years, overall biological complexity has increased, but a vast number of evolutionary paths have ended.

Garry Doherty supports his argument with a quote often implausibly attributed to Darwin, but which is now thought to have been invented by Leon C. Megginson, a management sociologist who died in February 2010.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” [See Wikiquote, Darwin Correspondence Project] [@ColinPurrington has some photos of the misuse of this quote in his Darwin on the Floor LHAO]

As a statement of natural history, this is just not true. The horseshoe crab has remained largely unchanged for over 400 million years. Doherty also appears to misunderstand the word "fit", which doesn't mean strongest or most attractive, but is about the alignment between the species and its environment. As Bateson pointed out, the alignment (fit) survives even as the species themselves evolve - which allows us to understand the motto "survival of the fit" at a higher logical level.

But the facts about adaptability in natural history simply aren't relevant to the question of adaptability in some other domain, such as human organizations. It's just a metaphor, not a source of transferable knowledge.

Doherty thinks there is a real lesson for Enterprise Architects - as if enterprise architects should copy nature and adopt her principles. But even if we could correctly interpret nature's intentions, there is no obvious reason why we should limit ourselves to nature's methods. After all, farmers have been interfering with natural selection for thousands of years, producing plants and animals more suited to human requirements. The resulting ecosystems may sometimes appear more complex than nature alone would have produced, but sometimes they are alarmingly lacking in biodiversity; we can learn from nature but we cannot copy her.

Doherty thinks that "the outcomes of TOGAF™ and evolution are similar". Evolution produced a lot of dinosaurs (and excellent creatures they were too) before it got around to producing us. Be careful about learning from analogy.

See also Nick Matzke, Survival of the Pithiest (September 2009)

Updated 23 March 2014

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